Sinking, Survival, Scam: The Mystery of West 1


#1

Here’s a final sea story for the Summer.
30 years ago a 167’ fishing boat named West 1 sank on her way from Honolulu to the Philippines. Her crew of seven were cast into the sea without warning, at night. The castaways, in liferafts, survived for weeks. One died. Another set out in a skiff, with improvised sails, navigating by sextant, alone. So far, the story promises to be an exciting, if sad, tale of survival at sea. But there is much more to the story.
I first heard it as a young mate. One of the heroes of the story went on to be a distinguished captain in the maritime industry. Recent contact with him caused me to recall the story. I understand he is reticent about discussing the incident, which I respect. I sincerely hope he is not too offended if I resurrect it.
Here are the details, condensed from a newspaper account written 30 years ago by the journalist Richard E. Meyer. Unfortunately I butchered his article by abridging it. I’ve also left out names. Do a bit of Googling and you can read the whole thing. Much better. But here goes:

“West 1 listed to starboard. Her stern sank, and she settled. Then she sank some more, and her bow rose straight up. From the life raft, she looked like a buoy against the sky.The First Mate heard her port engine rumble and die. The sea rushed in through the stern, and it forced air up and out through the foredeck vents. From 40 feet away, the rush sounded like a roar.
 For two harrowing weeks the crew tossed in life rafts and drifted across 230 miles of the Pacific north of Hawaii. They were rescued by a research ship 350 miles northeast of Honolulu. But not before the First Mate had struck out on his own. One day after the sinking, he had climbed into the aluminum skiff and gone to find help. Instead, he disappeared…
 The First Mate, an experienced seaman, first stepped aboard the West 1 in Seattle. She was a 167-foot commercial fish processing boat headed for the Philippines…He met Capt. Calderon…and the rest of the crew: Tom Devins, the [owners] representative; the second mate; the ship's engineer; and three other crew members.
  The hand of fate stayed steady until the ship was three days out of Honolulu--575 miles to the northeast. It was June 21. At 4:40 a.m., a voice cried out: "Get up, we're sinking. Everybody get up! We're sinking!”
The First Mate climbed out of bed, tried to turn on the lights, discovered there was no electricity The boat was listing. Devins told him not to enter the engine room because it was taking on water… But what had happened nobody seemed to know.
The First Mate ran to the bridge. Calderon was sitting in the captain's chair. He seemed to be in shock. Jacobsen told him the vessel was sinking. "Stop the ship," he said. "Put the engines in neutral." The captain did.…Launching rafts from a moving vessel could cause them to fill with water or tangle their lines in the screws….
  The First Mate and Devins lifted [an aluminum skiff] onto the rail at the bow of the ship. Then they tied the two rafts, afloat and already holding some of the crew, to the skiff. In the chaos, the First Mate ran to his quarters, collected his sea bag [and sleeping bag]. He ran up to the bridge and checked the radios. All were dead except one, an emergency, battery-operated signal-sender that Devins had told him he had already activated. Jacobsen grabbed his sextant and a chart of the Pacific Ocean. Before leaving the ship, Jacobsen found its EPIRB. He took it along with him to the rafts.
 The First Mate and Devins were the last to abandon ship. They lowered themselves down a hand line directly into the rafts. They tried to operate the EPIRB…It appeared to work for awhile, but…it floated away.
Afterward, tensions arose quickly. Most centered on the aluminum skiff. When the wind and seas were up, it kept threatening to puncture the inflated rafts…The next day, Jacobsen decided he would get into the skiff and set it adrift. He planned to stay in the vicinity of the rafts but remain far enough away to ease the tension--and double chances for a casual encounter with another ship.
 Jacobsen put aboard his share of water--18 containers…and nine cans of sea biscuits…He started the Evinrude, foolishly burning some of the two cups of gasoline in the tank. He bailed out the skiff and fell asleep. 
 [Two days later], with the can opener in a pocket knife, he cut a hole into the wooden thwart. He took a seven-foot oar and fitted it into the hole. He cut his sleeping bag into two sails and hung them onto mast… the dead engine provided just enough drag to serve as a rudder. He was under way.
Excited by the prospect of reaching Hawaii and summoning aid for his shipmates, the First Mate ran wing and wing all night. With the wind from astern, he fairly flew. [Days passed]. Flying fish fell into the skiff. Jacobsen filleted and ate them. Each day at midday, he used his sextant and his jogger's watch to measure the angle of the sun at noon--to determine his LAN… [Days later]he saw the lights of Oahu. He celebrated by drinking an extra can of water. But the wind was from full astern. Unable to tack, he sailed right past Oahu…On July 7, he passed one mile south of Kauai.

