The Great Jet Ski Caper

What kind of world do we live in when a poor soul can't even own a jet ski without fear of losing it to thieves and brigands?

Like a growing number of other young men in the Miami area, Capems Franaois has a taste for jet skis. In fact, police say, he liked one particular jet ski so much he stole it twice. By the time the cops chased him down, his alleged victims and pursuers were scattered about like so many buoys in the wake of his reported crime spree, part of a rash of jet-ski thefts that are plaguing Miami Beach's most affluent neighborhoods.

The first victim was Orlando Torres, a physician who lives on Palm Island in Miami Beach, one of those wealthy waterfront neighborhoods most terrorized -- or at least irritated -- by aquatic thieves. Torres's nightmare began when he was awakened one Friday morning in May by the boat captain who tends his yacht. The captain had bad news. In the early-morning hours, somebody (probably accompanied by an accomplice) had cut the security cable that protected Torres's jet ski and pushed the craft into the water. Jet skis float easily, and many models don't need ignition keys to be started, just a special plastic device that can be purchased at most boat stores. Then the thieves towed the jet ski into Biscayne Bay using a small boat, Torres surmises.

"I feel very frustrated that with the taxes we pay here, people can just come in and steal whatever they want," Torres says today. He faced an added burden at the time of the crime: no insurance. And when his incident report and vehicle identification number were relayed to Bruce Johnson, an officer with the Miami Beach Police Department's tiny marine patrol unit, Torres had little reason to expect that anyone would ever find his jet ski -- or the thief. As with most such cases, Officer Johnson notes, "there's very little solvability."

But Torres didn't count on the determination of the marine patrol to ferret out wrongdoers. These plucky waterfront defenders pursue justice while overcoming more than their share of handicaps, such as having a fleet of four boats but just one of which patrols all of Miami Beach's bay and ocean coastline at any given time, and for only a few hours during daylight. ("We can't do it all day A you get hungry and there are no bathrooms on board," notes the unit's leader, Sgt. Daniel Clemons.) About half the time only one officer is in the patrol's 25-foot fiberglass boat. On most days, just two or three officers are on duty, either patrolling the waters or back at their office, which is built atop a public restroom in Island View Park at the eastern end of the Venetian Causeway. Four officers are assigned to the unit, although it's not uncommon for one of them to be deployed to more urgent street duty.

Despite such limitations, on a Saturday afternoon in October, Johnson began unraveling the five-month-old mystery of Dr. Torres's missing gray Kawasaki jet ski. By coincidence he and another officer spotted 22-year-old Brett Vapnek riding without a life jacket on a gray Kawasaki near their boat ramp. They flagged him down and asked him for his registration papers. As it turned out, Vapnek didn't have any papers, he said, because he'd just gotten the jet ski from a fellow named Franaois in exchange for a $3500 motorcycle. Franaois promised to give him the title to the jet ski soon, Vapnek recounted. Johnson and his partner called in the craft's identification number. Vapnek's story was plausible, but the Kawasaki was hot.

The jet ski was confiscated and taken to the Tremont Towing impound lot two blocks from the marine patrol office. This story should have ended there: a simple phone call to the rightful owner, and the swift arrest of Capems Franaois, who worked at Club One, a South Beach nightclub. But Franaois had other plans.

The police indeed called Dr. Torres to tell him they'd finally found his jet ski. But before he could retrieve it, Franaois A who'd obtained the registration papers stored on the craft A showed up with a notarized letter bearing the forged signature of Torres and authorizing the release of the jet ski into Franaois's custody. "Jesus, that was pretty gutsy," recalls Johnson, who successfully pressed the state to revoke the notary's license. (Because police give tow-company employees only ownership information about impounded vehicles, the workers at the lot were unaware Franaois was a suspect in the theft of the jet ski.) Franaois then gave back the Kawasaki to Brett Vapnek, who, police believe, apparently still thought Franaois was the legitimate owner. The cops soon impounded the jet ski again, then prepared their case against the suspect.

Almost two weeks later Johnson showed up at Club One. After two off-duty police officers working at the nightclub located Franaois, Johnson told him he was under arrest. But like some Miami Beach version of James Cagney in an old gangster flick, Franaois apparently decided he wasn't going to let any cop haul him away on a damn jet-ski rap. According to police reports and Johnson's recollection, Franaois fought with the officers, smashing one of the cop's glasses. They placed him on the ground next to a police car, his hands cuffed behind his back, but he somehow managed to maneuver the cuffs in front of his body and took off running. The officers chased him on foot, found him a few blocks away, and again cuffed his hands behind his back. Franaois was then put in a squad car and driven to the police station by Ofc. A.J. Prieto.

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