POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – A deputy spotted the group of people trying to come ashore in the Saturday morning darkness.

Fifteen minutes later the first body was found. By 8 a.m., three women, believed to be Haitian nationals, had been found dead in the surf, washed up along a six-block stretch of shoreline in Pompano Beach.

Five of their companions – three women and two men – were in the custody of immigration officials, said Liz Calzadilla-Fiallo, spokeswoman for the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Up to four immigrants may have escaped law enforcement officials, she said.

The women’s identities were unknown Saturday, but all three were described as being in their late 20s or early 30s. Immigration officials did not release the names of the five people detained Saturday.

As authorities pieced together details, the nature of the investigation shifted. One of the men taken into custody told investigators that the group arrived on a 19-foot sailboat, said Calzadilla-Fiallo. The boat could not be found Saturday.

“This is now a human smuggling investigation,” Barbara Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Saturday evening.

South Florida Haitian radio stations broadcast messages about the deaths Saturday and asked for the community’s help finding relatives. Activists in the Haitian community pointed to the deaths and detainments as examples of how desperate people are to flee the troubled nation and how unfairly Haitian refugees are treated by U.S. immigration policy.

Under those rules, if the group making it ashore were Cuban immigrants, they would likely be allowed to stay in the country. But unless the Haitians can convince a judge that they are seeking asylum from political persecution, they will likely be sent back to Haiti.

A deputy patrolling Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., about 5:50 a.m. spotted 10 to 12 people wading in the surf, Calzadilla-Fiallo said. The deputy called for help, and five of the immigrants were detained and turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. One of the men was injured, possibly struck by a boat propeller. He was taken to Broward General Medical Center, where he was listed in fair condition, a nursing supervisor said.

Gregory Sattler, 43, spotted the first body about 6 a.m. on his way to fish near the Pompano Beach Pier. As he walked down to the surf he spotted something large about 50 feet away in the sand.

“I never got to fish, I never even got a rod in the water,” Sattler said. “Lo and behold, there was a body.”

Sattler said he ran from the scene, got sick and then called 911.

“I was kinda shaky when it happened,” he said. “I never saw a dead body in my life and I never expected to see one while fishing.”

About 7:45 a.m., the body of the second woman was found behind a row of hotels and condominiums, Calzadilla-Fiallo said. The third, five minutes later, behind the Sea Gardens Beach and Tennis Resort.

“It’s another unfortunate example of why the Department of Homeland Security discourages this kind of activity,” said Gonzalez, with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Marleine Bastien, executive director of the Haitian Women of Miami Inc. said the callers to one Haitian radio station were worried the refugees would be deported without proper asylum hearings. And deportation can mean a death sentence if you’re in the wrong political party in Haiti, she said.

“The U.S. has deported people and they are found a few days later cut to death,” she said.

Leurima Louissant, 60, came to America in 1981 from Haiti and was working on a nearby construction site as the last body was carried from the beach Saturday morning.

He sighed as a deputy carried two sets of wet sneakers from the surf.

“That’s politics,” Louissant said. “People can’t get jobs in Haiti, nothing to eat. Then they kill themselves trying to get here.”

(c) 2005 South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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