A Keys couple stole a sailboat for a Caribbean honeymoon. Now they’re off to prison

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This Florida Keys-inspired honeymoon ended in prison time.

A federal judge Monday sentenced a Keys couple to 2 1/2 years in prison for stealing a 40-foot catamaran sailboat they took to Cuba in search of a romantic adventure on the high seas after quitting their jobs.

Prosecutors had asked for half of that sentence.

Instead of a honeymoon, Aaron Burmeister and Ashley McNeil spent six months in a Cuban jail before they were expelled from Cuba by plane back to the U.S. in September 2018.

“They were detained in part because they had entered Cuba without permission, but the Cuban authorities also negotiated for the defendants to be returned to the United States to face these charges,” wrote Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Jones in a motion to the court.

Burmeister, 46, and McNeil, 32, both pleaded guilty to stealing the boat Nov. 13.

Each asked U.S. District Court Senior Judge James Lawrence King to give them credit for the six months they spent detained in Cuba. But he denied their motions and handed them the maximum amount of time recommended by the sentencing guidelines.

After their release from prison, both will be under court supervision for three years. The judge recommended both Burmeister and McNeil complete a substance abuse program.

The Big Pine pair admitted kayaking out to Newfound Harbor near Big Pine Key on March 30, 2018, to where the vessel was moored.

They also admitted they knew the sailboat wasn’t abandoned property — after at first saying they thought it was — due to its good condition. They realized it was stolen during the trip but kept sailing.

They wanted to sail to the Bahamas yet ended up in Cuba. On April 1, 2018, Cuban authorities informed the U.S. Coast Guard that the vessel had been detained. They were arrested near the resort town of Varadero on Cuba’s northern coast.

Both fessed up immediately.

“McNeil stated that after fueling in Cuba they had plans to eventually return to Florida after ‘taking a honeymoon,’ and were hoping to return the vessel to where they found it and avoid any trouble,” according to the criminal complaint.

The couple isn’t done at federal court.

On April 1, King will determine how much they owe in restitution to the boat’s owner, Hector Cisneros. A rough estimate of the damage came in at $69,728, including parts and labor. Cisneros said he paid $350,000 for the 2009 Admiral twin diesel engine named Kaisosi.

Much of the damage was from sun exposure and weathering, according to marine surveyor Michael Grant.

Cisneros credited the power of social media with helping authorities find the stolen boat.

The Kaisosi was found in part by a network of sailors who keep tabs on stolen vessels and use high-frequency radio and social media to keep in contact.

“If it wasn’t for social media and the boating community in general, who knows what could have happened,” he said in April 2018.


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