PLANTATION KEY, December 16, 2019 – Two of three men arrested last year for lobster violations in Upper Keys waters have pleaded guilty and were given a host of penalties for their crimes.
Luis Vergel, 72, who has a history of marine-related violations in Monroe County, and Rafael Andino, 48, pleaded guilty December 10 before Monroe County Judge Sharon Hamilton to two counts of possessing undersized lobster and one count of possessing lobster during the closed season. The third man, Angel Betancourt, 48, previously pleaded no contest to the same charges. All are from Homestead.
Assistant state attorneys Jorge Jaile and Paul Vargo represented the state and had sought 100 days in the Monroe County Detention Center for all three men. Judge Hamilton declined.
Instead, she sentenced them to a year of probation, which gets converted to 40 days in jail if there are any violations; fined them $500; ordered them to pay $283 in court costs, $75 for the cost of prosecution and $50 a month in supervision fees. They are banned from Monroe County waters during their probation, must perform 24 hours of community service and must complete a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission marine-resources education course.
FWC officers Thomas Tafoya and Michael Oldsen, on water patrol a little after 8:30 p.m. July 24, 2018, near Whale Harbor Channel in Islamorada, saw a “small flash of light” coming from near mangroves. They saw near the light a small boat that had no navigational lights and put a spotlight on it to get a better look, and saw two men in the water next to the vessel. They motored toward it with emergency lights on and reached it around 30 feet from where they originally saw it.
Andino was on the boat. Betancourt and Vergel were in the water next to it. As the FWC officers approached, Betancourt dumped something out of a net he was holding; Vergel was wearing a snorkel mask. The officers had the two return to Vergel’s boat, then boarded for a resources inspection.
The men had a bucket full of mangrove snappers, and two lobster legs were strewn about the deck. The officers also found gear commonly used to harvest lobster.
Tafoya went back to where the three were originally seen and found in the water a catch bag containing 16 lobsters, two undersized. The bag was attached to Vergel’s boat with monofilament line. After officers interviewed the three, they were arrested, brought to shore and booked into the Plantation Key jail.
Unlike the other two, Vergel is no stranger to run-ins with the FWC, having had numerous Monroe County violations over the years.
In 2012, he pleaded no contest to possessing undersized sponge and was handed a 60-day jail sentence followed by six months of probation, during which he was banned from Monroe County waters; and fined $500. He pleaded guilty to similar charges in 1994.
In 2003, he pleaded no contest to using unassigned and untagged stone crab traps, having improperly marked stone crab traps and possessing a stone crab tag without a certificate. He was fined $458, placed on probation for six months and ordered to pay court costs.
That year in separate cases, Vergel was adjudicated guilty of fishing without a Saltwater Products License and was fined and ordered to pay court costs; and possessing undersized lobster. He was fined and ordered to pay court costs.
In 2002, he was adjudicated guilty of possessing undersized lobster and paid $630 in fines and court costs. In 2000, he was adjudicated guilty of stone crab-related violations of marine-fisheries regulations and paid fines and fees of $210.
In 1995, he was adjudicated guilty of not using a diver-down flag and paid $115 in fines and court costs.