It's the fourth of July at 6:30 a.m., and we’re driving down the twenty-seven-mile highway between Tapachula and Puerto Madero. the southernmost port on Mexico’s Pacific Coast. Ken Franke, a retired Coast Guard captain and now a marine surveyor from San Diego, is at the wheel of a red Nissan he rented in Guatemala City. His mission is to find out what happened to the Gypsy Song, a sixty-five-foot ketch-rigged sailboat that left the port of San Jose, Guatemala, about 130 miles south of here, on January 2, 1985, bound for Acapulco and ultimately San Diego.
The boat’s owner, thirty-two-year-old Ron Novosat, his sixty-year-old father John Novosat, and a Spaniard named Jose have not been heard from since and are presumed lost at sea. However, Athlene Novosat, John’s wife and Ron’s mother, refuses to believe her loved ones are dead, and she is paying Franke $500 per day to investigate the case in Guatemala and Mexico.
As a marine surveyor, Franke usually works for insurance companies, inspecting boats before a policy is written or evaluating boating accidents to determine if a vessel should be salvaged. Regarding the Gyspy Song, he has been pessimistic from the start — “eighteen months, for goodness sake!” — and even tried to talk Mrs. Novosat out of spending the money.
Franke knows he won’t find the men, dead or alive. His one overriding desire is to find some shred of evidence that the Gypsy Song did in fact sink. “I just want to put that lady’s mind to rest,” he says time and again. “I’d like to find a piece of the mast, a lifejacket, some sign of the dinghy — anything to indicate the boat went down at sea.” He is about to find evidence to the contrary.
Puerto Madero is dirt poor and utterly nondescript. Just a few minutes south of the tiny village is a small harbor about 200 to 300 yards wide and stretching a half-mile inland from the Pacific Ocean — more specifically, from a notoriously dangerous body of water called the Gulf of Tehuantepec. We've come here to investigate a possible sighting of the Gypsy Song by Leo LaJeunesse, a former associate dean of instructional media at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, who docked in Puerto Madero last December.
When he returned to California in February, he saw an article about the Gypsy Song in the San Diego Log, a local marine newspaper. The accompanying photograph resembled a damaged boat he’d seen here in Puerto Madero. LaJeunesse, an experienced sailor, admits he paid little attention to the unusual looking vessel, but he is very certain it had a dark ferro-cement hull and very distinctive Mediterranean wood railings, just like the Gypsy Song. Whatever he saw, it isn’t here now.
Franke, a tall, lanky man of about fifty, spots a fisherman on a boat called the Jurel HI moored flush against the dock. He climbs aboard and shows Abraham Valdez an eight-by-ten color photograph of the Gypsy Song with a short text about the missing boat written in Spanish on the back.
Valdez, before even reading the text, says in Spanish he knows the boat. He saw it last December — December 18, in fact, docked in his home port of Salina Cruz, 250 miles north of Puerto Madero. Franke pulls out a picture of three smiling Novosats: Ron, John, and Athlene. Without hesitation, Valdez points to Ron. “Yes, I saw him in Salina Cruz, and in Santa Cruz.’’ The latter port is just north of Salina Cruz. I ask Valdez if he’s sure it was the same person. Yes, very sure. I ask him if he saw the elder Novosat. “No, he wasn’t there; the American [Ron Novosat] was with a Colombian and a Mexican-American,” Valdez replies.
Franke walks over to two navy vessels docked nearby and shows the pictures to several officers and sailors. Heads shake. We check with the port captain, and he has no record of the missing boat ever being in Puerto Madero. After several more fishermen on other boats insist they’ve seen neither the Gypsy Song nor the Novosats, Franke and I go back to Valdez and ask him what the men were doing in Salina Cruz. “They were buying diesel fuel,” Valdez replies. “And this man [pointing to Ron Novosat’s photograph] asked where he could buy marijuana."
During the forty-kilometer drive back to the Guatemalan border, Franke and I discuss Valdez. If his story is true, what the hell was Ron Novosat doing sailing around Mexico eleven months after he was supposed to be dead? And where was his father? Valdez’s sighting is most troubling, especially given that the day before, an American embassy official in Guatemala City had told us that Ron Novosat (but not his father) had been sighted by someone else in April of 1985 — three months after the Gypsy Song presumably sank — this time on the Baja Peninsula. Franke explains that in general fishermen are his most trustworthy sources, followed by sailors, then cab drivers, then policemen. “Valdez told us the men bought diesel fuel,” Franke says. “The Gypsy Song uses diesel. He could just as easily have said gasoline.” Franke is particularly intrigued by Valdez’s claim that the man in Salina Cruz asked to buy marijuana. It was no secret that the younger Novosat was a heavy marijuana smoker. “Valdez brought that up entirely on his own,” Franke says, looking perplexed. “You heard that stuff about the mystics, didn’t you? I don’t believe that crap, but it kind of fits, doesn’t it? They told Mrs. Novosat that she’d see her son again, but not her husband. That, the diesel fuel, the marijuana ... it’s weird.”
Athlene Novosat asks her two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, “Where’s your daddy?” Nicole, a pretty little girl with blond bangs and full cheeks, is kneeling on a chair with her hands fondling the globe that’s on the kitchen table. She’s played this game many times before, obviously, and she places her tiny finger on a spot just off the coast of Guatemala. “Here,” she says, smiling broadly. Nicole has no recollection of her father, Ron Novosat, who last saw his daughter in the summer of 1984 when she was six months old.
