As they wound down a “lovely” day of snorkeling, picnicking and hiking on Wisteria Island, Keith Miller and Jeff Pellissier were preparing to head back to Key West. The recently married couple from West Hollywood, California, then saw a boat traveling toward them at high speed.
“I heard loud people in a skiff coming toward the island, and I mentioned to Keith, ‘I hope they’re not going to be landing near us, they sound noisy, they sound a bit drunk,’” Pellissier said. “We started to put things away in the boat because I thought something might be happening, so I wanted to be ready.”
Christopher Thomas John Yarema, 43, and Stephanie Lynn Burnham, 35, arrived quickly. The pair hopped out into the knee-deep water, where Miller was standing.
“The man yelled, ‘Hey, Speedo man, what are you doing here, get the f*** off my island, you fag,’” Pellissier, 59, said in an interview with NBC News.
According to the Miami Herald, the island is a “makeshift community for the homeless,” and Burnham’s address in the police report is listed as the “streets of Key West.” Wisteria Island is also popular with day trippers from Key West.
“The only thing we said is 'We are leaving, and we want nothing but peace,'” Miller, 61, said.
Pellissier said Burnham punched him in the face, broke his sunglasses and hit him with an oar. She also shouted that the couple had “five seconds” to get off the island, or she would kill them, Pellissier recalled.
Then Yarema brandished a four-inch blade at Pellissier, but missed because Miller pushed their inflatable dinghy in between them. After Yarema missed and sunk his blade into the dinghy, he stabbed it multiple times, deflating several of its compartments, the men said.
The two men managed to get back into the dinghy, and made it back to their sailboat before the smaller craft sank. The Coast Guard, responding to the tourists’ call for help, said it found the dinghy “completely deflated,” according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office report. Yarema and Burnham were both arrested.
According to the police report, Yarema “remembered his wife getting into an argument with the people near his campsite, but does not remember anything else. He stated that when he woke up, Coat [sic] Guard was requesting him to follow them to the station.” Burnham was charged with battery and causing property damage, while Yarema was charged with third degree aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without the intent to kill and first degree battery.
Adam Linhardt, spokesperson for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, said that Florida state attorneys will determine whether hate crime charges would be filed.
“The words they used left little to the imagination,” Linhardt said. “Whether or not a hate crime is what these people are ultimately charged with would be up to the state prosecutors.”
Reached by telephone Monday by NBC News, Val Winter, the assistant state attorney for Monroe County, said his office does not comment on pending cases. “We typically have 30 days to make our filing decision” regarding hate crimes, Winter said.
The couple told NBC News that they felt certain Burnham and Yarema intended to kill them. “They stabbed with the intent to kill me,” Pellissier said. “Jeff and I are just grateful that we got away [with] our lives,” Miller said.
Stratton Pollitzer, the deputy director of statewide LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, said the group has seen a “dramatic surge in hate violence impacting many communities. Worse, the flames of hatred are being fanned by the current administration.”
“Thankfully, arrests have been made in this incident which helps to reinforce the vital message that hate crimes will bring action and accountability,” Pollitzer added. “We all need to cultivate the courage to intercede when we see anyone being verbally or physically assaulted like this. We have to be a counter balance to the swaggering hatred."
According to the most recent FBI hate crimes data, 17 percent of all hate crime victims in the U.S. in 2016 were targeted because of their sexual orientation, and most of those victims were gay men.