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    Veteran fisherman disappears at sea

    Two crew members on a fishing boat are questioned after they report that the boat's captain was lost overboard.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 7, 2002

    MADEIRA BEACH -- Garth Spacek had been fishing commercially since he was a boy, and told friends he'd had many close calls over the years. He even survived a stabbing with a swordfish bill in a brawl in February.

    But whatever happened on the Silver Star Friday night apparently was more than he could handle. Spacek, the captain of the boat based in Madeira Beach, went overboard in what authorities are calling an "altercation" 20 miles off Longboat Key.

    Nearly a day later, U.S. Coast Guard searchers had not found the lost fisherman, said Petty Officer Paul Rhynard.

    Officials halted the search Saturday night, and planned to resume this morning.

    The two crew members on the 42-foot boat -- one an on-again off-again girlfriend of Spacek's and another, a man who dock regulars said was a newcomer -- were being questioned by the FBI and the Coast Guard.

    Rhynard would not confirm the name of the boat captain, but both the owner of the boat and a close friend of the boat captain identified him as Spacek, 43, of Madeira Beach.

    "The Coast Guard called me at 5 o'clock in the morning," said Darrell Knepp, of Sarasota, who owns the Silver Star. "They told me the boat's missing, the captain's missing."

    Rhynard gave this account of events:

    About 9:30 p.m., the Silver Star shot off several flares, which brought a second boat alongside to assist. Upon hearing the captain had gone overboard, the crew on the second boat called the Coast Guard.

    The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter, a cutter and a smaller boat from its station in Cortez, which arrived at the scene just before midnight.

    "At that time, the people on the fishing vessel admitted to having an altercation with the captain," Rhynard said. "We don't know the details. Somehow, that led to him going overboard. We don't know if he fell over or if they threw him over."

    Coast Guard officials told the crew to stay put while they searched for the lost man.

    "As we were searching, they pulled anchor and left," Rhynard said. "They took off."

    The Coast Guard issued a marine alert for the boat, and at 9:20 a.m. Saturday the bridge tender at John's Pass reported seeing the vessel passing under the bridge.

    Knepp, the boat owner, said he got a call from the Coast Guard telling him they had found his boat at the docks at Double D Seafood Co., a Madeira Beach fish house.

    On Saturday morning, Knepp stood outside the fish house, which was surrounded by members of the Coast Guard, FBI and Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. He said the two crew members were upstairs, in fish house offices, being questioned by authorities.

    "No one's been charged with anything," said Coast Guard Lt. David Salcido. "Obviously, it's still an ongoing investigation."

    By Saturday morning, news of Spacek having gone overboard had spread quickly through the small circle of Madeira Beach commercial fishermen.

    Pete Trznadel, who owns a commercial fishing tackle company, said he had been friends with Spacek for 10 years.

    "He's a very experienced person," Trznadel said. "It's hard to imagine Garth falling overboard."

    Trznadel said the water was slick and calm, and the boat had relatively high sides, which would make it tough to accidentally fall overboard.

    The Silver Star left the dock Friday afternoon for a 12- to 14-day trip in which the crew planned to use long lines to catch grouper in deep water about 100 miles off Key West, Trznadel said.

    Knepp said that over the years, Spacek had many close calls and had considered himself lucky to have escaped alive.

    In February, a 46-year-old man stabbed Spacek with a swordfish bill as Spacek smashed him on the head with a beer bottle, according to Pinellas County sheriff's records. Both were charged with aggravated battery, but the charges eventually were dropped.

    Knepp, who teared up as he talked about his employee and friend, said this of Spacek: "He said he had nine lives, that he was supposed to be dead a long time ago. It's a sad day."

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