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Two words of advice for anyone planning to purchase a boat in the Venice of America: Caveat emptor. You could run into the likes of yacht broker Antonio Aguiar.
By all accounts Aguiar is the kind of salesman who could talk an Eskimo into buying an air conditioner. He's a raconteur who loved the good life, and his clients felt they could trust him with huge sums of money. He'd entertain potential buyers at his comfortable waterfront home on South Gordon Road off Las Olas Boulevard while his wife, Pam, cooked dinner. Afterward everyone would have a drink and talk boats; Nordhaven trawlers to be exact, because that's what Aguiar sold. He often kept a Nordhaven docked behind the house so clients could spend some time on board getting a feel for the boat.
He was so good he earned a con man's ultimate praise: Some of the people who say they were swindled by him still consider him a friend. "I can tell you right now I still like him," says Bob Crow, a yacht broker who used to work with Aguiar and is out $23,000 in missing commission money because of the relationship. "I miss the atmosphere I worked in there. It was really nice."
Until about six months ago, Aguiar was the owner of Pilot Yachts, a Fort Lauderdale brokerage with a solid reputation in a business known for fly-by-night operators. Today he's a wanted man, on the lam from two felony counts of first-degree grand theft in excess of $100,000. Fort Lauderdale police detective Jan Blackburn believes Aguiar may have embezzled about $900,000 from Pilot Yacht clients, then sailed for Cuba. "The last I know, he was in Hemingway Marina in Havana," says Blackburn. "We are right now trying to get him out of there."
Blackburn adds he's tried to enlist the help of the FBI and the Swiss Embassy to extradite Aguiar from the island, but thanks to the Elian Gonzalez case, this isn't a great time to get cooperation from Cuban authorities.
Aguiar, age 46, was born in Angola and holds a Portuguese passport. He moved to Florida from San Diego in the early '90s and was living in a motel with his wife, daughter, and son when he was hired on as a broker at Altech Yachts. He went to work for Pilot Yachts in 1993. Richard Gopfert, who owned the business at the time, remembers Aguiar as a top-shelf salesman. "He could sell boats," says Gopfert. "He had the gift of gab."
In 1997 Aguiar hooked up with a wealthy client interested in buying a brokerage. Gopfert, who had been in business since 1984, was toying with the idea of getting out anyway and decided to sell.
Aguiar proved more adept at selling boats than running a business. "He was not the best of businessmen," says Bob Crow, a broker who worked with Aguiar. "Watching some of the moves he made, we would be the first to question whether they were wise."
As it turned out, they weren't.
Pilot Yachts sold both new and used boats. Their specialty was acting as a representative for Nordhaven, based in California. When a Pilot Yachts broker sold a Nordhaven, the customer was expected to put a 20 percent down payment into an escrow account to get construction rolling and make periodic payments as the boat progressed. The money was supposed to be passed on to the factory. Brokers didn't get their commission until the boat was delivered.
Aguiar, says Crow, got into the habit of paying himself upfront. That meant the escrow account would come up short unless new customers kept coming in the door. "He was always one boat behind, praying to God he sold another boat so he could close the other one," he says.
Keeping tabs on yacht brokers is the task of the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The department does not make regular checks -- instead it acts on complaints. Aguiar's state file shows only that he was sanctioned once in 1995 for acting as a broker on an expired license.
He apparently spent the deposit money living the good life. "It looks like he blew it all on himself," says Detective Blackburn, "bought a couple Mercedes, a nice house, his high-rent wife, a kid in private school."
The scheme worked until August, when several deals were closing at once. When Aguiar couldn't cover them, he disappeared. Crow remembers the day well.
"Tony had to come up with a few hundred thousand," he says. "I had several boat deals that had all materialized at the same time. I was out of town closing on a 70-foot Hatteras. I came back and found Tony was nowhere to be found. He was gone, his car was gone, his boat was gone."
So was about $900,000 from the Pilot Yachts escrow account, according to Detective Blackburn. Pilot Yachts has since gone out of business.
Crow got a job with another Fort Lauderdale broker. One day not long after Aguiar disappeared, a man came into Crow's office interested in buying a boat and mentioned that he was staying at Hemingway Marina in Havana right next to the owner of Pilot Yachts. The man even knew Aguiar's name. "My ears perked up," says Crow. "That's how we knew he was down there."