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Recovered iPhone, waterlogged from months at sea, divides families searching for answers about sons' disappearance

April 26, 2016 at 6:58 AM

This combination made from photos provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows Perry Cohen, left, and Austin Stephanos, both 14 years old.  (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

From the beginning, their tragedies ran parallel.

Together, the parents mourned the loss of their sons, Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, Florida teens who left for a fishing trip one summer afternoon and never returned. They watched authorities locate the 19-foot boat that carried the boys onto the water and into the storms. They grieved its emptiness. When authorities were unable to recover the vessel, they watched the sea swallow it up all over again. Each started foundations in their sons' names. Each tried to remember.

Then, last month, the boat showed up again off Bermuda's coast, and with it the only evidence that could give these parents answers eight months after their boys disappeared.

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The U.S. Coast Guard located the boat Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen were using about 67 nautical miles off Ponce de Leon Inlet in Volusia County, Fla., but there was no sign of the 14-year-old boys, in or around the boat. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Related: [Marine experts say missing Fla. teenagers should not have been alone offshore]

That's when the parallels collided.

When Pamela Cohen, the mother of Perry Cohen, heard that the boat and the items inside it — including an iPhone — would be released by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to the appropriate families without inspection, she pushed back immediately.

"This is an open missing-persons case, and we hope that FWC reopens their investigation and utilizes the expert resources of other government agencies as well as the private sector if necessary to extrapolate the data from the recovered iPhone," Cohen and her husband, Nick Korniloff, said in a prepared statement last month on the same day the capsized boat was found floating off the coast of Bermuda by a supply vessel headed to Norway.

When that plea failed, Cohen took to Facebook, then to the courts.

On Monday, Cohen asked a court to issue a preliminary injunction barring state investigators from returning Austin Stephanos' water-logged iPhone found onboard the recovered boat to his parents.

Instead, according to her complaint, she wants it to remain with law enforcement.

"All of the parents of Austin and Perry, who are painfully grieving and without closure due to the missing status of their boys, have an interest in determining what happened to them," Cohen says in the complaint.

It lists FWC and Austin's parents, Carly Black and William "Blu" Stephanos, as defendants.

Cohen argues that the newly discovered evidence is cause for FWC to reopen its missing-persons investigation. In doing so, the personal items found onboard the boat would become property of law enforcement and subject to the highest level of examination. This scenario, she argues in the complaint, is her best shot at figuring out what happened to her child.

The boys initially went missing from Florida's Atlantic coast, near Jupiter, on July 24.

The problem is that the iPhone in question belonged not to her son, but to Austin Stephanos, and would therefore become the property of his parents. In the complaint, Cohen argues she has just as much right to the date on the phone as Austin's parents. On the day they disappeared, Austin let Perry send text messages from his iPhone because Perry's phone was broken.

"Accordingly, Perry, and his family, have a shared privacy interest in the contents of the subject iPhone discussed herein," the complaint says.

Cohen alleges that she tried to reach out to Black and Stephanos about the iPhone but had received no response to her phone calls or emails, according to the complaint.

FWC spokesman Rob Klepper told the Sun Sentinel that the commission could not retain the evidence without family permission because its a missing-persons case, not a criminal one.

Cohen took to Facebook again on Sunday with a harshly worded post, announcing her plans to file the complaint:

"The fact that since mid March and as of today April 24th, the Stephanos family has not provided consent to FWC to have the iPhone remain in the custody of law enforcement for data retrieval is not only incomprehensible to us as parents, it is also an insult to our community, the men and woman in uniform from local and government agencies and the tens of thousands of private citizens, volunteers and children nationwide that worked and prayed so tirelessly in the search and rescue efforts to find our son Perry and his dear friend Austin. In light of the new evidence of the missing boat and Iphone, and the lack of cooperation from the Stephanos family, and the fact that FWC informed us late Friday afternoon, April 21st of the decision that the Iphone would be turned over to Blu Stepahnos on Monday morning April 25th without any examination by authorities. We have no choice but to reach out to State Attorney Dave Aronberg's office who can simply issue a warrant which would allow FWC to turn over the phone to proper investigating authorities so the phone can be evaluated by experts"
"Pamela Cohen
"Perry's Mom
"The Perry J. Cohen Foundation"

In the complaint, Cohen compares this situation to the litigation that unfolded between the FBI and Apple, the company that makes the iPhone, after the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attacks in December. In that case, the FBI wanted Apple to help hack the phone of one of the alleged shooters. The company refused.

On Monday, Blu Stephanos responded with his own statement on Facebook, ensuring that the family already planned to have the phone inspected and would share any discoveries with the Cohen family:


Katie Mettler is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. She previously worked for the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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