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Family Takes Aim at Navy in Mystery Over 2 Dead Fishermen

Times Staff Writer

By all accounts, Boyd Reber was a meticulous man--the kind of fisherman who would never let anyone take a wheel watch alone, who would never sleep at night at sea, and who kept his boat equipped for every emergency.

So when Reber’s body was found floating 300 yards off San Clemente Island last month, it struck his friends as strange that investigators would suggest that he had simply made a bad mistake and run his ship up on the rocks.

“Everything Boyd Reber did--whether it was talking to the fish market or talking on the radio or giving fishing information--he had like a sixth sense about those kinds of things,” said David Tibbles, an old friend and fellow fisherman. “He was good at making judgments, which are very important on the water.”

On Friday, a lawyer hired by Tibbles put the Navy on notice that Reber’s family intends to file a $50 million wrongful-death lawsuit. The suit will allege that Reber, of San Diego, and crewman, Frank Germano of San Pedro, died when their boat either netted or was hit by a Navy explosive.

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The so-called tort claim, a prerequisite to suing the government, was sent by certified mail on Friday to the Naval legal service office in San Diego. The Navy uses the southern portion of the island off for target practice as a “shore bombardment range.”

“I’m surprised that two men can be killed off San Clemente Island, which is an island that the public regularly fishes off of, and there isn’t more of a sense of urgency about what happened and how,” said Michael McCann, the Santa Barbara lawyer who filed the claim.

“By analogy, if two people were driving down the San Diego Freeway and their car blew up, there would be a lot more curiosity about why,” McCann said. “If we’re right, I think there’s a danger out there, and I think the public deserves to know.”

A Navy spokesman declined Friday to comment on the allegations, saying he would not speculate on the cause of the accident until the Coast Guard investigation is complete. But he called the idea of the boat being hit by a shell or missile almost inconceivable.

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The Coast Guard investigator, too, said so far there is little hard proof of an explosion. But he said that heavy boat parts that Reber’s friends say they found on the ocean bottom a considerable distance offshore raise perplexing questions.

Meanwhile, an autopsy has shown that Reber’s crewman, Germano, died of lacerations to the lungs and liver, said Deputy San Diego County Coroner Max Murphy. Murphy declined to comment on fishermen’s theories that those injuries might have come from shrapnel.

Other boat remains that have raised some fishermen’s suspicions include several unused fishermen’s survival suits pocked with small holes, anchors Tibbles says he and others found 300 yards offshore, and heavy pieces of salvaged steel he says are bent at bizarre angles.

Tibbles said an explosives expert told him that “without question” the bends were caused by a “major explosion.” Tibbles said the expert, who could not be reached Friday for comment, told him it would have taken massive force to bend the metal in that way.

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“Really, at this point, as far as I know, nobody knows what happened,” said Tony West, a friend of Reber and vice president of the California Gillnetters Assn., who remains undecided about the cause. " . . . It’s a difficult one to put together.”

Reber, 38, and Germano, 21, were last seen Feb. 21 when they set out from San Pedro in Reber’s 36-foot, fiberglass fishing boat, the Cindy Faye. They headed west to the north side of San Clemente Island, which is south of Los Angeles and west of Oceanside, to net soupfin shark off Mail Point, a popular fishing area.

On Feb. 23, Reber called his wife, Cynthia, and 4-year-old daughter, Courtney; it was his habit to call in every three days. According to Coast Guard Lt. Robert Murray, Reber said things were going well. That was the last time they spoke.

On March 2, a fisherman working the area spotted Reber’s body floating about 22 yards offshore, near Mail Point, Murray said. The following day, Murray said, a San Clemente Island goat herder in a helicopter caught sight of Germano’s body lying on the rocky shore.

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Murray said Mail Point is about five miles from the Navy’s operations area.

Reber turned out to have head injuries, a superficial laceration in his liver, and salt water in his lungs. His cause of death was drowning, deputy coroner Murphy said. Germano’s ribs and jaw were fractured. He had died of lacerations to his lungs and liver.

