Joe Jacinto stood anxiously in his boat as it bobbed in the Sea of Cortez, while a diver 160 feet below cut his way through shrimp nets, sledgehammered open cabin doors and found Jacinto's stepfather.
As Al Mein's body was brought to the surface -- 14 months after he was entombed inside a sunken fishing boat -- Jacinto felt relieved: "I always envisioned him in a deep, dark place, and it didn't seem like a good place to be left in."
It was September, about three months after Jacinto doggedly tracked down the sunken 115-foot Erik in the 62,000-square-mile Sea of Cortez, and Jacinto and his small team of divers had done what seemed impossible: rescued three bodies from the shipwreck in an effort beset by swirling currents, low visibility, a tiny window of time and blazing hot surface conditions.
Success has given the 47-year-old resident of Clarksburg in Yolo County some relief. But it has also left him in debt and made for some touchy relationships with widows and surviving family members of other fishermen, many of whom wanted to leave the bodies where they were. What should happen to the remains has been a divisive topic since the Erik sank July 3, 2011, in 20- to 40-foot swells with 27 Northern California fishermen on board.
Nineteen men survived the doomed sportfishing trip, one died and seven -- including Jacinto's stepfather and three East Bay men -- went missing and are presumed dead. The bodies Jacinto found now lie in a Mexican morgue; clues suggest one is Don Lee, of San Ramon, the trip organizer whose widow started the Find Our Fathers fundraising campaign days after the tragedy. The other body has not been identified.
The U.S. Coast Guard announced Monday that negligence on the part of the Erik's owners and crew led to the tragedy, concurring with an earlier finding from Mexican officials.
Jacinto remains determined to write his own ending. Having already spent $40,000 on search efforts, he plans to sell his boat to raise the money to transport Mein's body to California.
In the year after the shipwreck, Jacinto made four expeditions to Baja California in Mexico, navigating delicate political obstacles to search 40 square miles for the Erik. He also confronted challenges with fellow families of missing fishermen. While he doesn't want to go into detail, Jacinto said he reached out to them along the way, and was never told not to go, but he got the distinct impression that some thought the bodies had already found an appropriate resting place.
That was not Jacinto's stance. He'd been close to Mein, a devoted husband to his mother and someone who could fix anything. Jacinto felt he owed it to his mom to find the body.
The big break -- Jacinto would pay $100 each time a fisherman gave him a tip -- came from shrimp trawlers reporting snags near San Felipe. In June 2012, sonar finally confirmed the Erik was resting upright on the sea bottom, listing about 10 to 15 degrees starboard.
"In June, I pretty much knew at that point I was not going to come back because there was going to be a cost issue, but eventually I worked through that," Jacinto said. "I minimized everything as much as I could as far as cost."
He said he paid his other bills with credit cards, sold Mein's pickup and got commitments from three other competent divers to pitch in at a reduced rate. But if he came across other fishermen's remains, should he recover them?
"I don't know how to best explain this, but I talked to my priest a lot about it," he said. "It's a little bit of a touchy subject because before I went down there, I did my homework and tried to get everyone's blessing."
His conclusion: "We're going to grab whoever we can grab."
Inside the wreckage
His team drove down Sept. 4 to take advantage of a break in the tricky tides. Waters at the Erik's final resting spot reached a 22-foot tidal differential, meaning incredibly strong currents and poor visibility. Twice a month, a slack tide provided a brief respite with only a 6-foot tidal swing, calming the currents and improving visibility. The group would float tortillas on the water to gauge the current.
Professional diver Wings Stocks dove to the wreck, which had two large shrimping nets blanketing it like a wedding veil. With a knife, Stocks cut a 5-by-10-foot hole in the netting, clearing access to two portside cabins. To open the swollen wooden doors, he said he spent five minutes slamming a 4-pound sledgehammer to free them from steel frames.
"I do it because it helps with closure to the family," said the Vietnam veteran, who runs a small diving company from his Boonville home (www.wingsstocks.com).
Once inside, his air bubbles stirred the previously still water, reducing visibility from 2 to 4 feet to 3 inches, and sending fishing supplies, coolers and bags swirling throughout the cabin, Stocks said.
Stocks, who has helped in the searches for slain Modesto housewife Laci Peterson and other body recoveries over his career, eventually found three bodies.
"They were surprisingly intact because the rooms are sealed so well, so there's no contact with the air," Jacinto said, adding that in such deep waters the pressure also preserved the remains. From a platform of his boat, Jacinto easily identified his stepfather.
Jacinto said he thinks at least one other missing fisherman remains in the lower deck of the ship, but he considers it too risky to retrieve that body.
Even holding his stepfather's remains, Jacinto said he had not felt complete closure.
"I think that will come later," he said, once he gets the body back home. "I can tell you I'm pretty tired emotionally and physically."
When Jacinto brought the three bodies in, he turned them over to Mexican authorities, loading them himself into a van that took them to the San Felipe morgue. There they sit, awaiting the completion of the country's repatriation process.
There are many permits to be filed and requirements to be met in order to identify and repatriate a loved one who dies across the border, according to the U.S. Consulate's Tijuana office, which has helped fishermen's families since the boat sank.
"The U.S. Consulate General in Tijuana has remained in contact with Mexican authorities, as well as with the survivors and the victims' families, throughout the investigation," a state department official said. "We continue to provide consular assistance as appropriate, including the identification and repatriation of remains from the M/V Erik."
For Jacinto, the process is nearly complete. Having cleared the appropriate paperwork with the Mexican government, he said he now plans to sell his boat to raise $3,400 for Mein's final journey.
May Lee, wife of trip organizer Don Lee, has submitted DNA to Mexican authorities and may discover soon whether one of the recovered bodies is her husband's.
"As soon as he's positively identified, I will bring him home as soon as I can," she said. "I've been waiting almost two years."
But as Jacinto learned before he left, other survivors regard the situation differently.
Joelle Bautista, wife of missing fisherman Russell Bautista, is fairly certain Jacinto did not recover her husband's body, because she has been told he jumped off the boat in the final minutes before it sank. Either way, the Penngrove resident said her husband was an avid fisherman and that a watery grave seems "appropriate."
"We've come to the point where we've accepted what happened," she said. "You know once you get remains ... there is no chance of him walking through the kitchen door."
But Bautista said she understands what motivated Jacinto.
"Some people need to do what they need to do and it brings them some type of closure," she said. "I just had my own opinion in regards to my own husband."
Mike Leong said he's not sure what happened to his missing father, Gene, of Dublin. Gene had always wanted his ashes spread across the ocean, his son said.
"It made sense not to bring him up," Leong said. "We saw it as sacred ground."
When Jacinto brings Al Mein home, he intends to cremate the body and bring his stepfather's ashes to his mother's cabin in the Sierra Nevada.
Then he will have but one remaining regret: not finding his stepfather's wedding ring.
Contact investigative reporter Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.