Athlene turns to me and says quietly, “We tell Nicole her daddy got lost. We tell her it’s like the pictures of little kids on shopping bags.” The comparison is made less for Nicole’s benefit than for Athlene’s, conveying as it does the distinct anguish one feels over a heartbreaking loss unaccompanied by the catharsis and finality that death normally brings. For seventeen months, Athlene, a tall, slender woman with curly brown hair, has been a hostage of fate. Since early 1985, she has been waiting, with a patience that by now has nearly evaporated, for the news telling her either that she is a fifty-six-year-old widow or, preferably, that she is about to be joyfully reunited with her husband and son. The latter possibility seems less likely each day.
Since the disappearance, Athlene and Deborah Hager, Nicole’s mother and Ron’s girlfriend, have lived together in Palm Desert, San Diego, and now Torrance, near Los Angeles. Deborah says that Athlene is a nervous wreck, that she still doesn’t sleep at night, and that her asthma has been badly aggravated by stress. “Athlene was married to John for thirty-five years!” Deborah says. “I don’t know if she’s ever thought of them drowning. She’s always said they’re out there somewhere. In prison. Held hostage. I think the boat just sank.” Deborah now does clerical work at a computer store and makes enough money to buy food and pay the rent, but only because Athlene provides free child care for Nicole. Difficult as they may seem, these are good times compared to those lean months in 1985 when neither woman was working, when they spent so much time and energy searching for and worrying about two men who had disappeared into thin air. ‘‘It’s mind boggling,” says Deborah, a slim, attractive brunette of thirty-two. “The worst part is that you don’t know. At first every day you think about it. You can’t sleep. You're so far away, though, you can't do anything.” Nicole is playing with a toy on the carpet, and Deborah glances over at the little girl she will apparently raise alone. “This isn't the way we’d planned it at all,” she adds with a hint of resentment toward the man who never came back. “If he turned up now, I think I'd kill him for doing this to me.”
In the first week of 1985, Athlene and Deborah, who then lived in Palm Desert, received two post cards sent from Costa Rica, one each from Ron and John. “Miss you very much.... Can't wait to see you. Deb, and Nicole,” John wrote to his wife. Ron scribbled, “Great sailing! Favorable forecast. We’ll beware.” Nicole’s first birthday was January 11, 1985, and Deborah expected a phone call from Ron about that time. By then the Gypsy Song was supposed to have arrived in Acapulco, the first scheduled stop during the five-week voyage to San Diego. The call never came, but this first disappointment was easy to dismiss. Perhaps Ron and John had been in Acapulco only a few hours, and they tried to call but no one was home. They had a ship-to-shore telephone on board, but calls were outrageously expensive. If they couldn't call, another card would surely come any day.
But January quickly became February, and still no word. Every day the two women would think, “Today the phone will ring.” In mid-February
Deborah called a ship-to-shore operator in Florida, who dialed the Gypsy Song's call numbers periodically for three days, but no one answered. Athlene called the Coast Guard and the U.S. State Department, the latter of which assured Athlene and Deborah that it was unlikely the Novosat men were imprisoned by a legitimate government. When Americans are jailed abroad, even hostile countries generally inform the American embassy. Therefore, if either Ron or John Novosat is still alive, there are only very troubling possibilities to consider, and Athlene and Deborah have heard them all. Left-wing guerrillas from El Salvador pirated the ship. Nicaraguan contras stole the boat to run arms. Drug smugglers hijacked the boat and killed everyone on board. Ron was mixed up with drug dealers; they’re holding John hostage, and Ron is scrambling to pay them off.
In early 1985, Athlene put theories aside and took action. She contacted numerous public officials, including Senator Alan Cranston. She wrote to President Reagan, called TV stations and newspapers — anyone who could help locate her loved ones.
The Novosat family is from Creighton. Pennsylvania, a small town eighteen miles north of Pittsburgh. John Novosat was the chief of police there for eight of his thirty-three years on the force; he was a conservative man, a former college football player, strong both physically and morally. According to Athlene, Ron’s early years were a continual effort to impress his father, and he did quite well. He was president of his senior class in high school. He excelled in athletics, particularly football. A five-eleven, 200-pound linebacker, he was captain of his high school team, and he received a full athletic scholarship to Wichita State University. Ron was a freshman there in 1970 when thirteen members of the varsity football team died in a plane crash. Athlene recalls the horror she felt when she first heard about the accident, before she learned that freshmen didn't travel with the team and that her son was safe. Athlene and John Novosat had already lost their first-born son Jeffrey, who, at age thirteen, got in a fight with a troublemaker at school and was hacked to death with a sickle. Only Ron Novosat knows what, if any, effect these tragedies had on his psyche, but the year after the plane crash, he left Wichita State and gave up his scholarship. His mother says he couldn’t take the pressure of competing in sports and studying at the same time. “They wanted to own him,” Athlene says. “It was too much for him.”
While in Wichita, Novosat made some friends who were interested in boats. The young college dropout moved to the San Francisco Bay area in the early 1970s and, with the help of these friends, began constructing the Gypsy Song in Sausalito. While he was building the boat (Athlene can’t remember the precise details), Ron was arrested at a California airport for allegedly carrying drugs in a hidden belt. John Novosat flew from Creighton to bail Ron out of jail, and eventually charges were dropped. But repercussions were felt 2000 miles away. When a newspaper in Pennsylvania wrote the story of how the police chief s son had been arrested for drugs, John Novosat was so ashamed he offered to resign. He didn’t, and the affair blew over, but scars remained. According to Athlene, the son who had always wanted to impress his father didn't return to Creighton for years after the arrest.
