Coast Guard probes link between Galveston, New Jersey searches

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Coast Guard officials are stepping up their investigation into a costly pair of "mayday" calls that resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of taxpayer assets being scrambled to search for nothing.

These incidents happened about a thousand miles apart, but during a news conference in Manhattan on Wednesday, Coast Guard officials said they found enough similarities to suspect the incidents are connected.

"Our Coast Guard investigative service actually got a call from a reporter down in the Houston area who had seen the press release," said Capt. Gregory Hitchen, deputy commander of Coast Guard sector New York.

That call came from Local 2 Investigates, asking whether Coast Guard officials noticed the same similarities KPRC did in a distress call reporting a disaster off the coast of New Jersey and a mayday reporting a sinking vessel off the coast of Galveston.

"(The Galveston call) was not something we were aware of up here because the case wasn't declared a hoax down there as it was up here," said Hitchen. "It was declared an unresolved distress call."

On June 11, someone reported an explosion on board a yacht off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J.

"We have three deceased, nine injured. We've had an explosion on board; that's why we're taking on water," the caller is heard telling Coast Guard officials.

On May 20, Coast Guard officials received a similar mayday about a sinking fishing vessel off the coast of Galveston.

"This is the fishing vessel 'Scallywag.' We're probably about two miles from the channel. We have an on-board emergency, we are taking on water, sir," the caller is heard telling Coast Guard officials. 

"Once we were able to talk to the command down in Houston, we were able to put enough together, enough similarities, to make a correlation," said Hitchen.

Coast Guard officials said the voice and manner of speaking in both of those calls sound similar, along with some of the terminology and circumstances. Coast Guard officials said in both cases the caller referred to the people on board the vessels as "souls," which is not a typical term used by mariners. Both cases involved a person with non-working navigational systems who could not give rescuers an exact location. Plus, in both cases, the caller used a non-typical frequency to call for help.

"He knows about maritime traffic, that he was somehow related or maybe was a seasoned mariner," said Coast Guard Commander Richard Howes, chief of response for sector Houston-Galveston.

Howes was quick to point out that everything about the caller's identity is speculation at this point, but added whoever is behind these calls is playing a dangerous game.

"Tying up 40 hours of search assets that if another case had come in would have diverted our attention away from that," said Howes, referring to the Galveston incident. 

Coast Guard officials said the search off the coast of New Jersey cost taxpayers about $300,000 and the one off the coast of Galveston cost about $220,000. Coast Guard officials said in Galveston alone there have been 33 suspected hoax distress calls since January of 2011.

Coast Guard officials in New York said whoever made these calls is probably using some type of a hand-held radio, similar to a walkie-talkie. Coast Guard officials said they believe the New Jersey call was made by someone on land. Galveston Coast Guard Galveston officials said they believe their call originated from water, but are not certain.

Coast Guard investigators said catching and prosecuting the people behind hoax distress calls is very difficult because technology can't always pinpoint the exact origin of the call. Coast Guard officials added technology also cannot tie a specific person to a specific distress call, which makes these cases hard to prosecute without eyewitness testimony.

The Coast Guard is offering a $3,000 reward for any information that will help investigators catch the person behind these calls. Coast Guard officials said since they feel the cases in New Jersey and Galveston may be connected, investigators are now looking at other suspected hoax calls from around the country.

If you know anything about these cases you are asked to call the Coast Guard at 212-668-7048 or 646-872-5774.

If you have a news tip or question for KPRC Local 2 Investigates, drop them an e-mail or call their tipline at (713) 223-TIPS (8477). Copyright 2012 by All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.