The Gallows and the Deep

The story of the bloody, high-seas crimes and execution of smuggler Horace Alderman is a yarn worthy of Joseph Conrad. Or Quentin Tarantino.

Had he been more inclined toward clinical description or purple prose, Jordan might have written that Sanderlin, the patrol boat's commanding officer, had left some of the contents of his chest cavity inside the pilothouse, which now looked more like a slaughterhouse; that Webster, the Secret Service agent, had a ragged hole blown through his torso; that the boat's acting cook, Hollingsworth, though intermittently conscious, was missing not only his right eye, but most of the right side of his face; that the ship's chief engineer, Lamby, was covered with blood and paralyzed from a .45 slug lodged next to his spine.

Jordan might also have noted that the man named Weech was bruised and covered with blood; and that the man named Horace Alderman showed every sign of having been stabbed half a dozen times with an ice pick, repeatedly kicked in the ribs, and beaten in the head with a pistol butt, a dinghy oar, a two-foot-long steel barnacle-scraper, and more than one fist.

The deck of the 75-foot patrol boat was smeared with blood. So was the cockpit of the 30-foot motorboat tethered behind her. The cockpit of the smaller boat also contained twenty and a half cases of contraband liquor, some of the bottles broken open to reveal the odor of cut-rate Scotch.

Instead of taking notes, Jordan made arrangements to get the dead, the half-dead, and the four comparatively uninjured members of the crew back to land and to start figuring out what had happened.

At 7 p.m., less than four hours later, Jordan convened a board of investigation at the Bahia Mar Coast Guard base.

At first things seemed to come into focus. The story that emerged was "the most dramatic sea fight in the history of the service," one Coast Guard officer later remarked -- an episode rivaling Joseph Conrad's goriest yarns.

The surviving Coast Guard witnesses gave the following account:
Horace Alderman and Robert Weech were coming back from Bimini with a load of liquor. Around 1:30 p.m. the patrol spotted their boat. From a distance of half a mile, Sidney Sanderlin shot three rounds of tracer fire from a Springfield rifle across Alderman's bow. The motorboat hove to, and CG 249 pulled alongside.

Sanderlin, the Coast Guard commander, hopped down onto Alderman's boat, pulled open a hatch, and discovered the contraband liquor. He ordered part of his crew to start loading it aboard the 249. Then he escorted Alderman to the pilothouse of the patrol vessel and radioed Fort Lauderdale for instructions.

At this point, the Coast Guardsmen said, Alderman produced a .45 automatic and shot Sanderlin in the back. Next he shot the second-in-command, Lamby, who managed to fall down the engine-room hatch and lay paralyzed for the duration of the affair.

Alderman was suddenly in control of the whole situation, because, astonishingly, none of the government crew was armed.

Next, the Coast Guardsmen claimed, Alderman ordered the liquor loaded back on his boat. Then he ordered the remaining six men to the stern of his own vessel. At this point he supposedly announced he would burn the Coast Guard boat and shoot all the men.

Virtually all the survivors said they remember Alderman making an odd comment. Johnny Robinson remembers: "He said that he was not Charlie Waite or Red Shannon nor any of his kinfolk, and that he had taken enough off the Coast Guard."

The young Coast Guardsmen claimed that Alderman then instructed his accomplice, Weech, to break open the gas lines in the engine room of the 249, fill the bilges with fuel, and set the patrol boat alight. Two problems arose: No one could find any matches, and neither Alderman nor Weech could get their own boat engine started.

As the inquest continued the next morning, the tale grew even more amazing. The Coast Guard survivors claimed that Alderman held his gun on the crew while Weech tinkered with the motor. Then when Alderman glanced down into the engine room, momentarily distracted, Secret Service agent Webster rushed him, and the five other men followed suit. In the melee, Webster was shot through the chest and killed; Hollingsworth got a bullet through the face and proceeded to fall in the water (attracting, one witness said, a school of sharks.)

The rest of the men overpowered Alderman and Weech, beat them senseless, and either tied or chained them to the deck of the Coast Guard boat.

But there were some unanswered questions. Where did Alderman get the gun he used to take control of the patrol boat? Why had the commanding officer of CG 249 decided to stop Alderman in the first place? Daytime search-and-seizures were rare, and the incident occurred far outside U.S. waters, where Coast Guard jurisdiction was a controversial matter. What was a Secret Service agent doing on the boat? Why were the Coast Guardsmen unarmed? And if Alderman's plan was simply to kill the entire crew, why hadn't he done so when he had the chance? Why had he waited?

According to the official record of the inquiry, Weech was interviewed at considerable length in jail on August 8 by a Coast Guard yeoman named William T. Coatee. The statement from Weech has mysteriously vanished from the archive file. What remains is a brief secondhand paraphrasing of his claims.

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