‘Hell and back’ - Fisherman recounts horrific tale of 2017 ordeal at sea
One of five Jamaican fishermen who accuse the United States Coast Guard of holding them captive in inhumane conditions on several vessels has revealed details of the physical and psychological trauma they endured during their 32-day detention.
Speaking to The Gleaner yesterday afternoon from Half Moon Bay fishing beach in Falmouth, Trelawny, George Thompson, 44, said that on the night of September 14, 2017, he and four others – Robert Dexter Weir, Patrick Wayne Ferguson, Luther Fian Patterson, and David Roderick Williams – believed that they stared death in the face.
In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Weir, Ferguson, Williams, and Patterson claim they were captured by the members of the US Coast Guard, stripped naked, given white, paper-thin overalls and disposable slippers to wear instead, and subsequently chained by their ankles to metal cables.
The fishermen were initially hit with marijuana-related charges, but when the ganja rap collapsed, they were convicted on charges of providing false information to the Coast Guard about the boat’s destination.
Retracing their ordeal, Thompson, who is not part of the lawsuit, said they were hounded by Coast Guard men who claimed they were drug smugglers and accused them of throwing the contraband overboard. But the US authorities found no evidence, the 44-year-old seaman told The Gleaner.
“We left at around 6:30 p.m., and at 12:30 a.m., the engine died ... . When the sun came up, we could see no land. We tink we did lucky when US Coast Guard pulled up alongside us. It was the beginning of a trip to hell and back,” said Thompson, a fishing veteran for almost three decades, insisting that they all had valid Jamaican IDs and fishing licences.
“Dem try everything. At one time, dem say we failed fi stop when signalled for false information regarding destination. All this time we in jail, wid we foot dem shackle up. If we waan go toilet, one officer deh right a deh door. We so tense, we can’t do wah we go in deh fi duh.”
Thompson said that his relatives in Jamaica had given him up for dead until his sister, Tesamarie Thompson, who lives in New York, found out that he was in jail. She sought to secure legal assistance for them.
“That meant more trouble because the lawyer, instead of believing us, wanted us to plead guilty so we would get a lesser sentence. Me know seh me nuh guilty a nutten, so mi nah plead guilty. When [the lawyer] see seh mi determined, dem decide fi drop de [drug] charge,” he said between sighs.
Having been deported after 10 months behind bars, Thompson said he has no regrets about not being party to the lawsuit, telling The Gleaner that his main concern was reuniting with his child who was two weeks old when he had set sail.
“Mi jus want to get back mi life on track, take care of mi little youth, get back some nets, and start mi life all ova,” he said.
In the ACLU lawsuit, the men said they told the Coast Guard that they had lost their way heading to Morant Cays, where they had planned to fish.
The men said they only pleaded guilty as they were told it was the quickest way for them to get back to their families, who, up to their arrival in the United States, presumed that they were dead.
Having returned home almost a year ago, the suit states that Weir, Patterson, and Williams have returned to sea, but only in Jamaican territorial waters, while Ferguson has not done so for fear of being captured by the US Coast Guard.
Weir, the document stated, suffers from intrusive thoughts and recollections about his detention by the Coast Guard. Although he tries not to think about the trauma of that time, he cannot put the horrific experience behind him.
Ferguson, too, suffers persistent disturbing flashbacks to his time on the Coast Guard ships and in particular to the time he saw the Coast Guard destroy his boat.
The case is no different for Patterson, who the suit says still feels the steely grip of the chain on his ankles, and at times he cannot sleep, thinking about how the Coast Guard abused him.
The four fishermen are requesting that the court award compensatory and punitive damages for violations of maritime law in an amount that is fair, just, and reasonable and, among other things, declare that the alleged acts were unlawful and violated maritime law.