Human smugglers helped Cubans

Federal agents are questioning two men suspected of smuggling 20 undocumented Cubans ashore at the north end of the Judge S.S. Jolley Bridge this morning, U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Steve McDonald said this afternoon.

Cuban refugees wait just north of the S.S. Jolley Bridge north of Marco Island today.

Lexey Swall

Cuban refugees wait just north of the S.S. Jolley Bridge north of Marco Island today.

The men, Cubans living in the United States, are being held at the Border Patrol station in Pembroke Pines, where the 20 immigrants also are being interviewed, McDonald said.

He would not release their names or other details about the men. They could be arrested as early as Wednesday, he said.

"We believe they are part of it," he said.

The men were aboard a 24-foot fishing boat that carried 14 adult men, four adult women, - including a pregnant woman - a 1-year-old boy and a female juvenile to shore this morning, he said. The boy's parents were on the boat, he said.

The boat, with nine fishing rods sticking into the air, remained in the water at the Collier Boulevard boat ramp this morning while crime scene workers took photographs, lifted fingerprints from its stern and used tweezers to pluck hairs or fibers from the center console.

Collier County Sheriff finger print expert Frank Aldrich, right, talks to Crime Scene Investigators Jessica Fernandez, left, and Kim Costa as they removed evidence from a boat that is suspected to have helped 20 Cuban refugees arrive on shore just north of Marco Island on this morning.

Lexey Swall

Collier County Sheriff finger print expert Frank Aldrich, right, talks to Crime Scene Investigators Jessica Fernandez, left, and Kim Costa as they removed evidence from a boat that is suspected to have helped 20 Cuban refugees arrive on shore just north of Marco Island on this morning.

McDonald said the 20 migrants would be interviewed about their backgrounds and about their journey from Cuba and likely would be released later tonight.

He said there are no indications any of them will be sent back to Cuba. Under the U.S. "wet foot-dry foot" policy, Cubans that reach U.S. soil generally are allowed to stay in the country. If they are intercepted before reaching land, they are to be returned to Cuba, according to the policy.

Collier County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Stephanie Spell said passers-by on Collier Boulevard reported seeing the Cubans shortly after 7 a.m.

At about the same time, officers aboard a sheriff's marine patrol boat near the bridge saw a boat with no passengers aboard speeding up the Marco River away from the Gulf of Mexico and stopped it, Spell said. Authorities also seized a second boat.

Collier sheriff's Lt. David Johnson said an "illegal border crossing and landing was detected" and said authorities intercepted all the immigrants and "probably caught the people that were responsible" for bringing them ashore.

"We had two boats in the wrong place at the wrong time and at the wrong hour," Johnson said.

Ten of the 20 Cubans, including the pregnant woman and boy, were sent to Naples Community Hospital and North Collier Hospital for treatment of dehydration. Their conditions are not life-threatening, Spell said.

NCH spokeswoman Debbie Curry said she could not release any additional information, but confirmed that six Cubans had been brought into the hospital's downtown campus and four had been taken to North Collier. The six being treated downtown included a teenager and a toddler.

Meanwhile, nine adult males and one adult female sat in a white Sheriff's Office bus idling in the sun at the Collier Boulevard boat ramp.

Deputy Lawson walks a Cuban refugee from the hospital to a waiting Collier County Sheriff's bus before picking up more refugees from the Emergency exit at NCH in Naples and leaving today. 20 refugees landed by boat this morning just north of the S.S. Jolley Bridge.

Tracy Boulian

Deputy Lawson walks a Cuban refugee from the hospital to a waiting Collier County Sheriff's bus before picking up more refugees from the Emergency exit at NCH in Naples and leaving today. 20 refugees landed by boat this morning just north of the S.S. Jolley Bridge.

The bus arrived at NCH at 10:30 a.m. Some of the detainees on the bus were briefly escorted into the hospital and back onto the vehicle.

One of the men, who gave his name as Juan Martinez, shook his head when asked if he had been heading to Miami, but responded that he had family elsewhere in Florida.

"In Tampa," he said before a sheriff's deputy led him away.

The six detainees who received treatment at NCH were escorted onto the bus before 11:20 a.m.. Several nurses and police offices wished them well as they climbed into the bus wearing hospital gowns.

Officers with the Sheriff's Office, the U.S. Border Patrol, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard swarmed the boat ramp this morning.

Crime scene technicians fingerprinted the refugees, two by two, using the tailgate of a pickup as a table. One man was barefoot with his pant legs rolled up. Another wore rubber waders. They were peaceful, at times chatting with officers.

About 10 a.m., the bus pulled out of the boat ramp parking lot on its way to the U.S. Border Patrol center in Pembroke Pines.

Investigators combed over two 24-foot fishing boats that authorities pulled out of the water near where the Cubans came ashore.

Spell said one of the boats appeared to have no evidence on it that would link it to the Cubans. It was loaded onto a trailer and taken away. Three men with that boat were questioned and allowed to go this morning.

The Sheriff's Office retained custody of the boat after discovering it had a possibly altered hull number, Spell said.

Today's scene at the Collier Boulevard boat ramp is the third time in the past year that Southwest Florida has been the scene of

illegal immigration.

In June 2005, 19 Cubans reached Sanibel Island. In January 2006, four Hialeah men suspected of smuggling nine Cubans to the Dry Tortugas were captured after their 32-foot boat ran out of fuel 47 miles off Marco Island.

Johnson said Collier County marine patrol officers keep watch along 80 miles of coastline between Bonita Springs and Chokoloskee.

Find additional coverage in Wednesday's edition of the Daily News.

© 2006 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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