The Miami federal courtroom was divided in half. On one side: About 50 people supporting a young couple killed in a boat crash. On the other side were another 50 people backing the man who caused their deaths.
Toward the end of the emotionally charged hearing on Friday, Josbel Fernandez Echevarria stood up to say his piece before being sentenced to prison.
“I look at your families with great guilt,” Fernandez said, staring directly at the relatives and friends of Javier Perez, 29, and Carolyn Alvarez, 26, the passengers who died on his power boat over the Fourth of July holiday weekend off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas more than three years ago.
“There is nothing I could ever say to you that would make it right,” said Fernandez, 37, of Hialeah, who owns a welding business. “What I did was horrific.”
But then he said something that enraged the victims’ supporters: “There was no intoxication. … It was a horrific mistake that I made. I should not have been going at that speed.”
A moment later, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams sentenced Fernandez to three years and eight months in prison — less than the five years proposed by prosecutors but more than the two years recommended by his defense attorney. Williams took into consideration there had been alcoholic drinking on Fernandez’s boat, but acknowledged there was no official finding he was impaired when he crashed on the night of July 2, 2020. The judge also expressed her sorrow to the victims’ relatives, who believed Fernandez was drunk and made no effort to help the young couple.
“There may always be a question about what happened on that day and why it happened,” Williams told the packed courtroom.
After the judge’s sentencing at the end of the three-hour hearing, Williams said she wanted Fernandez to surrender immediately to prison authorities — but, after opposition from the defendant’s attorney, she agreed to set the date for next Friday. Still, relatives and friends of Fernandez openly expressed their displeasure, and court security officers admonished them, saying “no outbursts.”
Williams said she was so concerned about the tension in the courtroom that she asked the relatives and friends of the boat-crash victims to leave first, and then, after 10 minutes, she let the supporters of Fernandez exit.
In September, Fernandez pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges in the deaths of two passengers. He admitted that he killed, “without malice,” the two passengers “by failing to maintain a proper lookout and failing to proceed at a safe speed,” according to his guilty plea to the two-count indictment.
After the boat crash that night, Perez was found on a jagged rock, but his girlfriend, Alvarez, disappeared into the dark waters off Bimini in the Bahamas.
Members of the Perez and Alvarez families said in letters and in court that they were relieved with the outcome of the criminal case — one they feared would not be pursued because the boat crash occurred in the Bahamas.
But they showed utter contempt for Fernandez before his sentencing.
“What Josbel [Fernandez] took from us was the nucleus of our family,” said one of Javier Perez’s three brothers, Jorge Perez, who accused the boat driver of lying and covering up his wrongdoing. “Nothing is respectable about this man in my book.”
“Carolyn was the only person I had in this world,” said her mother, Liz Alvarez, questioning why Fernandez did not try to rescue the daughter after the boat crash. “I don’t understand that. … He took away her life.”
Prosecutors Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald and Yara Dodin told the judge that it was their belief Fernandez was intoxicated, but provided no direct proof, as the judge kept reminding them.
Still, at one point, Watts-Fitzgerald said Fernandez drove the boat off course that night like a “proverbial drunken sailor” right into the jagged rock off the Bimini coast. “There is only one answer to that — he was impaired,” Watts-Fitzgerald said.
But Fernandez’ defense attorney, Orlando do Campo, said while the defendant had been drinking beers with his girlfriend on the boat late that afternoon — and a slew of beer bottles were later found on the vessel — he had stopped six hours before the crash.
“I haven’t been able to find any evidence” that his drinking was a factor in the crash. “I can’t concede this issue. There’s no evidence of alcohol impairment.”
“There are no answers,” Do Campo said. “This is a horrific accident and tragedy.”
He also said that Fernandez and his girlfriend were knocked unconscious by the boat crash, and that Fernandez eventually issued Mayday alerts but no Bahamian authorities responded. Then, he called an acquaintance who had a vessel to come rescue them.
“The notion that Josbel [Fernandez] callously left the victims is just not supported by the evidence,” he said.
Fernandez was operating the pleasure boat, a 32-foot Everglades, at 43.4 miles per hour when it crashed into the well-charted rock formation known as North Turtle Rock that July night, according to a statement filed when Fernandez pleaded guilty in September. It was signed by the prosecutors along with the defendant and his attorney, do Campo.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office was able to establish jurisdiction of the case because Fernandez’s boat is owned by a U.S. citizen. Although born in Cuba, Fernandez is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The vessel is also registered in the United States. The boating incident occurred within “the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” according to the indictment.
Here’s how the boating accident happened: On the first day of a long-awaited vacation in Bimini more than three years ago, Perez and Alvarez went straight to the hotel pool and beach. They soon struck up a conversation with another young couple from Miami, according to a Herald story that included interviews with the victims’ family members.
The pair, Fernandez and Violeta Khouri, invited them for an evening trip on Fernandez’s Everglades boat. But by sunrise the next day, Perez would be found dead and Alvarez would be lost at sea.
More than one month after the boat wreck, exactly what happened remained an agonizing mystery for the Perez and Alvarez families. After they visited Bimini to make inquiries and examine the wrecked boat, they put the blame squarely on Fernandez, who they believed may have been drunk at the time and then delayed calling authorities for a critical period after their loved ones had been flung overboard.
An initial police report from the Bahamian Royal Police obtained by the Herald “collected an assortment of alcoholic beverages for evidential purposes” from the salvaged boat. Fernandez was not charged with any crime in the Bahamas, and the initial police report did not provide any details about his behavior or whether any sobriety tests were conducted after the boat crash.
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