By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Back on April 11, the long nightmare on the Miami River appeared to be over. Under mounting pressure from state and federal authorities, the owners of the decrepit freighter Rex Bear had finally found a terminal willing to rent them space to dock their 40-year-old German-made hulk, which for a year and a half had been illegally moored near the Miami Avenue drawbridge. Soon, the owners promised, the ship would be restored to seaworthiness or stripped for conversion to an underwater reef.
Since being repossessed from Haitian buyers in 1992, the Rex Bear had been wandering the river -- rejected or ejected from dock after dock, rusting, taking on water, weighted with thousands of dollars in unpaid fines for environmental and safety violations, and ignominiously designated by the Florida Marine Patrol as a derelict vessel. (The saga was the subject of New Times's March 6 cover story.) But Michael Zapetis, who represents the Costa Rican firm that owns the ship, has been making deals all over the Western Hemisphere for half a century, and he was able to persuade the shipyard manager at Global Marine & Trading, a ten-acre facility west of the 22nd Avenue bridge, to give the Rex Bear a temporary home. He even got a Miami investment firm to chip in to have the ship towed there and cover the first month's fees.
Still, anyone familiar with the tormented past of the vessel known in some circles as the voodoo ship would probably have been a bit skeptical. And they would have been right. No further dock rental payments -- about $200 per day -- have been forthcoming. Rainwater has been leaking into the hold, and the ship has sunk to the rock bottom of its shallow slip. Police have been summoned to disperse neighborhood children playing onboard and even starting fires on deck. And on the morning of July 30, Global's marina manager Wes Hendrix arrived at work to find an oil slick spreading from the ship and a hose hanging over a side railing. The Coast Guard would later ascertain that the Rex Bear's ersatz night watchman had pumped the water out of the cargo hold the previous night, discharging oil and other contaminants in the process. Neither the watchman nor the pump has been seen since.
The mere presence of any pollutants on the ship came as a shock; a contractor had supposedly removed all oil and fuel late last year. "I tried to reach the owners several times. I called the Coast Guard, DERM [Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management], and a spill clean-up response team," recalls the freckle-faced Hendrix, who works with his son Adair out of a moored yacht that serves as a floating office. "Luckily I had a 200-foot boom and we were able to contain the oil -- not a drop got out into the river. But I never did get ahold of the owners. We spent, just that first day, I'd say $20,000 out of our own pockets. They still haven't paid the dock fees, and the ship hasn't budged."
Not long after the Rex Bear took up residence at Global, a group of investors that includes erstwhile politico Maurice Ferre and Jordan Monocandilos of giant Bernuth Marine Shipping acquired the terminal with ambitious plans to upgrade it into a yacht service facility. The group declined to discuss the Rex Bear for this story, so it's not clear whether they realized the history of the 213-foot behemoth when they bought the property, but the oil spill certainly jolted them into action. They hired attorney Patty Spivey, who filed a civil lawsuit on August 18 asking Circuit Court Judge Ronald Friedman to evict the Rex Bear and award Global unspecified damages. Earlier this month Friedman signed an order requiring the ship's owners to remove it from Global's property, install 24-hour security onboard, and clean up any remaining contaminants.
At press time, the Rex Bear hadn't moved.
The court order is only the most recent annoyance Zapetis and his wife Karen Carazo have had to cope with. The owners of the property the freighter occupied before moving to Global sued for unpaid dock fees; that suit is set for trial next month.
The Coast Guard wants money too: According to Capt. D.F. Miller, Zapetis and Carazo will be fined $11,000 for allowing the oil spill to occur, plus an additional penalty for failing to respond to Coast Guard orders to clean up hazardous materials that were subsequently found on the ship. The Coast Guard ultimately had the barrels of fuel and oil removed, Miller says, at a cost to the government of about $20,000, which the Coast Guard will also seek to recoup. That would be on top of the fines it has been steadily levying since late 1995 -- a total of $40,000 before the July spill.
All those fines, however, are being appealed in a process that can drag on for years. Until all appeals are exhausted, Zapetis and Carazo will pay nothing -- and the Coast Guard is unable to begin the long and costly process of seizing the ship.
Zapetis and Carazo declined to comment for this story. But if they're looking for someone to help them comply with Judge Friedman's eviction order, they're unlikely to retain the services of Naty's Investments, the firm that helped out with the Rex Bear's move to Global in April.
"Zapetis kind of used us because no one else would touch it. We were told the vessel would either be made into a reef or sold, but the owner didn't do either," says Naty's Juan Menenses. "We notified the Coast Guard we would no longer be involved.