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Monday, October 17 • 1:30pm - 2:05pm
Law Enforcement. Operation “Guasa Casa”

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AUTHORS: Investigator Doyle Cook, Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, Division of Law Enforcement

ABSTRACT: In early 2013, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Investigators received a tip passed along from the Collier County Sherriff’s Office (CCSO) regarding an illegal commercial fish operation which would, after two years of investigative work, result in the takedown of two egregious violators.

After the initial tip, FWC Investigators began surveillance on the suspect, David Vazquez, who worked construction during the week and operated an illegal commercial fishing operation out of his home on the weekends. Vasquez would fish on Saturdays, and sell his catch to numerous customers on Sunday. Initial surveillance on the home proved unsuccessful, but in May of 2013, an unrelated arrest yielded a break.

An individual, arrested with several others for spearfishing in a local Wildlife Management Area, happened to also be a confidential informant with the CCSO and offered valuable information on Vasquez and another violator, Jorge Escalona, a frequent fishing companion of Vazquez. The informant had fished personally with Vasquez, and knew the details of his commercial operation. He told FWC that in addition to selling legal species, Vasquez also caught protected species such as goliath grouper and sea turtles, and he knew the location of a hidden compartment on Vasquez’s boat where the illegal catch was kept. Escalona was later verified by FWC as a passenger during a stop of Vasquez, and confirmed to also be running an illegal commercial fishing operation.

With this new information, FWC stepped up surveillance and increased stops of Vasquez and his son, but were still unable to locate illegal fish on his boat. The decision was made to begin a covert operation, and an undercover FWC officer initiated contact with Vazquez in September of 2013. The undercover officer made several purchases of grouper, establishing the existence of an illegal commercial fishing operation, but after failure to uncover major violations, the decision was made to end the investigation and issue the appropriate misdemeanor citations.

However, before that happened, the undercover officer received a call from Vasquez offering snapper for sale. After our officer told him that he could find what he needed with another supplier, Vazquez’s greed got the better of him. Although he had previously indicated that he knew the stiff penalties for catching protected species like goliath grouper, he offered to sell goliath grouper to the FWC undercover officer. Subsequent purchases were made and the charges started stacking up. On one occasion, Vasquez even offered sea turtle meat to the officer, but unfortunately the officer was out of town and that purchase could not be completed.

While this investigation was underway, a concurrent investigation was being worked on Jorge Escalona. Escalona was decidedly less reticent about selling protected species to the FWC undercover officer, and a purchase of goliath grouper was made on the officer’s first visit.

After a few months of complications and bad luck, FWC still did not have a turtle purchase and some of the original charges were expiring due to the statute of limitations. In the summer of 2015, plans went into place to serve search warrants simultaneously on Escalona’s and Vazquez’s vessels and homes on a day they would both be out fishing; on July 18, 2015, this plan would go into action.

Vazquez was the first to return from offshore that day and FWC officers were ready. His phones were secured and as officers searched his vessel, they continually rang, the caller ID displaying his customers’ first names followed by “wants fish” in Spanish. Vazquez denied having any illegal fish on board, but a K-9 immediately alerted to the hidden compartment in the center console area of the vessel. Officers explained to Vazquez that the dog had found his fish and presented him with the search warrant for his boat. Officers found goliath grouper, 86 undersized red grouper, an undersized amberjack, as well as undersized yellowtail snapper.

On this same day, Escalona returned shortly after Vasquez through a different pass. Once FWC officers stopped him, they radioed to the officers waiting to serve the search warrants for the homes of Vasquez and Escalona, and gave them the go ahead. While their homes were searched on land, their vessels were searched as well. Like Vazques, Escalona denied any other fish aboard his boat. FWC investigators were able to get Escalona to show them where his hidden compartment was located. The compartment was so well made that officers may not have been able to find it without eliciting the information from Escalona himself. It was a small hatch on the floor in the bow area of the boat held in place by four corner screws under the lip of the deck. Inside the compartment, officers found the entire bow portion of the boat - from the stringers to the deck - full of illegal catch. They removed a green sea turtle, 13 goliath grouper filets, 124 red grouper (88 of which were undersized), five oversized permit, 13 barracuda, 6 undersized yellowtail snapper, 2 undersize lane snapper, an African pompano and a number of grunts.

Both David Vazquez and Jorge Escalona were arrested, their vessels, gear and fish were all seized as evidence. The search of their homes led to the discovery of undersized grouper and numerous bags of goliath grouper filets.

At the conclusion of this extensive investigation, three businesses were involved, four individuals were arrested and six individuals were charged for a total of four felonies and 346 misdemeanors. Vazquez pled guilty to six resource violations and received 10 days in jail. He was ordered to pay FWC $1,500 for the cost of the investigations, received six years of probation, lost his privilege to fish or be on state waters for two years and had to forfeit his vessel, trailer, and all of his gear. Escalona and his brother pled guilty to the felony charge of taking a sea turtle and received five years of probation, $3,500 in fines, the loss of their privilege to fish or be on state waters for three years, and they also had to forfeit their vessel, trailer, and all associated gear. This operation is a hallmark of investigative tenacity, thoroughness and the importance of timing, preparation and, in some instances, luck, to success.

Monday October 17, 2016 1:30pm - 2:05pm
Victory Room

Attendees (4)