Captains Outrageous

A simmering feud among Pompano Beach's dive-boat operators erupts into violence

A grouper zinc is a lump of metal shaped like a fish. Boaters attach them to propeller shafts and other underwater fittings so that corrosion will eat the zinc instead of the boat components. A grouper zinc can also be used to fracture someone's skull.

That may or may not be what happened in the parking lot of Boater's World in Pompano Beach two days before Christmas, when Mike Halprin and Dave Earp bumped into each other inside the store, began a heated argument, and walked outside. "There's some question," one Pompano Beach police detective says, "about who was the aggressor." Another detective notes that the weapon of the moment may have been the grouper zinc, brass knuckles, a metal pipe, or merely a fisherman's fist.

What police and dive-industry observers are certain of is that a six-month-old waterfront feud involving death threats and economic sabotage has finally boiled over into outright violence. Halprin, who suffered a broken cheekbone in the Boater's World brawl and underwent three hours of surgery on January 7, claims that Earp and a hard-drinking coterie of Broward dive-boat operators began harassing and threatening him and his wife this summer and conspired to kill his scuba business.

Halprin owns and runs the Seahorse, a 38-foot dive boat that carries up to 22 scuba divers to reefs off Broward County. His competitors include several "six-pack" dive boats -- smaller and comparatively unregulated vessels licensed to carry half a dozen customers. The men share a world of fierce competition for dive customers who often bypass Broward in favor of the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and other destinations.

Halprin's competitors say the feud began when Halprin took exception to their use of ribald language on the marine-band radio airwaves and then started reporting them to authorities for minor violations of city codes and licensing regulations. "The guy short-circuited one day, and by now he's totally out of his mind," says boat captain Mark Burns. "He's got some private detective following us around. That's why everyone's carrying guns. It's gotten fuckin' nuts around here."

Burns, like captains Conrad Nix, Brent Tubbergen, and Randy Whitneck, denies leaving Halprin phone messages like this one: "Hey, Captain Bozo! I know who's killin' all the fuckin' fish -- it's you! Dumpin' all that shit out of your head! Yeah, we're gonna nail you! You're an asshole! Fuck you!"

Or another one, received by Halprin's wife, Barbara. Barbara Halprin says she was walking into Home Depot in June when her cell phone rang. After she demanded the identity of the anonymous caller, the caller threatened to rape, sodomize, and beat her to death, noting that he knew where she lives.

Both calls preceded a September 13 incident in which Halprin, returning to dock with twenty scuba diving passengers, was pulled over and boarded by two Marine Patrol officers and fined $250 for discharging sewage into the water -- one of only two boats in 1997 to receive such a citation in Broward. The charge related to the fact that a valve designed to keep sewage in a holding tank was turned to the wrong position.

Halprin says he suspects Whitneck, an ex-employee, of sneaking on board his boat and setting him up for the embarrassing fine -- a charge Whitneck calls "complete and utter crap." Halprin also believes that the Marine Patrol officers might have been in league with his enemies. He complained to the agency's internal affairs division.

On September 29, Lt. Dennis Tate, an internal affairs investigator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, flew to South Florida from Tallahassee and interviewed Halprin at his home after placing him under oath.

Halprin says that two weeks before the Marine Patrol citation he had bumped into a friend named Pico Cassada who warned him that he was about to be set up by his competitors. Cassada says the information came from an acquaintance who attended a party with local dive-boat operators.

Tate also called a Halprin associate named Dave Kersey. In his report Tate recalled the October 27 interview: "After Halprin received his citation and the incident was reported in the Fort Lauderdale newspaper, Kersey went diving with Randy Whitneck. During the trip he mentioned the [citation] incident to Whitneck.

"Whitneck replied that Halprin was 'trying to take our business, and we had to do something.' Kersey said he was surprised at Whitneck's statement and dropped the conversation. Kersey said he has known Halprin for many years, and he knows Halprin follows the sanitation laws."

Whitneck calls Kersey a liar and denies any involvement in a plot against Halprin. "Mike needs to be checked out. He has mental problems, and you can quote me on that," Whitneck says. "He can say whatever he wants, but the only conspiracy is the one in his own head."

Three days later Tate grilled Marine Patrol officers Dave Bingham and Kevin McClure at Port Everglades. On November 7 the Office of Internal Investigations officially closed its inquiry into Bingham's and McClure's actions, concluding that "[T]here has been no testimonial or physical evidence provided to indicate either Bingham or McClure conspired with anyone to fraudulently cite Halprin for a marine violation."

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