Missing Fisherman Hoax
Sadly the news of missing boaters and fishermen is not uncommon in Southwest Florida. When the call comes in, Lee County Sheriff’s deputies respond, the Coast Guard begins the search and volunteer organizations such as Sundowners of Lee County take to the air and start pass-overs from the location of the last sighting. Family and friends of the missing crew or person pray and wait anxiously for an update from authorities – hopefully bearing good news.
In April 1961 one such call came in about a man overboard, and what ensued turned out be like a movie plot.
A Tale of Man Overboard
Billy Cass and John Pterudis, a prominent person in the fishing industry set out on the water to go shrimping in early April 1961. In the area near the Sanibel Lighthouse, Pterudis fell overboard. Cass, after doing an initial search from the boat, threw life jackets and other objects that would float in the hopes Pterudis would find them. He then took the boat back to shore and immediately informed the Coast Guard of what happened. There was no radio in the boat.
He recounted how they were about three miles southeast of Sanibel. Around 11 p.m. he went below and upon returning to the deck, Pterudis, a bait bucket and box were missing. Cass shared a theory that Pterudis may have fallen overboard while reaching over the side of the boat to fill the bucket. The Coast Guard Auxiliary immediately dispatched six boats to conduct a search and at daybreak a Coast Guard plane from St. Petersburg and a local Civil Air Patrol plane joined the search along with local shrimp boats.
One life preserver and the tackle box were the only items recovered.
The News-Press informed the public the following morning of the tragic mishap with the headline “Beach Shrimp Leader Vanishes off Sanibel.”
Shortly after the supposed drowning, Pterudis’ wife, Jessie, and her four daughters moved to St. Augustine to be near her family and move forward with their lives.
It was not too long after the drowning that reports began to surface that Pterudis was alive and well. Rumors were he was seen in Texas and Florida, and was possibly heading to New York. According to one account, “in August Pterudis was reported seen boarding a bus in Jacksonville for New York by William W. Hawn, a bait fisherman from Tarpon Springs who knew Pterudis personally. When the Tarpon Springs man returned from a trip to Maine he reported seeing Pterudis.”
Once the FBI got involved, the rumors turned into reality.
On Christmas Eve 1961, nine months after his supposed drowning, Pterudis checked into a hospital in New York for a bleeding ulcer under the name of “Petrakis.” His true identity was discovered when he listed his wife as next of kin.
The Chicago Tribune picked up the story from New York and on January 15, 1962 ran the headline “FBI Charges Fisherman in Death Hoax.” He was arrested in a “furnished Brooklyn apartment” after being released from the hospital in Long Island.
Pterudis confessed that he did actually fall overboard, but was picked up by a passing “pleasure craft.” He told a reporter, “I was too embarrassed to go back to Fort Myers where all my friends and associates in the shrimp business would have teased me unmercifully for having fallen overboard after 25 years as a shrimp fisherman. I couldn’t take it.”
He explained how he swam about one mile before being picked up and was taken to Punta Gorda. While there he purchased some clothes and headed to New York.
In New York he began to work as a helper in a marine repair shop in Brooklyn. Using the assumed name of his cousin, Paul Stratigos, he was sending money orders to his wife with plans of moving them to New York. That was until his ulcer acted up causing him to go to the hospital.
Pterudis and Cass were facing maximum sentences of five years in prison and $10,000 fine (today’s value $78,000). According to the article from the New York paper, “Cass formally is charged with furnishing a false drowning report to the United States Coast Guard and Pterudis, with conspiracy.”
Cass, upon returning from a fishing trip in Naples, turned himself in to the FBI. He was held in lieu of $1,500 bail. He pleaded not guilty.
Pterudis pleaded not guilty in a New York court and agreed to return to Florida and stand trial for “a federal charge of conspiracy growing out of the false report of his drowning.” His bail was also set at $1500.
Billy Cass, Jr., son of Billy Cass, said, “neither one did any time in jail. My dad was certainly in on the whole plan and was offered part of the insurance payout, but the authorities really put the pressure on him and he eventually told them of the plan.” Cass and Pterudis never spoke again after the incident.
Return To Florida
Pterudis had moved to Fort Myers Beach in 1949 from Charleston, South Carolina. He organized the Columbia Fish Company with a business partner and later established the General Marine Boatyard. After selling his share of the boatyard he operated a bait business and was one of the organizers of the annual blessing of the shrimp fleet.
In 1962 he was returning to Florida from New York under very different circumstances.
After all of his legal issues were behind him, Pterudis settled in St. Augustine, where his wife and daughters were living and got back into the shrimp business. With his wife and one other investor he started Pterudis Trawlers, Inc., in 1967 and in 1969 launched the Apollo Seafoods, Inc. Both enterprises dissolved in 1972.
His reunion with his family was also short-lived. In 1970, John and Jessie divorced.
John Pterudis died in St. Augustine, for real this time, in February 1977.
Southwest Florida historian T. M. Jacobs serves as an advisor to the Southwest Florida Historical Society and is a regular contributor of articles about early life on the beach.