The call for help came in at about 10 o’clock on a hot, moonless summer night. The firefighters of Corpus Christi’s Station 16 lounged around a television, and Ruben Ortiz half-heartedly thumbed through a book. Their jurisdiction was Mustang Island, a narrow 5-mile strip of sand and waterfront properties just off Corpus Christi Bay. Life on the barrier island was usually low-key on weeknights in late summer, and most of the calls to the station were forgettable and routine. But when the men heard the news on the night of August 24, 2004, every languorous soul in Station 16 flew into action.
The dispatcher had reported that a small boat had washed ashore, and people had staggered toward the lights of the mostly vacant Mayan Princess condominiums. Shadowy figures were knocking on doors, scaring residents. The firefighters were soon grinding slowly south along the water’s edge. Their searchlight beams sliced through the darkness, finally coming to rest on a fishing boat that was no more than 18 feet long. Beached, it lay tilted on its side, revealing a barnacle-encrusted bottom. Ortiz and the other firefighters jumped down to see if anyone was onboard. Their flashlights revealed a squalid tangle of detritus inside: cans, bottles, scraps of clothing, a crude sail, and some large barrels. But no people.
The men turned toward the condos up the beach, and that’s where they found the survivors. An elderly woman wearing filthy rags lay unmoving on a boardwalk, too delirious to speak. Sitting next to her was a skeletally thin bearded man who was almost black from exposure. All he could muster was a faint, raspy, “Agua. Agua, por favor.” As the firefighters filled small white paper cones with water from the truck’s cooler, a police car pulled up. Inside were four sunken-faced men who had wandered up the beach, knocking on doors and begging for water.
Ortiz, the only firefighter who spoke Spanish, leaned in to the squad car as the men gulped down water.
“Where is this? Where are we?” one of them asked Ortiz, who noticed an unusual accent.
“You are in Corpus Christi.”
The four men glanced at one another quizzically. “What is Corpus Christi?” one asked.
“Texas,” Ortiz responded. “You are in Texas, in the United States of America.”
Puzzled expressions turned to glee. One man dropped his face into cupped hands.
“This,” one of them declared, “is a gift from God.”
THE FIREFIGHTERS WERE STUNNED TO LEARN THAT THE FIVE MEN and one woman were Cuban refugees. Although it is common for Cubans to flee Fidel Castro’s broken economy by sailing to South Florida, which is only 90 miles away, no refugee boat from Cuba had ever been known to land on the Texas coast, which is more than 1,000 miles away. How, the disbelieving firefighters wondered, could these six people have completed such a voyage on that good-for-nothing boat, especially after a powerful hurricane had just pummeled the Gulf of Mexico?
The refugees had left Cuba for what was supposed to have been a three-day journey to Cozumel, Mexico. But a mistake left them afloat with no food, water, or fuel. They’d drifted for 58 days, withering away from hunger and thirst. By all odds, they should have perished, but some of the Cubans were attributing their survival to Orlando Requejo-Pupo, who had left Cuba to start a new life in Dallas. Orlando had dreamed of joining his sister here and working for their uncle’s small trucking company. In their darkest hours on the water, some of the survivors said Orlando’s leadership had brought them through alive. “When we reached land, they lifted me up and thanked me for encouraging them during the trip,” he recalls.
But Orlando and the other five survivors had washed ashore on Mustang Island with a secret—and a blood pact to protect it. A seventh person had been onboard. His name was Luis Estrada-Sanchez, a husband and father. He wasn’t just any passenger: he had been the boat’s captain. Suspiciously, no one had bothered to tell immigration officials that he had died at sea.
The mystery of how one Cuban refugee was lost in the Gulf might not have attracted much attention in South Florida. But in Texas, where the landing registered as a bizarre novelty, it set off one of the most unusual federal investigations of its kind—perhaps a first in modern Texas history. The state offices of three federal investigative agencies, including the FBI, became involved, and it didn’t take agents long to zero in on a suspect. Three weeks after Orlando reached the promised land of America, he was recuperating in his sister’s Dallas apartment off Southwestern Boulevard when immigration agents knocked on the door. Orlando has been sitting in a detention center in Haskell, Texas, ever since. The authorities say they are holding him for violating immigration law, but the unpublicized reason for his arrest is made clear in the pages of a confidential government report: murder on the high seas.
