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Sep. 29—A Rockland man will not serve any additional time in jail for making a false distress call that sent the U.S. Coast Guard on a five-hour search for a sinking vessel last year, but he will be required to pay $17,500 to the federal government in restitution.
Nathan Libby, 32, was arrested in January and pleaded guilty to the federal felony charge in June. His sentencing took place Wednesday on Zoom. He apologized for his actions in a statement he read to the judge, pausing at the places where he had scratched out words and started over.
"I fished my whole life," Libby said. "I know the importance of the Coast Guard. I'm grateful that if I or someone else I know had a dangerous situation while fishing, the Coast Guard is there to respond. I'm not going to make excuses, but I am a different person today."
U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen sentenced Libby to time served — he spent three nights in jail when he was first arrested — and three years of supervised release. She said the hoax appeared to be motivated by revenge against a fisherman who had fired him because of his substance use, and she emphasized the poor judgment of his actions.
"A false distress call puts the lives of everybody that goes out to rescue you in harm's way," Torresen said. "It also wastes time and money. I think someone with a seafaring background like your own understands that more than most people."
The judge did credit Libby for his recent sobriety, his lack of a serious criminal history and the support of his family. She said she wants him to find a steady job, continue his treatment for substance use disorder and start paying the restitution.
"I think this is not going to be an easy time for you, but I think you're up to the challenges," Torresen said to Libby. "I think your 10 months of sobriety is going to put you on the right course."
The maximum penalty for this conviction was five years in prison. As part of his plea agreement, Libby agreed not to appeal a sentence that was less than 12 months.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Perry had asked the judge for six months of incarceration. He said jail time was necessary to recognize the seriousness of the offense and to deter other people from making hoax calls.
He also pointed to the example of Owen Adair, a Vinalhaven man who similarly pleaded guilty to making a false mayday call. Torresen sentenced him in 2015 to one year in federal prison and one year in a halfway house, and she ordered him to pay $15,000 in restitution. He said Libby should also serve some term of incarceration, even if he deserved a lesser sentence because he did not have a criminal record as Adair did.
"Those in the fishing community in that area understand the havoc of what Mr. Libby did, the seriousness of what he did," Perry said. "We, unfortunately, in Maine get these hoaxes periodically, more often than we would like. The government is concerned that a sentence of time served or supervised release sends the wrong message."
Grainne Dunne, the federal public defender who represented Libby, said he will still face the lifelong consequences of a felony conviction, as well as the significant debt in restitution. She described his childhood as unstable in part because of his mother's own addiction, and she said he dropped out of school at age 14 to work in fishing. Court documents say his drug use began when a coworker gave him oxycodone after an injury on a boat, and she said he had struggled with addiction over the decade since then.
Dunne said Libby had not used drugs since he was arrested. She also submitted letters to the court from family members who talked about his dedication to his young son and his commitment to his recovery.
"Since the moment of his release, Nate has exhibited a strength and determination to his sobriety that has been truly extraordinary to watch," Dunne said during the hearing.
The prosecutor's office filed a summary of evidence they said could be presented at trial. That document says the Coast Guard received a distress call around 6:30 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2020. The caller said there were three people aboard the boat and they were in Spruce Head Harbor.
"Mayday, mayday, mayday," says the voice in an audio recording released by the Coast Guard Sector Northern New England. "We lost our rudder and we're taking on water fast. I just don't have enough pumps to keep up with it."
A marine patrol officer went out in that area with a private vessel to try to find the boat that made the distress call, but found nothing. He returned to the dock and spoke to Libby, who was a dock worker at the neighboring Spruce Head Fisherman's Co-op. He gave the officer a list of boats that had gone out that morning. Another person at the co-op listened to the recording and told the officer that the voice sounded like Libby. Investigators tracked the direction of the signal from the distress call to the co-op office, and surveillance footage showed Libby was there at the time the call was made.
The Coast Guard launched a boat and a helicopter as part of the search. Maine Marine Patrol was also involved. The fake call came just weeks after the Portland-based Emmy Rose sank off the coast of Massachusetts and claimed the lives of four fishermen.
No one from the agencies spoke during the sentencing hearing, but the Coast Guard later released a written statement through the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"I applaud the collaborative efforts of the Department of Justice, Maine Marine Patrol, Rockland Police Department, and the United States Coast Guard in bringing this case to a close and ensuring accountability for Mr. Libby's actions," Capt. Brian LeFebvre, sector commander of Coast Guard Sector Northern New England, said. "Hoax calls like the call Mr. Libby placed unnecessarily put our rescue crews at risk, waste resources, and may limit our ability to respond to actual emergencies."