Alison Gracey and her partner Christopher Jones, the British dive professionals who went on the run 11 years ago after a guest had died on their fault-ridden dive-boat in Florida, have finally been brought to justice.
Last April, Divernet reported that the couple had been arrested by police in Spain and were awaiting extradition.
The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida described Gracey, 54, and Jones, 57, as “owners of a now-defunct Key Largo, Florida dive shop who maintained their vessel in such shoddy condition that it capsized and sank, killing one person”. They had pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter at a federal court.
Their business, the Key Largo Scuba Shack, ran charter scuba-diving trips in the Florida Keys for some 18 months from June 2010, mainly using their 8m dive-boat Get Wet. On 18 December, 2011, it took out six passengers and two crew, but during the first dive at Molasses Reef the sea conditions changed from calm to choppy and the bilge pump failed.
As the divers reboarded after their dive, the aptly named vessel began taking on water, rolled heavily, capsized and sank rapidly to the 9m-deep seabed.
In the process a poorly secured 136kg bench became detached from the deck and sprang back towards the surface under its own buoyancy. It collided with the boat, pinning the legs of 36-year-old diver Aimee Rhoads against the windscreen and trapping her, causing her to drown.
US Coast Guard experts inspecting the salvaged dive-boat found serious deficiencies. None of the bilge compartments was watertight, and the aftmost was covered by a deck-plate with holes for 30 bolts, but eight of these were loose and 22 missing altogether.
Timber at the bottom of the bench was rotten, and the screws intended to secure it to the deck were too small. Below the deck, holes had allowed water to flow between the bilge compartments, compromising every bulkhead. A bilge pump that had been taken apart had been re-assembled incorrectly.
A criminal investigation at the time had established that the Coast Guard and, repeatedly, employees had warned Gracey and Jones that repairs were required, but they had continued to operate Get Wet. The crew had reported frequent flooding, with deck-plates “barely attached” and an engine bench cover rocking back and forth.
Get Wet had broken down repeatedly and equipment including pumps had failed before the incident, with the boat almost sinking on one trip on which Gracey was acting as divemaster. In the two months before the sinking, a marine salvor had been required to tow the boat ashore three times.
At the time of the incident Gracey and Jones had been away in the Bahamas, opening a Scuba Shack in Bimini. They fled and spent more than 10 years dodging extradition.
In 2021, on arriving in Spain from France, they were arrested in Madrid on an Interpol Red Notice. This came only four days after the pair had been featured on Fox TV’s America’s Most Wanted, and they were extradited to the USA this January.
Sentencing is now set for 18 August, with both defendants facing up to eight years in federal prison.