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The money Denis owes his crew should be a laughably small amount to the multi-millionaire Haitian immigrant. He owns three properties in Miami-Dade County that are worth a combined $1.7 million, public records show. In addition, a 2001 statement of assets in his divorce file lists eight cars as well as at least six properties in Haiti, one a house with a listed value of $200,000. He also owns at least three other ships besides the Atlantica, which has been appraised at around $250,000.
But Denis has suffered increasing financial trouble. He has been sued at least 13 times since 1981, with most of the suits coming in recent years. In 2001, a judge threatened Denis with 30 days in jail to get him to give his ex-wife, Carola, $6,775 in legal fees, even after he had paid most of a divorce settlement in excess of $800,000. In 2002, Denis was sued twice by creditors. One of those suits, seeking payment of an unpaid bill of $27,074, was brought by Southeast Coast Supply Inc., a company owned by Denis' cousin, Bertrand Villard.
"That is a lot of money to me," says Villard, who worked for Denis for two decades before opening his own business. And despite their legal clash, Villard defends the ship owner's character. "He's not the type of person who runs out on his bills. When he comes out of his bad times, he will pay his bills," Villard predicted.
Denis' "bad times" seem to be getting worse. In 2003, credit card company MBNA took him to court, and this year, at least four more financial institutions have joined the pack. Last month, Deutsche Bank and Citibank started foreclosure proceedings on two of Denis' properties, one of them a million-dollar home in Pinecrest, a posh enclave south of Miami.
Brady has also placed Denis on the ITWF's blacklist, meaning that union inspectors will go over his ships "with a fine-tooth comb" when they put into any major port anywhere in the world. Brady shows little sympathy for Denis' financial troubles. "I understand it's a dog-eat-dog business," Brady says. "Mr. Denis was given every opportunity to come through, and he never did. He never returned phone calls, he never talked to anybody, and this is what he gets."
After Donskoy and the others abandoned ship, Denis ordered the Atlantica to the Bahamas, where it sat for nearly three months. The crew worked hard on repairs to bring the ship up to U.S. standards, even though they hadn't been paid. The results of their professional pride are evident: The ship is now spotlessly clean, with fresh paint on virtually every surface. They fished over the side for their meals, and though they could go ashore, they had no money to spend, Asaulenko says. When they finally returned to Port Everglades late last month, their patience was exhausted. They brushed aside what they saw as another bogus offer from Denis and made contact with maritime lawyer Ross Toyne.
The detention -- called an arrest -- of the Atlantica on September 24 would seem to be a happy ending to a sad tale of exploitation, but the final irony is that Asaulenko and the rest of the crew may wind up on a blacklist of their own. Bruce Jarvis, a professor of maritime law at Nova Southeastern University, says that when sailors stand up for their rights, no matter what extreme they were pushed to, they are often unable to find work. "Of course [ship owners] don't want to hire any of those people," Jarvis says, "because now they know about wages, they know about liens, they know about ship arrests, and they'll explain those things to the rest of the crew."
The Atlantica sailors are well-aware of the possible repercussions, but all they can do now is wait onboard, since their seaman's visas don't allow a long shore stay. Though they now have decent food and are being paid, courtesy of a court-appointed custodian, they face deportation and unemployment.
"I am just a wreck," Asaulenko says. "My nerves are bothering me. I haven't been able to talk to my family. Honestly, I don't want to bring it up with them."
Adds Toyne: "These are good guys. They want to work hard and get paid."