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Deputy and his 9-year-old son killed after boat sinks off Fla. coast


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy and his 9-year-old son have been identified as two of the three people who died when their boat sank during a Sunday fishing trip off Stuart, Fla., according to the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

The lone survivor, Robert Stewart, 45, stayed alive by clinging to the side of the black, 24-foot center console Sea Ray boat overnight. Stewart told authorities he tried to keep the 9-year-old, who was wearing a life jacket, alive.

Stewart was found walking on a beach Monday morning, and was shown in dramatic video released by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office standing in the sand and looking exhausted, waving overhead to a sheriff’s helicopter.

He was taken to Martin Medical Center and was in critical condition, said Martin County Sheriff William Snyder at a news conference Monday.

The bodies of corrections deputy Fernandas Jones, 51, his son Jayden, and Willis Bell, 70, were found Monday morning, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Officials believe the Joneses, Stewart and Bell are related.

Michele Jones, the wife of Fernandas Jones, told Sun Sentinel news partner WPEC-TV on Monday morning before the deaths were confirmed that she got home at about 8:30 p.m. to notice that some of the men’s cars were still parked in the yard.

“That’s when I got nervous because usually they’re in, they’re usually at home by 5 o’ clock,” Jones said.

State records show Jones began working in law enforcement in 1986 with the Broward Correctional Institution. He then worked at the South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center from 1988 to 1990, then the South Florida State Hospital from 1993 to 1994.

He then worked at the Miami-Dade County Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for about 16 years from 1994 to 2011 before joining the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

The group went fishing at about 8 a.m. Sunday from the Sandsprit Park. Snyder said cellphone records show one of the men onboard made a call between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Snyder said one of the men, whom Snyder did not identify, called his wife but said the wife had trouble hearing because of the windy conditions.

He said this call happened before the boat started taking on water and started to sink, sometime after 9 a.m.

The boat, with its twin white Evinrude outboard motors, had just taken anchor and the men had just begun fishing when they took on water from the back end, Snyder said. They estimate the group was at least two miles off shore in 80-foot waters.

Snyder said the survivor, Stewart, told officials the four fishermen held onto the boat and one by one became lost.

Carol Lyn Parrish, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the first to let go was Bell. Then the elder Jones went under.

Stewart tried to hang onto Jones’ son, Jayden, who was wearing a life jacket. At some point Jayden wasn’t able to hang on and let go of the boat, Stewart told officials.

The father and son were found lying near each other near the St. Lucie Inlet.

Officials said there was no distress call made from the boat, and think the boat sank fairly quickly.

Matt Volkmer, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, said weather was generally fair Sunday with partly cloudy skies but no rain, and that an alert for small craft to exercise caution was issued that day due to choppy conditions.

Waves of 4 to 5 feet near shore and up to 6 feet off shore created challenging boating conditions, he said.

Volmer said the weather service doesn’t have any formal definition for ‘small craft’ but said they’re typically recreational boats.

“They’re the types of boats you’d see in marinas,” Volkmer said.

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Randy Ryan said the water was 73 degrees.

Investigators say there doesn’t appear to be any criminal wrongdoing.

Officials from Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties helped out with the search, including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Palm Beach County and Martin County sheriff’s offices and the Port St. Lucie Police Department.

Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said Monday morning said his agency was going to do whatever it could to help Jones’ family.

“We’re going to wait and let the initial blow wear off to the family and then we’ll do what we always do as a larger extended family, make sure that they have everything that they need and we’re going to take care of them as best we can,” said Bradshaw.

Bradshaw didn’t know Jones personally, but he said that all of his 4,500 employees are hard-working and dedicated.

“People sometimes forget that we’re just human beings,” he said. “People see us in a different light sometimes because we wear this particular outfit but we have family members and we have lives just like everybody else and when a tragedy hits, it hits you hard just like every other family member that loses somebody.”

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