For an entire decade, Ron worked sporadically in Sausalito, for a solar panel company, as a plumber, and as a carpenter — placing all of his earnings into his boat. In 1980 Ron met Deborah Hager, who waited tables at the Food Company, a restaurant he frequented in Sausalito. Deborah remembers him as “a nice guy, easygoing, and very sincere. Building that boat was an amazing feat. That impressed me. He’d work on it at all hours of the night.” Finally, in early 1982, the Gypsy Song, though not yet completed, took its maiden voyage on the San Francisco Bay. That summer Novosat set sail for Central America with two friends, Josh Mills, an expert boatsman who would teach Ron how to sail, and Jeff O’Connell, a mechanic. Novosat paid all expenses on the voyage, during which the men intended to finish building the cabin and other parts of the boat. “Ron was proud as hell to get that boat down south,” O’Connell said recently. “He’d built his own boat! Thirteen years from start to finish. He hadn't done much in his life, and whatever he’d done, the boat was it.”
In October Deborah took leave from her job and joined Ron in Costa Rica. ‘‘It was something different,” she says. “Why not? I figured I’d stay eight months, maybe a year.” Her estimate was correct, but she came back in August of 1983 carrying unexpected cargo. Though the couple had never married, Deborah was three months pregnant. She stayed with her family near Detroit until Nicole was born in January of 1984. Ron came home for the birth but returned to Panama soon after, and Deborah and Nicole followed three months later. Ron had set up a business there, chartering the Gypsy Song for Pacific cruises to tourists and American GIs stationed at the Panama Canal.
In Central America, Ron went by the name “Mike,” or “Miguel.” His mother and Deborah Hager believed he used the alias because Hispanics had difficulty saying “Ron,” despite the fact that ron is the easily pronounced word for “rum" in Spanish. O’Connell offers another explanation. He says that two weeks before the Gypsy Song left Sausalito for Central America in 1982, he accompanied Ron to apply for a passport. Ron’s birth certificate, however, lacked a required stamp. Ron was unable to obtain his valid birth certificate in time, but he returned to the passport office a day later. “I don’t know how he did it,” says O'Connell, “but the next day, he came back with a valid passport using a fake name.” O’Connell says the first name was Mike, but he can’t recall ever having seen the last name.
In the summer of 1984, Ron Novosat was again arrested on a drug charge. To help out on excursions, Ron had hired a crewman, a Panamanian Indian named Hilary. Deborah says Ron found him sleeping on a park bench with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back. Problems arose. According to Jeff O’Connell, Hilary wasn’t satisfied with the food Ron offered his crew — a sparse diet of rice and beans. Ron was short on money, too, and Hilary wasn’t being paid. And then Ron fired Hilary, allegedly because he wasn’t working hard enough. Hilary went to the police. Deborah Hager was with Nicole in a house near the beach when she saw Hilary and several Panamanian policemen heading for the Gypsy Song. She watched through a telephoto lens on her camera as they boarded the boat and arrested the father of her child. Ron had seen the police coming and thrown a small quantity of marijuana overboard. but the officers, who had seen him do it, ordered Hilary to dive into the water and retrieve the evidence.
Ron spent a week in jail. His parents put up $500, and Deborah, working with a Panamanian lawyer, managed to have the charges dropped. After this incident, Deborah, who had never felt safe on the boat anyway, decided Panama was no place for her infant daughter. “I left after Ron got out of jail,” recalls Deborah, who made it very clear to authorities that she'd flown to Panama and had nothing to do with the boat herself. “I was with Nicole, and I didn’t want to get thrown in the slinger.”
After the arrest, the Panamanians let Ron know that he was persona non grata there, so the chartering business, which had been struggling anyway, quickly went bust. Flat broke, Ron left Panama and sailed the 300 miles to Puntarenas, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, in late summer, 1984. On September 14, Novosat wrote to his parents that he would wait in Puntarenas a few months until the hurricane season ended, then would set sail for San Diego, where he, Deborah, Nicole, and his parents all intended to settle. Ron apparently missed his family badly. “So what’s happening with Debbie and Nicole?” he wrote on October 21. “She [Deborah] sounded very depressed on the telephone. I... would like nothing more than to be with them, but as you know, these are difficult times.... I’m dying to see Nicole — she’s so beautiful! I bet she’s changing every week. I’m really anxious to get back to California.”
Brent Hoffmeister isn’t so sure Ron was anxious to get back home. Hoffmeister had signed on as a crew member on the Gypsy Song in October of 1984 while the boat was in Puntarenas, and he got to know both Ron — he called him “Michael” — and John quite well. At first, he’d hoped the Gypsy Song would leave for San Diego after about two weeks in Puntarenas, but one delay followed another, and Hoffmeister waited impatiently for two months, first in Puntarenas and later in Playas de Coco, the port the Gyspy Song eventually sailed from. He also lent Ron $600 to buy new batteries and recharge old ones. About December 20, 1984, Hoffmeister, fed up with the delays, abandoned ship and forfeited his $600. “I wanted to get going,” he said in a recent phone interview from Connecticut. “Besides, the people [Ron and Jose] weren’t that stable, smoking dope all the time, drinking beer, not getting the boat ready for the long passage. It just didn’t look like the kind of trip I wanted to be on.”
