Steve Matanich, 34, who works for Florida-based Aqua Quest International, was part of a crew that traveled to Honduras to train lobster divers — a project that was years in the making.
The six-person crew was arrested shortly after arriving on May 5 after officials said they failed to disclose the weapons they were carrying.
Matanich's sister, Joliet resident Valerie Smith, said the crew members were carrying weapons legally and didn't have the chance to disclose them because police stormed the ship as the men slept, arresting them in the middle of the night.
"Under maritime law, you are able to carry weapons," Smith said. "There are real pirates on the ocean. They had guns for their safety."
Matanich worked as a diver/deckhand for Florida-based Aqua Quest. In a press release, the company said the U.S. flagged vessel Aqua Quest and its six-man crew had just arrived to work on a cooperative project with the municipality of Ahuas and Miskito Indians, "a project several years in the making and one that would have a positive effect on the struggling residents."
Their ship entered the Caratasca Lagoon opening eight miles from the docks of the small town of Puerto Lempira in the Mosquito Coast area, where it was to check in with the port captain, according to Aqua Quest.
"The Honduran Navy placed a Pilot onboard to guide the Aqua Quest through the shallow canal and into port. The pilot instead ran it up on a sand bar. The Captain of the Aqua Quest was finally able to get to shore just before the Port's office closed for business at 4 p.m.," Aqua Quest spokesman Stephen Mayne said in an email. "The Port Captain said it was too late to fully process their customs entry that day but confirmed that he would be ready at 6 a.m. to review their paperwork and told them to get a good nights rest."
But instead of getting a good night's sleep, the crew awoke after Honduran Naval and local police boarded the ship, claiming to have authority to inspect the vessel, seizing the Aqua Quest and arresting the crew.
Arrested along with Matanich were five other Americans: Robert Mayne Jr., Michael Mayne Sr., Nick Cook, Devon Butler and Kelly Garrett.
Smith said the six men are being kept in a single cell for their own safety.
"All the guys are in good spirits," she said, but "their living conditions are not good. All the men have drastically lost weight."
Smith told ABC 7 that crew members can be held on the charges for up to two years.
Smith said court dates for the six men keep getting postponed, and their families have no idea when they could go to trial.
"Every update we get gets our hopes up, and then they get crushed again," she said.
The State Department is reportedly monitoring the case, but Matanich's fiancee told ABC Action News she doesn't feel like enough is being done to bring the Americans home.
"We're hoping that if there's enough publicity about it, maybe more people will step in," Sarah Montgomery said.
Smith said the family struggled with going public, but said lack of action to bring the men home prompted them to speak out.
How to help
"We are trying to get the word out," she said.
Smith said the men have already spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees. A GoFundMe page has been set up for their defense fund.
A petition has also been launched on Whitehouse.gov to urge the government to take action. Click here to sign the petition.
Smith said the last time she talked to her brother was shortly before he left for Honduras.
"He called me, said goodbye, I love you, I'm leaving for my trip," she said.
Smith urged residents to speak to their Congressmen and urge them to support efforts to bring the men home.
"They didn't break any laws," she said of the Aqua Quest crew. "They didn't have a chance to disclose [the weapons] because they were arrested in the middle of the night."