Thieves plaguing Florida’s west coast

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Thieves stole the 34-foot Spectre from Jay Palini's backyard lift in Pinellas County, Florida.

Jay Palini was roused about 4 a.m. by a loud banging on the door and by a question from a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy who stood on the stoop.

Thieves stole this 34-foot Spectre from Jay Palini's backyard lift in Pinellas County. Authorities suspect the theft was part of a crime ring that steals boats to use in trafficking drugs and illegal immigrants.

“Do you usually have a red-and-white boat on your lift?”

Yes, he did. In fact, he’d had two boats behind his home when he went to bed the night of March 2: his own 43-foot Ocean sportfishing yacht in the canal and a friend’s 34-foot red-and-white Spectre center console on the lift.

“We went back to take a look,” says Palini, 48, president of Spectre Sportfish of Pinellas Park, Fla., builder of the Spectre fishing boats.

The red-and-white Spectre, named Wet Willys, was missing from behind his home in Tierra Verde, a town on Florida’s west coast. The area is laced with canals and is home to some very fast offshore fishboats that venture far out into the Gulf.

About two hours earlier, a sheriff’s marine unit had spotted the sleek boat motoring down a canal in a nearby neighborhood with its lights out. Powered by whisper-quiet triple 275-hp Mercury Verado outboards, the Spectre had slipped down the canal behind Palini’s house without waking him or his neighbors, motored over to another canal and stopped behind a vacant home, where the larcenous crew loaded up 30 gallons of gasoline they had previously placed there, according to authorities. Police later also found a case of water on the boat and a gallon of oil, all suggesting the crew was planning for a long trip ahead.

The $175,000 Spectre was headed out of a canal toward Pass-a-Grille Channel and the Gulf of Mexico when police spotted it. The thieves tried to elude police, running the boat into a pole and leaving a 2-foot gash in its side. They then ditched the boat at a dock behind a house, jumped out and fled on foot. Police dogs tracked two men to a hiding place under stairs at a home in the neighborhood. A third man was found hiding outside another home.

Police charged three Florida men — Christobal Rodriguez-Contreras, 36, of Miami; Diomere Mendez, 32, of Hialeah; and Yordis Gutierrez, 31, of Naples — with felony grand theft. All three were released, Gutierrez on $50,000 bond, the other two on $25,000 each.

Palini says power to the lift behind his house was on. The thieves lowered the Spectre into the water, got under its console, unplugged the key switch and plugged in their own. He doubts that cutting power to the lift would have stopped them since he knows of a triple-engine Fountain stolen recently from a lift while power was switched off. “They must bring their own power source,” he says.

He believes the thieves planned to steal the Ocean, as well. “They had the spring lines off it and in the boat that they took,” he says. “I assume they planned to tow that one out of there. … They must have had some sort of problem.”

This is not an isolated incident, says Pinellas County sheriff’s spokeswoman Marianne Pasha. Seven high-end powerboats were stolen from southern Pinellas County last year. So far in 2009, there has been a theft and attempted theft, both in Tierra Verde. She says thieves seem to be after offshore go-fasts that they can grab quickly then make a run for the Gulf. Investigators are looking into links to crime rings in Dade and Monroe counties, where boat theft is epidemic.

Boat theft across Florida is a growth industry, says Mark DuPont, senior intelligence officer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Authorities often find the stolen boats abandoned after just a couple trips.

Boat thefts in Florida increased 46 percent last year to 3,399. Most of those boats are believed to be involved in trafficking — some drugs, but mostly illegal immigrants; some are forced into prostitution and others work as veritable slaves, according to DuPont.

Florida’s southernmost counties — Lee, Collier, Monroe and Miami-Dade — are the hottest for boat theft because of their proximity to pickup points for illegals: Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas, DuPont says.

