Longform

The Gallows and the Deep

Page 4 of 7

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.

According to Coatee, Weech said he and Alderman had been thoroughly searched for weapons. Then Weech offered an odd explanation of how Alderman got a pistol in his hand: As Alderman followed Sanderlin aboard the Coast Guard cruiser, he darted back into the cabin of the motorboat, groped around in the engine compartment, and found his own .45 automatic -- all without seven other spectators, or Sanderlin himself, noticing.

In contrast, surviving crew members Frank Lehman, Robinson, and Hal Caudle made no mention of their commanding officer having searched the smugglers -- and, remarkably, neither Jordan nor other members of the board of inquiry ever asked them about it.

Injured crew members Lamby and Hollingsworth were interviewed in the hospital, where they signed brief written statements. (Hollingsworth made a dramatic recovery; Lamby died of complications from surgery on August 11, four days later). Neither man's statement mentions a search.

Only Frank Tuten claimed that his commander, Sanderlin, had conducted a "hurried" frisking. But Tuten made no mention of Alderman returning to the motorboat to retrieve a gun. Decades later, in a 1968 letter to the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, one of Tuten's fellow Coast Guardsmen called him totally untrustworthy. "I can see how distortions of this kind can happen when Frank Tuten, who was there, gave such an inaccurate account of what actually happened," wrote Lehman. In another piece of writing, in 1976, Lehman described himself and his fellow crew members as utterly untrained teenage adventurists, adding: "It is evident that we were lax in handling this situation, or it would not have happened at all."

And yet, despite the murkiness surrounding the search and seizure, the commander of Base 6 concluded that "the prisoners were searched, and after the search Alderman possessed himself of a gun [that] he had hidden in the engine room of the rum boat." His official opinion: Alderman was guilty of murder and piracy on the high seas.

By his own admission, Jordan allowed the Coast Guard inquest to proceed in a manner that today might have gotten him court-martialed.

Instead of separating and sequestering the witnesses, he permitted them to stand on a porch outside the hearing room, smoking cigarettes and comparing notes. He also allowed servicemen from Base 6 who had no direct involvement in the incident to watch the inquest as spectators. "The board determined upon its procedure and decided to sit with open doors," Jordan noted.

Jordan's board of inquiry made an inventory of physical evidence in the case, right down to Sanderlin's cuff links and talcum powder, and a conch shell owned by Hollingsworth. But the most important piece of physical evidence -- Alderman's boat, with the contraband whiskey aboard -- never made it back to land. Jordan professed ignorance of what had happened to it. Others testified later that the boat caught fire and sank while being towed back to Fort Lauderdale.

Subsequent court testimony also revealed that patrol boat 249 was not exactly on routine patrol the morning of August 7. The crew was acting as transport for Secret Service agent Webster, who was on his way to Bimini to investigate the circulation of counterfeit $50 notes among booze smugglers.

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Sean Rowe