NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A man who vanished in the Chesapeake Bay and faked his death to avoid spending years behind bars should get a stiff prison sentence to discourage hoax distress calls that put rescuers in danger, a Coast Guard commander says.
Larry Deffenbaugh, 60, was convicted in May of conspiracy and communicating a false distress signal. He will be sentenced in federal court on Monday.
His brother reported him missing from a fishing boat they had rented in Virginia Beach in 2009, two days before he was to be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison on a probation violation in Maryland. Deffenbaugh, the former owner of Southern Memorial Gardens, had been convicted of bilking more than 500 people out of cemetery services.
The TV show “America’s Most Wanted” broadcast a segment about Deffenbaugh that led to his arrest last year in Baytown, Texas. He was using the name Mike Meyers at the time.
“When the Coast Guard dispatches its vessels and aircrafts in cases of false distress, it not only drains our limited resources, it needlessly puts our personnel at risk,” Rear Adm. W.D. Lee wrote to U.S. District Judge Henry Morgan.
Coast Guard mariners are hurt or killed during rescue missions and training exercises nearly every year and willingly accept that risk, Lee wrote.
“That risk is unacceptable, however, when it involves unnecessarily sending Coast Guard men and women into harm’s way in response to an intentional false distress call made for the purpose of evading the law.”
Prosecutors said Deffenbaugh told his family he didn’t want to go to jail and had been planning to disappear for days, selling his car to his girlfriend, scouting out a location and filling up on prescription drugs. Deffenbaugh also was a trained diver and ship captain, yet he let his brother — who has poor vision — take the helm of the 23-foot skiff the night he disappeared.
The Coast Guard searched for Deffenbaugh near Virginia Beach for 15 hours, using more than $220,000 in resources. Coast Guard cutters, small boats and a helicopter were called in to help.
Lee also wrote that search and rescue missions generate the third-highest rate of injuries and mishaps for small boats and crew. In Lee’s district, which stretches from North Carolina to New Jersey, the Coast Guard responded to nearly 17,000 distress calls between 2005 and 2010. Of those, 132 were confirmed or suspected hoaxes.
Lee asked the judge to “send a firm message that hoax calls cannot, and will not, be tolerated.”
Federal prosecutors are seeking a sentence of six and a half to eight years and a month in prison, though the judge could sentence Deffenbaugh to up to 11 years.
Deffenbaugh’s attorney wrote in court documents that his client should be sentenced to time served and ordered to pay restitution.
He wrote that it was regrettable the Coast Guard used resources to search for Deffenbaugh but that there was minimal danger to search crews.
“However, because the Bay was calm that night as was the weather, no Coast Guard personnel (or other law enforcement/marine patrol) were put at significant risk of death or serious bodily risk by searching for Mr. Deffenbaugh,” attorney Keith Loren Kimball wrote.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)