Sunk

An American sailor's Caribbean sojourn comes to a watery and excruciating end

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.

The next month was full of Caribbean-style debauchery. "The first place we stopped [in Puerto Rico] was Willy T's," he says. "The big thing there is that all the girls get drunk, take off all their clothes, and jump into the water for a T-shirt. There's nothing but bars and bands and women." He says he watched football, winning a $1,000 wager on the Super Bowl, and cheering when Ohio State beat Miami for the national championship; and hosted his 21-year-old nephew for a couple of weeks.

In late February, he headed for the Dominican Republic. After cleaning up the boat and hanging out for a few weeks in Boca Chica, just outside the capital, Santo Domingo, he decided to head for a small island called Beata near the Haitian border. He went to the local commandant, "a big old, fat guy," for approval of his itinerary. Farson contends they didn't communicate very well. That miscommunication would prove significant.

On March 8, Farson headed west with Copiano, owner of a small restaurant, and Cleto, an electrician, for what he thought would be a five-day sail. They spent the next two days lolling down the coast, drinking a little, and enjoying the sun.

Then came the March 9 confrontation near Enriquillo, a tourist beach about 11 miles from the Haitian border. While gathering up his stuff below deck, Farson decided to leave the gun and most of the money. He dropped anchor and headed for shore. When the trio climbed up, there were no police, only the mob. "It was a free-for-all," Farson remembers. "They pushed us and tried to steal everything, even my shoes." His clothes were ripped, and he was badly bruised. After a Good Samaritan shot his pistol into the air, the crowd dispersed and the three went to a hotel.

Fifteen minutes later, officers showed up and took them to a jail -- one of six they would inhabit in the next 12 days. When authorities spotted Farson's blue American passport, they separated him, slapped on handcuffs, and, he says, dragged him into a backroom. "There were two navy guys and two cops," Farson says. "They wanted my money."

In the room were switches with rope on the end and buckets of saltwater, he recalls. When he told the four officers he didn't have any cash, one whacked him in the knee, which was scarred from past surgery. "Just the right one," Farson says with a grimace. One of his interviewers, he contends, also burned him on the hand with a cigarette. Finally, Farson handed over the $900 he had carried ashore.

He slept the night on a concrete floor in the jail. The next day, the police chief said his men had found no guns or human cargo on the boat. Farson pulled his money clip from his behind, removed $20, and offered it to a guard for use of a cell phone. He called the American embassy. "I spoke to a guy named Christian Olivero," Farson remembers. After Olivero spoke to the chief, "they immediately took off the shackles," Farson says.

The next day, he was driven to another police station in the regional capital of Baralona, where he says he spent two more days. There were no more beatings, but there was also "no food, no water," and he slept on the floor. "By the end of the second day, I passed out."

The jailers, he says, revived him with a gruel of rice and water. Then he called Olivero at the embassy again. The official had, at Farson's request, called his sister Jennie in Ohio. "At first, they told me they were investigating Mark for alien smuggling, and I said, 'He lives in Miami -- he doesn't need any more aliens,'" she recalls. "They didn't laugh. Then I thought, they could kill him down there and nobody would know."

Then one of his jailers delivered news. Though they had been cleared of smuggling aliens, the trio would now be investigated for carrying drugs. So Farson, Copiano, and Cleto were driven to a narcotics division facility, where they stayed for two days. The boat was searched a second time, and again nothing was found. Farson was relieved.

On the fifth day of captivity, Farson again called Olivero, who declined to speak on the record with New Times about the case. "'There's been a development,' he told me," Farson remembers. "I'll never forget it. 'They're bringing in the Dominican navy. '" Next, the men were moved to Santo Domingo, where they were held for seven more days in three different jails. Only when Farson reached the capital city did two embassy employees visit him. "Tired and shaken" is the way one of his visitors, who declined to be named, described him. "He looked bad."

But things were temporarily looking up for Farson. He was able to convince a guard to allow him to use a nearby automatic teller machine, where he withdrew 4500 pesos, worth about $170. He used the money to buy a cell phone and bribe his way into a better cell.

Finally on March 21, authorities released him. Although he was given a signed document from the Dominican military stating that "a minute inspection [of the boat] was made and nothing compromising was found," his troubles weren't over.

By truck, he traveled the three and a half hours back to Enriquillo and found that his boat had sunk and washed up onto the reef. It had been picked clean. Even the brass shaft connecting the motor to the propeller had been removed. "They took my clothes, my cigars, my wine. They took the lifejackets, everything."

On March 24, a judge fined Farson 200,000 pesos, or $7,400. She cited Farson's flawed itinerary showing that he was going to travel to Puerto Rico, not Beata Island. "That is absolutely unprecedented," says Farson's Dominican lawyer, Juan Miguel Garcia. "They try to kill him on the beach, demand money from him, and assault him in jail; hold him incommunicado; then find that he has broken a law that should require a 25-peso fine and charge him 200,000."

I spoke last week with the U.S. Embassy about Farson's claims. Authorities there say Farson told them that a low-ranking officer had burned him on the hand with a cigarette while demanding money. He didn't mention being beaten with the switches or starved, they said, though such things are sometimes reported in the Dominican Republic. "American citizens have reported being mistreated by authorities, some have complained about being slapped by police, others have said they were beaten with a stick," explains Patricia Hawkins, the embassy's public affairs counselor.

Low-level officers sometimes demand bribes, say several experts I questioned. And, with the country in economic crisis and the government cutting back, they often force inmates to buy their own food. Moreover, on the Haitian/Dominican border, where drug and immigrant smuggling are perhaps more prevalent than anywhere else in the Caribbean and where vigilante justice rules, trouble can be expected. (Dominican police officials could not be reached for comment.)

"He was not dealing with a top-of-the-line, trained police force," Hawkins says acerbically. "That is the problem. When Americans travel to less-developed parts of the world, it is not like downtown San Diego."

Adds another embassy spokeswoman, Susan Emerson: "People think they can come here and English will do. It won't."

Farson says he didn't tell the authorities about the beating or starving because "at that point, it didn't matter. When they finally visited me in Santo Domingo, the worst was over." Indeed, he keeps a sheath of papers including interrogation transcripts, medical reports, and insurance documents that seem generally to confirm his story.

Recently, Farson's boat was declared a total loss. In April, doctors examined him and described "severe welts" on his knee and an inability to walk. They cited a beating. Though a Dominican newspaper, Listin Diario, reported twice on his problem, this is the first time he has spoken about it at length.

Farson has refused to pay the fine levied by the Dominican judge, so he is wanted in that country. He doesn't know the fate of Cleto and Copiano. He was separated from his crew after arrest, and neither has a telephone. I tried without success to track them down by calling a man who knows the pair.

Last month, Farson rented an apartment on the beach in Hollywood. "It's quiet, it's out of the way, no one knows me, and I'm gonna write a book," he says. He likes looking at the water but isn't planning another Caribbean sojourn. "Would I go back to the Dominican Republic?" he asks. "Hell no, I wouldn't even fly over."

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