Why did Jericho Wolf Labonte run a 44-foot pleasure cruiser across the Columbia River Bar and out onto the Pacific in the face of pretty stiff southerlies on Friday?
Who’s to say, but a longtime local fishing guide who spent time on some of these same waters with Labonte just days before his dramatic rescue at sea has an inkling.
“I really think he really wanted to go to the edge of the flat earth and get a mermaid,” says Jeff Keightley.
Keightley is the charter operator who on Wednesday, February 1, took Labonte on a guided trip that yielded the 2-plus-foot-long lingcod that Labonte laid on the porch of the famed Goonies movie house in Astoria, walked off and then tried to reclaim the fish, two days before he hijacked the P/C Sandpiper in Astoria’s West Mooring Basin, somehow navigated it out of the marina during strong winds and across one of the most dangerous river bars in the world before running into heavy seas that led to a mayday call, a rolled boat, an amazing and courageous US Coast Guard rescue, and a brief hospital stay and big police manhunt for Labonte – wanted on warrants out of British Columbia – before he was arrested at a nearby warming center where he’d been staying under another name.
Which is all to say that Keightley now has something new to tell customers when they invariably want to know about his weirdest guiding experiences.
IT STARTED OUT JANUARY 31 WITH SOME unusual texts between the two as they set up the trip, Keightley recalls, with Labonte asking three or four times if the guide had a scarf he could wear. Odd, but Labonte also wanted to know if Keightley had one of those gold-cord captain’s hats, the kind million-dollar skippers might sail askew on their noggins.
“In the first few minutes it was the weirdest customer I’ve had in 14 years,” says Keightley.
He says he and girlfriend Julie, who is a registered deckhand, have a lot of gear for outfitting their customers to fish or crab at the Columbia mouth, including rain coats for everyone from kids to bigger folks, but they do not have any of those fancy hats.
Then late that same night Labonte texted Keightley about what time they were meeting the next morning, somewhat surprising to the guide because he’d already established it several times to be at the dock at 7:30.
“‘Oh, man, I’m not a morning person,'” Labonte said, according to Keightley, who was worried about hitting the next day’s narrow high tide window to fish the Columbia’s South Jetty.
But that led to another snag – how Labonte was going to get to the dock. By bus, Keightley says Labonte told him.
“I said, ‘Bus? What do you mean?’ ‘The Astoria bus to Warrenton and then walk to Hammond,”” was the response, says Keightley.
In the end, Keightley says he and Julie picked Labonte up at a local library. His initial impression was that his client for the day was a “hippie kid … harmless. But early alarms went off.”
For starters, Labonte had booked two seats for himself on the boat and paid with a credit card.
Keightly says he’s 75 percent sure he’s going to get a call from the credit card company, as another person’s name was on the card, someone with whom Labonte apparently raised a little “havoc,” if Keightley’s subsequent internet sleuthing is any indication.
Labonte, 35, is originally from British Columbia but has been wanted on a province-wide arrest warrant related to “criminal harassment, mischief and fail to comply x 3,” according to a January 19 tweet from police in Victoria.
As they got ready to head out on Wednesday, Keightley says a buddy saw them and warned him he thought there was something off about Labonte and that he might actually be a cop.
“There was something off about him,” says Keightley, “but he wasn’t a cop.”
KEIGHTLEY, JULIE AND LABONTE HEADED out, but found that the wind and currents along the South Jetty were at odds, making the fishing difficult.
Meanwhile, Labonte noticed a bunch of larger boats well off the mouth of the Columbia and inquired about them. It was pick day for the commercial crab fleet and seas were relatively flat.
Labonte wanted to know how far out the boats pulling up crab pots were, says Keightley, who figured they were from 2 to 5 miles offshore. And that brought the conversation back to Labonte wanting to go way out in Keightley’s custom near-30-foot-long guide sled built to handle rougher conditions, but maybe not those so far out.
“I don’t know how many times the 3,000 feet of water thing came up,” Keightley says.
It’s apparently at that depth – somewhere out on the briny blue where it drops off the edge of the world – that the mermaids Labonte sought swim.
“‘Have you ever seen a rogue wave?'” Labonte also asked as they jigged, according to Keightley. “‘How about a 50-foot wave, and if so, what would you do?'”
