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Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

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Winton responded with a letter of his own, admitting his guilt and explaining that, as soon as he realized the gas tank was running low, he anchored the boat and checked on the passengers. He noted that he has since developed a new refueling procedure.

SunCruz's executive vice president, Greg Karen, dismisses the stranded boat and the accident in Tarpon Springs as isolated incidents. "Accidents do occur," he offers.

*Six months before the empty-tank incident, the SunCruz V slammed into a dock in Hollywood and caused $5000 worth of damage after a steering mechanism broke and prevented the captain from going in reverse. Nobody was injured, and the Coast Guard found no evidence of negligence. But since the accident, people living in the neighborhood near the Hollywood dock claim that yet another SunCruz boat has crashed into docks on a number of occasions.

Steve Welsch, a Hollywood activist who owns the DeSoto Oceanview Hotel less than two blocks from SunCruz's dock, says that on several occasions, at approximately 1 a.m., he's heard the thud of the boat hitting the dock. Hours later, he claims, he's seen workers using pile drivers to repair the pilings that have been knocked from underneath the dock.

Karen dismisses these accidents as well. Even if the boat hits the dock, he explains, only minor damage is done. "We don't come in at full speed," he says.

When a business wants to set up shop in Riviera Beach's municipal marina, the application process is pretty simple: Obtain an occupational license, then sign a contract with the city.

SunCruz's contract was slightly more complicated than most, because the company wanted to cut a five-year deal in which no other casino boat would be permitted to dock in the marina. During negotiations, in late 1996, SunCruz offered to make $125,000 worth of improvements to the marina, including adding snazzy blue canopies to the SunCruz dock, installing safety railings, and painting the dock and concrete pilings. SunCruz also promised to put two dollars from each ticket toward further marina improvements. In November 1996 the city council unanimously approved the contract.

Even though the contract was signed, the council had plenty of time, before SunCruz actually moved in, to look into the company's history. Some of the problems had been reported in Gulf Coast newspapers and on local TV news programs. Even if those out-of-county sources weren't particularly accessible, a simple background check would have revealed details about SunCruz's checkered past. But in Riviera Beach a background check is not required.

George Carter, the municipal marina director, admitted that a boat like the SunCruz V could cause problems at his marina. But, he said, he was never told to do a background check.

"I'm a long-time city employee, and I follow directions and I follow rules," he explained.

When Mayor Williams was contacted, she claimed she'd heard nothing at all about the past SunCruz incidents.

"I would think that the boat master or the Coast Guard would have looked into it," she said. "And I would have thought our attorney would have looked into any potential problems."

A mention of those problems evidently didn't have any effect on the mayor. On April 17, two days after she spoke with New Times, she stood in front of the SunCruz office building at the municipal marina and accepted a giant cardboard check for $780, the money raised at the opening-night gala. Endorsed by SunCruz, it was made out to the Boys & Girls Club of Riviera Beach.

As the SunCruz V entered international waters on a recent Thursday afternoon, its hull pounded by nine-foot swells, at least some of the passengers were wishing they were back in Riviera Beach. On the third deck, Althea Chilicote, a short, middle-aged Lantana resident, attempted to negotiate the stairs leading to the second deck while other passengers stumbled by, making jokes about being drunk, when in fact they weren't. Chilicote, meanwhile, leaned against the railing with both hands as she stepped gingerly down each step.

Twenty minutes later, a woman in the slot-machine room announced that she'd lost all her money. Not too much later, Fred Bellio announced that his wife, Thelma, had just lost her lunch.

An hour later, a handful of people were playing blackjack at the first-deck tables, but most of the boat's passengers were either sleeping or trying to fight seasickness. One overweight gentlemen, sitting on a bar stool, was slumped over a slot machine. On the bench behind him, a woman cradled her head with her hands.

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Michael Freedman

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