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A giant cross on the beach? The mystery of its origin may have been solved

Cross may have traveled more than 1,000 miles before washing up in Florida

A 20-foot wooden cross washed up outside of a Fort Lauderdale resort in February 2019. Many wondered how the barnacle-covered cross got there, and one woman says she may know.
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A 20-foot wooden cross washed up outside of a Fort Lauderdale resort in February 2019. Many wondered how the barnacle-covered cross got there, and one woman says she may know.

A heavenly visitor descended on the sands of Fort Lauderdale’s Ocean Manor Beach Resort — with a little help from man.

A 20-foot wooden cross, encrusted with barnacles and other signs of sea life, washed ashore in waters lapping the resort. The cross was carried onto the property sands by tourists, including Gary and Christine Gay, a Michigan couple who found it, filmed it, and now float an interesting theory about its possible origin.

A week later, people were still speculating on the origins of the religious symbol.

On Wednesday afternoon, Robin Stowe called the Miami Herald to shed some light on the mysterious arrival.

The North Carolina cross

The cross, Stowe said, was erected as a memorial to her brother, Capt. Richard Baran, who disappeared while on a solo hunting trip in the Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina in January 2016. The Coast Guard suspended its search after covering 33 miles over eight hours.

“I think it might be my brother’s cross from the Hatteras in North Carolina,” Stowe said. “A bunch of his friends went out there and Capt. Aaron Aaron built that cross and put it on the island.” (Yes, Aaron’s surname and first name are one and the same.)

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Capt. Aaron Aaron and a group of friends put up a cross as a memorial to their friend, Capt. Richard Baran, who disappeared while hunting in the Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina in January 2016. A few months later Aaron built the cross and put it up. It was lost in a storm and wound up in Fort Lauderdale in February 2019, Aaron and Baran’s sister, Robin Stowe, said. Courtesy Robin Stowe

In April 2016, she said Aaron and the group put the cross up on Dredge Island not far from where Baran’s boat was found with his hunting gear still on board.

Putting that cross up as a memorial, she said, “was a labor of love and means a lot to us. We’d love to get it back.”

She believes Hurricane Nate, which brought winds and rains to the Cape Hatteras region in October 2017, may have swept the cross off Dredge Island and that it’s been at sea ever since.

Aaron confirms her account. The spate of news reports since it turned up Saturday in Fort Lauderdale came to their attention when people called Stowe and Aaron because they recognized his handiwork on the cross.

Aaron said he built the cross in about an hour’s time and brought it to the island by boat where a group of 20 or so friends celebrated Baran’s life.

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Capt. Aaron Aaron put the cross he built as a memorial to friend Rich Baran on board his boat to transport it to an island in North Carolina after Baran disappeared in January 2016. Courtesy Robin Stowe

Baran, 47, ran a guide service at Hatteras Harbor Marina at the time. Aaron, a charter boat captain, was Baran’s former business partner and a friend.

“The reason I know it is [the cross] is I built it and notched it and can see the eye bolts and that it’s set off to one side,” Aaron said. “It’s the cross — 100 percent.”

Many claims on the cross

The resort’s owner, Frank Talerico, told the MIami Herald on Thursday that there have been many claims on the cross.

“We have received many, many people claiming ownership,” he said in an email response. “If they can 100-percent prove it’s their cross, we would gladly give it back to its rightful owner. Until then, it belongs to The Ocean Manor Beach Resort.”

In addition to the craftsmanship and design, Aaron said many of the friends signed messages on the cross with Sharpie pens but he realizes that all of these missives would likely be lost under the barnacles and saltwater during its long journey.

“We would love to see the cross come back to Hatteras. We set it up as a memorial. It was such a big ordeal when we never found him and he died at sea and that’s why this is so important,” Aaron said.

Rising doubts

But as the week progressed, Aaron and Stowe started to express some doubts.

“We just keep analyzing pictures. We really need to get someone down there to get a good look at it. Specific areas,” Stowe said after she’d conferred with Aaron on Friday.

“They keep saying it looks painted, but is it really painted, or washed out from 15 months at sea?” she wondered. “Everyone signed it, but that has probably all washed away. Hopefully, we have someone down there later. We would all love to see Richie’s cross back on his island. But if that’s not the case, I hope all of the attention will get it back to its rightful owner. This is not an ‘off the rack’ item.”

Then, on Saturday, Christine and Greg Gay, a couple visiting from Battle Creek, Michigan, offered their own explanation — having seen the cross firsthand. The giant cross washed up at their feet. Greg’s video of the cross has since gone viral.

“We went walking on the beach that day and it came right up to me at my feet,” Christine said. “Quite a surprise! Who would expect a 20-foot cross? That took me back.

The Gays don’t think it’s the North Carolina Baran cross. For one thing, the Fort Lauderdale cross is painted white, they said. The North Carolina cross was not painted, Stowe and Aaron said.

“You can see the paint coming off,” Greg said.

In addition, the design differs from the North Carolina photos, the couple said.

“The cross beam in Fort Lauderdale is very flush on both sides. The one in North Carolina has a piece of wood on top of the other,” Christine said.

“The three ends of the cross beam are flat in Fort Lauderdale and. in North Carolina, they are beveled,” she added.

Did the cross float from Portugal?

Greg had another intriguing theory. He believes the cross may have originated from Portugal.

Why?

When the couple took a close look at the wet cross as it exited the ocean, Greg noticed the barnacles contained certain kinds of worms that wriggled out. Black worms, the kind found in gooseneck barnacles — crustaceans that attach to hard surfaces of rocks and flotsam in the ocean. Gooseneck or goose barnacles originate in Portugal and Spain.

