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    FBI takes case of lost fishing captain

    He might have simply fallen overboard, but his fiancee suspects foul play.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001


    MADEIRA BEACH -- The FBI is investigating the disappearance of a commercial fishing captain who vanished earlier this week in the Gulf of Mexico west of John's Pass.

    Dixon Harper, 47, who is from Ponce Inlet in the Daytona Beach area, was last seen alive about 2 a.m. Tuesday on Fat Kat, his 55-foot fishing boat, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

    Harper's two crewmen, including his brother, went to sleep in the hold. Harper stayed up to keep watch and was supposed to wake the others two hours later, at 4 a.m.

    Instead, the crew members woke at 10:45 a.m. to find their captain missing and the Fat Kat cruising on autopilot, they told investigators.

    "They looked around and couldn't find him. They don't know what happened to him," said Coast Guard spokesman Harry Craft. "Apparently, they had gone about 30 miles with the autopilot on."

    The crewmen -- Harper's brother, Steven, 45, of Daytona Beach, and Guy Johnston, 40, of New Smyrna Beach -- had been 60 miles west of John's Pass when they fell asleep. They woke up 30 miles west of John's Pass and put out a distress call.

    The Coast Guard searched 3,200 square miles of the gulf with boats and helicopters before calling off the search at dusk Wednesday.

    The FBI has taken over the investigation -- a standard move when boaters are reported missing in international waters, said Special Agent Sara Oates with the FBI's Tampa office. Oates would not discuss the investigation.

    Harper and his crew had been drinking the night he disappeared, the crewmen told investigators.

    Although Harper may have simply fallen asleep and fallen overboard, his fiancee suspects foul play.

    "I have my own ideas about what happened," said Valerie Gorenc, who lives at Harper's home in Ponce Inlet. "I hope the FBI finds out the truth."

    Gorenc wouldn't be more specific, saying that she was worried about her own safety.

    She said she last spoke to Harper on his cell phone about 3 a.m. Tuesday, an hour after his crew members went to sleep. She said Harper was spending a week to 10 days on the Gulf Coast to fish for grouper and red snapper.

    Gorenc said Harper was financially secure and provided for five daughters from his three previous marriages. Besides his fishing business, Harper also had a baseball card collection worth nearly $250,000, she said.

    The Fat Kat's crew members were interviewed by the FBI Tuesday when they docked at Madeira Beach. They could not be reached for comment Friday.

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