|HERO OR MURDERER? Orlando now awaits his fate in a prison in Haskell.|
THE GROUP SET OUT FROM THE PORT CITY OF MANZANILLO on Cuba’s southern coast at 2 p.m. on June 24, guided only by an old nautical compass. Spirits ran high despite a leaky wooden boat, with its hand-made propeller, sputtering engine, and makeshift backup sail. The sunny blue skies above and crystalline calm Caribbean waters below helped some of the passengers overcome their unease. The five men and one woman from Camagüey, Cuba’s third-largest city, had gathered at the home of a fisherman who’d sold them the flimsy vessel for $1,500. They pointed the boat toward the Cayman Islands, 150 miles away, where they would pick up a seventh passenger. This would be the first leg of a route to America that remains largely unknown. Media coverage and films like Scarface have popularized the voyage to Florida from Cuba’s northern shores, but the governments from both countries heavily patrol the area. Lately, some refugees have been taking a less conspicuous—though far more arduous—path from Cuba’s southern half to the Cayman Islands, then westward to Honduras or Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The travelers then make their way through Mexico to Texas.
Orlando worried about their prospects from the beginning. He even started a diary as a kind of epitaph for his wife and two children. “If something happens to me,” reads the first entry, “I would like this notebook to reach my family. I beg of you.” If the boat’s condition had laid seeds of doubt, these were nourished by questions about the band’s self-appointed leader, Luis Estrada-Sanchez. The 39-year-old was an aloof man with salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache. His lighter skin betrayed a mixed lineage. He had been supporting his wife, daughter, and mother with a coveted job that paid fair wages in a “dollar store,” which sold imported consumer items for U.S. currency. It seemed justified for those placing their lives in his hands to question Luis about his qualifications as a seaman. A skeptical Orlando felt less than assured when Luis, a bit defensively, insisted he was an experienced captain and pulled out a fisherman’s license to prove it.
Under Luis’ command, the little boat puttered southward all night and into the next day. No one got much sleep because water seeped into the boat through its porous wood hull. Everyone had to bail, except for Atiliana “Magaly” Araujo-Cruz, who became seasick. The 55-year-old Magaly wasn’t used to the sea. A matronly gray-haired bookworm with four grown children, she’d worked as a librarian for 33 years and was determined to join her daughter and sister in Miami. Magaly was so violently ill that she not only vomited but also lost control of her bowels—and accidentally ruined most of the food stored on the boat.
Then the motor broke down. Adrift in a slowly sinking boat, Luis ordered the men to raise the sail and take turns rowing toward a small, uninhabited key on the horizon. They pushed ashore near dusk and fought over what to do. Orlando insisted they turn back for food and repairs. Zeidel Rivero-Perez, a cook by trade and, at 28, the youngest on the boat, agreed with him. Both men worried about Luis’ abilities in ideal circumstances, let alone with a faltering boat and a lack of food.
But Luis overruled them. He would thunder over and over: “No! We don’t go back!” He was joined by 36-year-old Aldo Mesa-Diaz, a mechanic and welder, and 37-year-old Miguel Dias-Cangas, a carpenter who had already made two failed escape attempts from Cuba.
So when the engine could not be restarted, the sail was raised and the group shoved off toward the Caymans. The wind, however, wasn’t cooperating. The men spotted another small island and rowed as hard as they could. They hit the beach at night in a heavy downpour, exhausted, miserable, hungry—and now officially lost. Luis wasn’t sure that he had the correct bearings to the Caymans, given the two island detours. Orlando and Zeidel were furious. As the rain fell, they accused Luis of overstating his prowess as a sailor. But Luis, again backed by Aldo and Miguel, pushed back. Luis insisted that he was in command and ordered them to press on.
Privately, Luis must have been worried about Orlando, an ex-soldier who had recently served a five-year stint in a Cuban prison. His crime, Orlando says, had been to steal a truckload of meat while working at a state-run slaughterhouse. He had flourished in the tough confines of prison life, rising to control his cellblock through violent intimidation. But Luis also had an edge hardened by a past, and he told some of the passengers that he had served time for murder.
