MIAMI — The former owners of a Florida Keys dive shop whose boat was in such poor condition that it capsized and sank, killing a tourist, pleaded guilty last week after spending a decade on the run in Europe, federal prosecutors said.
Christopher Jones, 57, and his wife, Alison Gracey, 54, both of whom are British citizens, each pleaded guilty Friday to involuntary manslaughter in the 2011 death of Aimee Rhoads, 36, of Washington state, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida said in a statement Tuesday.
Lawyers for Jones and Gracey did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Juan Antonio Gonzalez, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said the case illustrates that “no matter how long it takes, we will ensure criminals are made to answer for their crimes.”
The event that set off a 10-year international manhunt unfolded Dec. 18, 2011, near Key Largo, Florida, where Jones and Gracey had operated the Key Largo Scuba Shack, a charter scuba diving business, since June 2010, prosecutors said.
Their main charter boat was a nearly 25-foot vessel called the M/V Get Wet. It departed that day on a scuba trip with two crew members and six passengers aboard, prosecutors said.
Among the passengers was Rhoads, of Federal Way, who had always wanted to try scuba diving and chose the anniversary of her father’s death to book the excursion with her family, her husband, Pat Rhoads, wrote in “Missing Aimee,” a blog dedicated to his wife.
During the boat’s first dive stop, “the sea conditions went from calm to choppy,” prosecutors said in their statement. The boat’s operator, a 19-year-old Scuba Shack employee, noticed that the vessel’s bilge pump, which removes water that collects inside the hull, had failed, according to court documents.
As the passengers returned to the boat after their dive, the vessel began to take on water. Then it “rolled heavily, capsized, and quickly sank about 30 feet to the ocean floor,” prosecutors said.
As it descended, a 334-pound bench designed to seat six and hold a dozen oxygen tanks detached from the deck. The fiberglass-lined wooden bench sprang loose and hurtled toward the ocean’s surface.
The upward force of the bench pinned Aimee Rhoads’ leg against the boat’s forward windshield as the vessel sank. She became trapped and drowned, prosecutors said.
A second passenger became trapped beneath the overturned bench. After another dive-charter boat arrived with diving gear, the operator of the Get Wet used the equipment to dive to the sunken boat and free the man. He was resuscitated and survived, prosecutors said.
The operator dived again and freed Rhoads after about 15 minutes, but she could not be revived after she was brought ashore, prosecutors said.
Once the boat was salvaged and inspected, Coast Guard investigators reported finding “serious deficiencies.” Among them: None of the vessel’s bilge compartments — the spaces below the ship’s deck — were watertight, and the wood at the bottom of the bench had rotted.
In addition, a bilge pump that had been disassembled had been reassembled incorrectly, prosecutors said.
A criminal investigation after Rhoads’ death found that the owners knew the vessel needed repairs even as they continued operating it.
The investigation also revealed that, in early 2011, Scuba Shack employees had “repeatedly informed” the owners that the boat “flooded dangerously,” prosecutors said in court documents. During one trip, with Gracey aboard as dive master, the boat nearly sank, prosecutors said.
Shortly after Rhoads’ death, Jones and Gracey fled the country and evaded extradition for more than 10 years, prosecutors said. They were arrested in St. Maarten in 2015, but they left the island before they could be extradited, The Associated Press reported.
Last year, Jones and Gracey left France for Spain, where authorities arrested them after Interpol issued a so-called red notice. The AP reported that they were taken into custody in the northern Basque town of Muskiz, near Bilbao, days after their case was featured on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Each faces up to eight years in federal prison when they are sentenced in Key West, Florida, on Aug. 18.
After they were extradited to the United States in January to face federal charges, Pat Rhoads wrote in his blog that he was relieved, and posted an image of the pair in custody.
“Now that they’re here, they’ll finally face the federal charges stemming from Aimee’s death in December 2011,” he wrote Jan. 12.
“Justice may not change anything,” he added, “but we want and deserve it anyway.”
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