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Police break up Miami boat-theft ring

Authorities recovered and returned 33 of 42 boats stolen from driveways and dealerships

Authorities recovered and returned 33 of 42 boats stolen from driveways and dealerships

Five men have been indicted and 42 stolen boats recovered in the investigation of a Miami-based theft ring that targeted go-fast boats in Florida and Georgia and trailered them to South Florida for sale.

The boats, valued at $4 million, include a 31-foot Contender worth about $115,000, a 35-foot Donzi valued at $170,000, a 33-foot Hydra-Sports priced at $180,000, a 29-foot Wellcraft Scarab worth about $60,000, and a 33-foot Cigarette valued at $130,000.

Read the other story in this package: Tips for beating the thieves

Authorities were able to identify 33 of the recovered boats and return them to their owners or to insurers that had paid out for the losses.

One of the indictments charges Ariel Martinez, Gilberto Garcia and Manuel Moure with conspiracy to transport and possess stolen boats, alter their hull identification numbers, and fraudulently obtain titles and registrations for them, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Tampa. A second indictment charges Ruben Thames and Orestes Armenteros with possession of stolen boats.

All five are from the Miami-Hialeah area of Florida. The indictments, unsealed Oct. 6 in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, culminated a multiagency investigation involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Coast Guard Investigative Service, Jacksonville Beach Police Department and the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

The U.S. attorney’s office in January released some details of how the ring operated in an e-mailed response to questions.

The ring operated along Florida’s east coast from Palm Bay north into Georgia, and in central Florida, as well. They stole most of the boats from dealerships, one in the middle of a workday, and others from boat storage facilities. About a third of the thefts were believed arranged so the owner could file a fraudulent insurance claim, investigators say.

The thieves, operating from sometime in 2003 to fall of 2004, worked both at night and in broad daylight, in most cases driving up to a boat on its trailer, cutting its chain and lock with bolt cutters — if the boat was secured at all — hooking the trailer up and driving off.

The thieves then changed the HINs, created documents to falsely indicate that the boats had been purchased new, and used this false documentation to obtain fraudulent titles and registrations for the boats from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, in their own names or in someone else’s name.

Investigators say several of the stolen boats were advertised in used-boat listings in magazines, but most were sold through word of mouth at 35 to 40 percent of market value. Members of the ring kept several of the boats for their own use. Sales generally were cash, with no bill of sale. Several were financed through a dealership, although the business may have been unaware the boats were stolen.

Buyers had to return the stolen boats to their owner or insurer and lost anywhere from $20,000 and $60,000 apiece, authorities say. If there are convictions in the case, the court will order restitution to these jilted buyers, but collection usually is difficult, they say.

Recognizing a stolen-boat-for-sale requires buyers to do some detective work. They must make sure the HIN is real and it’s on the boat — the size and model — that the manufacturer’s records say it’s supposed to be on. A buyer can verify that information by contacting the builder. Most of the HINs of the recovered boats had been made up and were not in the manufacturers’ records at all. A buyer also should get a bill of sale and a copy of the seller’s identification. If a seller is unwilling to provide that, the boat might be stolen. Authorities say, too, that an unrealistically low selling price is a tip-off to an illegal deal.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Martinez, 30, of Hialeah, faces a maximum 65 years in prison and a $1,750,000 fine; Garcia, 32, also of Hialeah, faces 25 years in prison and a $750,000 fine; and Moure, 31, of Miami, 15 years and $500,000. Armenteros, 54, and Thames, 29, both of Miami, each face 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

All were out on bond, Martinez on $100,000, Garcia on $50,000, Moure on $50,000, Armenteros on $50,000, and Thames on $30,000.