Longtime fisherman, stepson among the missing after boat apparently sinks

Xavier Vega, 29, and his stepfather, Jerry Bretal, 51, have been missing since Sunday, when the F/V Leonardo apparently sank off of Martha's Vineyard.
Xavier Vega, 29, and his stepfather, Jerry Bretal, 51, have been missing since Sunday, when the F/V Leonardo apparently sank off of Martha's Vineyard.

Jerry Bretal, 51, started fishing as a teenager and made a career of it, just as his father and grandfather had done. His stepson, Xavier Vega, 29, was a successful barber who had fulfilled a long-held dream of owning his own shop.

On Saturday, Bretal, Vega and two other men left New Bedford on a fishing trip that took a tragic turn when their 56-foot scalloping vessel apparently capsized in a fierce storm and sank about 28 miles off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, according to the Coast Guard.

One man was rescued Sunday afternoon. Bretal, Vega, and Mark Cormier Jr., are missing and presumed dead.


“From a port and city that are all too familiar with the perilous nature of commercial fishing, we extend our prayers and support to the families of those who were lost, and express our gratitude to the US Coast Guard members who saved the lone survivor of this tragedy,” said New Bedford’s mayor, Jon Mitchell.

The Leonardo sent out a distress signal Sunday afternoon. When the Coast Guard rescued Ernesto Santos from a lifeboat about an hour-and-a-half later, there were nine-foot waves and gusts as high as 39 knots. Santos, who was hospitalized for hypothermia, told rescuers that the other crew members were not wearing survival suits or life jackets, officials said.

On Monday, the Coast Guard suspended its search after 25 hours.

Vega’s sister, Judinette, said her brother would have turned 30 on Friday.

“He was loved by so many,” she said. “His smile was something everyone recognized.”

When Vega was 12 years old, he battled osteosarcoma, a rare type of cancer in the bones. “He overcame that,” she said. And he never complained.

“He was a good person to everyone,” said Judinette Vega, 33. “He always did his best to make sure the people around him were all right.”


Xavier Vega (back), and his stepfather, Jerry Bretal, have been missing since the Leonardo went down 24 miles off the coast of Martha's Vineyard.
Xavier Vega (back), and his stepfather, Jerry Bretal, have been missing since the Leonardo went down 24 miles off the coast of Martha's Vineyard. Handout

Vega studied welding at Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School but would also cut his friends’ hair, and came to realize “he was really good at it,” she said. Vega got into barbering and dreamed of owning his own shop. That became a reality two years ago, when he opened Vega’s Barber Club in New Bedford.

That was the last place that Paige Ramos saw Vega, her friend since elementary school. When they first met, Vega had just moved from Puerto Rico and was learning to speak English. They hit it off right away, she said.

“We lived a few houses apart from each other” on McGurk Street in New Bedford, said Ramos, 30. “We hung out almost every day.”

Vega was a genuinely caring person, she said, and had a radiant personality.

“He was always positive,” she said. “I never heard him complain, even when he was sick.”

In a Facebook post, Ramos recalled taking her boys to get their hair cut at Vega’s barbershop. But it was bustling and he was completely booked, so she decided to give her boys haircuts at home. Now she wishes she had visited his shop more often. “The world is definitely going to be a different place without him,” she wrote.

Karen Treadup taught Vega for two years at Sergeant William H. Carney Academy in New Bedford.

“As a teacher, you care about all of your students . . . but there’s always a few that steal your heart,” she wrote on Facebook. “He showed me the meaning of perseverance and courage. His smile never faded during tough times.”


She was Vega’s academic support teacher when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“I tutored him throughout that time until he was able to come back to school,” she wrote in a message to the Globe. “He taught me more than I taught him.”

The commercial fishing boat was built in 1967. Its owner, Luis Martins, said the fishermen left port Saturday between 10:30 and 11 a.m. but he hasn’t learned details of what happened.

“It’s a crazy situation,” Martins said Tuesday. “I feel bad for the families right now.”

Alisha Marques, Cormier’s sister, shared a message of hope on Facebook Monday: “Keep positive energy we need all the prayers to bring my hero home,” she wrote.

Stephen Horton, a friend of Cormier, said he was the “kind of guy who made you feel cool just by being around him.”

“I’m at a loss,” Horton, a 30-year-old Swansea resident, said Tuesday.

Horton said he met Cormier in 2007 while working at a gas station convenience store in Somerset. Cormier recognized the band he was playing at work, Mindless Self Indulgence, and the two hit it off, he recalled.

They would attend “obscure punk shows” together. At one point, their lives went in different directions. Horton said when they hung out regularly, Cormier worked as a mechanic.

Cormier, he said, had a love for cars and was always “rebuilding a car at the side of his house.”


He treated a Chevrolet Chevelle he owned “as his baby,” Horton said.

He knew Cormier had previously worked in the commercial fishing industry, but “it surprised me that he went back into that business.”

The last time the two spoke was in June.

“It was, ‘We got to get together soon, we got to get together soon,’ ” he said. “One of those conversations you have.”

Jim Kendall, president of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, which does public relations and lobbying work for the fishing industry, described the mood on the city’s waterfront as “dismal at best.”

“When something like this happens, particularly around the holidays, it raises awareness of how dangerous it is,” he said.

He said he did not know the specifics of how the Leonardo went down. Speaking generally, he did say that before the dead of winter, “you start getting cold weather and when the cold weather hits the warm water, you get some pretty nasty seas.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald @globe.com.