Florida Keys News
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Angler dies after snorting square grouper

A 54-year-old Merritt Island man in town to fish with his brother died in a Miami hospital Thursday after ingesting a "square" grouper, according to the Monroe County Sheriff's Office.

Thomas Swindal and his brother, Kenneth, were trolling in 200 feet of water off Fiesta Key at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday when they found a floating package believed to contain a kilogram of cocaine, sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin said.

Square grouper is a popular Florida Keys' nickname for packaged drugs found floating.

The brothers put the package in a bait well and kept fishing, but Kenneth Swindal told deputies he later saw his brother open it and snort whatever was inside, Herrin said.

About an hour and a half later, Thomas Swindal reportedly began to act strangely, running around the boat, throwing things into the water, including their means of communication, a cellphone and VHF radio. He reportedly picked up knives, a pair of pliers and a gaff, and removed the engine cover, which fell overboard and sank, the release states. He then gaffed the engine and damaged it, leaving the boat adrift, Herrin said.

His brother then threw all the sharp objects overboard, along with the package, which authorities did not recover, Herrin said.

Kenneth Swindal climbed on top of the boat and began signaling for help. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) responded to a nearby vessel's call for help and took both men ashore.

Paramedics took Thomas Swindal to Fishermen's Hospital, FWC spokesman Officer Bobby Dube said. He later was airlifted to South Miami Hospital, Herrin said.

An autopsy will be done to determine the cause of death.

"We felt it was drug-related," Dube said. "He was acting crazy and going berserk when officers arrived. He was tearing up stuff."

No charges were expected to be filed against Kenneth Swindal, Herrin said.

"It's certainly against the law to keep such packages," Herrin said, "but [Kenneth Swindal] threw it back in the water in an effort to keep his brother alive."

Mini-season roundup

The Swindals were fishing during a busy time on the water, as the 2011 lobster mini-season started at midnight Tuesday and ended at midnight Thursday.

Thomas Swindal was the second person to die during that time. Mark Fountain, 54, of Montgomery, Mass., was found by his son floating in the water just after sunrise Wednesday off Tavernier's Snapper Ledge.

Fountain was scuba diving with his 34-year-old son and his son's girlfriend off a private vessel when they became separated in the water, according to the Sheriff's Office.

His son reportedly returned to the boat, picked up his girlfriend, and then spotted his father in the water. The couple pulled Fountain onto the boat, called for help and headed for shore.

A Coast Guard patrol met them en route and escorted the family to the Tavernier Creek Marina, where paramedics worked on Fountain only to pronounce him dead on the docks at 9:40 a.m.

An autopsy will be done to determine the cause of death.

Despite those two deaths, it was a quiet mini-season, law enforcement officers said Friday.

Windy weather and low visibility kept many people on the bay side, Dube and Herrin said. Four-foot seas were reported both days, with 6-foot waves in some areas on the ocean side, Dube said.

Low visibility also may have resulted in low catch counts; FWC officers conducting safety checks reported finding many divers well below the catch limit of six per person per day, Dube said.

"There were a lot of boats, but they were all bunched up in certain areas due to weather," Dube said. "I heard of only a few boats that were checked that had caught their limit. Most boats didn't have their limit on either day."

Most FWC officers reported bad visibility bayside as well.

"You couldn't really see anything in the water, which may explain why we had a few more spear incidents than we've had in years past," Dube said. Spearing lobsters is illegal.

In one case, a 16-year-old Miami boy was charged with spearing lobster off Key Largo.

The only major citation was issued Wednesday when FWC officers cited a Big Coppitt Key man for possessing 36 lobsters over the limit, Dube said.

"From the reports we've pulled, it appears the vast majority of people were in compliance," Herrin said. "I think all the different agencies are doing a pretty good job of getting the word out and letting people know we're out there (and) to behave."

The Sheriff's Office released these figures for Monroe County over both days:

• Total contacts with people and vessels: 1,064

• Vessel checks: 868

• Notice to appear in court for various violations: 17

• Warnings: 137

• Arrests: 0

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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