COMBATING THE ?WATER MAFIA?: ORGANIZED CRIME IN BOATING
Marine unit officers serve a special population: boaters and nautical enthusiasts. Whether they work for a statewide agency, a seasonal force or a local department’s part-time detail, these cops choose their jobs because they share love of the water with the citizens they serve. Because so many different groups of people must share limited bodies of water; boaters, swimmers, anglers and personal watercraft (PWC) users alike welcome the presence of these officers, who help ensure that everyone has safe, equitable access to marine resources.
However, a recent upsurge in boat and motor larcenies has encouraged water cops to begin beefing up the enforcement aspect of their jobs, addressing marine thefts that are attributed to organized crime rings.
Boats and motors are attractive targets for these groups for several reasons. For one, these items are very profitable. They can be taken abroad and sold for two to three times their (new) value on the black market—quite a bonanza,
considering that the thieves don’t have to factor in the overhead of a legitimate dealership or marina. Boats and motors are also difficult to trace and even harder to recover. Most foreign governments do not have the ability (or the inclination) to devote the necessary resources to tracking down a boat or a motor.
According to Lt. Kish of the BPD Marine Unit, the difficulty and high cost of getting marine parts, motors and boats in the Caribbean, Mexico and other countries creates a demand for this type of theft. Organized crime rings take advantage of these needs and steal to order—costing private vessel owners, marine retailers and insurance companies over $2 million in the last several years.
“The thieves are very professional,” Kish said. “They can steal 10 motors a night.”
Kish said that bayous, marinas, dealerships and dry docks are the places targeted most frequently by organized crime
rings. Within each o.c. group are several factions, each of which has a different specialty.
“Some specialize in custom-built offshore racing motors,” Kish reported. “Others take outboards off boats at private docks behind people’s homes.”
MARINE TASK FORCES
In response to this nautical crime wave, law enforcement agencies have set up task forces targeting marine thieves. Major Martin Sharkey of the Longboat Key (Fla.) PD recently coordinated a multi-agency task force that nabbed several members of o.c. groups working the Southwest Florida area. By comparing the police reports from other Florida agencies, Sharkey was able to spot a pattern of similar crimes occurring at the same times.
“The day before the thefts occurred, the victims remembered seeing people hanging around in a flats boat or other small boat,” Sharkey recalled. “The crimes were committed late at night during the early part of the week, and always when the weather was bad.”
While one crime crew was busy stripping the outboard motors off boats docked in the water, another faction was taking off with entire boats. Meanwhile, commercial dry-land marinas also were being hit, sacrificing
outboards as well as stern-drives.
The criminals are professionals able to approach a target boat, remove a motor weighing several hundred pounds and abscond with it in just minutes. “In one night, one group of thieves took over a dozen stern-drives from one marina,” Sharkey recalled. “They can do a lot of damage at a dry-land marina.”
At 3 a.m., the task force nabbed one four-person crew bringing six outboards and two stern-drives to their getaway caravan, which consisted of a van and a Ford Explorer with a trailer. The group was ready to hightail it with their booty when helicopters and about 40 law enforcement officers surrounded them. Sharkey speculated that the
motors in this case were destined for the Caribbean to be sold on the black market.
“A $10,000 outboard here is worth double in the islands,” Sharkey pointed out. “The most effective deterrent is an aggressive police department,” he added.