Major archaeological discovery unveiled

SEBASTIAN — Searching around undersea boulders, shipwreck salvager Eric Schmitt spotted a glint of gold beneath a heap of shells, sand and stones on the ocean floor.

Then Schmitt started hollering expletives of surprise and joy — underwater.

With his right thumb and pointer finger, the scuba diver gently pulled out the back half of a gold filigree pendant. The high-karat religious artifact was lost when a doomed Spanish treasure ship sank in a fierce hurricane in 1715 off the coast of modern-day Fort Pierce.

This gold insert is the missing portion of an elaborate rectangular pyx – a decorative vessel used to hold a Catholic communion wafer – that was handcrafted in the late 1600s to early 1700s. Treasure hunters had discovered the pyx’s hinged front half a quarter century ago, in 1989.

“After 300 years of being on the bottom apart from each other, more than 300 feet away – roughly, if the numbers are right – they finally came back together this year. Right before the 300th anniversary of the shipwrecks,” Schmitt said Wednesday during a press conference at Capt. Hiram’s Resort in Sebastian.

In July 1715, a fleet of cargo-laden Spanish vessels set sail from Havana, Cuba, northward along the Gulf Stream on the way back to Spain. But a hurricane struck, sinking 11 ships off Florida’s East Coast.

The first generation of treasure hunters found gold, silver, jewelry, cannons, anchors and other items during the 1950s and ’60s, and the stretch of shoreline from Sebastian to Palm Beach County was nicknamed Florida’s Treasure Coast.

Schmitt discovered the ornate pyx May 25 at the “Douglas Beach wreck” in roughly 15 feet of water about 1,000 feet offshore from Fort Pierce. The 27-year-old is captain of the Aarrr Booty, a 44-foot twin-engine trawler used by family members to search for treasure. Their company name: Booty Salvage.

The front half of the pyx discovered in 1989 was appraised at $600,000 last month, said Bonnie Schubert, a Fort Pierce treasure hunter who has rights to its sale. Officials have not yet determined the possible value of Schmitt’s back half, nor of both halves if combined into a complete pyx.

“I’m not one of those ‘Pawn Stars’ guys. I can’t really throw a number out there,” Schmitt said.

Brent Brisben said researchers initially believed the exquisite pyx was a picture frame. He said the artifact likely belonged to a high-ranking church official, and it could have been worn on a gold chain to serve last rites.

Brisben is co-founder of 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, LLC. The Sebastian company is the U.S. District Court-appointed custodian of shipwrecks along Florida’s East Coast, with exclusive rights to salvage underwater items. The Florida Division of Historical Resources can take up to 20 percent of these recovered artifacts.

Booty Salvage is a 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels subcontractor, and both entities will split proceeds 50-50 from the back half of the pyx, if it is sold.

Last September, the Schmitts made headlines around the world by finding coins and 50 feet of gold chains valued at $500,000. They live in Sanford, own a condominium in Fort Pierce and dock Aarrr Booty there.

However, family members said treasure hunting is grueling, expensive work that often proves fruitless.

“After you find your 99th beer can, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I doing down here? This is crazy,’” said Lisa Schmitt, Eric’s mother. “‘I’ve got my nose 6 inches from the bottom of the ocean, and I’m digging through and finding beer cans.’”

Television crews from as far as Tokyo attended Wednesday’s press conference.

Contact Neale at 321-242-3638, or follow @RickNeale1.

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Danny Jo Hebel: Bond held at $440000 for child porn posession, distribution …

FORT PIERCE, Fla. – A Fort Pierce man remained in jail Wednesday on charges of possessing and distributing child pornography.

Danny Jo Hebel, 32, was arrested Tuesday and appeared in court Wednesday morning.

Judge Kathryn Nelson held his bond at $440,000.

The judge also described he is charged with 20 counts of possessing child pornography and 20 counts of distributing the explicit materials.

If Hebel posts bond, he is ordered to remain on total lockdown house arrest and have no access to computers or the internet. 

