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Man charged for false distress alert in ‘disappearing act’

Richard W. Ohrn went missing for 12 days last year after his blood-spattered boat was found abandoned and dragging anchor two miles off Delray Beach, Florida. That triggered a Coast Guard search and a federal charge that by staging his disappearance “to escape legal issues” — the Palm Beach County sheriff’s description of why he vanished — he caused a false distress alert.

After 12 days in hiding in a rental house in Albany, Georgia, the 45-year-old financial adviser returned to his home in Boca Raton, Florida, called police and told them he had faked his disappearance to get out of his legal morass. Earlier this year a federal grand jury in Palm Beach returned an indictment, charging that Ohrn “did knowingly and willfully” cause a false distress to be communicated to the Coast Guard.

This convoluted story starts a year ago March 31, when the two crew aboard the 157-foot megayacht Top Five spotted a 19-foot Sea Ray unmanned and adrift off Delray Beach. Boarding the boat, they found dried blood on it, leading them to suspect foul play. Ohrn’s wife, Kathleen, later would tell investigators that her husband had recently had surgery on his elbows, which were seeping blood.

The good Samaritans found the key in the Sea Ray’s ignition in the off position, its anchor deployed on about 50 feet of rode, a pair of sunglasses, an iPhone, a ball cap and a dry bag containing car keys and a wallet with Ohrn’s driver’s license and credit cards.

The megayacht crew contacted the Coast Guard, which did a three-day search for Ohrn, covering 31,000 square miles with aircraft and vessels, according to sheriff’s police.

Meanwhile, Ohrn’s orchestrated disappearance began to unravel as the sheriff’s office uncovered suspicious circumstances and inconsistencies. First, Kathleen Ohrn told authorities that Ohrn’s former employer, Wells Fargo Advisors, was suing him for $400,000 — advanced to him as a signing bonus — for breach of contract.

It was the latest of several costly legal skirmishes Ohrn had been involved in over several years. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent nonprofit agency that oversees the securities industry, permanently barred Ohrn from working for any of its 4,000 member firms in an April 2015 settlement.

Interviewing staff at Marina One in Deerfield Beach, where Ohrn rented the Sea Ray, investigators learned that he had said he wanted to rent the boat so he could take a client fishing and planned to pick up the client at Pioneer Park, up Hillsboro Canal from the marina. They said Ohrn didn’t load any obvious fishing gear on the boat, just a 5-gallon bucket with a lid on it, a large black garbage bag with something in it and a change of clothes. He left a fishing pole in the bed of his pickup truck in the marina parking lot. Ohrn motored up the canal toward Pioneer Park as planned, but the staff noticed when he motored back that he was the only one aboard.

After further investigation and interviews later with Ohrn, detectives pieced together an outline of his “disappearing act,” which the sheriff’s office says he confessed to. First Ohrn went out and bought a second truck and left it near Pioneer Park. Then he went to West Marine in Pompano Beach and bought an inflatable with an engine — in cash — with friend George Grokhowski, who told police later he thought it strange that Ohrn said he wanted to buy the inflatable for him.

On the day of Ohrn’s disappearance, he towed the inflatable to Pioneer Park, drove to Marina One and rented the Sea Ray, then motored up the canal to pick up the inflatable at the park. He motored back down the canal to the ICW, then to the ocean, anchored the boat, launched the inflatable and motored to Pioneer Park. He then hauled the inflatable with his prepositioned truck, dropped the inflatable at Grokhowski’s office and drove to Albany.

On April 12, the lead detective on the case fielded a call from Ohrn, made with his wife’s cellphone. Ohrn said he was home and wanted to talk; he gave the officer a statement about his disappearance, according to police. If convicted, Ohrn faces a civil penalty of as much as $10,000 and the cost of the search, which ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.