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    4 boaters never return

    The boat and three bodies are found in the Gulf on Sunday. The search for the fourth is called off.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 30, 2002

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    TAMPA -- Jesus Gonzalez and three friends boarded his new 18-foot boat Saturday morning for a short trip on the water.

    "We'll be back in a couple hours," Gonzalez told his wife, Terry.

    About 24 hours later, a boater spotted the boat's hull bobbing in the chilly Gulf waters, 17 miles southwest of Egmont Key.

    Three bodies were later pulled from the water. A search for the fourth was called off Sunday night.

    Officials said they do not know what happened. The weather was breezy and the water choppy, but no storms were reported.

    The bodies, none in flotation devices, were taken to the Manatee County medical examiner for autopsy. The boat was being towed to shore Sunday night, and had not been examined.

    Based on clothing descriptions, authorities identified two of the bodies as Gonzalez and his friend, Leo Moreira. The third wasn't identified because the man's pants were missing. It was speculated he took them off because they were heavy in the water.

    The two other friends on the boat trip were Mariano Gomez and Juan Carlos Abad.

    It appeared there was no radio on board to send a distress call. Relatives said at least one of the men had a cell phone on board, but nobody received a call from the boat.

    The water temperature Saturday was in the upper 50s, making it unlikely anyone could survive in the water much longer than six hours without succumbing to hypothermia, according to charts that estimate how long an average person can survive in water.

    Coast Guard spokesman Robert Suddarth said the boat and one of the bodies were discovered by a passing boater about noon Sunday.

    A second body was found by an off-duty police officer 2 miles from where the boat was discovered. The third was discovered more than 2 miles from the boat, Suddarth said.

    The four men lived in the same area of west Tampa the past 10 years and had become close friends. For the past year and a half, they worked together at America's Body Company in Oldsmar, which builds and supplies truck parts.

    The boat owner, Gonzalez, turned 30 Saturday. He was married and had an 8-year-old daughter. Gomez, 47, was single and had two sons, ages 20 and 21. Moreira, 24, was married and had a 2-year-old son. Abad, 42, was married with no children.

    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    Alyssa Gonzalez, 8, right, is comforted while waiting for news about her father, boat owner Jesus Gonzalez. Also waiting are wives Dora Abad, far left, and Eva Marquetti, center in white, who is comforted by Lorena Cuellar.

    Gonzalez had owned several boats before, relatives said. He recently sold a larger boat and purchased the smaller one, named the Super Dolphin, as an early birthday present. Saturday was the second time he had taken it out.

    Before the boat was discovered, relatives, friends and co-workers kept vigil Sunday morning at the Sol Fleischman Boat Ramp, on the Tampa side of the Gandy Bridge, where the men began their trip Saturday.

    As other boaters arrived, the wives gave descriptions of their husbands and the boat and asked boaters to call 911 if they saw anything.

    Eva Marquetti said she became worried about 5:30 p.m. Saturday when she hadn't heard from her husband, Moreira. By 9 p.m., the wives gathered at Abad's home with his wife, Dora, and decided to call the Coast Guard.

    Two hours later, the search began.

    A note from one of the Coast Guard petty officers was still stuck in the driver's side window of Gonzalez's silver Dodge Ram at the boat ramp on Sunday morning.

    "Mr. Gonzalez, the Coast Guard is looking for you! Contact us if you get back in so we may call off the search," it said.

    Inside the truck, a cell phone was ringing.

    Lazara Gonzalez, 31, said her mother refused to stop calling her brother, Jesus Gonzalez.

    "We still have a birthday cake waiting for Jesus at home," she said.

    Several hours later they got the news a boat had been discovered with no one on board. Several hours after that, they learned two bodies had been discovered. Relatives hugged, and cried. One fainted.

    Gomez's nephew, Faustino Dominguez Jr., and his wife, Dore, both 23, went fishing Saturday about noon, leaving from the same boat ramp used by his uncle an hour earlier. Not knowing the men were missing, they decided to head home early, about 3 p.m., because of choppy seas and high winds.

    "When the wind peaked, there were 3-foot seas in the bay," Dominguez said. "From what I saw of (Gonzalez's) boat, it wasn't made for that kind of weather."

    Dominguez said Gonzalez bought and sold boats regularly. He said he occasionally helped Gonzalez repair the boats. But Gonzalez wasn't very experienced at operating them, he said.

    The boat the men went out in Saturday, "was a small boat and very, very low to the water," said Dominguez.

    -- Times photographer Stefanie Boyar contributed to this report.

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