Friday, February 04, 2011

Holy Seacow, Batman!

BY JIM WAYMER • FLORIDA TODAY • February 3, 2011

In what officials said they believe to be the first federal criminal prosecution in Florida for striking and killing a manatee with a boat, a Merritt Island man was sentenced Wednesday for killing a sea cow while zipping through a manatee slow zone.

Joseph Miata Jr., 62, who had been cited repeatedly for speeding through manatee zones, had to forfeit his $5,500, 20-foot boat to the federal government and pay a $600 donation to a wildlife conservation group.

"This is the first time that we're aware of that we ever prosecuted someone for a lethal take," said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Miata was criminally charged by the United States Attorney's Office, Orlando Division, in October for violating the Endangered Species Act. The manatee was killed as he sped through Sykes Creek last summer.

He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge.

Miata could not be reached for comment Wednesday and a call to his attorney was not returned.

U.S. Magistrate Judge David Baker sentenced Miata to one-year federal probation.

Miata faced a maximum one-year imprisonment, a fine of $100,000, and up to a year of supervised release, according to court records.

Miata must forfeit the 20-foot boat -- a 1987 Mach 1 by Freedom Boats -- he was operating when he hit the manatee.

The charges stem back to July 11, when the state's Wildlife Alert Hotline received a call at about 8:20 p.m. reporting that a boat was speeding through a manatee zone in Sykes Creek Manatee Refuge and had struck and killed a manatee.

The area is a slow-speed manatee protection zone, Underwood said.

The female manatee had been lactating, with a 10-month-old calf by her side.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers stopped a boat that evening operated by Miata that matched the description of the speeding vessel. At first, officers couldn't find the dead manatee.

The next morning, FWC received a report of a dead manatee floating among live manatees on the west shore of Kiwanis Island, near the public rest rooms and playground, according to court documents.

An officer found the carcass near where it was struck, but the orphaned calf couldn't be found.

According to witnesses, Miata was operating his boat at full plane through the slow speed zone when he struck the manatee. The boat's propeller struck the manatee's head.

Federal agents served a search warrant on Miata's Merritt Island residence on July 22, seizing his boat as evidence.

Miata had been cited May 31 by the FWC, less than two months earlier, for speeding through a manatee zone.

"That was probably about 100 yards from where he killed the manatee," said Neil Gardner, special agent for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

And prior to that, USFWS officers had stopped him on a similar speeding violation in Volusia County, Gardner said.

"He was an habitual violator and we caught up with him," Gardner said.

Contact Waymer at 321-242-3663 or

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