Detectives have confiscated his computer and other electronic devices from his home.

The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate whether any of the minors pictured in the pornography are local victims. 

The sheriff’s office asks families to contact detectives if their children have had any contact with Hebel.

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Sanford treasure hunters find priceless Spanish artifact off Fort Pierce beach

After 300 years on the bottom of the ocean, priceless Spanish treasure has been recovered.

Treasure hunters from Sanford have struck it rich. They say they spotted the lost piece of history shining in the sand of a Fort Pierce beach.

“When I moved the boulder, I looked down and I could see the corner of the piece, and I could see the filigree,” said Eric Schmitt.

What he found was a piece of immense value and incredible workmanship. 

It’s called a pyx, made to carry the holy Eucharist, or body of Christ. It sank with a Spanish ship 299 years ago Thursday.

When Eric Schmitt of Sanford pulled it from the sand just a hundred yards off a Fort Pierce beach, he knew exactly what he had.

It could be worth maybe $600,000, maybe a million – maybe a lot more.

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Rick Schmitt heads a family of treasure hunters who’ve been at it for 50 years.

“It’s almost too much. It’s just so wonderful,” Rick Schmitt said.

Treasure hunters don’t get to keep everything, but that’s more than enough, they say. 

And what’s more important is to be there to bookend this piece’s holy mission with a burst of sincere, if irreverent, joy.

“There’s nothing else like this piece in the world that’s been published that we know about,” Rick Schmitt said. “I’m still on top of the wave. I haven’t come down yet.”

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Danny Joe Hebel accused of possessing and distributing child pornography …

The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office has arrested a man accused of having and distributing child pornography.

Fort Pierce resident Danny Joe Hebel, 32, was taken into custody by the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Internet Crimes Against Children Unit.

Deputies have charged him with 40 counts of possessing and distributing child pornography.

“Our most precious and vulnerable members of our community, our children, may have had contact with Danny Joe Hebel,” St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara said in a news release. “I am asking any families whose children may have had contact with him to call our detectives immediately at 772-462-3230.”

Hebel remains in jail under a 440-thousand dollar bond. He’s expected to make a court appearance Wednesday.

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Fort Pierce Area Fishing Report 7/30/14

Capt. Joe Ward/Capt. Joe’s River Charters

July 30, 2014

INSHORE The inshore fishing should be red hot for speckled trout and redfish on the flats both to the north and south in the river. First light and just before dark will be the best times. For the trout try using live baits like a pilchard or a pigfish and fish them under a popping cork. Also try an artificial bait like a D.O.A. Bait Buster or some other top water bait. Use the natural colored baits. Later in the morning fish a little deeper and use a live shrimp.  For the redfish you will want to try the same baits along with a gold spoon. Fish the docks along both north and south Indian River Drive and around any mangroves. The snapper bite should continue to be good along the channel edges and around the local bridges. Try using a live shrimp on a 2 foot leader of 20 lb fluorocarbon, a ½ oz. weight and a #2 hook. The catch and release snook action should be good in the Ft. Pierce Inlet when fishing with live baits.  Remember to fish the baits on the bottom in the Inlet or free line them up around the rocks. The whiting bite should remain steady in the surf. Use a piece of fresh dead shrimp. You may also get a few pompano, reports Capt. Joe Ward of Capt. Joe’s River Charters (772-201-5770).

OFFSHORE The offshore bite will depend on the summer weather patterns. Just watch out for those late afternoon storms. The cobia bite has been about the best thing going. They seem to be in 60-80 foot and most times you can site fish them. A Cobia Slayer from Gulfstream Lures is hard to beat if you don’t have live bait. There’s still some dolphin around anywhere from 110 feet out to 250 feet of water and they are taking ballyhoo, both naked and skirted with a yellow/green skirt. The kingfish bite remains steady in 50-60 feet of water. Most of the fish have been 25 lbs or under. The snapper bite will continue to be good over the reefs and wrecks in 60-90 feet of water. Live shrimp or a piece of cut bait will be the way to go. There are plenty of jacks, Spanish and blues along the beaches to keep you busy, Ward reports.


