NEWPORT NEWS – One afternoon in September 2018, seven Hampton Roads fishermen were working on a scallop boat about 50 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
They had departed from a dock in York County five days earlier and were carrying out a mundane task: moving dredged scallops from the deck of the boat to the “ice hold”.
But then a crew member snapped. Franklin “Fredy” Meave-Vazquez Jr. asked a teammate for a cigarette, then hit him in the head with a hammer. Meave then slit the neck of the second with a knife and struck a third teammate with a hammer.
“Fredy, what have I done to you?” said the second, Javier Rangel Sosa, stunned, before collapsing on the deck, blood pouring from his mouth.
Sosa, 54, a beloved Newport News fisherman, died on the ship. A 41-year-old crew member suffered permanent brain damage.
On Thursday in Boston, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs sentenced Meave to 19 years behind bars.
The murder at sea received national attention from conservative media four years ago because of Meave’s status as an undocumented immigrant. Extensive details about what happened on the boat that day were made public for the first time this week in sentencing papers filed by federal prosecutors and a public defender.
Meave, then 27, is a Mexican national who has lived in the United States for 17 years and in Newport News for 10 years. He was arrested by the Coast Guard after the ship’s captain radioed for help and was charged with murder in US District Court in Boston. Sosa, trying to kill another teammate and assaulting a third.
He was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in early 2020, unable to assist in his own defence. But doctors were able to restore him later that year, and he pleaded guilty to the charges five months ago. More information about Meave’s mental illness is redacted from the sentencing documents.
Although Meave was sentenced to life in prison, federal prosecutors agreed in a plea agreement in March to recommend a sentence within discretionary guidelines of 10 to 19 years.
“The defendant’s attacks were violent and brutal,” Assistant US Attorney Christine Wichers wrote. “These were direct, unprovoked attacks that were both deeply personal and wanton.”
Meave’s teammates had no reason to suspect an attack, Wichers wrote, and no time to defend themselves. “They had nowhere to run or hide on a small boat at sea,” she wrote.
Meave’s attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Stylianus Sinnis, asked for 10 years, saying the murders “were the profound and direct result of Fredy’s mental illness.”
“We are not here because evil and depravity followed (Meave) on the (fishing boat) in September 2018,” Sinnus wrote. “Undiagnosed mental illness did.”
“Fredy’s reality became distorted and blurred until he honestly believed that members of the boat’s crew sexually assaulted him and planned to kill him,” Sinnus wrote. While that wasn’t true, he said, it didn’t stop Fredy’s “paranoid delusions.”
Six months before the attack on the fishing boat, in March 2018, Meave was charged in Newport News with felony assault on his wife.
The crime could have led to his deportation from the United States. But a federal immigration judge released Meave on bail in the deportation case. His wife then refused to testify against him, and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault without jail time, a deferred sentence and an order for counseling.
Court documents filed ahead of this week’s sentencing give the most detailed public account of the September 23, 2018 incident.
The attack happened aboard the Captain Billy Haver – an 83ft fishing boat – which docks at Seaford Scallop Co. at the mouth of the York River. He set sail five days before the massacre for a two-week voyage off New England.
Documents said the seven teammates worked 18-hour days but got along well. They all spoke Spanish as their mother tongue and were locked up nearby.
On the morning of September 23, Meave told the boat’s captain, Jose Araiza, that he had fallen and injured his knee in the engine room. He said he should abandon the trip and return to port. But another crew member, a good friend of Meave, told Araiza that Meave was fine, and the captain told Meave to rest downstairs.
At around 2 p.m., Meave returned from a break and asked a teammate, Rafael Herrera, for a puff of cigarettes, and Herrera handed him his cigarette.
But when Herrera turned to scallops, Meave suddenly grabbed a hammer from a nearby table and hit him in the back of the head, knocking Herrera to the deck.
Sosa heard but couldn’t see the commotion from his vantage point. He approached and Meave suddenly stabbed him in the head, neck, chest, and arms with a long fishing knife. He fell on the bridge too.
Another crew member then attempted to climb a ladder from an ice hold, but Meave hit him in the head with the hammer. This man fell off the ladder and Meave closed the hatch and covered it with several bags of heavy scallops.
Araiza awoke from her sleep and confronted Meave. Meave tried to stab him, but the Captain managed to hit Meave in the face with a bucket, causing him to drop the knife. Araiza then grabbed a metal rod, and he and other teammates cornered Meave near the rigging.
Meave ran up the mast of the boat and sat on a platform for hours, later dropping the hammer. He hit the boat’s radio beacon, activating it, just before Azaria radioed for help.
“Can anyone hear me?” Azaria said on the distress call. “We got a man gone mad here on the boat, man. A man, I don’t know if he’s dead or what. But one of the crew went crazy and he started hitting people on the head with a hammer.
A nearby German cruise ship, the Mein Schiff 6, responded. Sosa was taken to the ship, where a doctor pronounced him dead.
One of the crewmates told Coast Guard investigators that Meave was addicted to heroin and prescription opioids, saying he told Meave he was just “dopesick” rather than hurt and that he had to pull himself together. Meave later told investigators he used Percocet and crushed Tylenol — but not heroin — on the fishing trip.
Sosa grew up the youngest of 11 children in Mexico and had been fishing since he was 12 years old. He moved to Virginia decades ago and became a US citizen in 2008.
A father of two, Sosa lived with his wife in a well-maintained mobile home south of Newport News Airport, its lawn lined with sea rocks. Friends and relatives described him as an outgoing person, who loved his little dog, was always friendly with store cashiers, and plugged neighbors’ homes into his generator during snowstorms.
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Herrera, then 41, a naturalized US citizen from Mexico, worked 18 years as a fisherman, supporting his wife and daughters. But he can’t work on fishing boats because of his head injury, and has instead washed cars and delivered Door Dash.
Meave’s attorney provided the judge with 12 letters of reference from friends and relatives – in the United States and Mexico – calling Meave a hard worker and a loving person who deserves some pity.
Meave’s mother, Anabel Vazquez, said in her letter that she was still “distraught that Fredy caused so much pain to so many people” and was struggling to leave her home.
“I want Your Honor to see hope in Fredy and to see hope in our family because without Fredy’s illness none of this would have happened,” she added. “We are saddened, but we are also strong and determined to make things right and make things better.”
One of Meave’s younger brothers, Osvaldo Giovanny Meave-Vazquez, 28, told the judge he was a peacemaker in the family “and the person always calms things down”.
“Fredy’s actions on the boat don’t reflect who my brother really is,” he said. “I think none of this would have happened if he had received help.”
Pierre Dujardin, 757-247-4749, firstname.lastname@example.org