Hoffmeister and others who knew the Novosats in Central America describe John as a very conservative Midwestern fellow who didn’t necessarily complain when his son lit up a joint but would often stand up and walk away. One person affectionately described John as “an Officer O’Malley-type cop, the kind of cop who probably kept more people out of jail than he put in.” Though almost everyone thought of Ron as a “nice guy,” he evoked darker feelings in those who knew him. Jeff O’Connell, who was on the Gyspy Song in Panama about a year before Hoffmeister joined the crew, recalls that Ron was capable of distorting the truth about himself. “Ron had this image of himself as a really great sailor,” O’Connell says. “Ron talked better than he was. He got carried away with the image of ‘El Capitan,’ which is what they called him down there. He acted like he had all kinds of money and he could do anything, but he was broke all the time.”
In Costa Rica, Ron apparently cultivated the persona of the marginally outlaw bohemian. He told Hoffmeister and others that he was a veteran of the 101st long-range reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam and that he’d served a jail term, implying it was on a drug charge.
He also told Hoffmeister he’d run up nearly $10,000 in charges to his credit card. The jail term (unless he meant the week he was jailed in Panama) and the Vietnam veteran stories were pure invention. Hoffmeister had the distinct impression that Ron was less than enthusiastic about returning to the United States and abandoning his romantic, if impecunious, lifestyle. “He wanted to go sailing, and [Deborah] didn’t,” Hoffmeister says. “He liked her, but they had a baby now, and going back to San Diego meant living in an apartment, getting a real job, and maybe even selling the boat. The way he talked, it sounded like he wasn't up to it.” During the fall of 1984, while Ron waited out the hurricane season in Puntarenas, Athlene and John Novosat were caretakers at an apartment complex in Palm Desert. The couple had John’s police pension, but most of the money went toward mortgage payments on a house their daughter (Ron’s sister) owned in Pennsylvania. So to make some extra money, John worked as a security guard and Athlene worked part-time at a candy store. Then Ron asked his father to fly down to Costa Rica and accompany him on the return voyage to San Diego. John agreed to go, though he hadn’t left the United States since his army days in World War II, and he’d only been separated from his wife for one three-week period in thirty-five years. In the first week of December, 1984, Athlene packed her husband a small suitcase — just a couple of pairs of shorts, one extra pair of shoes, and a few other necessities — drove him to Los Angeles International Airport, and kissed him good-bye.
Sometime in early February of 1985, before they even realized the Gypsy Song was missing, Athlene and Deborah received the first of many phone calls from a mysterious fellow who gave the name Dave Peterson. He said he was a “businessman,” and he at various times called from Oregon, New Mexico, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Carlsbad in San Diego County. Peterson said he'd met Ron and John down in Costa Rica, had become close friends with them, and had even waved good-bye when they left for San Diego. “He wanted to know real bad whether they'd gotten back yet,” recalls Deborah. “He was evasive. I asked him what he did for a living, and he came up with some off-the-wall thing." What really troubled Deborah and Athlene was that in a later conversation, Peterson said he’d gone down to Guatemala and spent $5000 of his own money searching for the missing men. He’d chartered an airplane to fly the coast and search for wreckage and had a girlfriend check Guatemalan jails. His motives raised obvious questions. “I asked him if Ron had drugs on the boat, if he had some deal going, and he said no,” Deborah recalls. “He said he was just concerned and wanted to help. He said it was his ‘mission in life’ to find them.”
Desperate for any help they could get and thoroughly confused by the maddening number of theories about the Gypsy Song's fate, Athlene and Deborah sought the advice of mystics. Deborah gave a psychic in Michigan a photograph of Ron and John; she rubbed it for a minute and said, “They’re dead.” A faith healer in Calexico had better news. She told Athlene, without having seen any photographs, that she envisioned a young, fair-haired man and an older, dark-haired man who were being held captive. Deborah contacted a well-known Los Angeles psychic named Louise — she has supposedly been used by Los Angeles police to help solve crimes — who told her that Ron would return someday but John would not. The woman said the Gypsy Song had been hijacked and that a third man on the boat was involved. In her vision, she saw hijackers searching in the hold for something that might have been drugs or weapons, Louise said.
In mid-February, the first clue surfaced — Athlene received at her Palm Desert apartment a Visa credit card statement that included a $107 charge in Guatemala on January 1, 1985. The statement listed the creditor as El Rancho de Don Juan restaurant in Escuintla, a city thirty-five miles inland from the port of San Jose. Athlene'contacted the U.S. State Department. But when officials at the American embassy in Guatemala called the port captain in San Jose, they were told that, according to records, the Gypsy Song had never been there. Nagging questions arose over this bill. What were Ron and John doing in Guatemala? Their first stop was supposed to be Acapulco. And if they did stop in San Jose, why travel so far inland? How in the world could they spend $107 at a restaurant in Guatemala? Could the Visa card have been stolen, and could the thief — the murderer? — be using it? “We thought of every far-out thing you can imagine,” Athlene says. “It just didn’t make sense.”
