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?

Sometimes, it seems, the marine patrol can't get no respect. At one point Clemons begins to ruminate bleakly about the unit's lowly status within the police department. He does so right after he and Johnson respond to the only radio call they receive during their morning patrol: a request to fetch a yellow refrigerator bobbing near Star Island. "It's not really part of our job function," Johnson complains, but they race toward the island anyway. They secure the boat to a pillar next to the causeway and get out to move the refrigerator onto some rocks near the roadway so the sanitation department can pick it up later.

As they move on, Clemons explains why the patrol unit is so necessary, even if some citizens have been skeptical at times. "There's more water in the city limits than land," he points out. "Without us it's like not having lifeguards on the beach." Still the marine patrol is hardly a hotbed of crime-fighting activity. They make about three misdemeanor arrests per month, which may be why they don't receive lavish police department support. Until about two years ago their offices were located in a storage area inside a marina restroom, and a police radio stolen from one of their boats a while ago still hasn't been replaced.

The morning patrol ends on a note of urgency. "I'm hungry," Johnson announces.

After a relaxed lunch break at Lulu's restaurant, the officers return to their office to await calls for assistance and to take care of paperwork. Because it's begun to rain and a reporter is visiting, they scrap plans for their usual afternoon excursion on the water. Nothing much happens. It's like sitting around with the Maytag repairman. The phones ring only occasionally, and there are no urgent calls. But shortly after 4:00 p.m. a little excitement comes their way. A detective who found a jet ski in a stolen van needs assistance in identifying it at the nearby Tremont lot. He knows the marine patrol can help out. Johnson gets ready to leave and brings along a small mirror to aid in reading hard-to-find vehicle numbers.

The heart of the marine patrol's antitheft work is the detailed examination of vehicle identification numbers to see if they've been forged or tampered with, and then the painstaking efforts to track down the original owner and A if there's any evidence A the thief. Because the patrol unit is so small, it can spend only a limited amount of time pursuing these leads; many of the cases end up being tracked by the detective division. In practice the labor is often divided this way: If marine patrol officers receive a crime report during their working hours, they take the investigation; if it occurs after they leave at 7:00 p.m., other officers handle it. But if there are no leads after contacting the owner, it's unlikely anyone will investigate further.

In this case, Johnson is simply helping another officer, but his expertise comes in handy. John McCabe, a beefy T-shirted detective, points to the pink and white SeaDoo and says, "This is brand-new, Bruce."

Johnson nods. "So brand-new it doesn't have its Florida sticker on it." All boats are supposed to have oversize Florida registration numbers placed on the side by the owner. He bends down, looks at the rear of the hull, and finds the manufacturer's vehicle identification code -- and sees that some of the engraved numbers have been changed. "This is bad," he says. The engine number has also been defaced.

Now their only hope is in locating the "confidential" ID number hidden somewhere on the jet ski. The most sophisticated thieves often know where the confidential number is located and alter that as well. But if Johnson finds it intact, he can see if it's listed as stolen on an FBI database. After a while, he finds the number. "It should come back as a hit," he says, but later he discovers that the vehicle isn't in the database. Fortunately, there are two phone numbers -- with Canadian area codes -- scratched on the underside of the jet ski's seat to serve as further leads.

Back at the office Johnson takes out a list of contact numbers for thousands of boat manufacturers and looks up Bombardier, maker of the SeaDoo. No one's in. But then he calls one of the Canadian phone numbers and actually reaches the jet ski's original owner, a Quebec resident who tells him he sold the SeaDoo but believed it had been stolen from the buyer. Johnson still hasn't cracked the case, but he's made a start.

This attention to detail -- plus dumb luck and helpful witnesses A accounts for most of the marine patrol's successes. When the patrol makes one of its relatively rare recoveries, it's usually because of a watercraft they've stopped rather than any reports of stolen jet skis phoned in by owners.

The patrol's biggest success came last year when it traded information with police departments in other counties and cracked down on a team of thieves who stole about 60 boats over a year and half; they would strip them of their outboard engines and other equipment, then abandon them. The breakthrough came when the marine patrol unit followed a tip about a routine boat theft. A witness wrote down the license-plate number of a suspected thief, and his arrest led to the discovery of a storage facility in Davie harboring almost a dozen boats, trailers, and outboard motors. That arrest, in turn, led to others, including one person who had in his pocket a claim check for yet another storage facility with even more boats and motors.

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