[ Later he found] he was headed straight for Niihau.

At about 150 feet out froth beach, he jumped into the surf [and made it ashore]. He slept on a surfboard that had washed up on the rocks, then set out in the morning for a navy communication facility on a mountaintop. By the morning of July 10, he had reached the mountaintop… He was met by, the project manager, in a jeep. Construction workers gave him a ham and cheese sandwich and a Coke.”

So much for the brave and skillful First Mate. As for the rest of the crew, here is a heavily edited version of the AP new service story at the time:

"Skipper Enrique Calderon, 59, died on the morning of July 4, 1986, less than 24 hours before the other survivors -- five men, a woman, and a small dog - were rescued. 
 Calderon 'seemed to just give up,' a survivor  said. 'I don't know. He got too worried over too many different things and got sick…” He was buried at sea.The other survivors were picked up by USNS Indomitable, which spotted their flares early… 580 miles northeast of the island of Hawaii. The six spent two weeks in a pair of life rafts after the West I, a converted Navy tug…sank June 21. A small dog also survived the shipwreck and is in quarantine in Honolulu.
The survivors told reporters about the monotony of their ordeal. ‘’…We had our own, you know, little squabbles over small things - dumb little things, because everybody was so on edge -- but pretty much we did stay together…”

 So there is the tale of the sinking of the West 1. But I mentioned there was more to it. Soon after the survivors made it ashore, the loss of the boat was suspected of being an insurance scam, perpetrated by a mysterious individual aboard. If the sinking of West 1 was an insurance scam, then the captain’s death could be called murder; the second murder laid at the door step of this mysterious character. That’s the first mystery. The second is this: While the sinking, and suspicion of insurance fraud, was a cause celebre in the Summer of 1986, the entire matter disappears from public record immediately  afterwards, unsolved and forgotten. Why?
But this post must have set a record for length. And, maybe, boring content. So I'll stop here, and if anyone is interested let me know, and I’ll finish it later.

#2

Who doesn’t love a good sea story. Please go on.


#3

Keep 'er coming.


#4

Yes, more, please!


#5

A mark of good story telling is when the listeners are begging for more. Put me down under ‘me too,’ as well.


#6

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.


#7

i do have such a hard time thinking anyone, especially 30 yrs. ago, would deliberately sink a ship and engineer it such that it’d happen at sea with a much higher probability of loss of life. And to think someone aboard would do this assuming they’d survive to rescue.
I’d rather figure the shaft slid out after breaking or something.


#8

Great Story. One I’m familiar with first hand. I was the watch officer aboard the USNS oceanographic ship that rescued the crew of the West 1 those 31 years ago. I’m very interested in the outcome of the investigation of the sinking, if you have any information available. Thank you.


#9

Hello William,
Sorry to take so long to get back to you.

I exchanged a few emails with two of the survivors. In short, it seems like
Devins got away with the crime, though how much he profited by it is up to
debate. Devins, the villain of the story, whose real name was Thomas Utter
has faded away into obscurity. He may be dead, or he may have simply
changed his name again.

The survivors of the sinking sued the owner of the boat. One survivor I
corresponded with said there was a settlement of average proportions to the survivors very soon before the case was supposed to got to court. Case closed. Not further investigation

As to a USCG inquiry, whatever there was has left no record I can find. I
doubt it was very extensive, or it would have got more play in the
papers of the time.

I did a few hours of internet sleuthing to see if I could track down Thomas
Devins/Utter and the owner of West 1. Their trail disappears pretty
quickly after the court case was settled. My guess is Thomas changed his
name yet again. Amazing that he walked away from two capital crimes.

​Fascinating story to me, but apparently not of much interest of Gcaptain
forumers, except yourself.

Regards.


#10

Thanks buckets for the info. Alas, I also checked and found no information.
Thanks for the response.
All the best!


#11

On the contrary Freighterman, stories like this are one of the reasons I visit this site. Thank you for posting this.