Capt. Joe Ward is a Ft. Pierce based fishing guide who specializes in inshore light tackle fishing for snook, redfish, speckled trout, and tarpon along with other species along the Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s Treasure Coast. Capt. Joe has been fishing the waters around Ft. Pierce for over 42 years. Capt. Joe also gives a live, daily fishing report for Ft. Pierce based WCQS 88.9 FM.

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Police: 42-year-old Fort Pierce man goes missing

Fort Pierce police are looking for a 42-year-old man who went missing Friday night and who they say may be in danger.

Rikiya Lelan Riggs, also known as Rick, was at 6:30 p.m. walking from a hotel in the 7000 block of Okeechobee Road, police said. His family said Riggs is without his medication. His last known address was in Massachusetts and he has no known ties to the surrounding area, police said.

Riggs was last seen wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans.

Police urge anyone who may have seen him to contact their local law-enforcement agency or Fort Pierce Police Detective Jesse Streeter at (772)-467-6911

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Rikiya Lelan Riggs: Missing adult out of Fort Pierce

The Fort Pierce Police Department is asking for the community’s assistance in locating Rikiya Lelan Riggs who has been missing since Friday night. 

42-year-old Riggs, also known as “Rick,” left a hotel on foot at the 7000 block of Okeechobee Road in Fort Pierce Friday night around 6:30 pm, according to police.

His family reported they have not heard from him since.

Riggs was last seen wearing a blue shirt and blue jeans.

His last known address was in Massachusetts and has no known ties to the surrounding area.

According to the police report, Riggs is without his medication and is believed to be endangered. 

If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of Rikiya Lelan Riggs, please contact 911 or Fort Pierce Detective Jesse Streeter at 772-467-6911. 

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Researchers find potentially fatal bacteria in Indian River Lagoon

FORT PIERCE, Fla. – A bacteria that causes about 80,000 illnesses and 100 deaths nationwide each year has been found in the Indian River Lagoon by scientists at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

Peter McCarthy, a research professor at Harbor Branch, and Gabby Barbarite, an FAU doctoral student, said the discovery shouldn’t keep people from getting in and on the lagoon water; but they advised fisherman, the elderly and people with immune system problems to exercise caution.

“The last thing we want to do is cause people to freak out because there’s a flesh-eating bacteria in the lagoon,” Barbarite said. “I’m a kayaker, and I go out in the lagoon all the time.”
McCarthy and Barbarite suggest:

People with open cuts should not be in the lagoon, and anyone who gets cut in the water should get out and clean the wound immediately.

RELATED: Flesh-eating ocean bacteria hospitalizes 32, kills 10 in Florida

Older people and those with immune system deficiencies, including diabetics, those with chronic liver disease and alcoholics, “don’t have to stay out of the water but should be aware they’re in a high-risk group,” Barbarite said.

Fishermen should immediately treat wounds caused by fin stabs or hooks because the bacteria has been found on fish scales.
Eating fish caught in the lagoon is OK, Barbarite said, “as long as you cook it first.”
She said about half of the 200 lagoon fish she sampled tested positive for the bacteria, known as Vibrio vulnificus.

Barbarite, who is studying Vibrio as her doctoral thesis, said the bacteria “probably has always been in the lagoon. It’s been infecting people, but not at an alarming rate.”

According to an Oct. 4 Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers report, the last Treasure Coast death from the bacteria was in St. Lucie County in 2012. The only reported illness that year also was in St. Lucie County, one of 27 cases statewide that year, including nine deaths, state reports show. Two of the 27 were linked to the Indian River Lagoon near Melbourne in Brevard County.

Barbarite said local doctors may not know to test for Vibrio bacteria infections, “and that’s part of the reason we want to get the word out about it.”

Most infections in Florida have occurred on the Gulf Coast and Panhandle and involved people eating raw oysters, Barbarite said.

