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‘Voodoo princess’ vs. yacht broker

An unhappy client turns to voodoo when a deal on a trawler falls through

An unhappy client turns to voodoo when a deal on a trawler falls through

A Florida yacht broker and a once- disgruntled customer have agreed to a deal that, the customer says, ended a voodoo curse against the brokerage, one of its salesmen and the trawler that came between the two sides.

Under the deal, Stuart (Fla.) Yacht Sales has, according company president Bill Watson, agreed to make a donation to the customer’s favorite charity. The customer, Michael Caputo, a political speechwriter, agreed to close down his scathing Web site. And the salesman with whom Caputo dealt has, on his own, quit the business.

“There’s certainly no admission of guilt or liability,” says Watson. “[But] because the Web site is damaging, as a business you have to make business decisions.”

“I maintain the highest standards of ethics myself,” says Hewitt W. “Woody” Dyall, the salesman, who says one can “infer” [the Web site] was a catalyst in his decision to quit selling yachts. “I was extremely upset when I had one customer unsatisfied.”

Caputo — who says he created the Web site after he felt Dyall dealt with him unethically — says the negotiated deal with Watson results in a $2,400 donation by the broker to the Shake-A-Leg Foundation in Miami, which serves disabled boaters. By making the donation, Caputo says, “Stuart Yacht Sales joins [me] in celebrating the upside of boating and the many ways the sport can change lives.”

The contretemps that blossomed into a full-blown New Orleans voodoo curse began in August when Caputo, a Miami-based writer, fell in love with a Pilgrim 40 trawler named Finale. There seems to be little dispute over what happened when Caputo and his broker traveled to Stuart to look at the boat. Dyall told them that the owner had accepted an offer of $125,000 on a deal that subsequently fell through. Caputo says he asked whether an offer of the same amount would make the boat his. He believes Dyall said it would. So Caputo made the offer and went home, thinking he had bought the boat.

Dyall says there was another buyer interested in Finale, and that buyer made a higher offer, which the owner accepted. “I did nothing illegal, immoral or unethical, but perhaps I could have handled it better in making him understand it was entirely the seller’s decision,” Dyall says.

Once Caputo discovered that the boat had been sold to another buyer, he was incensed. He contended that Dyall had shown his offer to another buyer and got a higher bid so he wouldn’t have to split the commission with Caputo’s broker. Caputo says he went to the Better Business Bureau but didn’t get the satisfaction he was seeking.

“I’m a good Catholic boy, but I’ve been going to New Orleans two or three times a year for 25 years. To many people in New Orleans, voodoo is a solution of last resort,” Caputo explained before negotiating with Watson. “I was left there holding the bag. I did everything legal possible. So rather than break the law, this is one way to do it.”

Caputo says he visited a “famed New Orleans voodoo princess” and had her cast a spell on Stuart Yacht Sales, Dyall and the Pilgrim 40 Finale. Then he created his Web site, complete with a picture of Dyall that he had cut from the broker’s Web site and pasted on a photo of a voodoo doll. He wrote a tongue-twisting headline: “Burned Boater Backs Bad Voodoo on Broker, Boat,” and wrote text to explain his complaint against Dyall and Stuart Yacht Sales. He wasn’t gentle.

To quote from the site: “There is very little you can do if you are double-dealt in today’s freewheeling yacht sales regime.” Caputo wrote that he thought a “little Nawlins mojo” would set Stuart Yacht Sales straight.

The Web site included an animated picture of a sinking red Pilgrim 40 and a sound track — the maniacal ranting of Robert De Niro’s character in the closing scene of the film noire “Cape Fear.” In the movie, De Niro is handcuffed to a sinking houseboat and babbles gibberish as he is taken under.

Once the Web site was up and running, Caputo e-mailed various publications, including Soundings, announcing that he had tossed this cyber grenade at Stuart Yacht Sales.

That was Sept. 13. Watson and Caputo had a deal by Oct. 3.

“The lesson I learned is that I need to be more careful about the type of broker I’m working with,” says Caputo, since striking the deal. But he also says he learned that you can’t condemn an entire group based on just one experience.

Watson says he learned no lessons. He says he already had a “copyrighted yacht brokerage … manual in place.” The first item under the job description of salesman deals with integrity, he says. “Ethics and the moral obligation to follow those ethics is No. 1 on my list here.”

Dyall says he no longer wants to be in the business that he entered only a year before he met Caputo. Health issues are one reason, he says. He says he’d never had a dissatisfied customer until Caputo. “Most of my customers have thought I was wonderful,” he says. Of Caputo’s complaint, Dyall says, “It’s just a matter of a misinterpretation that the buyer had. He thought he had completed negotiations just in talking to me. If I had left him that impression, that was certainly my fault because it is entirely up to the seller.”

As for the Pilgrim 40, the buyer who outbid Caputo, according to Watson, found delamination, and the deal fell through. Caputo says the same voodoo princess who cast the spell has performed a ritual necessary to reverse the curse. But will Finale’s problems disappear?

“I’m not quite sure that’s going to fix the delamination,” Caputo says. “It [the curse] has ended up being a little more spooky than I had counted on.”