Monday, September 9, 2019

Wannabe Kidnappers Routed
Written by Robert A. Waters

On November 8, 2017, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office released the following statement: “Four teens armed with a knife, guns and a roll of tape planned to kidnap and rob members of a Baker family last night, but their plot didn’t go as planned and now all four are in custody.  Inside their SUV deputies also found latex gloves, facial masks and dark clothing.”

The town of Baker, with a population of around 7,000, sits near the edge of Florida’s Panhandle.  Located between the Blackwater River and the Yellow River, the area offers a natural environment for those who favor country-style living.  Terry Brackney resided near Baker with his 17-year-old daughter, Amber.  The 51-year-old father owned a funeral home and clothing store in Crestview, ten miles away.

At 10:30 P.M. on November 7, Amber drove home from her job at a local restaurant.  As she pulled up to the gated entrance to her home, her headlights shone on four 55-gallon drum barrels that blocked the road.  Immediately suspicious, Amber used her cell phone to inform her father.

Terry told her to drive around the barrels and Amber did just that.

When she arrived home, she briefly discussed the incident with her father, then went to bed.

The sheriff’s statement described what happened next: “A short time later [Terry] heard his dogs barking and saw his motion-activated flood lights come on.  After spotting some individuals trying to force their way into his garage, he fired three shots and the intruders fled into the woods.  He later learned they had unscrewed some of his security lights.”

Terry quickly called 9-1-1 and alerted the sheriff’s office.

While interviewing nearby homeowners, detectives got a break.  A neighbor had seen a suspicious vehicle near her house.  She described it as a white 2016 Jeep Liberty.  Deputies spotted the SUV on Highway 4 and made a felony traffic stop.

They arrested Keilon Johnson, 19, Austin French, 17, Tyree Johnson, 16, and Kamauri Horn, 15.  While none of the suspects had been struck by Terry’s gunfire, they were so terrified that they all quickly confessed to a sinister plot.

Keilon Johnson, the oldest suspect, set the plan in motion.  All the teens attended Crestview High School with Amber and knew her.  Keilon had studied her movements and knew she returned home from work every night at the same time. 

Keilon convinced his cohorts that her father was wealthy and kept lots of money in the home.  They came up with a plan to rob the house.  When she came home after work, the gang planned to “make Amber Brackney exit [her] vehicle at the barricade where she would be taken by force, made to enter the gate code to enter the curtilage and coerce Terry Brackney to exit the residence.  Terry would then be subdued by chemicals and/or force and the defendants would then enter the home and commit the robbery.”

What went without saying is that, even wearing masks, there was a good chance the conspirators would be recognized.  In fact, Amber had once been close friends with at least one of the suspects and could easily identify his voice and mannerisms.  Because of that, had their plan succeeded, there was a good possibility the suspects would have murdered Terry and Amber to keep them quiet.

As the attempted robbery played itself out that night, Ervin Johnson drove the getaway vehicle and communicated with Kielon Johnson by cell phone.  Once Amber foiled their plan by driving around the barricade, Kielon called Ervin and told him they were going “straight for the house.”  Austin French was armed with a knife, while Keilon and Kamurai Horn had pistols.

As they began to unscrew the lights, their plan went awry.  The dogs began barking and Terry came out of the house with his semiautomatic handgun.  When he opened fire, the suspects panicked and fled into the dense woods surrounding the house.  While making their escape, they dropped one of the firearms, the knife, and other identifying items.

The conspirators, each charged as adults, pleaded guilty to attempted armed kidnapping and attempted home invasion.  Horn received 15 years in prison.  Ervin Johnson was sentenced to seven years, followed by fifteen years of probation.  Keilon Johnson has not yet been sentenced but faces up to 45 years in prison, while Austin French is also looking at a possible 45 years.

Terry and Amber Brackney appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” to discuss the crime and its aftermath.

“I’ve searched and I’ve prayed for peace of mind over this situation and to get my sense of security back in my home,” Terry said.  “Had these individuals made it inside our house…today would have probably been our funerals.”

“I’m really grateful for my dad,” Amber said.  “I really don’t have a mom in my life, so my dad is my hero…I saw these kids every day walking down the hallway [in my school].  I never expected them to try to kidnap me and harm me and do such a thing to my family.”

Since I started my blog in 2008, I’ve written hundreds of stories about Americans who used guns to defend their own lives, or the lives of others.  (Check out my latest book, co-written with Sim Waters, entitled Guns andSelf-Defense: 23 Inspirational True Crime Stories of Survival with Firearms.) 

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Hurricane that Sank Spain
by Robert A. Waters

On the white-hot afternoon of July 24, 1715, a Spanish flotilla of eleven ships sailed out of Havana.  A small French warship, the Grifon, tagged along.  General Juan Esteban de Ubilla commanded six of the Spanish vessels while General Don Antonio de Echeverz y Zubiza was in charge of the remaining ships.  Bound for Spain, the fleet carried nearly a thousand crew members and passengers, as well as a staggering 14 million pesos worth of treasure.  Much of the plunder, taken from Mexico and South America, consisted of gold and silver coinage and bars.

