A Haitian woman whose body washed ashore in South Florida in August accidentally drowned during a smuggling operation, authorities have concluded.
Judith Valentin's body was found Aug. 28 in Palm Beach by a turtle rescue volunteer, while local and federal authorities were investigating a report about migrants coming ashore, according to a police investigation report.
Investigators detained and questioned nine Haitians, including a 3-year-old boy accompanying his mother. All came from Port-de-Paix, Haiti, and took the roughly 25-foot boat to the Bahamas and then to Florida.
"All of the passengers indicated no one was forced off the boat and that the water was deeper than six feet deep when they entered the water," the report stated.
The detainees said it was dark when they landed and they could not see each other, according to the report. Some recalled grabbing for the others in the water, and most had to "swim or wade a bit before having their feet touch ground," the report said.
One woman recalled seeing another woman struggling in the water, the report said.
An autopsy by the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner's Office concluded that Valentin drowned, but the 24-year-old's body showed no signs of sexual assault or other trauma.
Valentin's mother, who traveled from Haiti to bury her daughter in South Florida, had speculated publically that her daughter had been raped and thrown overboard. Haitian Women of Miami had helped Valentin's mother with those burial arrangements, and executive director Marleine Bastien said Monday that it was a relief to know that the 24-year-old had not been raped or victimized before her death.
Migrants from the Caribbean routinely attempt risky sea crossings to reach Florida's shores, often through established smuggling networks that include islands in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.
In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Coast Guard reported intercepting 2,094 migrants at sea, including 508 Haitians. There are no estimates for the number of people who either make it to shore and elude authorities or die in the crossing.