What Happened to the Crew
of the Casie Nicole
This is the story of the Casie Nicole, a boat captained by Billie Joe Neesmith
On April 11, 1990, Nathan Neesmith, his brother Billy Joe Neesmith, his nephew Keith Wilkes, and his friend Franklin Brantley set off from McIntosh County pier in Georgia to go on a seven-day commercial fishing expedition. Their ship, Casie Nicole, had just recently been docked for maintenance. They took it to an uncharted reef off the coast of South Carolina. Early in the morning on April 12, their boat capsized and quickly took on water. They had to abandon the ship, so they boarded a raft. Nathan Neesmith left the other three men in the raft with some food and went off in a wooden box to go find help. He was rescued five days later, but the rest of the men were never found. The only things ever found were a sleeping bag and a life vest. To this day their fate is unknown.
One probable conclusion was that the men simply drowned at sea. While that is wholly possible, there were strange phone calls from a man who didn’t speak English, which made the families of the missing men think they were still alive. Starting about six weeks after the disappearance and continuing over the next year, there were seven calls made in all. Four were made to Nathan’s sister, and the other three were made to a man named Doug Tyson, the owner of Casie Nicole. The caller would just repeat the phone number, say the name of the person he was calling and the name of one of the missing men, Billy Joe. In the last call, the man said he was going to bring them home. However, the men were never seen again.
The phone calls led the family to speculate that the men were actually rescued from the ocean but were being held captive in a foreign country. Yet, there is little evidence that helps shed light on what actually happened to the three fishermen.
On April 12, 1990, four commercial fishermen prepared to embark on a seven day expedition in the Atlantic. The Captain was 23-year-old Billy Joe Neesmith. The crew included his brother, Nathan, his nephew, Keith Wilkes, and a friend, Franklin Brantley. In the late afternoon, they set off on the Casie Nicole, a snapper boat, owned by a man named Doug Tyson. The boat had recently spent five weeks in dry dock for maintenance.
Nathan Neesmith was at the helm:
“I guess it was somewhere around 3:30, 4:00 in the morning… it was still dark. I had got up and was operating the boat and the boat just seemed to be sluggish you know, like it wanted to bust through the waves, kind of like a submarine or something. It didn’t want to ride over the waves. So I told my brother, he was laying in the bunk, I woke him up. I said something’s wrong with the boat.”
Nathan then took his brother to the control panel. It was there that they noticed the Casie Nicole was riding unusually deep in the water. They then checked the bow where the other crew members were sleeping. What Nathan saw surprised him:
“When we turned on the light, we noticed there was water about a foot deep down in the bunks where they were at.”
Most of them had been on the sea for a number of years at least.
What they were doing is they were going to go out for a seven day fishing trip, and it is assumed this was professional, and not just for pleasure. Although, at the same time, on a 34-foot boat, I’m not sure how many fish you can hold on something like that. Five days later, April 16, 1990, Nathan Neesmith was found floating in a large wooden box about 20 miles east of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The others were missing. The Coast Guard kicked off a massive air and sea search with help from local private boat owners and commercial fishermen. The Casie Nicole was found that night, April 16th , about 45 miles off the coast. But all they found of the other three men was a life vest and a sleeping bag about five miles from where Nathan was rescued. Two days later the search was called off, and Billy Jo, Keith, and Frank have never been seen since.
The Casie Nicole left Darien Justin-…at zero dark thirty on the 11th. Almost 24 hours later, something went wrong with this boat. According to news reports at the time, it could have capsized. Some internet sources say it was taking on water. Between the news and the internet, I’m not sure which one we can trust here. Flip a coin, it doesn’t really matter. But it’s a 34-foot boat, so capsizing?
They were about 65 miles off shore, and Nathan said that he’d got up around three-thirty, four am in the morning, started the engine, and started driving to somewhere to go fishing.
He noticed the boat was heavy with manoeuvring, and it wasn’t going over the waves, it was kind of ploughing through them, because it was just not manoeuvring as well.
That’s not great.
Not when you’re 65 miles out.
Nathan woke up his brother, Billy Jo, and told him to wake up the others. So Billy Jo went to the bow of the boat where Franklin and Keith were sleeping and noticed that there was a foot of water in the cabin in between the bunks.
That would explain why it was ploughing through the waves instead of going over them.
So, it’s time at this point to turn on the bilge pumps. So, they turn those on, and it, they don’t appear to be working.
The boat’s pumps were inoperable. In order to prevent the boat from sinking, Nathan and his crew had to bail the water out with buckets:
“And we got in a line and started passing the bucket and trying to bail the boat out. In the mean time, we took the life raft out. It was a two-man life raft. We’d been hollering “Mayday” on the radio. We had Billy Joe on it, working it. Never got anywhere with that. And the engine finally stalled.”
So they, recently the boat had been pulled out of the water for maintenance, some repairs. Maybe those repairs were done by a family member…
Who’s not charging?
Somebody forgot to reconnect the bilge pumps, maybe?
