Boat theft leads to high-speed chase

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Suspect draws a hail of gunfire as he repeatedly tries to ram his boat into police, Coast Guard vessels

Suspect draws a hail of gunfire as he repeatedly tries to ram his boat into police, Coast Guard vessels

In what his attorney describes as a drunken blackout, a 27-year-old Florida man stole a 28-foot Maxum express cruiser, rammed a Coast Guard patrol boat and escaped a barrage of flying bullets before running aground and getting arrested.

The wild scene took place during the Gasparilla Pirate Festival in Tampa, Fla., an annual event in late January that celebrates the legend of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), supposedly a Spanish pirate captain who operated in southwest Florida.

The 165-foot pirate ship, José Gaspar, arrived in HillsboroughBay the afternoon of Jan. 26 with canons booming blanks as hundreds of boaters watched. It was later that evening that real gunfire erupted after Mark Koert of Lutz, Fla., stole the 2006 Maxum 2700 SE from the docks at the Tampa Convention Center and sped off into the night.

“We were in a state of disbelief,” said Moira Boyd, 52, who went with her husband and son to get something to eat at about 7 p.m., leaving the boat at the slip for what they estimate as about 45 minutes. “We got back to the dock and the boat was gone. I thought, ‘This can’t be true. Where in the hell is the boat?’”

Two Hillsborough Count Sheriff’s Office deputies were on routine patrol aboard a 36-foot Intrepid near the convention center when the Maxum came up on their boat and tried for no reason to ram the vessel, according to the sheriff’s office. The deputy driving, Paul Shute, was able to avoid the collision and call for help. A 25-foot Coast Guard boat — a rigid hull inflatable — arrived. The Coast Guard crew reports they ordered Koert to stop the boat at least four times — once at gunpoint — but Koert did not comply and took aim at the Coast Guard’s vessel, according to a Coast Guard affidavit.

“As the chase continued, the USCG personnel feared for their safety as Koert continued to try and ram their boat with his,” the affidavit states. “A member of the USCG crew fired two shotgun rounds into the engine area of Koert’s boat. Thereafter, Koert rammed the Maxum into the USCG’s vessel, landing on top of the port bow and placing the USCG crew in immediate danger.”

Hillsborough Deputy Paul Shute also fired two rounds from his .40 caliber Glock at the Maxum’s single MerCruiser sterndrive to disable the boat. The Coast Guard helmsman reversed the boat to break free of the Maxum, which then sped away. “[Koert] continued to maneuver the Maxum in an evasive manner, sometimes circling around the USCG vessel, and would not stop despite the repeated orders of the USCG,” the affidavit states.

When the Maxum got to the area near the PlattStreetBridge he ran aground and was taken into custody, according to the sheriff’s office. “The suspect was intoxicated and was transported to the Sheriff’s Office Marine Office,” said sheriff’s office spokesperson Debbie Carter.

Koert was charged with grand theft of $100,000 or more, fleeing to elude, reckless or careless operation of a vessel and two counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He was released from jail on Jan. 27 after posting a $38,000 bond.

Koert was re-arrested three days later after the Coast Guard filed a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (Middle District, Florida), prompting a federal judge to rule that Koert was a danger to the community. Florida Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Perry told a federal court on Jan. 30 that the bizarre event might not be a one-time event, according to published reports.

Koert’s attorney, Ralph Fernandez, said his client blacked out and doesn’t remember anything about stealing the boat and his encounter with authorities. “The last thing he remembered was celebrating at a pub close to the parade route,” said Fernandez, referring to the pirate boat float that leads a parade through Tampa. “This is totally out of character for this young man’s life. He’s a very quiet, passive, reserved man.”

Koert graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa and worked as a real estate agent for University Realty in Tampa. “We’re all shocked and saddened,” said Bob Piccirilli, owner of the realty company. “No one would have ever thought this would happen. I never had a problem with Mark.”

Koert’s only other run-in with the law was an arrest in 2000 on a misdemeanor charge for underage liquor possession in HighlandsCounty, said his lawyer.

Koert graduated from the University of South Florida in Tampa and worked as a real estate agent for University Realty in Tampa.

Fernandez said he is investigating whether a previous medical event — Koert underwent a craniotomy when he was 18 years old to remove a tumor from his pituitary gland — could have played in the stolen boat event.

Fernandez said Koert, a native of Naples, Fla., comes from a family that is familiar with boats but he did not own a boat at the time of the incident.

The owners of the stolen boat said the damage to their vessel includes nine bullet holes — three on the port side, two on the stern and four that went through the clear plastic material that encloses the helm and companion area. The boat also received gelcoat damage at the bow. Repairs to the boat are estimated at $10,000. The Boyds have insurance, but must pay a $3,700 deductible. The incident certainly has put a damper on a fun annual outing, said Moira Boyd.

“It’s disheartening,” said Boyd, adding that she and her husband had attended the festival last year also, keeping their boat in the same location. “It was like someone breaking into your home.”