Boat Repossession Team Grabs Wrong Boat

Walter and Joann Dethier feared the worst when they realized their boat was being taken from the marina.

A couple enjoying a quiet night on their boat in the Florida Keys were rousted from bed when a stealth repo team cut the dock lines and water hose, disconnected the shore power, and began to tow them away from the dock.

Not only were the couple still below as their Magnum 40 Sport Cruiser — appropriately named Magnum — inched away from the dock, but the night raiders had grabbed the wrong boat. Same year, 1984. Same make and model. Wrong Coast Guard documentation number. Wrong hull identification number, which was clearly visible in white on the green transom.

“We were kidnapped; we were hijacked,” says Walter Dethier, 65, of Warren, Conn. That, in any case, was their worst fear. Dethier and his wife, Joann, were interviewed at Magnum’s winter slip at Marina del Mar, a resort facility in Key Largo.

Walter Dethier, a semiretired auto racer and publicist, was asleep, and Joann was watching television when the power went out at about 10:30. She nudged her husband. At first, they thought it was a blown fuse or a power outage. Then they heard the thump of power cables dumped onto the foredeck. Dethier ran topside, leaped six feet across the water onto the dock, and confronted three black-clad figures. Two others were in a tow boat. Magnum’s bow line already was secured to its bitt.

Advised that this was a repossession, a frightened and outraged Dethier wouldn’t let the men take the boat. The Magnum was free of liens and mortgages, paid for by check seven years earlier, according to Denier.

The Dethiers’ Magnum 40 Sport Cruiser was twice mistaken for the wrong boat by National Marine Liquidators.

Meanwhile, a neighbor, retired police officer Lawrence MacDuff, heard the commotion, joined Dethier on the dock, and asked to see documents authorizing the repossession. A Monroe County sheriff’s incident report says one of the team responded that the men didn’t need any paperwork. Advised that sheriff’s deputies were on the way to straighten things out, the repo team scattered, according to the police account. The Dethiers reported the Nov. 2, 2008, incident to investigators as an attempted theft.

On Jan. 22, the Dethiers were back home in Connecticut when they got a phone call from an agitated Candi MacDuff, dockmaster at Marina del Mar, reporting that a team claiming to be repo agents had cut Magnum’s dock lines and water hose, disconnected the power cables, and was towing the boat away — at 2:15 in the afternoon. MacDuff had seen a tow boat idling in the Port Largo canal in front of the marina. After a few minutes, “a light bulb went off,” she says. She hustled down the dock to the Dethiers’ boat. “They’d already cut the lines” — again, she says. “I told them, ‘This can’t be right. You don’t have the right boat.’ ”

This time they showed her paperwork authorizing the repossession, though as it became evident later the authorization was for a 40-foot Magnum with a different name, HIN and documentation number than the boat they were taking. MacDuff called the sheriff’s office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation police. Her boss, resort manager Patty Manuel, alerted the Coast Guard.

“Once [the Coast Guard] understood what was going on, they were out there,” Manuel says. A Coast Guard law-enforcement team stopped the tow boat and its prize a mile south of Port Largo and escorted them back to the marina. By now, boaters up and down the docks had heard what had happened. When the Magnum glided back up the canal with an armed Coast Guardsman on its bow and a conservation officer in the cockpit, boaters and diners at nearby Bogie’s Café gave them a standing ovation.

Police reports identified National Marine Liquidators, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., boat repossession and auction firm, as the company that attempted both snatches for Wachovia Bank, and Jason M. Barroncini as the repo team leader.

National Marine’s recovery log for the case clearly indicates that the Magnum they were looking for had a different name, different owner and different hull identification number than the Dethiers’ Magnum. Both Jason Lessnau, head of National Marine’s repo division, and repo team leader Barroncini say they couldn’t comment on specifics of the case. The Monroe County state’s attorney’s office decided not to file theft charges since “there was no intent to steal the vessel or hijack the victims,” according to the police report.

An attorney for the Dethiers has demanded that National Liquidators pay for damages, which include loss of two sets of lines and hoses, jimmying the cabin door, and damage to the boat’s hull and electronics. Dethier also has filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture, which licenses repossession agents. The department’s Web site in early May indicated unspecified administrative action was pending on the licenses of both National Marine Liquidators and Barroncini.

“This vigilante attitude of cutting and slicing and stealing in the night in black clothing and with unmarked vehicles is positively ludicrous,” says Dethier. “The simple fact is my wife and I have been terrorized by this company.”

He says the mix-up could have been avoided had any of the repo crew checked the HIN on Magnum’s transom or its Coast Guard documentation, which is public record.

According to the police reports, Barroncini found the Dethiers’ Magnum through an online brokerage listing. He contacted the broker and said he wanted to buy the boat. The broker put him in touch with the Dethiers. Barroncini told Walter Dethier over the phone he was looking for a boat for his “uncle,” Bill Odell, who he said was in Dubai working for the contract firm Halliburton, according to police. He wanted to come down to Key Largo and take some photos of the boat to send to his uncle.

Dethier said OK. That was Nov. 1. The next night the repo team struck.

Dethier wants the Agriculture Department to tighten guidelines for the way boat repo teams operate, because in Florida it is legal for people to use deadly force to protect themselves if they believe they are threatened — faced with death or significant bodily harm — by someone in the process of committing a felony.

“They’ve got to enforce guidelines,” Dethier says. “Bring police with you, bring marina management people with you, determine that no one is in residence on the boat before you mess with it.” Otherwise, he says, “someone’s going to get hurt.”

Joann Dethier says the couple have become paranoid about strangers on the dock since the night they jumped from their berth to find five men absconding with their boat.

“I sleep with my semiautomatic rifle by my right shoulder from this point forward,” Dethier says.

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