“It doesn’t look like people are consuming oysters from the lagoon,” she added.

Barbarite plans to study the bacteria at six Treasure Coast sites along the lagoon: the St. Sebastian River Preserve near Sebastian, Riverside Park in Vero Beach, the Harbor Branch campus north of Fort Pierce, Harbour Pointe Park in Fort Pierce, the Fort Pierce Inlet and Sandsprit Park near Stuart.

“This is a part of a larger study which is looking at the health impacts of bacteria both in terms of how the bacteria impact human health and how we might impact the health of the Lagoon through pollution,” McCarthy said.

Vibrio vulnificus:

Is a bacterium that lives in brackish water, such as the Indian River Lagoon, particularly in warmer waters.

Can cause disease with potentially fatal complications by eating contaminated raw seafood or exposing an open wound to contaminated water.

Can cause skin infections when open wounds are exposed to warm, infested brackish water; these infections may lead to skin breakdown and ulcers.

Can cause vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain if ingested by otherwise healthy people

Can infect the bloodstream of people with immune system deficiencies who have contact orally or through and open wound, causing a severe and life-threatening illness characterized by fever and chills, decreased blood pressure (septic shock), and blistering skin lesions; bloodstream infections are fatal about 50 percent of the time.

Symptoms should be treated immediately because antibiotics improve healing
For information, go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at

Reported by: Tyler Treadway, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers

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Fort Pierce-based Hajn LLC sues A&E, ‘Duck Dynasty’ over ‘My Favorite Color is …

FORT PIERCE, Fla. – A Fort Pierce novelty merchandising company is suing AE Television Networks claiming its hugely popular show “Duck Dynasty” is violating U.S. law by using the trademarked phrase “My Favorite Color is Camo,” according to a news release and court papers.

The federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the Fort Pierce-based Hajn LLC, alleged “willful trademark infringement” for its marketing and sale of merchandise for the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty’’ using the phrases “My Favorite Color is Camo” and “My Favorite Color’s Camo.”

Uncle Si Robertson used the remark on the television show and made it popular — a phrase Hajn says it trademarked in 2011.

According to the suit, in January 2011, Hajn began designing, marketing and selling clothing and other items with the phrase “My Favorite Color is Camo.”

By November 2011, the suit stated, the U.S. Patent Trademark Office issued to Hajn trademark 4,051,985 for the all-capitalized phrase “My Favorite Color’s Camo.”

AE, which began airing Duck Dynasty in March 2012, also began selling merchandise that featured Duck Dynasty’s Si Robertson making the statement “My favorite color is Camo,” the suit claims.

A message left Thursday for an AE official in New York City was not returned.

Hajn filed its three-count complaint after “AE rejected Hajn’s demand for AE to cease and desist using its mark,” alleging unfair competition and trademark infringement.

“AE promotes its Duck Dynasty-branded merchandise through the show,” a media release stated, “and AE generated $400 million in revenues from sales of Duck Dynasty branded merchandise at Walmart in 2013 alone.”

The lawsuit, filed by the West Palm Beach law firm Mrachek Fitzgerald Rose Konopka Thomas Weiss, seeks to stop Duck Dynasty from using the phrases “My favorite color’s camo,” and “My favorite color is Camo.”

The suit also seeks money damages, attorneys fees and a share of profits AE gained from the alleged trademarked phrase.

“Our client is a hardworking and enterprising small-business owner who took the time and effort to trademark his intellectual property,” Mrachek spokesman Greg Weiss wrote in a prepared statement. “We had no choice but to pursue his rights though this lawsuit after our warning went unheeded.”

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Submerged car recovered at White City Park in Fort Pierce

The St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office has recovered a 2013 four-door Lexus sedan that was submerged in the North Fork of the St. Lucie River.

Members of the Underwater Search and Recovery Team determined that no one was inside the vehicle and removed it from the river, placing it onto the boat ramp at White City Park.

Sheriff’s detectives will investigate to determine the car’s owner and how it wound up submerged in the river.

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