The two women had no money to investigate the disappearance themselves, so they had no choice but to rely upon Overseas Citizens Services, the branch of the U.S. State Department that handles cases involving Americans missing abroad. In early 1985, OCS sent telegrams to embassies throughout Central America, requesting information about the Gypsy Song. They also arranged to put out air-sea alerts. These embassies then called or wrote to numerous ports, asking if the Gypsy Song had docked there. Nothing turned up. Possibly in response to pressure applied by Athlene — several public figures, including U.S. Senator John Heinz and Congressman Joseph Gaydos of Pennsylvania, wrote to the State Department on her behalf — Thomas Shannon, a vice consul at the American embassy in Guatemala City, traveled to the port of San Jose on June 7, 1985. He visited the port captain there and discovered that the Gypsy Song had been in San Jose after all. The captain’s log clearly showed that the Gypsy Song arrived in San Jose on December 29, 1984, and left on January 2, 1985. It also showed that the Gypsy Song had hit a rock and entered port to make repairs. On board were the two Novosats and a Spaniard named Jose Cabrera Lazaro.
From Guatemala, Shannon called Athlene Novosat with the news. He told her he’d been to the Rancho de Don Juan restaurant, and a waitress there identified photos of Ron and John Novosat. The two men had eaten there. Shannon said, and were given about one hundred dollars in Guatemalan currency, all charged to John’s Visa card. It was New Year’s Day and banks were closed, so the owner agreed to give them the cash. Deborah was angry after Shannon’s call. “A few months earlier, the State Department told us Ron and John hadn’t been there,” she says. “That got us all jacked up. We were thinking someone had stolen the [credit] cards, we went through the trouble of getting copies of the Visa slip from the banks, and we even had the signature analyzed. And then we find out they’d really been there after all.”
Athlene and Deborah have had great difficulty dealing with the State Department. From the start, both women say they found officials at OCS evasive, unresponsive, and insincere. “It seems that very few people are interested in our problem,” Deborah wrote to OCS director David Hobbs in July of 1985. Everything the State Department did took so much time. Three months elapsed before officials determined that the Gypsy Song had indeed been in Guatemala. Leo LaJeunesse reported his sighting of the Gypsy Song in Puerto Madero, Mexico, in February of 1986, and the State Department didn’t send an envoy to Puerto Madero untii May 29. When Athlene would call Renny Smith, the OCS officer in charge of the Novosat file. Smith never seemed to be at her desk and wouldn’t return the call for days. And when she did call, she spoke only very generally about the case. “I couldn’t get her to tell me specifically what they’d done,” Athlene said. “They could have saved us so much grief if they’d just notified us of everything right away. But they just didn’t care.”
In order to see for herself what the State Department has done, three months ago, Athlene requested the department’s file on the Gypsy Song through the federal Freedom of Information Act. She’s still received nothing, and given the enormous backload of FOIA requests, she probably won’t until next year. Deborah stopped talking to OCS last year, when she got so angry during a call that Renny Smith hung up on her. “I don’t believe anything they say,” says Deborah. “They just tell you anything to get you off their backs.” In fairness to the Overseas Citizens Services staff, they have a thankless job. They have numerous cases and limited resources. Desperate family members call them continually, pleading for good news, and often the news is either bad or ambiguous. One State Department official, who asked not to be named, said that as a result, families tend “to blame the bearer of bad news.” When it seems as though officials are stingy with information, they are often merely being cautious about giving families false hope, instinctively playing down the importance of unsubstantiated sightings. Perhaps the biggest problem is that, from the family’s point of view, the State Department appears to be in charge of an investigation. According to Ruth Van Heuvin of the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C., American embassy officials in foreign countries have no authority to search for missing Americans themselves. “It’s up to that country to conduct the investigation,” she says. “All we can do is try to persuade them to pursue as vigorous an investigation as possible.”
Two months ago, using funds raised by friends in Pennsylvania, Athlene was able to hire her own investigator. She chose Captain Ken Franke, who spent twenty-seven years in the Coast Guard and now operates a marine surveying business on Rosecrans in San Diego. He is an expert on boats, and from the outset, he was primarily concerned with applying his expertise to the theory that the Gypsy Song sank. Franke has several reasons to believe it did. For one thing, he is suspicious of the boat’s construction. He says that ferro-cement. which Ron Novosat used to build the Gypsy Song's hull, is “a technologically complex material that has to be very precisely engineered.” Ferro-cement boats were popular in the 1960s but fell out of favor when many of them sank due to construction defects. Today few insurance carriers will even insure them. The substructure of a ferro-cement hull is made up of carefully meshed metal wire (“ferro”) that supports the cement. The mix of the cement is extremely important, containing as it does a concoction of various alloyed materials. The hull, which is only about one inch thick, must be poured very skillfully, and in one setting, otherwise it will have vulnerable “fracture zones.” Franke says, “I have no evidence of how the young Novosat built the hull. I’ve heard it was done right, but who knows?”
Franke believes the Gypsy Song's eighty-horsepower inboard diesel engine was inadequate for the thirty-two-ton vessel. He is also worried about something he saw in the original marine surveyor’s report, a reference to a mast turnbuckle made by a company called Nautec. Franke is certain the surveyor incorrectly spelled the manufacturer’s name, that the turnbuckle, a tensioning device that holds up the mast, was made by a Massachusetts firm called Navtec. The Gypsy Song's crew, therefore, may have been at the fate of a turnbuckle that has been recalled by the manufacturer because it has a defective stainless steel center screw. (Recalled Navtecs are returned to customers with a nickel-coated bronze center screw.) After years of exposure to salt water, the steel threads were known to corrode, making the turn-buckle vulnerable to fracture. “When that happens, you lose the rig,” says Franke, who, coincidentally, performed tests on defective Navtec buckles just last December and found that they broke at twenty-five percent of their rated strength. Franke says that if a turnbuckle were to break and the boat were to be “dismasted” in heavy weather, one of the two masts could strike the side of the boat and puncture a hole in the hull.