“The guy that told me about it, it just sounded strange,” Tibbles recalled Friday. " . . . I didn’t know; I just had a suspicion and a feeling. Because I know Boyd, what kind of a seaman he was. He was the best guy in the world as far as being overcautious.”

So the evening after Reber’s funeral, Tibbles set off for San Clemente Island with other fishermen in three boats--the Pompano, the Gold Coast and the Miss Jessica. He had talked with an explosives expert who said he’d need salvaged parts to determine if there had been a blast.

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About a quarter-mile offshore, they found parts of the Cindy Faye’s keel and port fuel tank. Anchoring where they figured the ship had gone down, and working against heavy swells and storms, five men went ashore and found most of the boat lying in pieces on the beach.

Later, Tibbles said, he returned with two expert divers and they spent hours searching the ocean floor. Three hundred yards offshore, they found a net roller and piles of Reber’s net anchors, surrounded by a chunk of the Cindy Faye’s stern.

“That indicates to me that the boat went down in deep water,” Tibbles said. “It didn’t run up on the beach. Because if the boat ran up on the beach, how would those anchors have got back there?”

“My belief is that Boyd Reber was pulling his nets when a major explosion happened from an external source,” Tibbles said. " . . . It sunk at that point in several pieces. Parts of the bow washed in towards the rocks. . . . Then swells threw it up on the beach.”

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Tibbles theorizes that a stray missile struck the Cindy Faye--though he has not determined whether there were Navy exercises the day Reber died. Others, including McCann, suggest sunken ordnance became caught in Reber’s nets and blew up upon contact with the stern of the boat.

Still others, like Tony West, say they just don’t know. Perhaps it was munitions or perhaps Reber’s propane tank blew up. Or maybe--though they insist it is unlikely--Reber and Germano were fishing too close to shore, caught a swell and “rolled over.”

“We were concerned, both as a longtime friend of Boyd and as vice president of the Gillnetters Assn., is this indeed a troublesome area that we have to be concerned with?” said West. “Could it happen to someone else? . . . The evidence was very difficult to piece back together.”

Ken Mitchell, a public affairs officer for the North Island Naval Air Station, declined Friday to comment on whether either scenario involving errant explosives would be possible. However, he indicated that the theory involving a stray missile seemed far-fetched.

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Mitchell said he knew of no accident in his 10 years with the Navy in which a boat around San Clemente Island was damaged by Navy ordnance. (West, too, said he had heard of no such cases.) Mitchell said the Navy clears the area during operations, and he did not believe there were operations on the day of the accident.

“We haven’t seen anything in writing from anybody on this,” Mitchell said. " . . . We’re not really going to comment on it until we see what the Coast Guard says. We worked with the coroner’s office and the Coast Guard in removing the bodies, but we haven’t seen any reports on this.”

Lt. Murray, the Coast Guard investigator, said much of the evidence he has seen argues against an explosion. For example, he said there were no burn marks or signs of fire on the fragments of the boat. He said Germano’s body was X-rayed for shrapnel and none was found.

In addition, Murray said the debris on the beach included heavy materials, including the boat’s main anchor and a lot of metal. He said the vast majority of the vessel ended up on the beach, with only small parts on the ocean floor.

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“It’s believed that the vessel in large part was washed up on the beach and was demolished by the surf,” he said. “There is some suspicion that the initial cause of the accident was an explosion. However, there is no substantial evidence to support that theory.”

As for Germano’s injuries and broken bones, Murray said, “We can only speculate at this point. It could have been caused by some sort of explosive force. It also could have been caused by surf action. The area out there is very rocky.”

But Murray added, “The report by Tibbles of finding the net roller offshore does seem to be a perplexing piece of evidence, because almost the entire rest of the boat was on shore. What caused that to get offshore could be an indicator of the explosion theory.”

Murray said he does not expect to complete his report for several months, after which time it will be reviewed by the Coast Guard commandant. Deputy Coroner Murphy said he expected to have the final coroner’s report in about a week.

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In the meantime, Tibbles said he is weary of waiting for a resolution.

“What really frustrated me with this whole thing was we knew Boyd was dead, but we didn’t know what killed him,” he said. “It’s making us crazy. It’s making me crazy.”


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