One afternoon in September 2018, seven fishermen out of Hampton Roads were working a scallop boat about 50 miles off the Massachusetts coast.
They had left from a York County dock five days earlier and were performing a mundane task: moving dredged scallops from the deck to the “ice hold.”
Then a crewmember snapped.
Franklin “Fredy” Meave-Vazquez Jr. asked a crewmate for a cigarette drag, then hit him in the head with a hammer. Meave then sliced the first mate’s neck with a knife, and struck a third crewmate with a hammer.
“Fredy, what did I do to you?” the stunned first mate, Javier Rangel Sosa, said before collapsing to the deck, blood rushing from his mouth.
Sosa, 54, a well-liked fisherman from Newport News, died on the vessel. A 41-year-old crewmember was left with a permanent brain injury.
On Thursday in Boston, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs sentenced Meave to 19 years and seven months behind bars.
The slaying at sea drew national attention from conservative media four years ago because of Meave’s status as an undocumented immigrant.
Many of the details about what happened on the boat that day were publicly released 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 lived in the United States for 17 years and in Newport News for 10.
He was arrested by the Coast Guard after the ship’s captain radioed for help and was charged in U.S. District Court in Boston with murdering Sosa, trying to kill another crewmate and assaulting a third.
Meave was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in early 2020, unable to assist in his own defense. But doctors were able to restore him to competency later that year, and he pleaded guilty five months ago. (More information about Meave’s mental illness is redacted from the sentencing papers).
Though Meave faced life in prison for the crime, federal prosecutors in Boston agreed in a March plea deal to recommend a sentence within discretionary guidelines of 10 to 19 years and seven months.
“The defendant’s attacks were violent and brutal,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Wichers. “They were unprovoked, face-to-face attacks — both deeply personal and motiveless.”
Meave’s crewmates had no reason to suspect an attack, Wichers wrote, and had no time to defend themselves.
“They had nowhere to run or hide on a small boat out at sea,” she wrote.
Meave’s attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Stylianus Sinnis, asked for 10 years, contending the killings “were the profound and direct result of Fredy’s mental illness.”
“We are here not because evil and depravity followed (Meave) onto the (fishing boat) in September of 2018,” Sinnus wrote. “An undiagnosed mental illness did.”
“Fredy’s reality bent and blurred until he sincerely believed that members of the boat’s crew had sexually assaulted him and were planning to kill him,” Sinnus wrote. While that wasn’t true, he said, that didn’t stop Fredy’s “paranoid delusions.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston said Thursday that Meave was in the country illegally and will be subject to deportation once he completes his 19-year sentence.
Five months before the fishing boat attack, in March 2018, Meave was charged in Newport News with felony assault on his wife. The crime could have led to jail time or deportation.
But a federal immigration judge in Northern Virginia released Meave on bond in the deportation case a month later. His wife then declined to testify against him in the criminal case. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault with no jail time, a deferred finding and an order to get counseling.
Court documents filed in advance of this week’s sentencing give the most detailed public account of Sept. 23, 2018, incident off Nantucket Island.
The attack happened aboard the Captain Billy Haver — an 83-foot fishing boat — that docks out of the Seaford Scallop Co., on the mouth of the York River. It headed out five days before the slaying for a two-week fishing trip off New England.
Documents said the seven crewmates were working 18-hour days but were getting along. They all spoke Spanish as their native tongue and bunked in close quarters.
On the morning of Sept. 23, Meave told the boat’s captain, Jose Araiza, that he fell and hurt his knee in the engine room. He said he had to quit the trip and needed to go back to port.
But another crewmember, a friend of Meave’s, told Araiza that Meave was fine, and the captain told Meave to take a rest below.
At about 2 p.m., Meave came back from a break and asked crewmate Rafael Herrera for a cigarette drag, and Herrera handed it to him.
But when he turned away to shuck scallops, Meave suddenly grabbed a sledgehammer off a nearby table and struck him in the back of the head, causing Herrera to fall to the deck, unconscious.
Sosa heard but couldn’t see the commotion from his vantage point. He walked over, and Meave suddenly stabbed him in the head, neck, torso and arms with a long fishing knife. Sosa fell to the deck, too.
Another crewmember then tried to climb up a ladder from an ice hold, but Meave hit him over the head with the hammer. That man fell from the ladder, and Meave closed the hatch and covered it with several heavy scallop bags.
Araiza awoke from his 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 grabbed a metal rod, and he and other crewmates cornered Meave near the rigging.
Meave climbed up the boat’s mast and sat on a platform for hours, later dropping the hammer. He struck the boat’s radio beacon, activating it before Araiza radioed for help.
“Can anybody hear me?” Araiza said in the mayday call. “We have a man gone crazy here on the boat, man. One man, I don’t know if he’s dead or what. But one of the crew members went crazy, and he started hitting people in the head with a hammer.”
A nearby German cruise ship 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 injured and needed to get 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. He moved to Virginia decades ago and became a U.S. citizen in 2008.
A father of two, Sosa lived with his wife in a well-kept mobile home south of the Newport News Airport, his lawn lined with sea rocks. Friends and relatives described him as a people person, who loved his small dog, was always friendly with store cashiers, and hooked up neighbors’ homes to his generator during snowstorms.
Herrera, who was then 41, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, worked for 18 years as a fisherman, supporting his wife and daughters. But he can’t work fishing boats because of his brain injury, and has instead been washing cars and delivering for Door Dash.
Meave’s attorney provided the judge 12 character reference letters from friends and relatives — in both the United States and Mexico — calling Meave a hard worker and loving person who deserves some mercy.
Meave’s mother, Anabel Vazquez, said in her letter that she’s still “distraught that Fredy caused so much pain to so many people,” and finds it hard to leave her house.
“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 that was a peacemaker in the family “and the person always calming things down.”
“Fredy’s actions on the boat do not reflect who my brother really is,” he said. “I think none of this would have happened if he had received help.”
Peter Dujardin, 757-897-2062, firstname.lastname@example.org