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Bannon arrest plays out on yacht eyed for days by Westbrook locals

Westbrook — Catherine Bue-Hepner spotted the helicopter during her Thursday morning walk to Pilot’s Point.

It had to be 7:30, 7:45, she figures.

Offshore, she plainly could see “this giant yacht” she’d first spied two days before from the window of the Kingfisher Lane cottage where she and her family have been staying. The yacht had been sitting out in Long Island Sound, due south of the town beach.

“I never saw such a big boat,” she said. “When the owner of the cottage came by, he said it was Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. You figured it had to be somebody big.”

Federal agents arrested Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former adviser, on the 150-foot yacht Thursday after boarding it with the help of a crew dispatched from Coast Guard Station New London. Bannon and three others were charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors to a fundraising campaign that was supposed to support Trump’s border wall.

Late Thursday morning, Bue-Hepner, a professor at Worcester State University who’s been vacationing with her family here during summers for decades, got a message from a friend in Madison: Had she heard about an arrest on a boat off of Westbrook?

“You mean this boat?” Bue-Hepner replied, sending a picture she’d taken of the yacht with her iPhone.

Around lunchtime, she saw what looked to be a police boat approaching the yacht. Breaking out the binoculars the family uses for birdwatching, she studied the scene. She could see someone on the boat’s upper level, then two people and eventually a third. Eventually, someone appeared to be lifting an anchor.

The yacht started straight out into the Sound, she said, then turned to the west, presumably toward New York City.

“I don’t know where else you could go with a boat that big,” she said.

Andrea Diehl, who was checking the residency of drivers entering the town beach parking lot Thursday afternoon, had heard news about the Bannon arrest. She said it must have gone down by the time her shift started at 8 a.m., though, because she hadn’t seen activity.

Diehl said she was working Wednesday when men in three or four vehicles drove in, displayed badges, parked and proceeded to scope out the area. Two men in one of the vehicles didn’t leave until the park was closing at 8 p.m., she said.

At the other end of the lot, sitting near the sand, a woman who declined to give her name showed a cellphone photo she’d taken of the yacht the previous day. It was the same boat she watched move out of view Thursday afternoon, she said. And it was the same one CNN was identifying as the Lady May.

According to news reports, the yacht — accounts of its value ranging from $28 million to $35 million — is owned by Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire wanted on criminal charges in China. 

A Coast Guard spokeswoman in Manhattan confirmed that a crew from Coast Guard Station New London helped other federal agents “effect the arrest of Mr. Bannon,” providing a 45-foot “response boat” that ferried the agents out to the yacht.

“Our crew conducted an initial sweep of the vessel that was boarded,” a procedure in which a crew boards the vessel, goes through all its spaces and ensures it’s safe, Chief Warrant Officer Mariana O’Leary said. Then other agents boarded.

A multi-mission helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod in Massachusetts also was in the area at the time of the boarding, O'Leary said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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