Several weeks after Franke and I returned from Guatemala, I talked to Jeff O’Connell and Josh Mills, the two men from Sausalito who traveled to Central America with Ron Novosat in 1982. They provided evidence that the Gyspy Song sailed with far more liabilities than the minor damage incurred when it hit a rock off the coast of Guatemala. Both men said Ron Novosat was a poor sailor, and his boat was barely seaworthy. O’Connell explained that in about July of 1983, Novosat decided to paint the Gypsy Song's hull in Panama. Benefiting from an eighteen-foot tide there, boaters could avoid the expense of dry docking by resting their vessels on sand bars and allowing the tide to drop. For several hours, they would have access to the hull for painting or repairs. But, according to O'Connell, when Novosat tried it, the thirty-two-ton boat fell over on its side, cracking the cement hull below the water line. Mills insists that this happened twice. “It was repaired, but he used epoxy bonding rather than steel reinforcing,” recalls O’Connell. “He didn’t put in any heavy reinforcement. I told him he should have.” O’Connell, who went along as the mechanic on the trip, recalls Novosat’s increasingly “careless” attitude over the year he spent on the Gypsy Song. “He wouldn’t listen,” O’Connell says. “I'd tell him something needed to be done but he wouldn't do it. Since he never had money, he’d jerry rig rather than fixing things right. He was running on luck.”
O’Connell says other boaters noticed Novosat’s cavalier habits at the helm. “He was constantly bumping into boats,” says O’Connell. “One time I woke up on a different boat with the Gypsy Song's bow sprit hanging over the side. Ron had anchored too close and had drifted over and bumped into our boat.”
Josh Mills was an experienced boatman, and Novosat had taken him along with O’Connell so Mills could teach him about sailing. “He knew nothing about navigation,” said Mills. “I gave up trying to teach him. He just didn't follow it.” O'Connell recalls that Novosat had a dangerous habit of sailing too close to shore and that he was less than skillful when docking. “A few times when we went in for fuel, if there hadn't been fifteen people around to fend his boat off, we'd have taken out the dock,” O'Connell recalls.
The Spanish crewman; Jose, apparently had worries about the Gyspy Song as well. Brent Hoffmeister, who left the boat a week before it sailed out of Costa Rica, recalls that when he said good-bye to Jose, the Spaniard was tying down on the deck a nine-foot-long board made of buoyant wood. “It had ropes he could hang onto,” Hoffmeister recalls. “It was the board he was going to float on in case the boat went down.”
The Gulf of Tehuantepec, into which the Gypsy Song sailed after leaving San Jose, Guatemala, on January 2, 1985, is no place for a careless sailor in a crippled boat. The infamous gulf, which stretches from Guatemala north to about Puerto Angel in southern Mexico, is known for its deadly weather between October and April. It is adjacent to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowing land mass at the extreme southern end of Mexico between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. On this isthmus — which has been proposed as a site for a transoceanic canal — is a valley between two mountain ranges through which tremendous winds blow during the winter months. They originate to the north near the Gulf of Mexico, descending south and blowing offshore into the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Sixty-knot gale-force winds, referred to by Americans as “Tehuantepecers,” are not uncommon. What’s worse, they sometimes arrive with no warning whatsoever.
Ron Novosat probably knew about these winds. It is less clear he knew the best way to sail the Gulf of Tehuantepec, which is to stay close to shore. O’Connell recalls that as the Gypsy Song sailed south in 1982, it encountered a severe gale well offshore, about sixty miles from the coast. According to John Rains, a columnist for the local marine newspaper the San Diego Log and the author of a book on sailing in Central America, the winds get worse the farther you are from shore. Even large tuna boats have been known to sink in the Gulf of Tehuantepec, he says, adding that such violent winds are most likely in January. “They talk about Ios pinches dias de enero — the shitty days of January,” Rains says. If the Gypsy Song did indeed sink in a “Tehuantepecer,’’ the three crewmen had only an old inflatable life raft that had been patched several times. Novosat had sold his $2800 automatically inflating raft, as well as his large wooden dinghy, before leaving Costa Rica. According to Rains, it is possible that all debris from the wrecked boat — including about ten life preservers with the name Gypsy Song on them — might have been swept out to sea by the violent offshore winds and that the big ships that travel the sea lanes each day might not spot any wreckage.
