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Annapolis thieves take boat ‘hostage’

“Tonight only. No cops,” read the ransom note, along with instructions to leave $3,000

“Tonight only. No cops,” read the ransom note, along with instructions to leave $3,000

The last sentence of the ransom note pinned to the front door at an Annapolis Boston Whaler dealership on Labor Day weekend might have been the most curious detail of this curiouser and curiouser abduction.

Indeed, when a 17-foot Montauk model disappeared from the lot of Chesapeake Whalertown four weeks earlier, on Aug. 7, sales manager Bart Hiltabidle assumed one or more of his friends was engaged in a prank. He grew up in the Annapolis area. His friends all were suspects so he hesitated to tell the police, fearful of getting a buddy in trouble.

If it was a prank, it was an inconvenient one. The day before — a Monday — Hiltabidle says, he had sold the Whaler, to be delivered on Tuesday. He had sold another 17-footer, the only other one in stock, from the firm’s lot across the Chesapeake, in Grasonville on KentIsland, on Monday, as well, he says.

When Hiltabidle did go to the police, they also assumed it was a prank. Who would steal a $27,500, 2007 boat, motor and trailer package? How could they expect to get it registered anyplace? (The AnnapolisCity detective investigating the theft refuses to discuss an ongoing case.)

But then Hiltabidle had an idea. His lot is leased from the Annapolis Yacht Club, which has television cameras monitoring its property across Sixth Street. Perhaps the cameras caught something. He went to the club manager.

“His property is not covered with our surveillance cameras, but we happened to pick up the theft in the peripheral vision of the cameras,” says club manager Stephen R. Creese. “It was supporting his claim that a boat was stolen.”

The cameras had recorded a dark pickup truck driving by the boat lot, on the Eastport side of the Sixth Street bridge, at about 3:30 a.m. Neither the license plates nor the occupants could be distinguished in the black-and-white recording, Hiltabidle says. But the same truck returned at 4:35 a.m. and left with the trailer in tow, heading across the bridge into downtown Annapolis.

Hiltabidle says he notified the police of the recording. There was no news on the case when, in late August, he went on vacation, he says. The story of the theft by then had been published in a local newspaper.

But when he returned to work on Friday, Aug. 31, there was the ransom note pinned to the front door. The demands were simple. Place $3,000 in small bills in a compartment of the center console on one of the boats in the lot. In exchange, the thief promised to leave directions to the missing boat — with its 90-hp 4-stroke and trailer. The note declared: “Tonight only. No cops.”

It was “well-written, punctuated correctly, indented,” Hiltabidle says. And then there was that final sentence: “Note for future. Locks do wonders, along with keeping keys locked away.”

Hiltabidle ignored the instructions and gave the note to the police. He did not bother to put cash in the boat console, although he did find some locks. Saturday morning when he arrived at the lot, Hiltabidle found flower pots knocked over outside, brochures strewn around, a key that had been hidden in the center console hung on the front doorknob and a new message, scratched into the wooden front door: “Last chance.”

“When I saw the etching on the door,” says Hiltabidle, “I knew it was serious. It sounds like they were upset that I didn’t leave the money.”

Hiltabidle says his firm has sold boats on the yacht club property for 12 years without having one stolen. Creese says the yacht club, whose members store dozens of sailboats in yards surrounding the Whaler dealership and across the street, has never had a boat stolen, either.