Area's Pricey Boats Catch Eye of Thieves
By Terry Tomalin
The St. Petersburg Times (FL), August 23, 2008
A criminal ring thought to be working its way up Florida's west coast is suspected in the recent thefts of five high-priced Pinellas County boats, the type often used to smuggle illegal immigrants into the country.
'These are not random acts,' said Charlie Meacham, a Jacksonville-based private investigator working for several insurance companies to try to recover the stolen boats. 'These guys are professionals. They are in and out, and before you know it, the boat is in Mexico.'
Meacham, who is investigating several of the Pinellas County thefts, just returned from Cancun, where he says he found 44 boats reported stolen in Florida.
'They all had fraudulent registration numbers,' he said. 'We are currently working with the Mexican government to see if we can get these boats returned to their owners.'
Smugglers of both illegal immigrants and drugs favor multiengine 'go-fast boats' with large fuel capacities, the same features that make the vessels appealing to tournament fishermen.
'These multiengine, go-fast boats … are often targeted by smugglers of both narcotics and human cargo,' said Zach Mann, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Immigration in Miami. 'Vessels of this kind are routinely intercepted on the water by our officers.' Human smuggling
The U.S. Coast Guard says that between September and May, 3,846 Cubans attempted to sneak into Florida – a 7.5 percent increase over the previous year.
The spike in that number stems partly from tough economic times in Cuba, but it also reflects the increased sophistication of organized smuggling, observers say.
In the past, Cubans made the crossing in homemade rafts. These days, they travel in high-performance boats hired by relatives paying up to $10,000 a head for the trip.
'The penalties for smuggling people are much less than for trafficking drugs,' Meacham said. 'These guys can make $300,000 for one run, and if they get caught, they might spend six months in jail. What would you do?'
Prosecutors in Miami have begun to crack down on human traffickers. More than 40 Cuban-Americans have been charged with people smuggling this year.
One of the thieves' favorite targets is the Sarasota-built Yellowfin, a fast, durable boat seen frequently at professional kingfish tournaments.
'There have been four of our boats that had been reported stolen found down in Cancun,' Wylie Nagler, the company's owner, said. 'I guess (the smugglers) like them because of their range and speed.'
On Aug. 12, a 36-foot Yellowfin with triple 250-horsepower Yamaha engines was taken off a lift from behind a Belleair Beach home, according to Sheriff's Office reports.
That same night, John Anderson's 38-foot Fountain with triple 275-horsepower Mercury engines was stolen from a lift in Largo.
Anderson, who said he paid $250,000 for his boat in 2005, kept it at his soon-to-be father-in-law's house. Anderson was at a memorial service for a relative last week when a friend asked him how his fishing trip went.
'I told him that I hadn't been fishing,' Anderson recalled. 'That is when he said, 'Then where's your boat?''
On Aug. 16 in St. Pete Beach, another high-performance boat, a 31-foot Contender with twin 350 Yamaha engines, was taken in the middle of the night.
'You hear about this kind of thing happening a lot in South Florida,' said veteran St. Pete Beach Marine Officer Bob Micklitsch. 'But until recently, these types of theft were pretty rare around here.'
Add to the list of recent stolen boats a 34-foot Sea Vee from Belleair Beach on July 15 and a $1.5-million Sea Ray taken from Clearwater Beach on July 27.
Moving up the coast
Most of the 1,700 boat thefts reported in 2007 were in Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Lee counties, but thieves appear to be moving up the west coast.
On Aug. 6, the Coast Guard received a report of a boat without lights flying fast down the coast. When it tried to stop the 28-foot Sea Fox with twin 250-horsepower engines, the two men aboard took off.
'The Coast Guard had to shoot out the engines in order to get the boat to stop,' said Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Immigration Office in Miami. 'The boat was loaded with food, and we suspect that it was intended for human smuggling.'
The driver of the boat, 18-year-old Yancarlos Rivera-Camallea, is a Cuban national. Navas said the man told authorities that he and his friend, who was not charged, were going fishing. Navas said Rivera-Camallea was charged with failure to heave to.
'About two weeks later, a man contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office and said he wanted his boat back,' said Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa. 'He said he had lent it to some friends.'
South of the border
Meacham, the private investigator, said many of the stolen boats end up in Mexico, creating jurisdictional problems for U.S. law enforcement.
'The Mexican authorities have no way to determine if these boats are stolen,' he said. 'They can't tie into our criminal databases.'
Meacham said he has a meeting set with Mexican officials for next month to negotiate the release of the boats to their owners.
Meanwhile, U.S. Customs continues to aggressively pursue smugglers, but the agency's reach does not extend outside U.S. territorial waters.
'We have no jurisdiction down there,' said Mann, the agent in charge of custom operations out of Key Largo. 'Mexico is a sovereign nation.'