Unending mourning, ongoing legal battles and bittersweet celebration mark the third anniversary this week of the disappearance of two Florida teenagers into the Atlantic waters off Jupiter Inlet. On the morning of July 24, 2015, longtime friends Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen boarded Austin’s 19-foot 1978 SeaCraft and set out for a fishing excursion, but never returned.
“It’s so hard to put into words,” Austin’s father, Blu Stephanos, told PEOPLE. “Losing a child is the most unnatural thing that can happen and we’re doing the best we can. There is no healing process.”
Perry’s mother, Pamela Cohen, shares a similar sentiment.
“For three years, I’ve put my head on the pillow each night, thinking of him and praying that this wasn’t real,” said Pamela. “I used to dream about what he would be like as a man. I was robbed of that.”
On Tuesday, the anniversary of the boys’ disappearance, family and friends of Perry held a small candlelight vigil at a private beach on the north side of 400-foot-wide Jupiter Inlet, near the spot where he and Austin were last seen motoring into the waters.
“Our family and close circle of friends gathered, lit candles, hugged each other and prayed for both boys,” Pamela said.
By all reasonable accounts, the sea stole from both families that day. Just two hours after a final text from Austin to Blu and his mother, Carly Black — “What’s up? I am checking in. I’m just out here fishing,” it read — a fierce storm ripped through the area. By nightfall, a massive air, sea and land search by multiple law enforcement, search and rescue agencies, as well as hundreds of volunteers, garnered worldwide attention, but ultimately would turn up no trace of the boys.
An investigative report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released last year cites analysis by Gainesville’s Six Maritime concluding that Perry and Austin most likely remained together until they died off the coast of northern Georgia.
In the three years since their sons vanished, the boys’ families have sought answers as to exactly what led up to the boys’ disappearance and whether the tragedy could have been avoided. Sadly, the quest for answers also has forged a rift between them.
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Central to the ongoing legal battle is cell phone communication between Austin and his family and friends in the days just before and during the boys’ fishing trip. The most recent revised complaint in a case filed by Pamela last July requests that text and other data from both Austin’s and Blu’s cell phones be shared.
Pamela and her attorneys assert that data may prove that Austin’s parents were aware the boys planned to fish for dolphin offshore and allowed it despite knowing that Perry was forbidden to travel offshore without an adult. Blu counters that he knew nothing of the boys’ plans that day and had never seen the boat, which Black had purchased for Austin just two months before.
“We don’t believe that, from a legal perspective, there is any case against Mr. Stephanos,” argues attorney Michael Pike, who, along with Dan Santaniello and Chris Moore, represents Blu. “This is a monumental tragedy. However, the law is designed to look past that and get the heart of liability. There’s a saying in the legal world that Lady Justice is blind and part of that is the ability for judges and juries to see past the emotional aspect of a case and determine whether or not there is actual liability. There is no liability that should or will attach to Mr. Stephanos and we believe that he was added wrongfully to the lawsuit as a defendant.”
When reached by PEOPLE, Black declined to comment.
“She’s saddened and she has periods of emotional anguish over the loss of the kids, like any mother would,” Black’s attorney, George Harris, said.
In any case, “We are not going to leave any avenue unchecked,” Cohen’s attorney Guy Rubin told PEOPLE. “That is Pamela’s right as the mother who entrusted her child to other parents and he never came home. That’s a very difficult position for anyone in this world to be in, to not only lose a child to but have questions go unanswered and to never have closure.”
Austin’s iPhone, recovered with the capsized boat found floating 100 miles off the Bermuda coast eight months after the boys’ disappearance, remains with Apple, Inc., where it was sent for forensic examination. Unfortunately, technicians were unable to power up or recover any data from the phone.
Today, Austin and Perry, both 14 when they vanished, would be 17, undoubtedly looking forward to their senior years in high school and all that this coming-of-age time typically entails — prom, graduation and plans for college and careers. Instead, their families manage to find some solace in running foundations they’ve each established in their sons’ names.
The Perry J. Cohen Foundation has served more than 1,000 underprivileged children via boating safety courses, sailing school and an environmental studies summer camp. Last year, the organization broke ground on the Perry J. Cohen Wetlands Laboratory at Jupiter High School, slated to open in May 2019 — the same time Perry would have graduated. And an endowment in Perry’s name will fund scholarships for students of the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
“Our lives now are about fulfilling Perry’s legacy,” Pamela said. “While he’s physically vanished, it’s impossible to let his spirit and who he was disappear.”
The AustinBlu Foundation also promotes boating safety and related legislation. The organization was key in securing passage of Florida’s Beacon Bill, which offers boater registration discounts for boats equipped with an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB), or whose owner has a personal locator beacon (PLB). Mikele D’Arcangelo, vice president of global marketing for ACR Electronics, says the legislation has driven sales of EPIRBs and PLBs by some 15 percent.
“Ever since that unfortunate day three years ago, when we go to trade shows, three of every five people we talk to bring up the boys to this day,” D’Arcangelo tells PEOPLE. Several have been survivors of boating mishaps who credit Austin and Perry’s loss with prompting them to better prepare. “We get to call Blu and Carly and say, ‘Thanks to all that hard work you’ve done, here’s a family that doesn’t have to go through what you did,'” adds D’Arcangelo.
“It’s bittersweet,” Blu admits. “But I know this is what Austin would want.”
Despite the families’ differences, “Two beautiful souls were lost that day,” Pamela says. “We never forget that.”