In Search of the Mach Turtle

A reporter tags along as a South Florida PI searches for a missing trawler in Cuba, then finishes the job by battling with the boat's owner

"Basically nobody in Florida gives a crap about stolen boats," says Lt. Lee Palfrey, an eight-year FMP veteran. "Nobody cares. It goes back to the old saying that, if you steal a man's horse, that was a hanging offense, but if you steal luxury goods, you're a Robin Hood. Who cares if you stole a boat? You stole from a rich person."

Palfrey himself used to work boat-theft investigations but was pulled off as the FMP was redirected by the legislature to put more effort into environmental protection. It takes a practiced eye to tell one boat from another, he says, and most of the police simply aren't trained to do it.

"This is a good time to be in the stolen-boat business," he adds.

Cuba sí, Mach Turtle no: Cristobal Reinaldo (left), Dave Kellerman (center), and Brian Newton stop searching and start drinking
Bob Whitby
Cuba , Mach Turtle no: Cristobal Reinaldo (left), Dave Kellerman (center), and Brian Newton stop searching and start drinking

Phone service from Cuba to the U.S. is not 100 percent reliable. It takes Kellerman several attempts to reach McGhee, the Fort Lauderdale source who led us down here in the first place. He finally connects at about 8 p.m. He has one question:

"Mike, this is Dave. What the fuck is going on? Nobody knows anything about this boat. It's never been down here."

It's a brief conversation, Kellerman shouting into the phone, McGhee sheepishly insisting the boat has to be there. Kellerman finally slams down the receiver. "I'm going to break his legs," he says. "Don't print that."

Lucky for McGhee, Kellerman can't get back to Fort Lauderdale for almost 24 hours. He has time to cool down, collect his thoughts, make a plan of action.

Our plane lands in Fort Lauderdale at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. By 5:30 a.m. Wednesday Kellerman is on surveillance detail, parked outside Perrin's Fort Lauderdale apartment. Perrin leaves his place at 8 a.m., and Kellerman follows him to the post office, then breaks off so his cover isn't blown. That afternoon McGhee ponies up a useful tidbit: Perrin used to work on a boat called the Knot Tide, which at the moment is dry-docked in Dania Beach for repairs.

A visit to the Knot Tide proves fruitful: Kellerman learns Perrin's cell phone number and also that he's leaving for Hong Kong in a week to work on another boat. He calls Perrin pretending to be interested in purchasing the Mach Turtle. Perrin agrees to meet for lunch the following day. He never shows.

More surveillance. This time Kellerman leaves a note on Perrin's windshield outlining who he is and what he wants. Perrin comes out of his apartment in the morning, reads the note, and takes off like a scared rabbit, weaving in and out of traffic on A1A, trying to lose Kellerman, who finally backs off so as not to cause an accident.

Perrin's next stop is a lawyer's office. On Thursday the lawyer calls Kellerman with good news: Perrin is ready to make a deal. He'll reveal the location of the boat if English, the owner, signs a release agreeing not to press criminal charges. Success seems close at hand, but the Mach Turtle could be anywhere from the Keys to Taiwan. "I can't wait to see where the paper leads us," says Kellerman. "I hope my mouth doesn't drop open when I find out the boat's on the moon."

English signs. Perrin comes clean. It's mid-August and the Mach Turtle is found. Not on the moon, but at Mario's Marina, 20 miles up Río Dulce, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.

"It's floating, but it's not in very good shape cosmetically," says Mario's owner Daphne Hartley. "We haven't touched anything as far as the mechanics."

All that's left for Kellerman to do is to pack his bags, take the next plane to Guatemala, and cruise home aboard the Mach Turtle. He'll be $15,000 richer, English will reclaim the family jewel, Perrin won't end up in trouble. A happy ending?

Not quite.

Instead of cementing an amiable working relationship between Kellerman and English, locating the Mach Turtle precipitates a major-league falling out. Like treasure hunters who unearth a fortune, the owner and the PI suddenly eye each other suspiciously. Suspicion turns to distrust, distrust to hatred, and soon they are both out for blood.

Within hours of signing the release, English claims to have found the Mach Turtle independently through a friend who happened to be in Río Dulce on a catamaran. Therefore no need to pay Kellerman. To make matters worse, English is convinced Kellerman knew all along the boat wasn't in Cuba, and that the trip was a ruse to pad the expenses. "Kellerman is trying to extort me for more money," he says.

This does not sit well with Kellerman, who has invested more than 140 hours and several thousand dollars of his own money in the case. "I get the greatest clients on the face of the earth," he says.

Kellerman decides to extract his pound of flesh via admiralty law, the brand of justice that deals with shenanigans on the high seas. Admiralty law is a branch of federal law, and its special nature is predicated on a simple fact: Boats move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, country to country. By filing a lien with the Coast Guard on the Mach Turtle in rem, or against a property, he can have it physically arrested by U.S. Marshals and held until the matter is straightened out. Providing, that is, the boat is in U.S. waters and he's willing to put up a deposit.

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