A week of emotional and legal wrangling between the families of two Tequesta, FL teens missing at sea culminated today in an agreement over the handling of an iPhone that belonged to one of the boys and may hold valuable clues as to their fate. In a West Palm Beach court hearing earlier today, Judge Gregory Keyser ordered that the phone be overnighted via FedEx to Apple, Inc.’s California headquarters to undergo a full forensics investigation.
The emergency hearing was called by an attorney for Pamela Cohen, mother of 14-year-old Perry Cohen who, along with longtime friend Austin Stephanos, also 14, vanished during a July boating excursion. In March, the boys’ boat and multiple personal effects, including the phone, were recovered by the crew of a Norwegian freighter, capsized and floating in a shipping channel about 100 miles off the Bermuda coast. The phone was airmailed back to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the boat is in a shipping container en route to Port Everglades.
Upon receiving the phone, FFWCC officials returned the phone to the Stephanos family, citing the lack of a criminal investigation. At today’s hearing, Rubin asked Judge Keyser to compel Blu Stephanos, Austin’s father, to return the phone either directly to the court or to law enforcement until it could be investigated and any retrievable data analyzed, while attorneys for Stephanos asked for a dismissal.
Primary issues discussed during the hearing included the potential for accidental or even deliberate deletion or destruction of the phone’s contents and a dispute over whether the case is or has the potential to become classified as a criminal case.
At the time of the boys’ disappearance, “the FWC did consider what they were doing to be a criminal investigation,” Rubin said, noting that Perry and Austin remain listed in the Florida Crime Information Database for missing persons. “That investigation never ended. It essentially was suspended as a missing persons case until more evidence might be recovered.”
Testifying via phone, FFWCC attorney Howard Vielhauer countered that claim.
“Truly, this was never a criminal investigation,” he said. “It started out as and has remained a boating accident and missing persons report. There is nothing to suggest this was anything more than an unfortunate accident.”
Michael Pike, attorney for Blu Stephanos, echoed Vielhauer’s testimony.
“The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has not commenced an investigation and/or has closed its investigation,” Pike said. “Clearly, the FWC has closed its investigation, therefore there is no investigation.”
Throughout the dispute, Blu Stephanos has maintained that his family fully intends to preserve and forensically analyze the phone, sharing any pertinent information with Cohen’s family and law enforcement. But time is critical, Pike argued, noting that Stephanos had planned to deliver the phone to Apple today.
My client was going to be on a plane today at 10:30 a.m., flying out to LA,” Pike said. “As you well know with salt water and salt air, the longer the phone sits, the longer it continues to deteriorate.”
Rubin assured Judge Keyser that Cohen’s family has no objection to the phone being analyzed by Apple.
“We don’t object to that,” he said, arguing a need for the court to have some level of control or monitoring of the delivery of the phone and sharing of Apple’s findings. “We do have an objection to having a party simply get on a plane and trust that person to do what they say they will do.”
In the end, Judge Keyser neither granted nor denied either Cohen’s motion for injunction or Stephanos’ motion for dismissal. Instead, he ordered the FedEx delivery of the phone to Apple with both families given access to tracking information and any resulting forensics report gleaned by Apple investigators.