Ken Franke and I arrived in Guatemala City at about 8:00 a.m. on July 2, after a five-hour flight from Los Angeles. We drove directly to the American Embassy, where we met Tom Shannon, the former head of Overseas Citizens Services in Guatemala. He handled the Novosat case before he was transferred to another department within the embassy, and he nodded knowingly as Franke explained his fears about the Gypsy Song. Shannon told us about his visit with port officials in San Juan, and then, almost as an afterthought, he said, “You’ve heard about the American who said he saw the younger Novosat in a bar in Cabo San Lucas, haven’t you?” Franke damn near fell out of his chair. Mrs. Novosat has never mentioned this man to either of us. Franke was thinking, “If they’ve spotted Ron Novosat 2000 miles north of here on the Baja Peninsula, what the hell am I doing down here in Guatemala?" The story came out like this: In June of 1985, when Shannon was in San Jose investigating the Gypsy Song, he met an American boater and showed him a flyer with photographs of the Gypsy Song and of the Novosats. “I know that guy" the American said, pointing to Ron's photo. “It was in Cabo San Lucas a couple of months ago. I saw him in a bar." The American went on to tell Shannon about a boat called the Moonshadow, which he’d seen in San Quintin, about 600 miles north of Cabo San Lucas, that looked strikingly similar to the Gypsy Song. Could Ron Novosat have sold the boat? Could the Gypsy Song be sailing under a new name?
Franke asked who the American was. “We can't release that information " said Shannon, who long ago sent his report to Washington, D.C., and has no idea what follow-up was done. Franke asked for the names of those who were on the Moonshadow in San Quintin. Shannon admitted he has that information but can’t give it out because the federal Privacy Act forbids it. Franke was troubled, not only because this news frustrates his intention to prove the Novosats are dead, but because he’s being paid $500 per day to investigate this case, yet he has no idea what the State Department has done about the hottest clue concerning the Gypsy Song's fate.
Franke and I learned one more thing of value at the Guatemalan embassy. Escuintla, the location given on the Visa bill Athlene Novosat received, is both a city and a department, or state, of Guatemala. El Rancho de Don Juan restaurant, Shannon told us, is not thirty-five miles inland after all, but in San Jose, which is in the state of Escuintla. Franke and I left the embassy marveling at how poor communication has been between the State Department and Athlene Novosat. Why didn’t anyone simply tell her the restaurant was on the coast? It would have spared her sleepless nights wondering why her husband and son traveled inland. Why didn’t anyone put the unidentified American in contact with Athlene Novosat and Deborah Hager a year ago? A single phone conversation might have established beyond a doubt that the Moonshadow was a different boat and that the man in Cabo San Lucas bore only a superficial resemblance to Ron Novosat. Or it might have established the contrary. Did the State Department do anything at all?
We found out later that Shannon had in fact called Athlene Novosat from Guatemala to tell her about his visit to the restaurant in June of 1985. He’d mentioned the Moonshadow and the mysterious “man" who said he'd seen Ron. Athlene and Deborah assumed that the State Department would investigate the leads thoroughly. They don’t know what the State Department did, but when they traveled to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana in August of 1985 to meet with consul Sharon Wilkinson, she gave them the distinct impression there was no substance to the Cabo San Lucas and San Quintin sightings. “She said something like, ‘Oh, that was nothing. He’s just some weirdo,’ ” recalls Deborah. “We just forgot about it after that."
I called the State Department in Washington, D.C., to ask what led them to dismiss the Baja sightings and was directed to Ruth Van Heuvin of the Bureau of Consular Affairs. She said the State Department hadn't dismissed the sightings. If Wilkinson gave Athlene and Deborah that impression, it was merely “her personal opinion, not the position of the State Department.” When I asked Van Heuvin to explain exactly what the State Department did to corroborate or refute the mysterious American’s story, she replied, “You want to get into detail, but I can't do that."
Ken Franke was not enthusiastic about the report he had to file with Athlene Novosat and Deborah Hager concerning his three-day trip to Guatemala City, San Jose, and Puerto Madero. Rather than put their minds at ease, he knew it would only make matters worse for the women. He recommended that Athlene have the State Department investigate the fisherman Valdez’s sighting in Salina Cruz and — most importantly — that she get the name of the American Shannon spoke to in San Jose. Athlene called Renny Smith of OCS in Washington, D.C., immediately and made these requests, but the Privacy Act prevented Smith from giving out any information about the American. She did agree, reluctantly, to contact the man and give him Athlene’s phone number. “She kept telling me. This isn’t really my job, but I’ll do it because I want to help you,’ ” Athlene said in frustration after her call to Smith. “She kept saying that over and over again and that the State Department is there for diplomatic reasons, not to investigate."
Ten days later, Athlene had still heard nothing, so last month, on July 18, 1986, she drove to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. She was allowed, without explanation, to see the Novosat file, which consisted mostly of telegrams and other communications between various embassies. However, there was a memo in which Athlene found the names and phone numbers of the mysterious American. Thomas Gaspar Mascari, and the Moonshadow's owner, James Wailand. Athlene gave me the names and numbers, and in a matter of minutes, I was able to track down both men through relatives and get answers to questions that had tormented Athlene and Deborah for an entire year. Wailand, who runs a marine shop near Santa Cruz, California, owns a boat called the Moonshadow, which looks like the Gypsy Song but most assuredly is not the same vessel. He had never been contacted by anyone from the State Department.
Mascari was harder to get in touch with, because he is in jail on a drug charge in Hawaii. Just about everything he told me was written in the State Department memo that Athlene Novosat read in Tijuana. And yet State Department officials had told Athlene very little of it, not even the nationality of the mysterious man who turned out to be Mascari. During a phone interview from the Oahu Community Correctional Center, Mascari told me that in about April of 1985, he had spent about an hour and fifteen minutes in a bar in Cabo San Lucas, where he went to see a televised boxing match (he recalled that it was the Tommy Heams/Marvin Hagler fight, but it was almost certainly Hagler versus Juan Roldan on March 31, 1985). At the table next to Mascari was a man with a beard, accompanied by two other men.