The Gays’ further research noted that Portugal was hit by Hurricane Leslie in October 2018.

“If that cross made it all the way across the Atlantic from Portugal that would be an even bigger story,” Greg said.

Wherever it came from, the story has gone viral and many people have reached out to the Gays to share their testimonials. Some people told how much seeing the cross uplifted them.

The Gays, who are back on the road and on the way home, are touched.

Staying put for now

Stowe, meanwhile, said she reached out to Telerico after seeing his name in news reports but had yet to hear back from him.

If they get the go-ahead, and somehow it turns out to be the North Carolina cross rather than from Portugal or elsewhere, Aaron said several charter captains in the area are prepared to bring the cross back to the Hatteras island where it will be put back up.

Talerico told WSVN7 on Monday, before Stowe reached out, the cross is “staying here” and welcomed people to come and take pictures alongside the unexpected gift from the sea.

The Kindred Spirit Mailbox stands on a beach on Bird Island, North Carolina. It houses notebooks where visitors from around the world share their prayers, joy, grief, and secrets. Some write about the loved ones they lost, some show gratitude to w

Here are some of our favorite oddities that have found their ways from the sea to the shore in Florida — not counting the occasional bales of drugs or dead body.

The freighter and the socialite

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Mollie Wilmot, her pool, and the freighter Mercedes I, which spent 105 days stuck in the back yard of her Palm Beach mansion. The ship washed ashore Nov. 23, 1984, during a three-day storm. It eventually was towed off and was sunk in March 1985 as an artificial reef off Oakland Park Boulevard in Broward County. Walter Michot Miami Herald File

On Nov. 23, 1984, the day after Thanksgiving, a Venezuelan freighter named the Mercedes I — as long as a 16-story building — beached itself on the seawall belonging to Palm Beach socialite, “the unsinkable Mollie Wilmot,” as the Miami Herald described her.

The night it happened, Wilmot, the daughter of a man who made millions from department stores in the Midwest, “did what any gracious host would do. She sent fresh-brewed coffee to the salty, unshaven crew and served cocktails to friends inside, with the wide-screen television on in case anyone grew tired of watching the hulking ship outside the big glass doors,” the Herald reported.

The 197-foot Mercedes soon overstayed its welcome near Wilmot’s swimming pool. Within a week, she’d had enough. Wilmot entertained notions of stringing Christmas lights around it, opening a disco on its deck, turning it into a beachfront restaurant, painting a seascape on it “to get back her ocean view,” a reporter suggested.

She didn’t do any of those things.

The freighter would squat there until March 1985. A tugboat hauled it out to sea and it was blasted and turned into an artificial reef.

“I think turning it into a reef is wonderful,” Wilmot told the Herald when the Mercedes met its final fate. “But the thought of them exploding it does upset me a bit. I don’t know if at the last minute I can even look at it. It depends on how cool I can stay.”

Wilmot, who became a national celebrity as a result of the freighter’s beaching at her manse, died at 78 in 2002. There had been talk of turning her South Florida 105-day saga into a movie with either Bette Midler or Melanie Griffith playing her but the film never made it past the development stages.

Perhaps “The Last Temptation of Christ” director Martin Scorsese could consider a movie about the Ocean Manor Beach Resort cross if it sticks around long enough.

The piano and the sandbar

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A grand piano is seen on a sandbar in Biscayne Bay on January 26, 2011 in Miami, Florida. The piano was charred from being burned. Joe Raedle Getty Images

In January 2011, a baby grand piano popped up on a small Biscayne Bay sandbar a few hundred yards east of Miami Shores. Within weeks, the images of that piano went viral worldwide and it was even pictured in National Geographic.

Mystery solved: it wasn’t a discard from a concert stage by an angry Elton John or Billy Joel. Turns out, a teenager, Nicholas Harrington , his dad Mark, brother and a neighbor had set the piano afire on the sandbar on New Year’s Day. The piano was a prop for a movie and wound up in the garage of J. Mark Harrington’s mother. Mark was a production designer on “Burn Notice.”

Bathing on the rocks

In November 2012, a white bathtub found its way onto the rocks on Government Cut, off Miami Beach. Some speculated it might have been some artist’s idea of an installation for Art Basel Miami Beach. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission wasn’t amused. It was soon hauled away.

Here’s looking at you

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The giant blue eyeball that washed up in Pompano Beach in October 2012 is most likely from a swordfish, and not a huge one, either, researchers say. Miami Herald File

A softball-sized eyeball washed up on Pompano Beach in October 2012.

The eerie orb wasn’t from a character described in Peter Benchley’s 1991 novel, “Beast.”

Rather, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said that the icky discovery probably fell off a swordfish, as the attractive fish are desired catches of sport and commercial anglers along the South Florida coast.

Bombs away

A World War II-era flash bomb washed ashore in St. Pete Beach in July 2015. The arrival of the cylindrical, 4-foot, barnacle-encrusted relic of the 1940s sparked an evacuation of the beach and nearby homes.

Authorities soon detonated the bomb after building sand berms around it and protecting nearby hatching sea turtles.

Toy story

An 8-foot-tall Lego man washed ashore on a Siesta Key beach in October 2011. The Sarasota man who found the colorful mega-toy, with the puzzling words, “NO REAL THAN YOU ARE, in block white letters on its green “shirt,” surmised its appearance on the shore must have been some sort of publicity stunt.

But according to the Herald-Tribune, which reported the story, Legoland wanted no part of the discovery and said it was a counterfeit.

Miami Herald Real Time/Breaking News reporter Howard Cohen, a 2017 Media Excellence Awards winner, has covered pop music, theater, health and fitness, obituaries, municipal government and general assignment. He started his career in the Features department at the Miami Herald in 1991.
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