These counties also have high concentrations of boats with easy access to the ocean. Smugglers look for sturdy offshore center consoles, 29 to 36 feet, powered by two or three big outboards. These boats are fast, they have lots of room for human cargo and backup power if an engine breaks down. Smugglers charge $10,000 to $15,000 a head to carry immigrants — as much as $250,000 a load. Used four times, a stolen boat can earn its operators $1 million. Most boats wind up abandoned after just a couple trips, DuPont says. Vessels wear out after the long, hard trips, and thieves want to avoid using a boat that might be recognized.

Lazaro Mendez, a Cuban-American radio disc jockey at WPOW in Miami, documented what happens to many stolen boats when his own 33-foot Hydrosport with triple 350s was ripped off from a boat lift behind his home in the Florida Keys. Mendez’s boat, named Offshore Pimp, carried a satellite tracking device — one made by Guardian Mobility — that alerted him as soon as the boat left the dock at 11:08 p.m. Oct. 16, 2007.

“I called my neighbor in the Keys and asked him to see if the boat was there,” Mendez said at a Fort Lauderdale Mariner’s Club seminar on theft last fall. “He said, ‘No. It’s not.’ ”

The thieves had broken into his house to switch on power to the boat lift, and also stole plasma TVs, fishing rods, dive gear and a satellite phone.

Mendez called the Coast Guard, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation police and the Monroe County sheriff’s office, but Offshore Pimp was fast. It was on the open ocean in a heartbeat and had a head start; police didn’t try to pursue the thieves.

Mendez tracked the boat for three days on his laptop as the beacon transmitted the Hydrosport’s location by satellite. He saw it make a beeline for the northwest tip of Cuba, where it hung out 50 miles offshore while Mendez says its two crew peeled off the hull’s distinctive graphics. The boat sneaked into a remote lagoon on the Cuban coast the second night, then hightailed it 120 miles across the Yucatan Channel, where it waited eight miles off Isla Mujeres until nightfall the third day. That night the Hydrosport put in at a tiny island and disgorged its human payload, who now would likely try to make their way overland to the United States.

Meanwhile, Mendez and his insurance representative, William Casey of Harbor and Ocean Services Inc., of Fort Lauderdale, had decided to fly to Mexico to try to recover Mendez’s boat. They pulled together a team of Mexican police, and — still tracking the boat by laptop — caught the smugglers coming down the dock at an Isla Mujeres marina.

“They’re still in jail in Mexico,” Casey says.

Mendez says authorities moved the boat to a Mexican Navy marina, where it sat for 1-1/2 months while Mendez worked through the red tape to get the boat released. Casey says there are at least a dozen boats with Florida registration numbers in that government marina, most of them stolen vessels seized from, or abandoned by, smugglers. Casey says he and a consortium of private investigators and insurance representatives are negotiating for the boats’ release, in most cases to the insurer that already has paid out the claim.

Spending a couple hundred dollars on a tracking device to help recover a boat worth tens or hundreds of thousand dollars seems like a wise investment for any boat owner, especially in Florida, DuPont says. But he also advises cooperation among the many law enforcement agencies policing Florida waters to help curtail boat theft. He also calls for a vigilant public that will report suspicious activity on the water.

Pinellas County sheriff’s spokeswoman Pasha says the deputies who chased down Wet Willys were patrolling that area in response to a tip that thieves might be targeting Tierra Verde (a boat had been stolen from a neighboring canal just three weeks earlier), and because of a report that night of suspicious activity.

“[The thieves] were working this particular area pretty hard,” says Palini.

He’s considering a hidden fuel shutoff or satellite tracking device to foil any future attempts.

Stolen Vessel Statistics

Source: FWC Stolen Vessel Database

Compiled by: Katie Fojtik, Division of Law Enforcement

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* Vessel thefts may appear lower than actual numbers for these years, as the stolen vessel database began to be utilized more in 2006.

** The data contained in this report was obtained from the FWC Stolen Vessel Database on 3/30/09 and may differ somewhat from the figures in previous reports due to delays in reporting an data entry.

This article originally appeared in the Florida & the South Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.