Three phony distress calls have sent rescue workers scrambling around Washington state's Puget Sound, costing taxpayers more than $200,000 in recent weeks — and Coast Guard officials believe the fake mayday calls are the work of a serial hoaxer.
The first call was picked up at 11 p.m. on May 31 by a Coast Guard facility in Seattle. A man reported that five people put on life jackets before abandoning a burning fishing vessel, the Bristol Maid, in Lilliwaup Bay, near Hood Canal, according to the caller.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday, my fishing vessel is going down, a little southwest of Lilliwaup [Bay],” the caller said. “Does anybody hear me?”
No additional communication was received, Petty Officer 1st Class David Mosley told FoxNews.com, and a subsequent search involving two Coast Guard helicopter crews, a Coast Guard 45-foot response boat and a Mason County Sheriff’s Office boat crew found no signs of the vessel. The search effort was ultimately suspended five hours later.
Officials at Puget Sound Vessel Traffic Services received a similar call the following evening, reporting that two adults and a young child were donning life jackets and abandoning a vessel taking on water in the same area. The caller initially referred to the boat in distress as the Bristol Maid, but later changed its name to Aleutian Beauty.
A Coast Guard helicopter crew, assisted by Coast Guard and tribal fisheries vessels, searched for more than three hours without finding any trace of an ailing ship or endangered people. Coast Guard officials believe the same unidentified man was behind both calls, as well as a third placed at 10 p.m. on June 2. The cost of the responding searches totaled at least $209,059, Mosley said.
“Honestly, I’m not sure how much people realize just how seriously we take a call, whether it seems like a mayday or not, we just don’t know,” he told FoxNews.com. “We have to take every call seriously. We are going to fly, we are going to send out boats and make sure that no one’s in trouble.”
Mosley said false distress calls not only waste money, they tie up valuable search assets while unnecessarily putting the lives of crewmembers at risk.
Making a false distress call is a federal felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and possible reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of the unneeded search.
In April, an Ohio man who made a false distress call that launched a massive, 21-hour search on Lake Erie was ordered to pay $489,000 in restitution to the U.S. and Canadian agencies involved in the effort. Danik Kumar, of Sandusky, reported seeing a fishing boat with four people aboard sending flares as he flew a small plane overhead.
Kumar told investigators a month later that he never saw a boat, just a single flare rising on the water. He continued reporting a boat in distress out of fear of sounding stupid and perhaps ruining his chances of becoming a Coast Guard aviator, court records indicate.
Kumar was sentenced to three months in jail and had to drop out of Bowling Green State University’s aviation program, according to his attorney, Edmund Searby, who never disputed that Kumar should pay restitution but argued it shouldn’t have been higher than $118,000 — roughly half of the cost incurred by the Canadian Coast Guard alone.
Mosley — who urged anyone with information about the Puget Sound hoax to call the Coast Guard's 13th District Command Center at (206) 220-7003 — said he has no idea why someone would fake an emergency on the water.
“We don’t know the motivation behind the calls,” Mosley told FoxNews.com. “We just want to make sure people understand the seriousness behind them.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.