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Jury Finds Captain Hurt Ship’s Crew

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After hearing young crew members’ tales of cruelty at sea--including food deprivation, imprisonment and threats they would be thrown overboard--a U.S. District Court jury has returned a verdict penalizing the captain of the fishing boat Magic Dragon more than $450,000.

It was only the second known verdict granting punitive damages in a civil maritime case in Southern California, the plaintiffs’ attorney Jeffrey A. Kopczynski said.

But the jury’s award may prove difficult to collect. The captain, Bruce Mounier, was last seen fishing off the shores of Tahiti. His boat and Florida-based fishing company are in the names of his wife, Clarice, and son, Bruce Jr.

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Mounier is a fugitive from federal criminal charges stemming from a 1995 grand jury indictment accusing him of violating the rarely invoked 160-year-old Cruelty to Seamen Statute in his treatment of the same crew.

The verdict in the civil case, handed down last week, was but the latest chapter in a maritime melodrama that began May 14, 1994, when four inexperienced sailors--Todd Schotanus of Los Feliz and Jason Garinger, Amy Roumagoux and Ryan Hallas of Oregon--signed on in San Pedro as deck hands for a fishing expedition aboard the Magic Dragon.

When the vessel returned to San Pedro a month later, the crew members accused Mounier of terrorizing them, and he alleged that they were mutineers who had refused to work.

The four crew members filed suit, alleging that they’d been deprived of food and water, subjected to abusive and threatening language, imprisoned, assaulted and placed in fear of their lives. Hallas settled his suit before trial, accepting an undisclosed sum.

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From the beginning, the issue was whether the crew members were mistreated, or whether they weren’t tough enough to withstand harsh language and harsher conditions on the high seas, as sailors have for centuries.

“If this was a matter in which you had the burden of being a graduate of Miss Manners’ school, then my client is undefendable,” said the captain’s attorney Carlton Russell. “You do get some salty language. My client is a sea captain.”

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Russell continued to portray the crew members as rebellious slackers during the civil trial. He plans an appeal.

But according to court records, U.S. Coast Guard officials became suspicious that Mounier might have crossed the line when he told them: “Some people get motivated by verbal abuse. Others you have to slap around a little.”

As a result, the federal criminal investigation was launched.

The eight members of the civil jury--five men and three women--sided with the crew after deliberating for two days. The jurors awarded $350,000 in punitive damages, finding that Mounier intentionally harmed his crew “without just cause or oppressively” and by treating them maliciously.

The rest of the award came in the form of compensatory damages for lost work time and medical expenses.

“It brought some closure to me,” said Schotanus, now an apartment manager in Los Feliz. The others, who live in Oregon, could not be reached.

“It was a great feeling of relief and I was very thankful,” he added. “It had been a long time in coming. It wasn’t just justice for me, it was justice for all the people he has been tormenting and harassing on that boat for years.”

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Twice before the fateful 1994 voyage, Mounier had accused his crews of mutiny. Coast guard officials said at the time that they’d never heard of anyone making such a charge--except for Mounier.

“This man has been at sea for over 30 years,” said Kopczynski. “I think he has become disassociated with society and unaware of the evolution that has occurred.”

According to court records and interviews, the crew members were restricted to meals that sometimes consisted only of a bag of popcorn, were threatened with being thrown overboard, and were locked into a cramped cabin with a heater turned up high, wearing only their undergarments.

They allege they were threatened with death and shown a photograph of a crew member hogtied on the deck on a previous voyage. They said they were deprived of food and water for up to four days.

At one point, Garinger ventured out for water and was jumped on the deck by the captain and his mates, who had been waiting in the dark with ax handles, Garinger alleged in the suit. He claimed he was choked, kicked and punched, then chained to a railing overnight.

Schotanus said he was jumped and chained to a railing when he tried to help Garinger. Later, he said, the captain fed Garinger two steaks and tried to persuade him to turn on Schotanus.

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Schotanus, meanwhile, said he was left chained to the foredeck rail for up to 30 hours, with a bucket of filleting knives within reach.

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He said he believes Mounier was trying to tempt him to reach for a knife to give the captain grounds to shoot him and claim self-defense.

“My worst moment was when he was trying to set me up, and he put that bucket of fillet knives near me,” Schotanus recalled. “He was meandering around, carrying his pistol, hoping I was desperate enough after 30 hours of being abused. It was a mental battle just to keep from taking one. I had to keep control.”

Garinger and Schotanus testified that they thought they might die during the ordeal. Roumagoux, who was left in the tiny cabin, testified that she thought she’d never see them again.

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