Longboat helps bust boat theft ring

Ten are indicted in a multi-million dollar boat theft ring that has plagued Southwest Florida since 2007.

A stolen 42-foot Searay Sundancer washed ashore in the 6000 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive in front of former Mayor Jeremy Whatmough’s house.

A stolen boat that was recovered had 20 large blue containers of gasoline aboard, apparently ready to head across the Gulf of Mexico before discovering the boat required diesel fuel.

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An international boat theft ring responsible for stealing millions of dollars in luxury boats from West Florida has been broken-up thanks to the assistance of Longboat Key and its Marine Patrol Division. A 10-count indictment was issued Sept. 22 for 12 defendants, and two days later, 10 were detained at the Federal Courthouse.

The boat thefts have been ongoing since mid-2007 according to a report from Longboat Key Police Chief Al Hogle. At least two boats with a combined value of more than $400,000 were stolen from Longboat Key and subsequently recovered. A 30-foot Grady White center console was stolen June 16, 2009, from the 500 block of Gunwale Lane. That vessel had a value of $150,000. Two months later on Aug. 23, 2009, a 2008 33-foot Grady White center console was stolen from the 6700 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive. That vessel had a new price of $251,000.

Longboat Key Police Department Marine Patrol Officer Dennis Silverio was subsequently assigned to investigate these thefts and coordinated with the Ft. Myers office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Meanwhile, the thefts continued throughout Southwest Florida. Boats were stolen or attempts were made to steal boats from waterfront communities including Marco Island, Bonita Springs, Anna Maria, Ft. Myers, Cortez and many other coastal communities.

While many leads were followed and evidence gathered, Longboat’s first direct encounter with the thieves occurred Oct. 18, 2009, when Silverio and a Coast Guard officer observed the 30-foot Grady White that had just been stolen heading out of Tampa Bay near the Rod and Reel pier restaurant on the north end of Anna Maria Island. A pursuit was initiated and the suspects jumped overboard and put the boat in full-throttle to avoid being caught. Silverio and the Coast Guard officer disabled the boat as it traveled full-speed, unmanned, toward the Gulf, by shooting out one of its engines. The vessel had 20 large blue containers of gasoline that had been placed on the rear deck floor. The vessel was recovered, and after fingerprint processing it was returned to its owner.

Hogle said police located two suspects later that evening who were detained and fit the profile of the men who jumped overboard.

“The efforts of Officer Silverio are extremely admirable. He helped both directly and through coordinating our efforts with the other agencies. He is to be commended for his work,” said Chief Hogle.

Most recently, on Aug. 13, 2010, a 42-foot Searay Sundancer washed ashore in the 6000 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive in front of former Mayor Jeremy Whatmough’s house. The vessel was stolen from Cortez and was removed from the beach and returned to its owner. That vessel is valued at $200,000. Hogle said the thieves may have made a blatant error and that may account for why the boat was abandoned. According to Hogle the boat was loaded with a similar number of fuel containers containing diesel fuel, yet the boat engines were unleaded gasoline.

The 12 individuals indicted, most who are from Naples and the immediate surrounding area, face charges of Conspiracy to Transport Stolen Vessels in Foreign Commerce and counts of Transporting Stolen Vessels. If convicted each defendant faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison on the conspiracy and 10 years on each of the nine remaining counts, for a total of 95 years. Two of those indicted remain fugitives.

The U.S. Department of Justice formed an investigative task force known as “Island Runners,” in which Longboat Key participates. According to the Justice Department the Naples-based theft ring stole vessels from waterfront homes in Southwest Florida and transported them to Mexico. The Justice Department said the task force, including the assistance from Longboat Key, not only gathered information leading to the indictment but also disrupted the intended theft of numerous additional vessels.

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