They go into full panic mode. They start calling out maydays. The brothers, Nathan, Keith and Frank, they’re doing a bucket line trying to get that water out. Billy is not getting any response on the radio. Maybe the radio wasn’t working, maybe they’re too far out, and there’s just nobody around. It’s four in the morning, so maybe nobody was awake. And then the engine quits, possibly because it’s taken on water and is flooded.
So now they’re losing the battle, and they go to plan B, which is their life raft. And the life raft sucks.
All power on the Casie Nicole was lost. The radio was useless. Nathan and his crew had no choice but to abandon ship.
“Life raft was kind of rotten. It had a hole on the side of it, up on the top. We don’t really know what happened there. But we do know that it had a hole in it about the size of a quarter.”
A life raft is there to save your life, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.
A life raft is like your very last chance.
It’s not in the best condition, and it only sat two, not four.
It’s like, you know, when you go to the sporting goods store, and they say, they advertise a two-man raft, and it’s only big enough for one man.
They go to the raft, and two of them are in the boat, the other two are kind of hanging on, sitting on the rim, but they all got their vests on.
So the sun’s coming up now because they’ve been battling this whole deal and…
Luckily a hatch cover is drifting by, so they grab it and tie it to the raft, trying to give it extra floatation. Now that the sun is out, they could see the Casie Nicole, and it hasn’t completely sunk. It’s just sort of submerged. Particularly if it did capsize, there would be an air pocket in there, and that’ll help keep it afloat a little bit.
The life raft was sinking fast. Then, salvation came floating by… it was the hatch cover from the Casie Nicole. The four men tied the raft to the hatch cover and climbed aboard. Then, Nathan saw the hull of the Casie Nicole in the distance:
“It looked like it was maybe three or four miles from us. I said I don’t know what kind of chance we got, but at least maybe one of us can make it to the boat and get some kind of help. Well that’s what I struck out to do. And they started hollering no, no, no, you come back. If we separate up, we going to be split up and ain’t no telling what can go wrong.”
Obviously you don’t want to be on the deck when it capsizes, but maybe you can climb back on, and keep it afloat a little bit.
They don’t have oars usually on things like that, because if you have oars, it’s, like, a lot of extra room. So if something popped up next to the life raft, and they’re tying it to the boat to get extra floatation, it seems like there would be other flotsam that they could have grabbed and used to paddle.
So once this thing deflates…
Or takes on water, they’re in the water.
They’re kind of screwed.
So why not go to something that’s somewhat floating as opposed to sinking.
If you can climb up on the hull of this boat, you know, then that’s a better place to be than immersed in the ocean.
Without heeding the warnings of his fellow crewman, Nathan swam to the stern of the sunken boat:
“I just kept swimming and kept swimming. I swam from oh about 9 o’clock that morning and just before dark that afternoon, I got to where I thought… the boat was. I drank so much salt water trying to swim in it. And I was just real weak.”
He was swimming with a personal floatation device which creates a lot of drag, so he would have had to be swimming backstroke. They teach you a special stroke, actually, how to do it. You lay on your back, and then you kind of like, because you don’t exert very much energy. It’s kind of a hula dance with your arms. -It exerts, like, almost no energy, and since you’re lying on your back, your head’s above the water and you get to go…
He says that it took him seven hours, but when you’re doing something crazy like that it might take longer. As darkness fell, Nathan lost sight of his companions.
-So he climbs up onto the hull and just spends, drapes himself over it and spends the night clinging to the hull.
He spent a long harrowing night clinging to the hull of the Casie Nicole. But the next morning, a freighter passed within three miles of Nathan.
The next morning he sees a freighter coming by, and it stops three or four times and circles around. And that kind of looks like it might be picking up people.
“Looked like it made about four stops, maybe five stops. And each time it would stop or circle. And it was in the direction where my other mates were, so I figured that maybe it had stopped to pick them up.”
In the vicinity of where he expects the life raft to be.
The freighter continued its odd movement for nearly three hours, then disappeared. For two and a half days, Nathan drifted and prayed that the Casie Nicole would stay afloat. Suddenly, a large wood and Styrofoam bait box broke loose from the boat’s deck and popped to the surface:
“And I swam over to it. I got to the front of it, and bless God, the whole front was out. I mean it was just like a boat to me. It was really hot, I mean I was getting real sunburnt. My skin was turning real, real red and I was real close to dead. And I remember saying, ‘God please let me go home to my wife and kids.’”
So his ordeal continued until Monday the 16th, until 9 am. And he was spotted by a passing boat. He was in really bad shape. Dehydrated, sunburned, and if he had taken on any sea water, that makes you a little crazy.
At 10 AM on April 15, 1990, Nathan Neesmith was finally rescued, twenty miles off the coast of Georgia. He had been adrift without food or water for four days.
Nathan Neesmith, said he didn’t know why the 34- foot boat Casie Nicole sank.
