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?

Another random incident last year led to a big bust involving a loose confederation of youthful thieves and their associates. While cruising near Government Cut, the marine patrol saw a young man struggling with a disabled jet ski. They stopped to help him, but noticed that the craft appeared to have been repainted and the ID numbers, on closer inspection, didn't seem right. As it happened, he was a suspect in a City of Miami investigation, and his arrest ultimately led both police departments to raid a shop in Miramar that was selling stolen jet skis. (That investigation is continuing.)

Most people convicted of jet-ski theft, Clemons and Johnson say, won't do any serious time, and if they are jailed, they won't remain there long. "They let out the guy who stole three jet skis and keep the murderer in," Johnson explains, a hard fact of the criminal justice system he reluctantly accepts. Still, it rankles them that, as Clemons puts it, "this is laughed at by the State Attorney's Office."

Gary Winston, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, doesn't see it that way. "There's not a crime in the county that is laughed at," he counters. "Every crime has a victim." He points out that jet-ski heists are considered third-degree grand thefts because the vehicles range in price from $4000 to $7000, and sentencing guidelines recommend that first-time offenders receive nonprison sanctions ranging from probation to moderate jail time. "There's no distinction between the way we treat the theft of a jet ski and the theft of a car," he contends.

But no matter how diligent the efforts of investigators, they're virtually doomed to fail when victims decide it's not worth the effort to cooperate. In May of this year, for instance, a witness saw two young men skimming along on what he believed was his Miami Beach neighbor's stolen Wave Runner and watched them ride to a waterfront home, where they parked the craft after taking it out of the water. The witness contacted the police, who discovered that indeed the witness's neighbor had been ripped off. The thief was arrested. But the owner decided he didn't want to testify in the case, so prosecution was dropped. A few months later the same Wave Runner (along with a new one) was stolen again. "Maybe this guy learned a little," Johnson notes disapprovingly. "He was lackadaisical."

Not all owners are so indifferent to the fate of their beloved jet skis. Back in June, Palm Island resident Gerald Richman, a prominent Miami attorney and president of the Miami Beach Taxpayers' Association, discovered that the jet ski belonging to him and his wife Gwen had been cut from a cable attached to their boat lift. "Gerry had it for only three weeks," says Gwen, head of the Palm-Hibiscus-Star Island Association. "We were livid."

As befits civic activists, the Richmans did not passively accept this criminal intrusion. They summoned a detective to photograph suspicious footprints near their dock, and complained to the police chief and to City Manager Roger Carlton about the lack of nighttime patrols by the marine unit. Because of police manpower shortages, that situation won't change anytime soon. But even 24-hour patrolling -- a very expensive proposition in fuel costs alone -- is no guaranteed remedy. Sergeant Clemons notes that an earlier experiment in nighttime surveillance from the roof of a waterfront high-rise produced no arrests.

However, some homeowners on Miami Beach's swankest islands insist that their tax dollars should buy them better waterfront protection. Builder Pedro Adrian, Sr., who lives next door to the Richmans, suffered a jet-ski loss earlier this year. "We moved to this island looking for security," he complains. "We pay $36,000 in taxes on this house, and for that you'd think we should be able to have a marine patrol in the back."

Another supporter of increased patrols is Emilio Estefan, whose Star Island home was the scene of a jet-ski theft last year. The city's image, he argues, would be enhanced by better marine security. "We need to be more strong about this," Estefan says diplomatically. "It would benefit the city to avoid this." Meanwhile, he's not taking any chances. His new jet ski is tied down with strong cables and linked to an alarm system that sounds inside the house. Maybe Estefan's neighbor Vanilla Ice (a.k.a. Robert Van Winkle) should consider similar elaborate precautions. His jet ski was stolen in April.

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