The question makes Keightley now wonder if Labonte wasn’t already “scoping out how to get out there.”
Somewhat frustrated by the slow fishing that day – bottomfish trips are all but automatic; “It usually takes two minutes” to hook up, says the guide – Keightley eventually put Labonte into a fish, a 27- to 28-inch lingcod.
That led to the next oddity.
“‘I don’t have the strength for that,'” Labonte said of the battle to bring up the toothsome fish, according to Keightley. “He was barely capable of taking the rod out of the rodholder.”
Eventually the ling was brought aboard and, given the poor action and rough inshore conditions that had Labonte throwing up but happy with his one fish, according to Keightley, they called it a day.
So what was Labonte’s reason for being out there in the first place? It was to memorialize an experience with his mother, who had passed away, Keightley says he was told.
Keightley says he usually cuts up his clients’ fish and packs it for them at his house, but back at the dock Labonte said a buddy was meeting him at the Astoria Safeway.
“That’s straight downhill from the Goonies house,” Keightley notes.
The house’s surveillance video shows Labonte walking up the driveway carrying a black plastic bag, flopping the lingcod onto the porch, taking out his phone, flipping off the surveillance camera, then apparently filming a video as he walks off.
“It was a very nice lingcod, 27, 28 inches,” Keightley notes. “It’s a shame it died to get laid at the Goonies house.”
In a video Labonte posted, he states one of Sloth’s famous lines from the movie, “Hey, you guys,” and mentions the “truffle shuffle,” that belly-shaking wiggle, that Chunk had to do before Mouth lets him in the house. It was also apparently Labonte’s second trip to the house because the ling is already on the porch as he walked up. After looking at the fish and calling it “the best $500 I’ve ever spent,” his camera pans to the left and – perhaps noticed by someone inside – he adds, “Thank you, British Columbia.”
In his next post, Labonte wrote, “Still want to catch a mermaid.” (In a January 25 post image showing the Coast Guard cutter at Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum, the fugitive on the run offers a contradictory, “Next stop. Fiji!”)
Keightley says that in the end he’s kinda glad he didn’t cut up Labonte’s fish at his house. Not that he felt for his or Julie’s safety, but there were rumors he heard later that Labonte had threatened people in Seaside. And poking around online, he saw suggestions – who knows how true – that Labonte had hijacked a train to cross into the U.S.
“It was a relief to hear he was in custody, more for the other people,” he says.
IT WASN’T THE LAST KEIGHTLEY WOULD hear of Labonte. Perhaps because he was unable to reclaim the lingcod at the Goonies house, Labonte started texting Keightley trying to convince him to go back out on the water.
“‘I’ll take the cod, but what I really wanted was a salmon,'” Labonte said, according to Keightley.
While the ocean is currently closed for salmon, technically the estuary of the Columbia is open for hatchery Chinook, though if state catch data is any indication, at this time of year biters are as rare as unicorns.
Labonte said Keightley owed him for more than one fish and he wanted to try his luck crabbing, but Keightley told him he doesn’t run Dungeness trips after the commercials put their gear in. Labonte said all he wanted was two or three for crab Rangoon, which he was going to prepare in honor of his mother. Keightley says he suggested Labonte search Google or call on other nearby bays.
In making a “final request” to go crabbing in a voice to text message, Keightley says Labonte inexplicably brought up the National Reconnaissance Office and NSA headquarters and burning them to the ground to hold them accountable for something.
“I had signs he was peculiar. I’ve never had an experience like this,” says Keightley. “Listen, there’s no sense to be made. There’s nothing sensible about this at all.”
The only sensible thing is now the guide has a new weirdest-ever story to tell clients, topping his old one about a drunken sturgeon angler who jumped overboard during a derby, he toldThe New York Times.
THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE END OF IT, BUT very early Friday morning Labonte commandeered the Sandpiper of Dr. David and Cindy Leibel and somehow in the strong south winds that day he piloted the big cruiser out of the West Mooring Basin at about 5:15 a.m., per a security tape, and onto the Columbia and headed to sea, something even a waterman like Keightley wouldn’t want to try with such a big boat in those conditions.
But perhaps Labonte had bigger things to try and catch.
“Listen, he was thinking he’d get a mermaid at the edge of the flat earth,” Keightley says.