Tired of arguing on an empty stomach, Orlando went hunting for the only food available on the little rain-soaked island: iguanas. He returned with eight of the creatures as Aldo and Miguel worked on the boat. That evening, the engine finally fired up. They were on the move again, but after another day, the engine sputtered and left them drifting. The only sounds were waves lapping against the rotten boat and Orlando’s cursing.
For several more days, they limped on by sail and oar, out of food and with no clear heading. Their only hope was rescue, and for once, their prayers were answered. A Cayman Islands coast guard cutter intercepted them and towed the crippled boat to the island of Cayman Brac. But the country’s immigration policy would not let them stay long; they could either be repatriated back to Cuba or leave on their own. Disgusted by Luis’ performance, Orlando decided to return to Cuba. But the other voyagers found officials eager to help—for a price. With money wired from their U.S. relatives, Magaly and Miguel bought an 18-foot, open-air Pleasure Craft for $5,000 from the island’s chief immigration officer. The fiberglass vessel was a considerable improvement. It came equipped with a 115-horsepower engine, a spare engine, and a tarp sun shelter. The little sports boat, of the sort used to fish shallow waters near shore, seemed seaworthy enough to give Orlando pause. A local sailor Luis had met said the group could make it to Cozumel, Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula, by traveling due west for just three days. The sailor told Luis all he needed was an electronic global positioning device programmed with exact navigational coordinates.
On Luis’ assurances that he could guide them to the peninsula, everyone pitched in for fuel and about three days’ worth of canned food and jugs of water. Luis bought a bright yellow GPS unit, had it programmed with the Cozumel coordinates, and slung it around his neck. He wore the unit there proudly, where it would become as much a symbol of his leadership as the conch shell in Lord of the Flies. Orlando, still mindful of Luis’ earlier performance, spoke derisively of Luis’ new necklace. And although space was getting tight, neither Orlando nor anyone else objected when a seventh Cuban joined the group, 39-year-old refrigeration mechanic Rolando Perez-Rivero. On July 1, they sped out to open waters, their spirits buoyed once again by the beautiful weather and the calm Caribbean waters.
THE REVERIE WOULD COME TO AN ABRUPT HALT 11 hours later. The motor ran out of gas and sputtered to a stop. Orlando did some quick math on the remaining fuel, speed, and the time Luis had said was needed to reach Cozumel. Horrified, he realized they didn’t have enough gasoline to finish the trip. His anger rising again, Orlando screamed, “It’s your fault! It’s your fault!” Backed by Zeidel and now Rolando, he insisted they return to the Caymans for more gas. Luis, Miguel, and Aldo refused. They argued that the group should push on until the gasoline was exhausted, save for 10 gallons, and then sail and row guided by the GPS unit into the busy sea lanes near the Mexican coast.
Orlando let his feelings be known. “I reproached him for everything that happened,” Orlando says later in a jailhouse interview. “I reproached him because the rest of them couldn’t see past their noses. They would say, ’Let’s keep going and going.’ And I, on several occasions, explained to them that if we keep going like this, we are going to die. They carried the lives of the others in their hands and they didn’t feel that responsibility.”
And then, a simple gaff that same night brought the specter of death into their boat. Luis was fussing with the GPS and pushed a button. It was the wrong button to push. In an instant, all of the coordinates to Cozumel were erased.
The group was now blind, and on July 3, the boat burned through the last of its fuel. While rationing the remaining food and water, the group turned the tarp into a sail and, after further disputes, decided to keep the western heading toward Mexico. As hunger gnawed at them over the next few days, the men decided they would have to fish or die. But with what? Someone opened the engine and pulled out a piece of wire. With a whetstone, the wire was sharpened to a razor point and bent into the shape of a hook, then attached to several yards of thin twine. From barnacles attached to the boat’s underside, they found tiny creatures for bait. On July 8, after three days with almost no food, Orlando reported in his diary that he hooked the first fish. He shared it raw with his companions. The length of twine and hook was now a fragile, vital lifeline for seven people, guarded like the Hope Diamond. Each day, as it was thrown into the ocean, the fear was real that a large creature would snap it away. And each time it was used, it lost a few strands. Of the fish that the men caught, nothing would be wasted. Blood would be swallowed along with intestines. Bones would be ground up and eaten.
