A couple of days ago, I recounted in this thread the sinking of the fish processing boat West 1 back in the summer of 1986, which led to the death of her captain. I mentioned at the end of the story that there were two mysteries associated with the tale. One concerned the owner’s representative who was aboard at the time of the sinking. The second mystery is this: why, did reports on the story quickly disappear from the Press?
Before going on I want get the facts straight, because I misreported one. WhileI knew the boat had originally sailed from Seattle, I said the boat was on the way from Hawaii to the Philippines when she sank. In fact she was underway from Seattle to Hawaii. Which brings up the fact that her crew was a scratch crew. Apparently many of them were unknown to each other before the boat departed Seattle. Certainly no one really knew the owner’s representative. If they had they might not have left the dock.
The name of the owner’s representative was Thomas Devins. He real name was (or is) Thomas Edward Utter. He was born in 1940, so he might be a perfectly healthy 75 year old today, living in the house next to you.
Back in the late 1960’s Thomas Devins, or Thomas Edward Utter, had taken up with a wealthy American woman named Norma Willson. In 1970 Devins was convicted in California court of murdering her in Switzerland, after swindling millions from her. Devins was given a life sentence. The conviction was famous at the time, because it was one of a very few where a conviction was made with no body. Later, chopped up pieces of Willson’s body were discovered strewn throughout the Swiss Alps. A jawbone identified them as Norma Willson.
Devins was in prison for only two years of his life sentence when his murder conviction was overturned, solely on the grounds that a California court had no jurisdiction over a murder occurring in a foreign country. However, California jurisdiction did apply to the robbery conviction, so Devins stayed in prison on the lesser charge.
Devins was nothing if not enterprising. In March 1974 he escaped from a minimum security prison in California. He fled to France, and later Australia, where in August 1974 he was arrested. He was extradited back to California to finish his robbery sentence. Amazingly, he received no extra time for the escape. He was paroled in 1976.
I’ll be learning more about all this myself when I read the book “Trail of the Fox: The True Story of a Perfect Crime”, by Lawrence Taylor. The book was published in 1980 and is still in print. Was it updated post-1986, to include the West 1 sinking? I’ll see. Anyway, here’s a blurb on the book from Mr. Taylor’s website, describing the murder/robbery:
“It is said that crime doesn’t pay. Here is the story of one that did – the extraordinary account of a successful murder, a story made all the more fascinating because it’s true, and all the more frightening because the killer is still a free man. He called himself The Fox. He was attractive, charming and very clever about the law…he was out to commit the perfect crime.
It is 1968. An aging California millionaire takes a three-day business trip to Montreal accompanied by her handsome young financial advisor. She makes a sudden detour to Europe and never returns. Her financial adviser is the last person to see her alive…”
The book was optioned to become a movie. Alas, the movie never transpired.
After leaving prison, Devins eventually ended up in Reno, where he went to work for a real estate company called Land West Productions. Still working for Land West Productions, he moved to San Francisco.
After the West 1 sinking, Land West Productions was sued by the widow of the captain and four crew members, for negligence and failure to provide adequate lifesaving equipment. As part of the deposition process these facts came out:
*A Filipino immigrant in San Francisco said he signed, in April 1986, a bogus purchase order for the West 1, to be bought in Hawaii. He did so, he said, solely at the urging of Thomas Devins.
*At the request of Thomas Devins, a Seattle marine surveyor assessed the value of West 1. He assessed her worth at $1 million. However, Devins went to the surveyor afterwards with the bogus purchase order. He used it to convince the surveyor that the boat was really worth $3 million.
*With the survey in hand saying the boat was worth $3 million, Devins went to an insurance broker and got Lloyds to insure the boat for $3 million.
The events of the sinking are in my previous post. She sank on June 21,1986.
The USCG questioned the survivors after the rescue. Devins told investigators he was on watch in the engine room and saw smoke, and that the engine room was flooding. He said there was 3’ to 4’ of water in the boat (the newspaper report says in the “hold”? Did the reporter mix up ‘engine room’ with ‘hold’?) Devins said a short circuit in the engine room cut off the boat’s electrical power. He said he smelled smoke, and claimed to have set off the fixed CO2 system. According to the newspaper report he said “My instant thought was that it was sinking right under us.” He said that the captain gave the order to abandon ship.
However, after the initial interview with the USCG, it was reported on July 28 that one of the crew (let’s call him “T”) recanted an earlier story he had told the investigators. initially “T” told investigators he had been on watch during the sinking. He then said that while in a clinic after being rescued, Devins came to him …”He came in my room and said “you just tell them you worked from 4 to midnight’ [the boat began sinking at about 0330]. “T” told the USCG “I didn’t think it was a big thing, but I later realized it and told the Coast Guard the truth.”
The person really on watch in the wheelhouse was a 20 year old woman, who I can learn nothing else about.
The FBI took over the investigation.
Lloyds initially refused to pay the $3 million in insurance. Land West Production sued Lloyds. They apparently settled for $2 million. The attorneys for the widow and four of the crew members sued Land West Productions for $1.7 million. These details came from the last newspaper account I can find about the matter, published July 5, 1988. The article mentions that a third crew member told the judge in the lawsuit that Devins flooded the engine room and “orchestrated events to get everyone off the boat” without a mayday.
And then nothing in the newspapers, that I can find. Why was there no more press coverage?
Devins account of the sinking is, of course, ludicrous. Flooding water caused a fire? Could happen. Mostly in movies. Highly improbable otherwise. There was no report of smoke as the crew evacuated. Why didn’t anyone hear the fixed CO2 system go off, which Devins said he activated? I’ve been on a 167’ boat when the fixed system went off. It’s not a subtle thing. In fact it is damned loud. Besides ex-Navy hulls hulls don’t just suddenly spring a leak. They’re tough hulls.
A survivor told me recently that one reason the story disappeared was simple: the FBI had no evidence. The evidence against Thomas Devins/Thomas Edward Utter is mostly all hearsay. Like the murder of Norma Willson, there is no body to examine. And while Norma Willson’s body was eventually found, West 1 sits in 14,000 feet of water. Send a ROV down? Never going to happen. Far too costly, and the boat is likely covered with sea life and sand.
So, more mysteries... Did the lawsuit against Land West Productions settle out of court? Did Thomas Devins get any of the insurance money? Where did he go? Unknown.
Imagine all this happening today? The internet coverage? Gcaptain forums sizzling with fact, theory, outrage and innuendo? Certainly, Thomas Devins would be tracked, scrutinized, and convicted in the court of public opinion. Fox News coverage, every night for two months? Celebrity lawyer John Henry Browne defending Thomas Devins? (He would get Devins acquitted in a heartbeat). But without the internet, the story just…died away.