Families of missing Florida teen boaters: We have ended the search

After 16 days of a search that spanned four states, the families of two missing teen boaters from South Florida have ended the effort to find the boys.

In a statement released Sunday, a family spokesman said “absent of new information, continuing the search is not practical.”

With the help of social media, the mission to find Perry Cohen and Austin Stephanos of Tequesta intensified just a few days after July 24 when the two 14-year-olds were reported missing from Jupiter Inlet. The Coast Guard suspended its search on July 31, but private parties continued to scour coastlines in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.

The Facebook group “Find Austin and Perry” had 300,000 members within one week and the family’s Go Fund Me account, started by Perry’s mother, Pamela Telvi Cohen, reached a goal of $475,000.

But the search campaign ended with a sobering statement on Sunday.

“Today, our hope becomes our prayer — that one day Perry and Austin will be returned to us. We thank everyone for their dedicated efforts and support,” the families said in a joint statement.

The search became a startling reality for many South Floridians who live the “saltwater life,” families who grow up on boats, without fear of the water. Perry and Austin were typical boating teens who loved the outdoors, said Nick Korniloff, Perry’s stepfather.

“Perry tried baseball and skateboarding, but if you put a fishing rod in front of him — on the water is where he wants to be,” Korniloff said in an interview two weeks ago.

Over the past two weeks, small towns along the Atlantic coast held candlelight vigils and fundraisers — selling bracelets and T-shirts, creating artwork and videos. Hashtags like #JupiterStrong, #SaltLifeKids and #FindAustinandPerry kept thousands connected via social media. Austin’s father, Blu Stephanos, reported his own search via Facebook as he went in a private plane.

“I want nothing more right now than to be my son’s hero,” he posted. Later on Aug. 4, Stephanos wrote: “I spoke before about being my son's hero... well, right now, you are all my heroes. You have confirmed my faith in the goodness of people ... all the amazing people across the country.”

Followers reported every turn of the search — from the discovery of the boys’ boat off Cape Canaveral on July 26, to aerial shots of search areas as pilots searched north of Jupiter. More than 50 Facebook groups under “Find Austin and Perry” were created, making streamlined communication difficult during the search.

It didn’t take long for social media tensions to rise. Finger-pointing at the families and questions over the use of funds raised on the families’ Go Fund Me account spurred the closing of Facebook groups and thousands of comment threads.

“I don’t know if they knew the power of social media,” said Tara Holmes, a Tampa woman who felt a strong connection to the story and became an engaged follower on Twitter. “I don’t know how I became a voice for it.”

Last week, Holmes said she was contacted by private pilots who felt they would be reimbursed for fuel costs, but could not get in touch with the family. The lack of communication left Holmes and others frustrated.

“Ultimately we just want to help. It’s not about trying to unravel a secret path,” she said.

A petition was started on Aug. 4 to investigate the families of the boys, citing “stories have been changing and clues come up missing.” A total of 81 people had signed the petition as of Sunday.

The town of Jupiter faced another tragedy Sunday when 15-year-old Edwin Castañon, believed to have been pulled into the Jupiter Inlet by a strong current on Saturday, died at Jupiter Medical Center.