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Man saved, taken to jail

Gabriel Cothron was sinking yards from shore - and wanted on theft charges.

By THOMAS LAKE
Published April 17, 2007


HUDSON - A voice rose from the foaming Gulf of Mexico, across the dark and above the wind, into the stilt-house bedroom of a retired dentist from Cleveland.

"Help! I'm sinking!"

It was nearly 3 a.m. Sunday when the voice woke Tom Jacobs. He grabbed his binoculars and walked to the deck and looked out toward Texas.

"I'm in the channel!"

Damn, Jacobs thought, dialing 911. He's got good lungs.

It would be useful here in the story to leave Jacobs and go down in the water, maybe 200 yards from shore, where the calling man clutched a channel marker in one hand and his sinking boat in the other.

There he was, all 6 feet and 7 inches of him, announcing his presence up and down the coast. Any man with his legal status would have preferred to stay hidden. But the will to live trumps everything - including the will to stay out of jail.

Public safety has many meanings. It is no coincidence that gun-toting deputies often arrive with the paramedics.

So they did here. They needed a good strong boat and they found one behind a house on Harbor Drive. They roused the owner and asked him to captain. He agreed.

Ronald Hicks was his name. He owns a pizza place in Clearwater, but he used to be a Marine. There were maybe six in the boat as it cut through the whitecaps.

A helicopter swept the water with a searchlight. There he is, someone yelled. They threw him a line and he took it. He had to let go of his sinking craft.

He climbed aboard the powerboat, shivering. His name was Gabriel Cothron. He said he was out fishing when his boat capsized. In any case, a breath test said his blood-alcohol level was 0.145, nearly twice the level at which Florida law presumes a person is impaired.

This is a misdemeanor in Florida when you're driving, even if you're driving a boat.

It got worse for Cothron when the deputies returned to shore and ran his name through the database. Outstanding warrants for auto theft and robbery. He was led away in handcuffs.

Cothron is 28, a Shady Hills resident, with nine prior arrests in Florida. He declined to be interviewed. He was held Monday at the Land O'Lakes jail in lieu of $30,100 bail.

Hicks, the boat captain, was on his way back to bed when a deputy came over to thank him for his help.

Saving a life. Catching a criminal. Sometimes mercy and justice share a boat.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.

Fast Facts: About the story

This story is based on interviews with Tom Jacobs and Ronald Hicks, sheriff's reports and information from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.