The next day, July 9, a storm brought terrifying 30-foot waves that tossed the boat like a cork. But it also brought temporary salvation: fresh water. Struggling to keep from being hurled overboard by the crashing swells, the men used the tarp to catch the rainwater. They channeled what they could into the jugs. Towels sopped up fresh water swirling around in the boat, which was then wrung into containers.
Long days of strict rationing stretched into another week, then another, with no fish or wind. Along with fear and depression came irritation. Space was tight. To sleep, the largest four people could lie down in the bottom of the boat in a row like sardines, feet to face. Luis, still maintaining his claim on authority, occupied the front of the boat. To relieve themselves, they would jump in the water. Obsessions began ravaging the travelers: to spot land, to taste rainwater, to see a ship. The travelers sometimes thought they’d spotted land, paddling with great hope only to find a mirage. Worse letdowns would come: luxury cruise ships and commercial vessels passed tantalizingly close enough to hear people onboard. One nearly crashed into them. The malnourished voyagers would shout and wave desperately. But no ship even paused.
Cursory entries in Orlando’s shipboard diary describe the downward spiraling physical and mental condition the voyagers would endure through the remainder of July.
“July 12, 2004. The sea was flat like a plate the whole day. We can’t see land anywhere. The food and water are running out, and we have enough left for only one or two days. … Desperate … At night, a ship came so close to us that it almost cut us in two.“
“July 14, 2004. No wind. We did not move at all. We can’t see anything. There is no land anywhere and this is making the people feel desperate because we don’t have any food left and we are not sure how long we have left.“
“July 15, 2004. We have no water and no food, and we are almost out of hope.“
BY SATURDAY, JULY 17, THE TRAVELERS were drinking their own urine. Everyone was now withering in the windless summer heat, and Orlando wrote, “Only God knows what He is doing. I leave everything in His hands, He who is our Lord and guide.”
Without water, a painful death can come as soon as three days. Muscle spasms shoot through the body. Hands and feet balloon with swelling. Cellular breakdown causes intense fatigue and crippling headaches. Above all, though, is an unremitting thirst so demanding that its victims will drink urine or even cut limbs to suck blood. Irrational thinking can lead to paranoia, bizarre behavior, desperate plots, and violence.
As physical conditions deteriorated, so did relations onboard the vessel. Of the men, only Orlando, Rolando, and Zeidel seemed to have enough energy to fish, steer, and man the sail. Some of the men, lethargic from weight loss and hallucinating from their deprivations, began resisting Orlando’s admonitions to work. Orlando’s criticism of Aldo, Miguel, and, especially, Luis grew more heated.
As July turned to August, the travelers caught fewer fish and started eating seaweed to relieve their hunger. Luis continued to maintain he was the captain, but as his body shrank, he retreated into a psychological shell, segregating himself and protecting his belongings. Some of the men began to wonder, what was he hiding up there, a stash of water or food? Late on some nights, they would hear Luis weeping about missing his wife, mother, and daughter.
Magaly stayed out of the conflict, a grandmotherly island of neutrality. She was the one person that Luis reached out to for comfort. He would whisper his confidences to her in the dark of night, sometimes speaking of his distrust of Orlando and wishing he had never left Cuba. Orlando admired Magaly as well, writing in his diary on August 5, her birthday, “This woman is the one who gives me strength to keep going. … She believes very fervently in God, and that is what keeps her alive.”
On August 7, Orlando wrote in his diary that ominous current changes were pulling the boat eastward, the wrong direction. By August 9, Orlando noted that unusually fast-moving clouds had filled up the sky. Tropical Storm Bonnie had arrived, sucking them backward.
BONNIE WAS BORN JULY 29 AS A TROPICAL wave near Senegal, off the western coast of Africa. As she gathered strength over the next 10 days, fleeing commercial vessels cleared a wide path. By August 10, Bonnie had whirled into a full-blown tropical cyclone, barreling through the sea channel between Cuba and Cozumel. That’s where it slammed into the tiny boat. Ahead of its gusting winds, Bonnie pushed the sea northward into towering mountains of water. Each swell pushed the boat almost vertically up walls of water to a crest so high that the petrified voyagers could not see the bottom of the troughs. From the depths of these dark chasms, the passengers would be sent up again, as high as 80 feet to the next pointed crest, where they were whipped by stinging gusts of horizontal rain before cascading headlong down the other side again. And so it went, hour after hour and into a pitch-black night. Inside the boat, the Cubans knew they were doomed. Every wave threatened to kill them. They could only hold on to keep from being thrown into the sea and make their peace with God before they were swallowed.
