Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
Pot packs found

It appears square grouper have been spawning in nearshore waters off Key West over the past week.

In two separate instances that hearken back to the drug-running days of the Florida Keys, people have found packages of marijuana worth thousands of dollars either washed ashore or floating in the water.

A 10-pound package worth an estimated $20,000 was found by a beachgoer at 8:32 a.m. May 2 at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park.

Four days later, a 6-pound package worth an estimated $15,000 was found by a boater at 7:40 a.m. near White Street Pier off Higgs Beach.

Both packages were about 18 inches square, according to police spokeswoman Alyson Crean. The first was a "silver wrapped package," and the latter was wrapped with brown tape and had sea growth on its sides, indicating it had been in the water for some time, reports say.

In each case, reports did not name the finder, and no charges are expected, Crean said.

In the fast case, a beachgoer flagged down a Key West police officer who was on routine patrol in the park, reports say.

In the second case, a boater called the Coast Guard, which called Key West dispatchers, and police on the Fire Department boat retrieved the drugs about 20 feet to 30 feet offshore.

Authorities will destroy both packages and their origins mostly likely will remain a mystery.

"We can't speculate on the origin of those bales or packages due to the strong currents in and around the Florida Keys," said Coast Guard Sector Key West spokeswoman Lt. Kara Lavin.

When drugs are found, police typically log the find and store the drugs in the evidence room until they can be destroyed, if no other evidence is found, at which time such cases typically are closed, Crean said.

Though pot or cocaine bales do turn up from time to time, square grouper -- a popular Florida Keys' nickname for packaged drugs found floating or washed ashore -- have become increasingly rare due to changes in drug-smuggling techniques.

South American drug cartels have taken to using semi-submersible boats filled with drugs that they scuttle at first contact with law enforcement at sea.

The Coast Guard tries to recover drugs if the water is shallow enough, but often they cannot.

The last reported square grouper was in July, when two brothers fishing in 200 feet of water off Fiesta Key found a package they believed to be a kilo of cocaine.

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.

About an hour and a half later, Thomas Swindal, 54, of Merritt Island, 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. He then gaffed the engine and damaged it, leaving the boat adrift, according to Monroe County Sheriff's Office reports.

His brother reportedly threw all the sharp objects overboard, along with the package, which authorities did not recover. Kenneth Swindal then 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.

He later was airlifted to South Miami Hospital, where he died. No charges were filed against the surviving brother.

"That is a perfect example of why we strongly recommend that the public doesn't recover anything suspected to be contraband found in the ocean," Lavin said.

"You don't know how it has been packaged, you don't know how the suspected drugs have been cut or any idea as to the purity of the substance."

Possession of banned substances is illegal and could lead to drug charges. The best thing to do is report where you saw the package in the water to any law enforcement agency in the Keys, Lavin said.

Key West police have jurisdiction in waters up to 600 feet from the city shoreline, so they responded to the two most recent instances, Crean said.

The state has jurisdiction in Atlantic waters three nautical miles from shore and in Gulf of Mexico water nine nautical miles from shore. International waters begin 12 nautical miles out, Lavin said.

"We're very fortunate that we [the Coast Guard] has strong partnerships up and down the Keys," Lavin said.

"You can always reach the Coast Guard at VHF Channel 16, or boaters can call the (Monroe County) Sheriff's Office, Key West police and FWC. The big point we want to make is that the public doesn't try to recover these packages. They can always call any of those agencies for help."


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