He figures the Sandpiper was probably already beat up from navigating out of the marina, and he says a commercial crabber steaming in to port tried to hail the craft as it headed out but was ignored.
“The boat looked in rough shape going out,” Keightley says he’s heard.
Somewhere a couple miles off of the Columbia, Labonte ran into trouble and sent a vague mayday message. Fortunately for him Coast Guard crews from the nearby station in Ilwaco happened to be training in the area. Triangulating to the signal, cutters and a helicopter converged.
Surfman 545 BMC Eric Ceallaigh, Instructor at the Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School: “We had a surf class in session (graduation day) and we were doing surf MOB (man overboard) pickups when an uncorrelated mayday went out, got some amplifying info and realized it was just south of the bar. As we got to the bar it was 18-20’ and 25’ breaks throughout the whole entrance and beaches. The helo couldn’t find the boat and the other surfman on my boat saw it in the white water of a break. We got on scene and our backup boat passed a lifejacket and a radio to the mariner in distress and they started dressing out a boat swimmer to pull him off while I ran upswell and knocked down the breaks and swell energy to ease their ride a bit. Captain of the port closed the Columbia river bar once we got across and we had a 7kt ebb hitting which was supposed to pick up the bar even more. The helo was also in the middle of a Advanced Helo Rescue Swimmer course and they decided to deploy a student into the water…shortly later the boat took a 20’ break and launched the man in distress into the water as the boat rolled multiple times. The rescue swimmer killed it. I lost an engine on the way back and we did the bar crossing on the ebb with the engine casualty. Pretty wild! Definitely one of those cases to remind you how badass this job is and an awesome experience for the graduating surf students and AHRS students to see! Winds were at 45-50kts!”.
–U.S. Coast Guard National Motor Lifeboat School, as posted on facebook.com/NMLBS
A series of Coast Guard videos capture the big seas, the Sandpiper abeam to the waves, USCG student swimmer Petty Officer 1st Class Branch Walton, with his snorkel and flippers, making for the boat, Labonte putting on a lifejacket and getting onto the swimstep, and Walton diving as a foaming 20-foot wave approaches, hits the boat and rolls it completely over, launching Labonte and putting him into a merciless spin cycle.
“I kind of got thrown around a little bit by the wave,” Walton told news media. “When I came up I noticed the boat was pretty much in shambles.”
Labonte nearly lost his lifejacket, it was reported, but he was soon plucked from the sea, suffering only mild hypothermia. A photo shows him being carried off the chopper by the air crew.
Keightley says he and Julie zoomed in on the image. “Same shoes, same pants, same jacket, same dude,” he says.
He says he called the Coast Guard to say he’d taken Labonte fishing just a few days before and there was a strong chance that the Sandpiper had been stolen.
“I wanted to let the Coast Guard know this wasn’t an accident, this was thought out and planned,” says Keightley.
In the end Labonte walked out of the hospital and made it 17 miles to a warming shelter in Seaside before being arrested for “theft in the first degree, endangering another person, criminal mischief in the second degree and unauthorized use of a vehicle,” per the Daily Astorian. He’s now in the custody of ICE. Hopefully he gets some help back in Canada; this screams of a mental health issue.
Keightley has immense praise for not only Walton – who graduated the course that day – but all Coast Guard rescue swimmers. He says when they walk into bars in Astoria, the mood changes noticeably.
“They are brimming with piss and vinegar, as self-confident as can be,” he says.
Keightley labels Walton “a stud” and Labonte “lucky.”
It’s highly unlikely Walton was the mermaid Labonte was looking for out there on the waters of the continental shelf as they slope toward 3,000 feet and deeper, but in the end ….
“It is a shockingly, horrifyingly interesting story,” says Keightley.
Update: The length of the P/C Sandpiper was widely initially reported as 35 feet, but a piece that washed ashore nearby and is believed to have come from the boat describes it as an Alexander Marine Co. 440 Sundeck manufactured in fall 1994; the 440 refers to a deck length of 44 feet. The US Coast Guard video of the boat wallowing in the waves shows it to be very similar to this 1994 Ocean Alexander 440 Sundeck named Nereus, listed as 44 feet long, for sale for $189,000 at Emerald City Yachts in Seattle.