The worst of the storm began to ease on the third day, having pushed them well north into the Gulf of Mexico. But relief did not last long. On about August 13, Hurricane Charley, a Category Four monster, spiraled at 110 miles per hour over the Cayman Islands and western Cuba and into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Although the boat was not directly in Charley’s path, the storm’s massive spinning arms slapped westward at the Gulf, spewing two more days of rain, rough seas, and wind in their direction. And still they were not through the gauntlet. In the wake of Bonnie and Charley rose dozens of tornadic water spouts, a product of clashing air masses. These funnels rise from the sea surface to the clouds, spinning at 130 miles per hour. Sailors have feared water spouts since ancient times, their destructive power earning a respected place in seafaring lore. They kill on contact. Now, dozens of thundering water spouts zigged and zagged all around the boat. Any of them would have instantly disintegrated it. One tornado spun so close that the travelers had to paddle out of its path.
Charley’s westerly winds actually helped push the Cubans closer to the Texas shoreline. Orlando’s journal notes that the boat’s sail had finally caught a steady wind. But the journal’s omissions are extensive. Nowhere does the diary mention that sometime after the water spouts had evaporated, something in Orlando snapped. He decided to seize control of the boat. He enlisted Zeidel to help him with his plan. Bloodshed and death would follow.
Orlando made his move after another series of bitter confrontations. According to information gathered by investigators, Orlando had grown increasingly agitated by the refusals of Aldo, Miguel, and Luis to help fish and row. They had complained they were too weak, and Orlando claims they wanted more than their allotted rations of fish and water. The arguments devolved into threats of violence. “I had to take control of the boat … because my life was in danger and the lives of the other people,” Orlando says. “The lives of these people were going to depend on me, understand?”
Orlando says he only used strong language, not deadly force, to take control, but another account claims that Orlando drew a knife and, with Zeidel watching his back, launched into a “frenzied attack” on some of the men. Aldo, who apparently had armed himself with a screwdriver, Miguel, and Luis were involved in the fray. The screwdriver came out. After the flurry ended, Aldo lay stabbed in the face, Miguel bled from multiple puncture wounds, and Orlando was bleeding from wounds to his shoulder and thigh. But when all was said and done, Orlando and Zeidel had possession of both the screwdriver and knife. No one dared openly contest the pair, but as the days dragged on, an almost unbearable mutual distrust settled in among the men. It grew so great that all feared sleeping without an ally to watch over them.
According to Aldo, it wasn’t long before Orlando and Zeidel attacked again. As Aldo drifted in and out of consciousness, Orlando and Zeidel stabbed him, then wrapped the anchor’s rope around his neck. They were preparing to throw Aldo overboard when Miguel and Luis intervened. They asked Orlando and Zeidel to have mercy. But Orlando offers a different account. He says that he and Zeidel actually saved Aldo, who was suicidal. But more attacks would be reported. Orlando and Zeidel at one point threw the empty fuel drums overboard and ordered Aldo and Luis off the boat. “That is your boat now,” Orlando said. Pleading for their lives, the two men jumped overboard and clamored onto the drums. Miguel says he and others begged Orlando not to abandon the men. “Aldo said he would stay on the tank, but then the waves started picking up and knocking them off the tanks,” Miguel says. “I told Orlando again that what he was doing was inhuman, that they were going to drown, and then we pulled them up. Orlando himself helped to get them back on the boat.”
A short time later, on or about August 20, the waters of the Gulf would finally claim Luis. The night’s events remain shrouded in mystery. What is clear, however, is that the survivors swore to forget him. And if anyone ever asked about Luis, they would say he had jumped overboard in a suicidal fit of depression. Four days later, they washed ashore in Texas.
FORGETTING HER CONFIDANT, who quietly wept to her about the women he’d left behind, was not something Magaly could do. Whether by accident or design, she was the only one who told immigration officials in Corpus Christi that Luis had existed. Suspicious agents asked her to identify his identification cards, which were found among Orlando’s possessions. Magaly balked when asked why none of the other five had mentioned Luis. Stuttering, she said that there had been no “cover-up,” then fell back on the party line: Luis had thrown himself overboard. Convinced she was hiding something, the immigration agents called the FBI and the Coast Guard Investigative Service.