”All I know is water came in, and it came in fast,” said Neesmith, still appearing fatigued on his third day of hospitalization. Neesmith said that as he drifted in the Atlantic, he splashed water on his face and tried to avoid drinking the salt water. He felt at times he would not survive.
”I heard people talking to me,” Neesmith said. ”I drifted along. I heard people yelling out, ‘Nathan 3/8’ I’d jump up and look around. I thought it was somebody. Here I am looking around, and it was only the good Lord keeping me awake.”
Neesmith was rescued about 20 miles east of Hilton Head Island, S.C.
He was in fair condition at Memorial Medical Center in Savannah, where he was being treated for hypothermia and dehydration. The boat was found by a Coast Guard plane about 45 miles off the coast. A subsequent search turned up only a life vest and a sleeping bag, about five miles from where Neesmith was rescued.
Neesmith said he and his companions were about 65 miles offshore when the boat began taking on water. He left the others with food and a raft, and set out to get help.
He said he was confident the others will be found.
”People are praying for us all over the world, and if they can be found we’re gonna find them … we’re sure gonna try anyway,” Neesmith said.
But despite a large-scale search, the other fishermen were never found by the coast guard. Still, Nathan and his family never gave up hope.
So Nathan is back on dry land, and here’s where things get a little hinky. Months after the accident, Nathan’s sister, Anita, got a phone call from a person speaking Spanish. She couldn’t understand anything that he said other than her name and her phone number. Everything else was unintelligible.
According to Oneda, the male caller spoke Spanish and seemed unable to understand English:
“All this person would keep saying was repeating our phone number and saying our name and that’s all. And you know, we just kept saying hello, hello and it was just cut off, static cut off.”
At roughly around the same time, the owner of the Casie Nicole, whose name was Doug Tyson, got a similar call.
Once again, the caller was a man. And according to Tyson, the only English words he knew were Doug’s name and telephone number:
“We didn’t say anything about the call when we got it… after that, about six weeks, we were down visiting with the Neesmith family. And they started telling us about their call. And after they got through I asked how long ago was this… They thought back a minute and said about six weeks. I looked at my wife, she looked at me and… I said yeah.”
So he got a similar phone call from a man speaking Spanish, and again, the only thing that Tyson could understand was his own name and his phone number being spoken to him. It wasn’t until about six weeks later that they put two and two together. Doug Tyson was visiting the Neesmiths, and Anita mentioned that she’d gotten this strange phone call from a guy in Spanish, speaking Spanish. And that’s when Doug and his wife remembered his strange phone call.
Over the next year, five more calls came in—three to Oneda and two to the Tysons. Finally, on March 6, 1991, Oneda received a call in which the caller spoke a single sentence in English:
“Very simple words, just said I’m bringing him home. That was it.”
After only a brief moment, the connection was lost. There have been no calls since.
What really happened to the lost crewmen of the Casie Nicole? Officially, Billy Joe Neesmith, Keith Wilkes, and Franklin Brantley are presumed dead. Unofficially, there is reason to hope that they may still be alive.
The freighter that may have picked up the three men could potentially have been involved in illegal maritime activity, or it may have flown the flag of a country with an anti-American policy. The Spanish words of the mysterious caller suggest they may have been taken to Cuba. The end of the calls may suggest that the caller was discovered and neutralized, either by drug smugglers or his superior officers.
It’s possible that the calls didn’t happen, but prank calls happen. Wrong numbers happen. It could have all been a misunderstanding. It could have had nothing to do with the disappearance of the crew of the Casie Nicole.
They should have got a tape recorder or answer phone and if the guy calls record the calls and then go find somebody who speaks Spanish. That’s if the phone calls were real and it was a conman, then maybe the conman just abandoned the con?
The family and Doug believe that this man phoning was referring to one or more of the missing men. They hold out hope that they are alive somewhere though no evidence has been found to support that theory. The government has declared the men missing at sea and presumed dead.
Theories about what happened to the missing men are varied. Some say Nathan’s story is suspicious. The claims he swam for over seven hours to reach the hull, abandoned the others, and the freighter appearance are far-fetched. They feel he was either directly involved or the four of them were part of a drug trafficking ring, and something went awry. Others, interested in the story, think the freighter was involved in the drug trafficking and that crew took the men prisoner or killed them to keep them quiet. Slavery is still very much a thing in many parts of the world. It’s possible that they were picked up and sold or held for manual labour.
Is it possible, given that he was “hearing voices,” that he may have hallucinated the freighter. You would think if his friends got rescued, and he was close enough to see this happening, that they would try to lead the freighter back to him. Also, If they did get picked up by a freighter and the people weren’t exactly rescuing them, they might not have wanted to tell them where there other friend was to protect him.
The family holds with the idea that the men were taken prisoner by the crew on the freighter and have been held in a foreign country, possibly Cuba.
We may never find out the true fate of these men and it will remain a secret of the Atlantic, an enigma that will forever have us speculating as to the fate of the crew members of the Casie Nicole.