By DANA SMITH
Tribune Staff Reporter
A Bahamian fisherman pleaded guilty in a United States court on charges of attempting to smuggle illegal migrants into the country after being offered $20,000 for the job.
According to Florida court documents filed on Tuesday, 52-year-old Preston Russell was found last year on November 14 piloting a vessel off the coast of Florida with seven Brazils and one Dominican Republic national on board.
He admitted to US law enforcement at the scene, he was paid $6,000 up-front to smuggle the passengers into the United States from Grand Bahama, with a promise of $14,000 on his return.
He was found around 4:30am. US Customs and Border Protection and the US Coast Guard from Fort Pierce had responded to reports of a single-engine vessel, approximately 25 feet in length, located around 20.5 miles north of Stuart, Florida.
The vessel was operating with no navigation lights, had no identifiers on the vessel, and was riding low in the water, court documents say.
Law enforcement agents met Russell and eight passengers – three women and five men – on board. The boat was towed and the party was taken to the Coast Guard Station in Fort Pierce. There, Russell told authorities why he was piloting the ship to Florida.
He said he was approached by a Brazilian man named Marcos who asked if he owned a boat and wanted to make money, according to court documents.
Russell initially said no, but changed his mind in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Sandy which destroyed his boat and fishing equipment.
Marcos offered him $5,000 per person but this was later changed to a fixed price of $20,000 per trip, regardless of the number of persons on board. Marcos gave Russell $6,000 with a promised $14,000 when he returned. Russell spent $4,500 of that money to purchase a new boat.
Russell told authorities on November 13 around 4pm he picked up seven Brazilian passengers at a secluded location in Dover Sound, Grand Bahama. A Dominican man named German Paulino-Santana was already on board with him – he was being transported for free, Russell said, because he had no money to pay.
Court documents say, Russell explained he was using a GPS device to steer towards Jupiter, Florida but had no specific location in mind.
Half-way through, however, the boat’s steering failed leaving the boat to drift north with the current and Russell to steer the boat by hand. It was then that the vessel was intercepted by US officials.
Russell had no passport in his possession when he was found and admitted to authorities he knew it was illegal to smuggle migrants into the United States, according to court documents. He also admitted to a prior arrest in 1989 for possession of cocaine and another arrest in 1999 for entering the US illegally.
He was sentenced to probation for the first arrest and spent around five months in immigration custody for the second before he was deported that same year.
Russell was charged in US court with attempted alien smuggling for personal financial gain and attempted illegal re-entry of a previously removed alien.