After stint in Honduran jail, he appreciates freedom even more

Devon Butler and crewmates arriving in Tarpon Springs, Fla., aboard the Aqua Quest, where he plans to resume work.
Devon Butler and crewmates arriving in Tarpon Springs, Fla., aboard the Aqua Quest, where he plans to resume work. (Courtesy Rosemary Carroll)
Posted: July 22, 2014

The most haunting part of Devon Butler's first night in a Honduran prison was the darkness.

Tossed into a cell the size of a backyard shed with about 20 other inmates, Butler, who grew up in Doylestown, could barely see where all of his cellmates were sleeping.

Some were in bunks bolted to the walls, others in hammocks made of sheets. Butler sat near the gated door that looked onto the central yard, talking to inmates who spoke broken English, trying to stay composed.

"Pitch black, all these faces coming out of the dark," he said.

Butler, 27, had ditched his suburban life in Bucks County five years ago for adventure at sea, opting to join a Florida crew that dove for shipwrecks and underwater treasures in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

He never envisioned ending up in a dilapidated, tin-roofed jail in a coastal Honduran town with five crewmates, charged with smuggling firearms and told a bribe could make their troubles go away.

Nor could Butler foresee the dramatic effort - including a prison yard visit from a Bucks County congressman, and case files being delivered to the Honduran president - that would finally secure their freedom after 53 days.

"I was so numb to everything," Butler recalled in an interview, conceding there were times he was not sure he'd ever get out. "That's a dangerous place. Anything goes there."

Life at sea

Butler moved to Doylestown in elementary school and grew up there with his mother and older brother.

His was a normal childhood, said his mother, Rosemary Carroll. He played goalie on a local ice hockey team. She still has pictures of him suited up in bulky pads.

In 2008, two years after graduating from Central Bucks High School East, Butler was charged with driving under the influence and fled to Florida to avoid the consequences.

He acknowledges that doing so was wrong, calling the incident and his response "stupid mistakes." He has since made restitution and resolved his cases.

At the time, Butler said, running just felt like the easiest way out.

For about six months in Florida, he pieced together work in landscaping, construction, and other odd jobs.

Then he met James Kelly Garrett, nicknamed "Boo Boo," who worked on the Aqua Quest International, whose crew roamed the seas and dove to recover metals, ores and other materials from sunken ships.

Butler knew nothing about boating, but he latched onto the Aqua Quest as a cook and quickly fell in love with life at sea.

Over the next five years, his responsibilities expanded. He became a deckhand and diver, and worked on projects in the Bahamas, near Louisiana, and off the coast of Florida. He had found his niche.

"Morning coffee is watching the sunrise over the ocean," Butler said this month. "It's not a bad gig."

In May, the Aqua Quest crew embarked on a new project, one Butler said he could not wait to start. It was heading to Honduras to help villagers in the rural town of Ahuas remove mahogany logs from the base of a river.

The crew never got the chance.

Not willing to pay

While the men were docked in the coastal town of Puerto Lempira on their first night, local police barged onto the ship - the crew members say they do not know why - and searched it. After finding guns in a locker, the authorities accused the crew of carrying the weapons illegally.

The ship's captain, Bob Mayne, said he tried to explain that the guns were for protection at sea - as international law allows - and that the port captain could hold them as the men traveled inland. The Honduran port captain agreed, but local police did not.

After a few days in custody, Mayne, Butler, Garrett and the rest of the crew were thrown into jail, charged with smuggling the guns. Each official in the justice system indicated their troubles could disappear with a bribe of a few thousand dollars, according to Mayne.

Mayne was unwilling to pay.

"I was warned: you might pay them money, and they might say, 'What money?' " he recalled in an interview. "There was no integrity."

Their first night in jail, the Aqua Quest crew members were separated into the overcrowded cells.

After that night, the crew agreed to pay about $20 per day to rent a cell together. Prison officials would bend the rules on occasion, particularly if they were paid to do so, Mayne said.

Their cellmate was a man serving time for murder whom Butler nicknamed "the caveman," given his tendencies to bellow in Spanish, gesticulate wildly, and spit all over the walls.

"He drove us crazy," Butler said.

The caveman was just one maddening aspect of the facility. Boredom, for Butler, was the most insufferable part.

"There literally is nothing to do," he said.

The food was so bad they paid the warden to have rice and beans brought in from a restaurant each day, and they showered and relieved themselves using buckets.

"There's definitely a black cloud hanging over that place," Butler said.

Journey home

Carroll learned of her son's fate about a week after his arrest and was determined to bring him home.

A corporate meeting planner, Carroll talked with a colleague who worked in international security about whom to contact. U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) was on the list, and his office went into high gear after getting Carroll's call.

He met with the Honduran ambassador and contacted the U.S. embassy in Honduras. One of his staffers delivered case files to an aide of the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, when Hernandez was in Washington for a meeting.

In June, Fitzpatrick ramped up the diplomatic effort. He boarded a plane, flew to Honduras, and, after visiting the U.S. embassy, went to the prison. He walked the hot, dusty yard with the Aqua Quest detainees, and promised the men he would get them home soon - or return with more members of Congress. He even brought them a satellite phone, giving them a line to use the second they got past the gates.

"We were ready to do whatever it took to reunite Rosemary with her son and help the other crew members," Fitzpatrick said in an interview.

Butler had heard Fitzpatrick might show up, but didn't believe it until he was escorted in by guards.

"He told people, 'I'm not going away,'" Butler said. "He was a big morale booster."

It is unclear what effect Fitzpatrick's lobbying had. But a few days after his visit, the men were set to be released. An appellate court had ruled that there was "no reason for imprisonment," said their Honduran attorney, Armida Lopez de Arguello.

They were freed June 26. Even then, they were worried about their safety.

Rumors flew that their release had angered some local officials. The men thought they could be targeted for retribution.

After a tense night docked aboard the Aqua Quest, the men started their journey home the next day. They made it back without incident.

About 60 miles from Florida, they dumped the guns into the ocean - ridding themselves of what felt like a bad omen.

As their blue-and-white ship pulled into Tarpon Springs, Fla., on July 2, Butler spotted his mother, who had flown down to surprise him. Butler jumped off the ship as it inched toward the dock and smothered her in a hug.

"It was a moment I'll never forget," Carroll recalled through tears last week.

Butler's life quickly returned to normal when he got back to the United States. He visited his brother in Florida, then friends in California. In August, he will return to Pennsylvania for a family reunion. He plans to keep working on the Aqua Quest and take part in other projects.

He would not want to repeat the Honduran experience, he said. His mother doesn't ever want him going back to that country, regardless of whether the crew plans to follow through on the original plan.

For now, Butler is enjoying his time away from work - with perspective gained from his ordeal behind bars.

"Just be happy to be free," he said. "If you can live your life like that, then you win."


cpalmer@phillynews.com

609-217-8305

@cs_palmer

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