Families, records suggest possible foul play in Florida teens' disappearance at sea

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Parents of 2 teens lost at sea battle over iPhone found on abandoned boat

The families of two Florida teenagers who disappeared off the Florida coast during a fishing trip last year suspect that foul play may have been involved, a suspicion that authorities have taken seriously for several months, court documents and investigative records reveal.

The boys, Perry Cohen and his longtime friend Austin Stephanos, who would both now be 15, remain missing more than nine months after they vanished July 24, 2015, while on a fishing trip. Their marooned fishing boat was discovered off Bermuda last month, with an iPhone and a tackle box on board, the Coast Guard said.

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The iPhone, which was heavily damaged by saltwater, is at the center of a legal dispute between the boys' families. Pamela Jill Cohen, Perry's mother, has sued Austin's parents, Carly Black and William Blu Stephanos, demanding that the phone be turned over to third-party investigators for professional examination.

The phone belonged to Austin, but in her legal action, Perry's mother says her son's phone was broken, so the boys agreed to share use of Austin's phone, and thus she has a compelling interest in its contents. In the action, Cohen argues that she "will continue to suffer irreparable harm if the iPhone is not properly handled as material evidence in a possible maritime crime or homicide."

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which turned the phone over to Austin's parents this week, is also named in the suit. A hearing is scheduled for Friday afternoon in state circuit court in Palm Beach County.

A 128-page investigative file dated Feb. 8 reveals that the FBI has been involved in the investigation since September and that in December, state investigators requested subpoenas for phone records in connection with "an official investigation of a suspected felony."

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Families, records suggest possible foul play in Florida teens' disappearance at sea
This combination made from photos provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows Perry Cohen, left, and Austin Stephanos, both 14 years old. Cohen and Stephanos were last seen Friday afternoon, July 24, 2015, in the Jupiter, Fla. area buying fuel for their 19-foot boat before embarking on a fishing trip. (U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
Candles with handwritten messages saying "Come Home Safe" and "Hold on Boys" were seen at Jupiter Inlet in Jupiter, Fla., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015. After hundreds of rescue workers fanned out across a massive swath of the Atlantic for a full week, the Coast Guard's search for two teenage fishermen ended Friday. Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen have been missing since July 24, when they took a small boat out of the inlet. (Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post via AP)
A sign at Tequesta's First Presbyterian Church reads "Praying for Austin & Perry and their families" Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. After hundreds of rescue workers fanned out across a massive swath of the Atlantic for a full week, the Coast Guard's search for two teenage fishermen ended Friday. Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen have been missing since July 24. (Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post via AP)
A teak plaque topped by a clear lighthouse as a tribute to missing teens Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen is displayed at Jupiter Inlet in Jupiter, Fla., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015. After hundreds of rescue workers fanned out across a massive swath of the Atlantic for a full week, the Coast Guard's search for two teenage fishermen ended Friday. Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen have been missing since July 24, when they took a small boat out of the inlet. (Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post via AP)
Volunteers take donations during a fundraiser for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen at the Square Grouper in Jupiter, Fla., Friday, July 31, 2015. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)
Carolyn Vought, left, and Vickie Partlow hug during a fundraiser for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen at the Square Grouper in Jupiter, Fla., Friday, July 31, 2015. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Joe Floyd, a relative of Austin Stephanos, reads a poem during a fundraiser to help continue the search for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, at the Square Grouper, Friday, July 31, 2015 in Jupiter, Fla. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post via AP)
A banner hangs at the Castaways Marina with pictures of Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen. After 8 days of searching the ocean, the U.S. Coast Guard ended their search for the boys. Friends and relatives attended a fundraiser at the Square Grouper, Friday, July 31, 2015 in Jupiter, Fla. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Girls wear t-shirts they bought at to help fund the ongoing private search for Nick Cohen and Austin Stephanos who have been missing since they took their boat out of the Jupiter Inlet, Friday, during a fundraiser at Jumby Bay Island Grill, Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
People fill the Jumby Bay Island Grill, Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla., during a fundraiser to pay for private search efforts for Nick Cohen and Austin Stephanos who have been missing since they took their boat out of the Jupiter Inlet Friday. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Andrew Grubowski, 10, of Palm City, Fla., releases a lantern during a vigil for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. The two teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Florida, north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
People join hands during a vigil for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. The teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Florida, north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Petty Officer 3rd Class Charles Camarda, left, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate Matthews scour the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Savannah, Ga., Tuesday, July 28, 2015, looking for two missing teenage boaters. Camarda and Matthews are crew members from Air Station Clearwater, Florida. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush)
In this image released by the U.S. Coast Guard, Petty Officer 1st Class Mike Crosby, right, scans the surface of the Atlantic Ocean through his binoculars while in the cockpit of a Coast Guard HC-130J, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, while searching for Florida teens Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. The Coast Guard pressed ahead with a fifth day of searches for the boys while their families coordinated air searches of their own. (Senior Chief Petty Officer Sarah B. Foster/U.S. Coast Guard via AP)
Nick Korniloff, second from right, talks with Tequesta police officers outside of his home Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. Korniloff is the stepfather of Perry Cohen, one of two teenagers who have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Pictures of Perry Cohen, left, and Austin Stephanos, right, are on display at fundraiser at Jumby Bay Island Grill, Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla., during a fundraiser to pay for private search efforts for Nick Cohen andAustin Stephanos who have been missing since they took their boat out of the Jupiter Inlet Friday. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Mary Kaye Hagenbuch, center, says a prayer for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen during a prayer vigil at Jupiter Lighthouse Park, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. The teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Fla., north through Savannah, Ga. Also pictured are, from left, Hunter Wilkinson, Susan Wilkinson, Lauren Wilkinson, Susie Mydock, second from right, and Rob Hagenbuch (Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Carly Black, center, mother of Austin Stephanos, one of the missing teenage fishermen, listens as the U.S. Coast Guard makes a statement outside of the homes of the two teenagers missing since a fishing trip last Friday, Wednesday, July 29, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. The Coast Guard announced that the search for Nick Cohen and Austin Stephanos continues. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Heather Kenney, right, of Jensen Beach, Fla., stands with her son Xander, 11, during a vigil for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. The two teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Florida, north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lilly Folds lights paper lanterns during a candlelight vigil and paper balloon release at Jupiter Inlet Park, Monday, July 27, 2015, for teenagers Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen in Jupiter, Fla. The teens were last seen Friday afternoon buying fuel near Jupiter and were believed to have been heading toward the Bahamas. (Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post via AP)
Two girls embrace during a vigil for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. The teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Florida, north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Julia Wolf, 16, left, and Jordan Harley, right, both of Stuart, Fla., hold candles during a vigil for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. The two teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Florida, north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Carl Hodges, of Stuart, Fla., right, reads a prayer during a vigil for Austin Stephanos and Perry Cohen, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Stuart, Fla. The teenagers have been missing since last Friday when they went out on a boat to go fishing from Tequesta, Fla. A search continues for the boys from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Florida, north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Map locates Jupiter, Fla., where two teens went missing on a fishing trip; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
A man talks to a police officer outside the house of one of the two missing 14-year-old fishermen, Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. The Coast Guard says a boat belonging to the boys has been found off Florida's Atlantic coast but neither boy was in or around the boat. Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos were last seen Friday in the Jupiter area buying fuel for their 19-foot boat. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
A group of people hug before leaving the house of one of the two missing 14-year-old fishermen, Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. The Coast Guard said a boat belonging to the boys has been found off Florida's Atlantic coast but neither boy was in or around the boat. Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos were last seen Friday in the Jupiter area buying fuel for their 19-foot boat. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
A police car sits in the driveway of the house of one of the two missing 14-year-old fishermen, Sunday, July 26, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. The Coast Guard said a boat belonging to the boys has been found off Florida's Atlantic coast but neither boy was in or around the boat. Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos were last seen Friday in the Jupiter area buying fuel for their 19-foot boat. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Caden Key, 14, of Jupiter, Fla., talks with the news media after fueling his jet ski at the JIB Club Marina, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. Key knew of the two Florida teens who've been missing since Friday, July 24, who were last seen fueling their boat at this marina before heading out to fish. The search continues for the boys, from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Fla., north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Katie Kleinman, 14, of Jupiter, Fla., talks with the media as she and a friend stopped to fuel their jet ski at the JIB Club Marina, Tuesday, July 28, 2015, in Tequesta, Fla. Kleinman knew the two Florida teens who've been missing since Friday, July 24, who were last seen fueling their boat at this marina before heading out to fish. The search continues for the boys, from the Atlantic waters off Daytona Beach, Fla., north through Savannah, Ga. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
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The FBI's involvement began in September, when Austin's stepfather, Nick Korniloff, contacted the FBI and a Fish and Wildlife Commission criminal investigator saying he believed the boys were abducted, according to the file.

