Marine deputy gets down and dirty to find resource violators

Deputy Willy Guerra examines lobsters that were poached and that he confiscated.
Deputy Willy Guerra examines lobsters that were poached and that he confiscated. Contributed

Willy Guerra keeps a dry uniform ready at home because his clothes are often wet from jumping into Florida Keys waters to catch criminals.

Guerra, the chief Monroe County Sheriff’s Office marine deputy who is based in Marathon, is no stranger to hiding out and waiting to catch those who would deplete the Keys’ natural resources — fish and lobster in particular. Poachers who take them illegally are basically stealing from legitimate commercial fishermen.

Since he became a marine deputy in 2005, Guerra’s hidden in a garbage can, on top of a sewer treatment plant and in mangroves, staking out criminal activity at all hours of the day and night.

Tuesday, the Marathon City Council commended Guerra with a plaque for his efforts. One particular case from 2015 involving a man from Miami who was prosecuted for stealing lobster in Marathon was highlighted.

Bill Kelly, executive director the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen’s Association, said George Vargas worked for at least three years in Marathon poaching lobster. In one night, Guerra caught Vargas with 267 wrung lobster tails of all sizes. They weighed out at 225 pounds with a commercial value of $4,205.

“He made $723,000 in a year if he worked all year and we know he did that for at least three years, so we’re talking $2.16 million he absconded with from the men and women in the commercial fishing industry,” Kelly said.

The impact Vargas and others have on local resources is what keeps Guerra “hiding in the bushes at night,” he said.

After weeks of planning how to catch Vargas, who Kelly says would work in 12-hour shifts and was always on the lookout for suspicious police vehicles, Guerra hid in a garbage can next to a bait station where he was able to verify the theft when the haul came to shore.

“You can’t just sit in a marked truck — you have to hide somewhere,” Guerra said.

He moved here in 2000 from Illinois and said he has many fishermen friends in the community.

“They’re hard-working families, holding up tradition in the Keys,” Guerra said, adding it’s his goal to fight the loss of resources that hurts the tourism and fishing industries throughout the county.

In one night, a small group taking lobster from Keys waters can leave with 500 to 600 pounds, Guerra said, and 99 percent are undersized lobsters.

“The lobsters haven’t even released their eggs yet and these people are doing this over and over,” he said.

Guerra covers an area that spans from the Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon to mile marker 72 in Islamorada.

A few weeks ago, he jumped into 8 feet of water while wearing a body camera to apprehend someone who was catching lobster with a spear gun. It’s illegal to spear lobster.

“I was just issued my body camera and first thing, I got it wet and it still works. We know now it’s waterproof up to 8 feet, and it caught everything in the water, including the guy trying to get rid of the spear gun,” Guerra said.

Capt. Dave Dipre with the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has worked with Guerra in the Keys since 2005.

“The resource cases are where Willy’s heart is. He goes at it full force and puts everything he has into it. It’s one of the reasons I like him so much,” Dipre said.

Sean Cannon, ports director at the Boot Key Harbor City Marina in Marathon where Guerra often patrols, said Guerra is more of a traditional “beat cop.”

“He gets to know families and he’s out there in the harbor and everyone knows him and likes him,” Cannon said. “He’s everything a police officer should be.”