Then investigators caught Orlando in an incriminating lie. Orlando was unaware that Magaly had spilled the beans about Luis. How, they asked, had Orlando come to possess his ID cards? Orlando refused to acknowledge that Luis was on the boat and said that unidentified friends in Cuba had given them to him. When investigators confronted him about Luis, Orlando then insisted that Luis committed suicide. He says it had been Luis’ turn to steer the boat that night, and Orlando maintains that he woke up the next morning and discovered that Luis had vanished.
But that is not the story others would tell. Aldo told investigators that he witnessed Orlando and Zeidel attack Luis late one night. There was a struggle, and Orlando and Zeidel threw Luis overboard. Aldo said that Luis was alive when he hit the water. “Everyone onboard saw Orlando and Zeidel do this, and that they threw him an empty gas can to hold onto,” Aldo testified. He promised to testify in court that “Orlando and Zeidel threatened the others onboard not to say anything.”
If this account is true, then Orlando condemned Luis to a horrible death. He would have floated alone in a black, watery wilderness, and at some point, he would have slipped beneath the waves, perhaps still weeping for his wife, daughter, and mother.
But Aldo’s version of events isn’t easily corroborated. Magaly has refused to cooperate with authorities. But then she did something perhaps more characteristic of her nature. On the night before leaving Corpus Christi to join her daughter in Florida, Magaly stayed at the home of a good Samaritan, a woman who had seen Magaly on television. All night long, Magaly told the woman details of the trip, saying she had been terrified of Orlando. The woman went straight to the FBI. In an unusually detailed third-hand account, Magaly said she had been awakened that night by a violent commotion. When she asked Orlando and Zeidel what had happened, they told her that Luis had been crying again and jumped overboard. Magaly urged them to jump in after Luis, but Orlando and Zeidel said, “Are you crazy?” The night was too dark, and the waves were too powerful. Orlando then repeated what he said, seeming to underline his words with a threatening emphasis. “Did you hear me?” Orlando asked pointedly. “Luis jumped in the water.” Zeidel chimed in. “Did you hear what Orlando said? He jumped in the water. Remember that—he jumped in the water.” The next morning, she saw Orlando rifle through Luis’ belongings, pocketing money and Luis’ identification cards. Orlando, by this account, tore up the photos of Luis’ wife, daughter, and mother and threw the pieces into the ocean.
Miguel says he didn’t actually see Orlando and Zeidel murder Luis because he had been unconscious that night. But he said that Magaly frantically woke him up and reported that Orlando and Zeidel had just thrown Luis overboard. Aldo warned him that Orlando and Zeidel would throw him overboard next and that the attack would come while he slept. “I was awake for days,” Miguel says.
In September, the FBI dropped out of the case at one point because, according to one of its own reports, the bureau “has no jurisdiction in the matter.” Houston maritime law attorney Michael Bell says Cuba or even the Cayman Islands might have jurisdiction over a maritime murder case but “from the U.S. standpoint, there’s not a lot of contacts with the incident that would give them claim to jurisdiction if it happened on the high seas.” Still, a source close to the investigation says government prosecutors believe they have found provisions by which to charge Orlando with the murder outside of U.S. territorial waters.
The government faces other problems. No body or weapon has been recovered. And the accounts of the witnesses, given their stress and physical deprivation, are shaky. And there is this question: if the evidence to date was sufficient to arrest Orlando in Texas, why is Zeidel free and living in Florida? Regardless, Zeidel declined to talk. Magaly does not want to be found. And in a brief telephone interview, Rolando refused to answer questions. “This has affected me a lot. A lot,” Rolando says. “I don’t want to remember it. I don’t want to recall that time.”
And finally, there is another question that is almost too uncomfortable to consider. Could it be argued that Orlando and Zeidel, if they are guilty, would be justified in murdering Luis to save the others? The annals of survival ordeals are rife with such stories, and Orlando’s sister, Walkeria, allows that her brother might have been forced to do the unthinkable given the circumstances. “It happens when people give up and have no more strength,” she says.