The investigative file also discloses that at least two friends of Austin's received a Snapchat message from him on or about July 24 reading "we're f'd." Investigators stressed, however, that neither friend could definitely confirm that they received the message on the day the boys disappeared.

But Pamela Cohen's attorney, Guy Bennett Rubin, told WPBF-TV of West Palm Beach that photographs of the marooned vessel, which was recovered by a Norwegian supply ship on March 18, prove that "the boat was disabled intentionally."

The photographs show the ignition switch and the battery — both of which were in hard-to-access parts of the boat — in the "off" position."

"So we don't know whether foul play was involved or not," Rubin told the station.

Speaking separately at a news conference this week, Rubin said the Fish and Wildlife Commission "has indicated to us that the investigation is open and continuing, and they are taking all of this new information very seriously."

Rubin said Cohen is "desperate" to know what happened, and "we're not going to just stand by and let someone kind of filter the information that we get."

In a statement released through a foundation that the Cohen family set up in their son's memory, Pamela Cohen said the family gave its consent for the Fish and Wildlife Commission to turn Austin's iPhone over to independent investigators. Authorities haven't said explicitly that Austin's parents refused to give such consent, but the Fish and Wildlife Commission said it returned the phone to them this week.

In a statement of their own, Austin's parents said they were working with Apple Inc., "who seems willing to help us try to get the phone operational again." They promised to share the phone's data with Cohen and with investigators, but they said they didn't want to compromise any potentially "very sensitive and very personal" information.

"In light of the recent San Bernardino incident involving attempts by the FBI to retrieve data from a locked iPhone, we felt that it would be best to avoid the pressures of having these efforts played out in the media," they said.

But "this is no less a serious matter to us than it has been for the San Bernardino families," Cohen told NBC News.

"As a mother, I owe it to Perry to fight for him when he cannot," she said. "We need to avail ourselves of the best resources and intelligence to preserve and retrieve this potentially vital iPhone information. We all want truth and transparency."

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