When the Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment received a mayday call from a mariner in distress Friday morning, the agency went into full-rescue mode, deploying a 47-foot lifeboat, calling the aircrew of a Jayhawk helicopter and mobilizing multiple crews of the National Motor Lifeboat School who were conducting training nearby.
It would turn out that the man who needed saving would have some explaining to do if he made it safely to land.
The 35-foot boat was taking on water six miles off the coast of Astoria, Ore., near the mouth of the Columbia River in an area known as the Columbia Bar, which is frequently referred to as the Graveyard of the Pacific and is believed among mariners to be one of the most dangerous crossings in the world.
The Coast Guard reported conditions of 20-foot seas and extremely high wind speeds as a rescue swimmer, a student of the Advanced Helicopter Rescue School, was deployed into the water using a winch cable before swimming toward the sinking boat. Just as the rescuer made his approach, a breaking wave capsized the boat, throwing the mariner overboard. The rescue swimmer reached the mariner in the water, the Coast Guard said in a statement, and both were lifted up to the helicopter and transported to land.
Hours later, the swimmer, John Walton, known as Branch, an Aviation Survival Technician Third Class, graduated from training. It was the first time he saved a life, the Coast Guard said.
The dramatic rescue was all captured on video. But the drama did not stop there.
The rescued mariner, Jericho Labonte, had stolen the boat from a nearby marina in West Mooring Basin in Astoria, according to the police. And a few days before that, he left a dead fish on the steps of the house made famous by the 1985 film “The Goonies,” which follows the fantastical adventures of a group of children following an old treasure map.
Mr. Labonte filmed himself dropping the fish off at the house, calling out the movie’s signature line of “Hey, you guys!” and posted it to Facebook.
Mr. Labonte was arrested Friday night in Astoria on charges of theft, endangering another person, unauthorized use of a vehicle and criminal mischief, the Astoria police said in a statement. But Mr. Labonte, who is originally from British Columbia, was also wanted by Canadian authorities on charges of mischief, criminal harassment and failure to comply, Chief Stacy Kelly of the Astoria Police Department told The New York Times on Sunday.
Chief Kelly said Mr. Labonte was in the custody of U.S. immigration officials for illegally crossing the border from Canada.
The small, commercial fishing town has never seen anything “this crazy,” the chief said. “Not one person causing so much mayhem. That’s for sure.”
Chief Kelly said it was unclear how long Mr. Labonte had been in the area, which is more than 90 miles northwest of Portland, but said the police received a phone call from a woman in Astoria alerting them to the fish video. The woman was “very concerned” to learn that Mr. Labonte was in town and “scared to death” that he was in the area, and she alerted the police to his previous criminal history.
When the Coast Guard released the video of the harrowing rescue, the head of port security for Astoria, Matt Hansen, recognized the boat and confirmed it was stolen, Chief Kelly said.
“The Columbia Bar is extremely dangerous under the best of conditions,” he said. “The fact he made it across the bar is miraculous.”
But by the time the video had been released, Mr. Labonte had left an area hospital and was at large. Another community member alerted the police when Mr. Labonte was seen at a warming center in town later that day. He was then arrested.
Chief Kelly attributed Mr. Labonte’s arrest to a large community effort.
Among the people who helped was Jeff Keightley, a charter boat captain in Astoria. Mr. Keightley took a man who called himself Philip Livingston out for a charter fishing trip on the morning of Feb. 1.
Mr. Keightley originally welcomed the off-season trip. But the man repeatedly asked Mr. Keightley to take him out to 3,000 feet, about 30 miles offshore where bottom fishing is impossible. He requested a captain’s hat and insisted on joining the commercial crabbing fleet, which were far offshore. When the man hooked a 27-inch lingcod, he was ready to go back to shore, which also surprised Mr. Keightley.
“The number of times I’ve gotten one fish and went back in — that was a new record,” Mr. Keightley said in an interview on Sunday.
When the Coast Guard video was released, Mr. Keightley’s girlfriend, Julianna Edmiston, who was a deckhand aboard the charter, recognized the man being rescued.
It was Mr. Labonte.
Mr. Keightley then realized that the gossip about a dead fish on the steps of “The Goonies” house was about the one caught on his boat.
“People often ask me about the weirdest thing that ever happened,” he said, recalling a time when a man was drunk during a sturgeon competition and jumped overboard. “This is way weirder.”
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