A Miami-Dade man who drove a power boat at high speed into a rocky area off the coast of Bimini pleaded guilty Wednesday to involuntary manslaughter charges in the deaths of two passengers over a Fourth of July holiday weekend three years ago.
Josbel Fernandez Echevarria, 37, admitted that he killed, “without malice,” passengers Javier Perez, 29, and Carolyn Alvarez, 26, both of the Miami area, “by failing to maintain a proper lookout and failing to proceed at a safe speed,” according to his guilty plea to a two-count indictment.
After the boat crash on the night of July 2, 2020, Perez was found on the jagged rock, but his girlfriend, Alvarez, disappeared into the dark water off Bimini in the Bahamas.
Fernandez, who is from South Miami-Dade, faces up to eight years in prison on each involuntary manslaughter count at his Jan. 12, 2024 sentencing before U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams. But he is expected to receive less than the maximum for accepting responsibility for his crime just over one year after being charged in Miami federal court.
Members of the Perez and Alvarez families said after Wednesday’s plea hearing that they were relieved with the outcome of the criminal case — one they feared would not be pursued because the boat crash occurred in the Bahamas.
Javier Perez’s father, Juan, who was joined by his wife, Gloria, and their three sons, John, Jorge and Luis, accused the boat driver of negligence, saying he was more concerned about his own welfare than the two crash victims.
“Josbel Fernandez displayed a complete lack of humanity and compassion following the accident,” Juan Perez told the Miami Herald. “Not only did he fail to provide any assistance to our son and Carolyn, but he also abandoned them at the scene of the tragedy and neglected his duty to seek help promptly.
“Instead, he called a friend for assistance before even reporting the accident.”
Carolyn Alvarez’s mother, Liz, said the families “finally have the justice we needed. ... We were finally able to find the truth, and he pleaded guilty.”
Fernandez was operating the pleasure boat, a 32-foot Everglades, at 43.4 miles per hour when it crashed into the well-charted rock formation known as North Turtle Rock that July night, according to the factual statement signed by prosecutors Thomas Watts-FitzGerald and Yara Dodin, along with Fernandez and his attorney, Orlando do Campo.
Do Campo disagreed with the family’s perspective on the accident, saying that Fernandez and his girlfriend, now his wife, suffered serious injuries and were both knocked unconscious as a result of the impact.
“It is incontrovertible that my client issued two Maydays as soon as he became conscious after the accident,” do Campo told the Herald in a statement. “It’s the first thing he did. It is established by the GPS data and by the statement of a Bahamian boat captain who heard the Mayday. Only about 30 minutes later, after no response from the Bahamian authorities, did my client call an acquaintance who happened to be in Bimini with his own vessel.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office was able to establish jurisdiction of the case because Fernandez’s boat is owned by a U.S. citizen. Although born in Cuba, Fernandez is a naturalized U.S. citizen. The vessel is also registered in the United States. The boating incident occurred within “the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States,” according to the indictment.
Here’s how the boating accident happened: On the first day of a long-awaited vacation in Bimini more than three years ago, Perez and Alvarez went straight to the hotel pool and beach. They soon struck up a conversation with another young couple from Miami, according to a Herald story that included interviews with the victims’ family members.
The pair, Fernandez and Violeta Khouri, invited them for an evening trip on Fernandez’s Everglades boat. But by sunrise the next day, Perez would be found dead and Alvarez would be lost at sea.
More than one month after the boat wreck, exactly what happened remained an agonizing mystery for the Perez and Alvarez families. After they visited Bimini to make inquiries and examine the wrecked boat, they put the blame squarely on Fernandez, who they believed may have been drunk at the time and then delayed calling authorities for a critical period after their loved ones had been flung overboard.
An acquaintance on Bimini named Stanley Stuart said he told the family and police investigators that Fernandez summoned him and another man to the damaged boat before authorities arrived. He said the boat, despite a jagged hole in the bow, somehow came off the rocks and had managed to travel a few miles from the wreck site.
Stuart, in an interview with the Herald, said that he also told Bahamian police that Fernandez was slurring his words and “acting aggressive.”
“He was drunk,” Stuart said. “He was wasted.”
Fernandez’s attorney, do Campo, disputed that account.
“Stanley Stuart gave the Bahamian police a statement right after the accident where he did not mention that my client was intoxicated,” do Campo said.
“My client was not intoxicated,” do Campo said. “He had his last drink at 4 p.m. and the accident occurred at 10:29 p.m. He passed two polygraphs with flying colors maintaining that his last drink came some 6.5 hours before the accident.”
“My client was going too fast for the conditions, and that’s why he pled guilty,” he added. “The factual proffer makes no mention of any impairment.”
An initial police report from the Bahamian Royal Police obtained by the Herald “collected an assortment of alcoholic beverages for evidential purposes” from the salvaged boat. Fernandez was not charged with any crime in the Bahamas, and the initial police report did not provide any details about his behavior or whether any sobriety tests were conducted after the boat crash.
Liz Alvarez, Carolyn’s mother, said she believed Fernandez delayed summoning official rescue help.
“If you don’t have anything to hide, you call authorities for help, not your friends,” Liz said at the time. “Obviously, he was drinking and he didn’t want to get into trouble.”
Said Jorge Perez, Javier’s brother: “The fact that they didn’t render aid at the moment of the accident — that was precious time lost.”