In San Jose. Guatemala, Shannon had shown him photographs of Ron and John Novosat, and Mascari immediately identified Ron Novosat as the bearded man but said neither of the two other men in the bar resembled John Novosat. When I asked Mascari to describe the man, he said, “He had dirty blond hair and was about five-ten, five-eleven, maybe 190 pounds.” Ron Novosat, who had a beard the last time Deborah saw him, has light hair, and his latest driver’s license listed him as five-ten, 190 pounds.
In his discussion with embassy officer Shannon. Mascari had mentioned that the bearded man had a habit of biting his lower lip. Both Athlene Novosat and Deborah Hager say Ron had this same habit. Mascari also told Shannon that the guy in the bar “acted like someone from Pennsylvania.” In our recent phone interview, I asked Mascari, who is from New York, what he meant by that. He said the fellow reminded him of people he met when he used to go to Pennsylvania with his uncle to buy horses. “He wasn’t a city boy,” Mascari said. “I could tell he was from the country.” Mascari was surprised when I told him Ron Novosat grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. Mascari also recalled that the bearded man “had a bad attitude” and that he “harassed" waitresses in the bar.
Neither Athlene nor Deborah could believe Ron would do that. “It doesn't sound like Ron at all,” says Deborah. “He was always very mellow.” Other friends were less certain. “He could be arrogant,” says Jeff O’Connell. “He changed in the two years I knew him. When I last saw him, he wasn't as easygoing as he used to be.”
Mascari admits he could be mistaken. “But I was a floor man in Vegas,” he said. “They show you pictures of a thousand cheaters, and you’re supposed to be able to pick them out in the casino. I don’t remember names, but I don't forget a face. The minute that embassy guy showed me the picture, I recognized it."
Could Ron Novosat still be in Mexico? “If so, what’s he doing?" asks Deborah Hager. “I can’t imagine one day he’s going to call up and say, ‘I’ve been held captive,’ or ‘I’ve been running drugs.’ ’’ The alleged sightings of Ron in Cabo San Lucas (April, 1985) and Salina Cruz (December, 1985) have raised more thorny questions. No one seriously believes that John — former police chief, stable personality, loving husband of thirty-five years — would suddenly choose to disappear. Everyone is less certain about Ron. He was something of a loner, had never held a steady job in his life, and had hammered his own wandering spirit into a boat with the flighty name Gypsy Song. Furthermore, both the Valdez and the Mascari sightings were of him alone. “He had plenty of chances to leave me when we were going out" says Deborah. “Why wait until we have a kid together? He wanted to have Nicole even more than I did.”
If Ron is still wandering around, where is his father? In a mystery with so few clear-cut answers, the imagination takes charge, and everyone who gets involved in the Novosat case asks whether or not Ron was capable of risking his father’s well-being by transporting drugs. If there is any substance to the Mascari and the Valdez sightings, the reigning theory — proposed even' by some close to the family — is that father John was somehow killed, Ron felt responsible, and now he's too ashamed to come back. “If someone said to him, ‘You can make a hundred grand by transporting drugs,’ Ron could do it, I guess," Deborah says. “But not with his father there. No way. He invited his father to come along!" The theory troubles Alhlene as well. “Ron knows he can talk to me about anything," she says. “He would have at least called, wouldn’t he have?"
Dave Peterson, the mysterious caller who allegedly searched for Ron and John in Guatemala immediately after they disappeared, contacted Athlene Novosat about three weeks ago. It had been more than a year since his last call. Athlene told him I wanted to talk to him, so he called me from a phone booth in Banning, near Riverside. He seemed every bit as strange as Deborah Hager had described him.
“Is Dave Peterson your real name?” I asked him.
“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Of course,” he replied.
“Was there something on that boat that you wanted?”
“Ha ha ha. Yeah, I'd like the whole boat ”
“You didn’t answer my question ”
“No, I had nothing on the boat. Listen, if you’ve ever been between a rock and a hard place, you always have that one hope — there’s one person who’s going to come and get you. I’ve been in that spot many times. If I'm that one person, maybe this is my mission. Maybe that’s why I've been drawn into this.”
I asked Peterson where I could contact him again, but he wouldn't give a phone number. Nor would he tell me what he did for a living, where he was from, or what he was doing in Central America.
As they raise Nicole together, Athlene Novosat and Deborah Hager can do little more right now than contemplate the strange circumstances surrounding the Gypsy Song's disappearance, which has become even more bizarre with the emergence of new clues and the return of Peterson. Athlene still has two daughters back East, but her husband and only remaining son are now gone. She and Deborah have done everything they could to find the missing boat, seeking advice from friends, relatives. State Department officials, investigators, and psychics. Flyers have been posted in ports throughout Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama. Dozens of telegrams have been sent, letters written, and phone calls placed. And, according to Athlene, she’s seen to it that “everyone is praying for them.” But to date no solid evidence exists that Ron and John are alive. Nor does anything prove they’re dead. In the face of such doubt. Deborah tends to believe the Gypsy Song was lost at sea. “I understand that,” says Athlene. “I tell her if she wants to date other men, she can . and I won’t mind. She’s a young woman, only thirty-two, and you get old fast. But I’m not going to give up. Not me. I’m not that way. I'm not going to bury them until I have something to bury.”