The parents of two teenagers who vanished months ago while fishing off the coast of Florida engaged in a new legal battle over a recovered iPhone, with one family filing a restraining order Sunday to keep the phone away from the other family before law enforcement could examine it.
Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos disappeared last July. Each was 14 at the time. Their bodies were never found, but a Norwegian cargo ship spotted their 19-foot boat near Bermuda last month and recovered it. Onboard were Stephanos’ phone and some fishing gear.
One day after the Cohen family filed the restraining order, Blu Stephanos, Austin’s father, promised to share the phone’s data with investigators and both families.
Speaking to the Palm Beach Post, Blu Stephanos said salt water had damaged the phone badly, making it unclear whether any information could come out of it. Still, he added, “I am not giving up hope.”
This is not the first rift to appear between the families since their sons disappeared. Last October, Pamela Cohen, Perry’s mother, asked that Stephanos’ parents not use her son’s name and likeness while fundraising for their new foundation.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took the phone after crews recovered it. The restraining order would have prevented the Stephanos family from taking it before investigators.
A court hearing is pending, said Guy Rubin, the Perry family’s attorney. He said his clients have had no formal communication with the Stephanos family about the phone, so “I am not sure what their intentions are.”
FWC spokesman Rob Klepper issued a statement Monday saying that since this is not a criminal investigation the agency would turn over the phone and other items to the respective families. Any retrieval of information from Austin Stephanos’ phone would only be done with his family’s permission, Klepper said.
The cellphone, two fishing rods and two small tackle boxes were recovered from the boat. The phone was shipped ahead to FWC, but the boat and other personal effects were crated and are expected to arrive at Port Everglades next month.
Robert Heller, a digital forensics expert in Texas, said the phone could contain the boat’s location, its speed, its direction, distress text messages the boys tried to send, photos they took and other information, assuming it wasn’t damaged beyond repair. Even if FWC turns over the phone to the Stephanos family, Heller suspects investigators will download its data for safekeeping, if it is accessible.
“If they didn’t make a forensic record, then shame on them,” he said.
The Coast Guard searched for a week and the families’ volunteer search lasted more than two weeks. During its search, the Coast Guard did spot the overturned boat near Daytona Beach, almost 200 miles from where the boys departed but it was gone when a recovery boat arrived at the location.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.