Coast Guard suspends search for missing boaters, citing possible hoax

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By Michael Martinez and Dan Simon, SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) — The U.S. Coast Guard is suspending its search off the California coast for a distressed 29-foot sailboat that was carrying a couple and two children, and said Tuesday the incident is “possibly a hoax.”

The mission’s cost has reached several hundreds of thousands of dollars since Sunday, said Cmdr. Don Montoro.

Searchers have been scouring the water off San Francisco for the people distress calls said were on the boat. That included the couple, their 4-year-old child and the child’s cousin, who the Coast Guard said was younger than 8.

Coast Guard investigators will look into the incident and “prosecute it and investigate it to the best of their ability,” Montoro said. “We’re not investigating it directly as a hoax, but we are pursuing every avenue. It’s certainly a possibility.”

“I know we do have successful prosecutions” on such hoaxes, Montoro said, “and it would be taken very seriously.”

Last June, the Coast Guard offered a $3,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of those responsible for an apparent hoax that prompted a massive rescue effort off the coast of New Jersey following a false distress call.

In that incident, a search came up empty for purportedly injured and adrift passengers from a yacht hit by an explosion at sea.

The agency found no evidence of people, debris or even a boat, it said.

Making a false distress call is considered a felony, punishable by up to 10 years behind bars and a $250,000 fine, the Coast Guard said last June. The person responsible could also be required to reimburse the government for the cost of the search.

Last year, the Coast Guard said it and other state and local agencies had dealt with more than 60 suspected hoaxes in the northern New Jersey, New York City and Hudson River region.

In this week’s incident off the California coast, the weather offshore during the search featured gale-force winds and 25-foot seas, Montoro said.

At 20,000 square miles, the search area was nearly the size of West Virginia.

On Sunday afternoon, the Coast Guard received a radio communication that stated: “This is the Charm Blow, we are abandoning ship.”

The man on the radio told the Coast Guard that the boat had begun taking on water and its electronics were failing, the agency said. At that time, the boat was believed to be some 65 miles (105 kilometers) off Pillar Point, south of San Francisco.

The focus of the search had been 60 to 65 miles off Monterey Bay, said Lt. Heather Lampert, a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

Several aircraft and vessels joined the search.

CNN’s Dan Simon and Augie Martin reported from San Francisco. Michael Martinez wrote and reported from Los Angeles.