It was a wild 48 hours for Jericho Labonte.
Astoria police say Labonte stole a $160,000 yacht from the Astoria Port early Friday morning, piloted it in rough seas to the mouth of the Columbia River, then made a frantic mayday call as the vessel began taking on water.
In a dramatic helicopter rescue caught on video – and publicized by the U.S. Coast Guard – a rescue swimmer plunged into the mouth of the Columbia River just in time to see a giant wave capsize the boat and then turn it upright. Labonte was swept into the frigid waters, then the swimmer successfully pulled him to safety.
Labonte was rushed to a local hospital, where he was treated and released. Police later learned he’d given medical staff a fake name; that he was not the yacht’s owner but had allegedly stolen it; and that he was the same man they’d wanted to talk to about a fishy incident two days earlier.
Astoria Police Chief Stacy Kelly told The Oregonian/OregonLive that Labonte originally came to their attention on Feb. 1, after the 35-year-old was allegedly caught on video placing stickers over the lenses of security cameras at the famed hilltop house featured in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 cult-classic “The Goonies.” Police said they suspect Labonte placed a dead fish on the front porch, before posting his caper to his Facebook page.
The video begins by making reference to lines from the movie. A man who police believe is Labonte calls out “Heyyyy, you guyyyys!” and “Do the truffle shuffle!” The video concludes by showing the fish on the porch.
After a resident reported the video to Astoria police, police learned authorities in Victoria, British Columbia, had issued five warrants for Labonte’s arrest for alleged crimes that include “harassment” and “mischief.” Astoria police had no other details on what Labonte is accused of doing in Canada. Labonte claims he lives in Victoria on his Facebook page.
A wanted poster circulated by Victoria police states that “he may post a risk to public safety. If you see Jericho Labonte, do not approach him and call 911.”
In fact, identifying and apprehending Labonte was the result of a community effort.
Petty Officer Second Class Michael Clark, a Coast Guard spokesperson, said rescuers earlier in the day had no idea who Labonte was. They only knew he was a person in distress.
“We just heard ‘Mayday! Mayday!’ That was it,” Clark said of the call they received at 10 a.m. as they were training near the mouth of the Columbia River.
Rescuers triangulated the yacht’s location near where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. The area has been dubbed the “graveyard of the Pacific” for all the ships that have sunk and lives lost in the area over the centuries.
A Coast Guard helicopter and at least three 47-foot rescue boats arrived about 40 minutes after Labonte’s call. The seas were rough, with 20-foot waves, and the 35-foot yacht, the P/C Sandpiper, was filling with water.
Freshly minted rescue swimmer John “Branch” Walton was lowered into the water from a helicopter, just as a massive wave rolled over the yacht. Walton then swam toward Labonte, wrapped a sling around him and the two were hoisted to the safety of the chopper.
“This was his first rescue, his first live-world rescue,” Clark said of Walton.
The helicopter crew didn’t find it unusual that Labonte, like other traumatized or injured people, didn’t give his name, Clark said.
“He was not very conversational, but he did go through a life and death experience,” said Clark, adding that Labonte told the rescue swimmer that he thought he’d hit his head when the wave swept him off the yacht.
A photo posted to the Coast Guard’s Twitter account shows rescuers exiting the helicopter and carrying a bedraggled Labonte toward an ambulance. Labonte, who reportedly was suffering from mild hypothermia, was treated at Columbia Memorial Hospital. He gave the fake name and then was released, according to police.
It was only after Labonte had left the hospital that police received calls from several residents who’d seen Labonte’s Facebook video at the “Goonies” house and recognized him as the man in the Coast Guard photo, police said. At around the same time, Astoria Port Security Chief Matt Hansen contacted police to say he’d watched Coast Guard video of the rescue and recognized the yacht as belonging to a Warrenton man, police said. He spoke to the owner and confirmed it was stolen.
By 8 p.m. Friday, police had apprehended Labonte at the Helping Hands Warming Shelter in Seaside, where he apparently had planned to stay the night — again using a fake name. He was booked into Clatsop County Jail a short while later.
Now that Labonte has been arrested, he could face charges of theft of the yacht, unauthorized use of the boat, endangering the life of the rescue swimmer and criminal mischief for his activities at the “Goonies” house.
Kelly, Astoria’s police chief, described Labonte’s string of alleged crimes in Astoria as “very unique.”
“I’ve been doing this (work) for over 22 years,” Kelly said, “and this was definitely the most interesting 48 hours I’ve ever had.”