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.

When they arrived at the police garage for a routine booking, Prieto opened the car door, only to be knocked down when Franaois violently shoved open the door from the inside. He sprinted out of the garage and ran to a nearby apartment building. As Prieto chased him, Franaois climbed to the second floor, and with his hands still cuffed behind his back, leaped to the ground. Prieto ran downstairs to capture him, and the intransigent Franaois, with his handcuffs now in front of him again, allegedly swung at the cop with his cuffed fists, hitting Prieto in the shoulder. Backup officers arrived and finally subdued him. He is now awaiting trial on charges ranging from grand theft to resisting arrest with violence to battery on a law enforcement officer; his lawyer, Seymour Gaer, declined comment.

There's just something about a jet ski that can make a man do strange things.

The leading bulwark against jet-ski theft in Miami Beach is the police department's marine patrol, and on a recent weekday the two officers on duty, Sergeant Clemons and Officer Johnson, head out for their morning patrol, eyes peeled for trouble. Both wearing sunglasses, the tall, bearded Clemons and the thin, light-haired Johnson seem ready for anything they might have to encounter, from speeders to drunken revelers to suspicious-looking boats.

As they make their way toward Monument Island, just north of Star Island and the site of numerous complaints lodged by irate citizens over boating noise and speeding, it soon becomes apparent that there is almost no one on the water. (It is midweek and rather overcast.) Still, they dutifully undertake their rounds, the boat bouncing along as they talk about the reasons for their devotion to marine law enforcement. "I like being outside," Clemons says. "It's better than driving a Dodge police car."

Johnson concurs: "The worst boat is better than the best police car." Later, when asked about some of the most fulfilling aspects of the job, he replies, "It's very relaxing." Nevertheless, Clemons points out, the job isn't as much fun as it appears to be. Sometimes it gets very hot out there, and other times it rains -- plus they have to clean the boats themselves.

Soon, while passing by Star Island, they spot a crime just waiting to happen: two Yamaha Wave Runners covered by the manufacturer's tarp. "That's telling you the kind of jet skis to steal," Clemons says with some disdain. "You don't need to advertise." Even though they're secured with cable and a heavy lock, Johnson notes, the security devices are attached to the craft via a fiberglass ring that quickly can be sawed off. "It's an easy target," he says. "If those jet skis were put to the side of the house and hidden, they'd never get stolen."

Clemons concludes: "That was a prime example of just how easy it is, and why there should be a lot more thefts than there are." (One Miami Beach Police Department analysis shows that there have been a mere 35 stolen boats and jet skis so far this year within city limits. But other experts, such as marine insurance adjuster Brett Carlson, put the figure as high as 100.)

Bayfront homeowners, though, don't always welcome the officers' safety message. While cruising near 50th Street and North Bay Road, they notice unprotected jet skis on the back lawn of a luxurious home. A dog comes out and barks. Clemons says, "The dog's not going to miss them. They're just waiting to be stolen."

Notes Johnson: "People leave the back of their waterfront homes very vulnerable to crime, and then they wonder why they're victims."

"The dog will go for a steak," making a theft even easier, Clemons jokes.
As they're speaking a man -- presumably the home's owner -- comes out on the lawn. "How can I help you?" he asks a bit warily in a distinctive German accent.

"The back of your house is wide open, and this is a prime candidate for a burglary," Johnson replies. "What you need to do is get a trailer, a little two-wheeled cart, and roll the jet skis around to the side of the house."

"But do you know how heavy that is?" the man says with a puzzled smile.
"If you leave them like that," Johnson shouts before they leave, "I can assure you they will be stolen."

Johnson concedes that using a trailer to move the craft "could ruin the fun of riding a jet ski. Right now you can just throw it in the water and off you go. But if you have it on a cart, you ask: Do I want to hassle dragging it around?" Still, he insists, it's worth doing, and a properly mounted jet ski isn't that heavy.

Clemons adds, "A lot of the people really aren't victims [if a theft occurs], because the insurance companies pay it off and they go ahead and get a new one." In fact, all the paperwork makes many affluent crime victims downright ungrateful when the police do recover their stolen jet ski. They've already reported it to their insurance company. They may have already replaced it. "It's an aggravation," Clemons says. "They don't really want to be bothered."

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.

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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