an old rusted boat sitting in the water
A Key West man is serving six months in jail for failing to remove multiple derelict vessels in the Cow Key Channel area, including this old steel barge. State Attorney’s Office photo

A 67-year-old Key West man is serving jail time for letting his collection of six derelict vessels languish in the Cow Key Channel area, after Florida Keys prosecutors resolved a criminal case that started in March 2023. 

James Lee Huckabay Jr. on May 29 was sentenced to six months in jail and  ordered to reimburse the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for the $345,000 in cleanup and removal costs. 

Huckabay had even been renting out the derelict vessels on Airbnb, despite their unsafe and deteriorating conditions, said Steve Torrence, spokesman for the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office. 

“The damage these vessels caused to the sea floor, including the destruction of seagrass and other vital marine habitats, is reprehensible,” Torrence said in a statement. 

Torrence provided a list of Huckabay’s five boats – and one barge – found wrecked, junked or in a substantially dismantled state:

  • 1969 46-foot Chris-Craft
  • 1972 35-foot Pacemaker
  • 24-foot Fish & Ski
  • 12-foot 2021 homemade vessel
  • 1976 24-foot O’Day
  • 1946 110-foot Mount Vernon Bridge steel barge

Huckabay bought the old barge for $2,500 in February 2021, FWC reported.

When arrested on March 25, 2023, Huckabay hadn’t yet put it in his name, tried to move it “and has not done anything but placed his personal belongings on top and tied his other vessels to the barge itself,” the report states.

Instead, the barge was just sitting on the seafloor, killing seagrass while the steel rusted away with no means of steerage, propulsion or any way to be moved, the FWC arrest report said. 

Huckabay pleaded no contest to 23 charges and was adjudicated guilty on them all. 

a couple of boats that are sitting in the water
A Key West man owes $345,000 to the state of Florida for the removal of five derelict boats and a barge that he left languishing off Stock Island. State Attorney’s Office photo

Monroe County Judge Mark Wilson handed down the sentence:

  • $345,000 in restitution for the removal of the five derelict vessels and one barge, an effort to be arranged by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. 
  • 180 days in jail for each of the 6 counts of abandonment of derelict vessels
  • 60 days in jail for each of the 16 charges related to safety violations, lack of insurance, and health safety violations, all to be served concurrently.

On March 25, 2023, FWC Officers Daniel Jones and Matt Williams and Lt. Roy Payne were on water patrol at the Cow Key Channel area and identified multiple derelict vessel violations on boats Huckabay owned.

“Despite prior warnings and being given six weeks to bring his vessels into compliance, Mr. Huckabay failed to address the condition of his vessels,” Torrence said. 

In a statement, Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward said Huckabay’s derelict boats were causing unacceptable amounts of damage. 

“To think that someone could allow six vessels to harm the environment without consequences is beyond belief,” Ward said. 

FWC was instrumental in resolving the case, he said. 

“Their ongoing work to protect our natural resources and keep our waterways safe is commendable,” Ward said of FWC. “We continue to hold people responsible and accountable for their actions and failure to act.”

Ward also acknowledged his staff for their diligence in pulling the cases together for prosecution. 

“Their commitment to upholding the law and protecting our environment is evident in the successful prosecution of this case,” he said.

Gwen Filosa
Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.