At Bayside, Ship Happens

Miamarina wants the raucous La Rumba party boat out. Its owners are crying foul.

Former Miami Queen mechanic Alejo Vazquez and his wife Yamilet Moreno were among the revelers. He grabbed one of the women who had apparently broken a window on the boat. The woman's brother pulled out a gun and started shooting. Vazquez was wounded; Moreno was killed.

The Miami Queen left the marina early this year. Though no one else has been killed near one of the tour boats, the shooting site remains a volatile and popular place. On weekend nights dozens of teenagers mill around, many of them La Rumba passengers. Occasional arguments are a spectacle for visitors from Pittsburgh, Portland, and Poughkeepsie. On a recent evening the driveway in front of La Rumba was packed with about 300 boisterous, cigarette-smoking kids. That is not the scene Bogner wants yacht patrons to wade through on the way to a luxurious dinner cruise. "You have a lot of gang wannabes out here," Miami Police Ofcr. Winsor Lozano observes. He scolds one young man for nearly bumping a pedestrian with his El Camino. But it's not all that bad, Lozano states. In the past six months police have made only three or four arrests for disorderly conduct.

Bayside manager Raul Tercilla doesn't care whether the shooting occurred on the Miami Queen or La Rumba -- both have been trouble, he insists: "Some of the kids are aggressive." Get rid of La Rumba and the crowds of youngsters will disappear.

La Rumba's problems with teenagers date to its first year, 1994. The business, whose boat cruises cost seven to ten dollars per hour, was started by Walter Fortunato, a 39-year-old Uruguayan. He drives a BMW and lives in a $240,000 home in Miami Beach. He remembers well the night of December 23, 1994, when police arrested his wife Ilona and an employee for selling alcohol to a teenager, who was working with agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Charges were dropped in April 1995 after Ilona completed a two-month counseling program. The city began its eviction effort that year.

On May 25, 1996, Walter Fortunato was arrested at the seawall and taken away in handcuffs for violating a noise ordinance. He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted. Six months later the Fortunatos received another eviction notice. The case has been tied up in court ever since. In June a Miami-Dade County Court judge told the city it could go ahead and kick out La Rumba. The owners appealed last week.

Citing legal matters, Bogner won't elaborate about La Rumba except to say, "We've got one tenant out there that the city is currently working to evict because of violations of rules and regulations."

Mike Brescher, vice president of the Marine Council, a local association of maritime industry professionals, disagrees. Over the past two decades he has managed several city and county marinas, including those of Pelican Harbor, Crandon, and Dinner Key. "La Rumba deals with noisy, rowdy kids, but it still should be allowed," he asserts. "It's not my type, but there are people out there who enjoy that type of boat."

If the city continues its eviction effort, Fortunato warns, he is prepared to go on a hunger strike to save La Rumba. "I'm going to do whatever is necessary," he declares. "I'll go to the White House if I have to." Fortunato insists the eviction and the police stings are part of a plot. The purported conspirators: former marinas manager Raul de la Torre, Tercilla, and Chuck Sofge, owner of Island Queen Sightseeing Tours, the biggest tour boat operation at Bayside.

The owners of other tour boats allege a similar conspiracy. One of them, Capt. Jim Lewis, owns the 46-foot neon-lit Fiesta, which was Fortunato's until 1994. The boat carries tourists to mansions that guides say belong to Elizabeth Taylor, Julio Iglesias, and other celebrities on Star Island. By night it becomes another floating disco.

The Fiesta occupies a central slip in the marina's inner basin. Lewis had to fight for that important spot, which allows easy access for tourists. Though the city gave Lewis rights to it in 1990, authorities allowed a fishing boat owned by a friend of Sofge to dock there in 1994. Two years ago Lewis sued to regain the berth. The city surrendered last year and let the Fiesta have the slip.

Lewis cites other examples of unfair treatment. In July 1996 Tercilla ordered Lewis to restrict ticket sellers to a designated site. Tercilla alleged that the Fiesta's music was too loud. Calling the boat "a nuisance," the Bayside manager tried to boot it out. Lewis and his wife Holly allege harassment and favoritism toward Sofge. Five Miami police officers confirmed that the Lewises had done nothing wrong. "At what point of corruption is this going to stop?" wonders Jim Lewis.

Tercilla insists he has done nothing to favor the Sofges, but he thinks there are too many tour boat operations. He likens them to pizza stands. "If I put ten pizzerias in the food court, I won't do as well as if I have maybe two," he submits. "The likelihood of those ten operations working out will be nil, and you'll have all sort of upset pizza makers offering samples in the common areas, pushing each other and hawking."

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