General Ubilla was furious that it had taken two months longer than usual to transport the vast treasure from the mines to the ships.  He knew the chances of encountering a hurricane had increased dramatically.  For 50 years, Spanish treasure galleons had made the passage across the Atlantic, and dozens had been lost to the dreaded storms.

Spain’s life’s-blood depended on the success of these ships.  According to Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen in their book, Florida’s Golden Galleons, “Spain’s economy was almost totally dependent on these treasure shipments from the New World.  Since she manufactured nothing that was needed by other countries, the wealth received from her New World colonies merely passed through her economy into the economies of other European nations…”  (In 1712, the country had finally ended the costly 13-year War of the Spanish Succession, another of the endless conflicts Spain fought that kept its treasury drained.)

The treasure ships, six in all and crucial to the financial stability of the nation, were stuffed with produce, meat, and all manner of cargo, as well as the treasure chests.  The rest were warships, tasked with beating off pirates or privateers.  Cannons lined their decks, making the ships an overloaded yet dangerous foe. 

After passing Punto Ycaco, an island near the outer edge of Cuba, the majestic armada headed north.  They would hug the Florida coast until they reached San Augustin when they would turn east.  With flags flying in the breeze, none of those aboard knew a hurricane was headed straight toward them.

On July 29, sailors began to notice that the sea in the distance looked like lead.  A gray, milky haze obscured the sun as the fleet, one by one, sailed between the Florida coastline and the Bahama islands.  General Ubilla and General Echerverz, already nervous, had become alarmed at the signs of bad weather.

Burgess and Clausen described the following day: “On Tuesday, July 20, dawn broke on an oppressively hot, humid day.  People’s hands felt clammy; their clothes stuck to their bodies.  The fleet had made little progress during the night.  Winds were erratic, often changing directions, sometimes ceasing to blow at all.”  Swells increased, causing the ships to roll and pitch.  By noon, everyone on board sensed what was coming.

Soon the afternoon sky had turned so black sailors lit lanterns so they could see.  Winds more than 100 miles per hour lashed the fleet.  As the ships were tossed about, children cried and strong men prayed.  The flotilla, so magnificent when it had left Cuba, became uncontrollable.  Cargo shifted dangerously on the ships as the pitching and rolling increased.  A survivor later said that “the sea came like arrows.”  Torrents of rain, shrieking winds, and waves higher than the ships themselves pummeled the fleet.

Near midnight, the fury of the storm increased.  Ships plunged down into the dark depths, then struggled up again.  Over and over and over.  Trunks, cargo, cattle, horses, even the big guns on the warships, ricocheted across the decks.  Back and forth they went.  The ships moaned as if dying, then let out ear-splitting booms as if the cannons had been fired.

Stuck between the Florida coast and the Bahamas, the fleet could not escape.  The boats wallowed, becoming waterlogged and weary.  Sailors, having worked in life-or-death desperation for twenty-four hours, were exhausted.  The unending storm, which seemed determined to punish the ships, only increased in its fury.

Finally, the once-proud flotilla could take no more.

The first to go was the Capitana, a 471-ton ship.  Its bottom was sheared off when it struck a reef.  The ship sank almost immediately.  General Ubilla, along with 200 sailors, drowned.  One by one, the other ships followed.  Sailors and passengers died as each ship plunged into the seas.  General Echeverz’s flagship, the Nuestra Senora del Carmen, dumped enough cargo to lighten its load and limp onto the Florida shore.  The general and most of his men survived.

Only the French ship that had been forced by the Spanish into becoming part of the flotilla (Ubilla and Echeverz didn’t want the captain of the Grifon to warn others that a flotilla loaded with treasure was coming across the sea) escaped because it had pulled far enough away from the Spanish fleet to miss the storm.

Much of the wrecked flotilla came to rest a few hundred yards off the shore of what is now Cape Canaveral.   More than seven hundred souls perished in the storm, and all the Spanish treasure was lost.  Dazed survivors launched longboats to San Augustin to inform officials of the disaster.  In time, the survivors were rescued and some of the treasure salvaged.

The following letter describing the hurricane was written by a survivor: "The sun disappeared and the wind increased in velocity coming from the east and the east northeast.  The seas became very giant in size, the wind continued blowing us toward shore, pushing us into the shallow water.  It soon happened that we were unable to use any sail at all...and we were at the mercy of the wind and water, always driven closer to shore.  Having lost all our masts, all of the ships were wrecked..."

The wreck of the 1715 flotilla was a disaster for the Spanish government.  During that year, Austria expropriated the Netherlands from Spain, which had little money left to finance another war.  As the British and other European nations became stronger, Spain’s influence and power dwindled.

Storms continued to wreak havoc on the Spanish.  In 1733, a flotilla of 21 treasure ships was decimated by a hurricane near Key West.        

In the 1950s and 1960s, treasure hunters located the 1715 flotilla and recovered treasure worth millions of dollars.
NOTE: Much of the information in this story came from Florida’s Golden Galleons: The Search for the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet by Robert F. Burgess and Carl J. Clausen.  If you have any interest in the subject, I highly recommend this book.