By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Mark Farson was asleep below deck when the gunshots thundered. His sailboat jerked to a halt. It was 11 p.m. on a steamy March night; a friend, German Copiano, was at the helm. They were drifting downwind off the Dominican Republic near a sandy stretch of beach called Playa de los Cocos.
Farson, a sandy-haired 50-year-old with translucent blue eyes and a nervous manner, climbed onto the deck to see two fishing boats swarming with men. Most were civilians, but at least two were uniformed Dominican navy officers. They had hooked the bow of his 42-foot Gulfstar with grapples and were gesturing for him to head for shore. Weapons were everywhere.
"Vamonos," they shouted, firing more rounds into the air.
"We have to get off," Copiano told Farson, who speaks minimal Spanish. "We got problems."
Groggy, Farson returned below. He grabbed his passport, $500 in two envelopes, and his address book. He also scooped up several souvenir T-shirts he had bought for his 10-year-old daughter, Amber; a wad of cash; and his portable Global Positioning System, a pricey, handheld electronic gizmo that would help pinpoint his location.
He wound a string attached to the GPS around his wrist and tucked his money clip, which held an instant cash card and $100 in 20s, into the "crack of my butt," he says. Then he dropped anchor and, with Copiano and another Dominican passenger named Santiago Cleto, clambered over the side and headed for shore, about 50 feet away.
"There's nothing like hearing shotguns and AK-47s to get you out of bed," Farson says now. "You do the weirdest things in situations like this... We walked to shore over a coral reef and got all cut up. Bad."
When the trio reached the rocky cliff, a mob of about 40 men was standing over them, watching the incident unfold. As Farson tried to pull himself up with the hand that held the GPS, one of the men reached down, it seemed, to give him a boost. "I thought he was going to help me, but he grabbed [the GPS] and ran," Farson says. "This trip started out rough then, and it got rougher by the minute."
During the next 12 days, Farson would be mugged by the onshore mob, beaten and starved for two days by Dominican authorities, and abused by the court system. He would lose his boat and become a fugitive from justice. He would disappear briefly into the border netherworld that separates the Dominican Republic, one of the world's most corrupt nations, from Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country. He would emerge with a bad limp, a Dominican document clearing him of carrying contraband, and a Midnight Express-like tale of what can happen abroad.
In a way, it is unsurprising that Farson, who now lives in Hollywood, would fall into the looking glass. An Ohio native and licensed optician, he's a dilettante with spotty luck. He's sold stocks, owned a printing business, and, after moving to Miami Beach almost 20 years ago, even delivered Miami New Times while living at South Beach's Clevelander Hotel for $10 a day.
Public records show he's dabbled in a half-dozen defunct South Florida corporations -- marketing, trade, and more. In 1986, he bought a house on Stillwater Drive in Miami Beach, and two years later, at age 36, he wed Kathy Pukas. It was his second marriage, her first. (Farson's first had ended in 1979.) Amber was born in 1992.
And he has had run-ins with the law. Twice, in 1996 and 2002, he was busted for cocaine possession, a felony. In the first case, a cop turned up a baggie with alleged coke in his wallet after spotting him with a woman who was buying the stuff. “That’s it for me,” he told the City of Miami officer, “I’m not doing this shit anymore.” Adjudication was withheld. In the second, which was dismissed, a police officer found seven baggies of white powder in his car after picking him up for not using his turn signal. “I got involved with drugs at a late age,” he says. “And I beat it.”
Last year, Mark and Kathy Farson decided to divorce. In November, they worked out an agreement. He got the 1988 Volvo, she the 1997 Pathfinder and primary custody of Amber. The trauma was eased a little when their house, which the couple had purchased for $126,000, sold for more than four times that. The divorce was finalized this past January.
In early December, Farson, a veteran sailor, bought the Gulfstar, which was moored on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. It had three staterooms, a bathroom, and showers. Cost: $42,000. "I'm telling you, it was a beautiful boat," he recalls. "I thought: I'll take the next four or five months off." He bought an $1,800 autopilot, a laptop computer, plus both the handheld GPS and a larger one.
On December 29, he flew to Tortola. After completing the boat purchase and stocking up on food and drink, he bought insurance. Then he and a buddy stashed about $1,200 in envelopes in several places below deck and set sail for Puerto Rico. Farson also stowed a .9-millimeter pistol "for safety," he says.