In Search of the Mach Turtle

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But nobody was calling about the Mach Turtle. It was pilfered, then the news stopped. For years Seaton had no idea what had become of it. "This one just dropped off the face of the earth," he says.

Seaton designed the boat for an airline pilot who lived on board with his wife in Dinner Key for ten years. On weekends the couple would take the boat to the Bahamas. "They absolutely loved it," he recalls.

They sold the boat to John and Otilie English of Erie, Pennsylvania, in the mid-'80s. The Englishes cruised extensively in the boat, recalls son Mike, and lived aboard for long periods of time. Mike English himself spent about five years living on the boat and was enamored of it. "It's a serious offshore boat," he says. "You could take it to Bermuda from New York City, then down into the islands. It was a hell of a boat."

In 1991 Mike's parents sold the Mach Turtle to Fort Lauderdale resident Daniel Perrin for $180,000 -- $90,000 down and monthly payments of $1058.68. Perrin kept up the payments until April 1995, then stopped. He didn't return the boat, he just stopped paying for it. (Perrin did not return phone calls or respond to inquiries at his Fort Lauderdale apartment for this story.) Naturally John and Otilie English wanted their boat back. They tried unsuccessfully to have it declared stolen with Fort Lauderdale police and the Coast Guard, but neither agency would take a report. "Here's a stolen boat, the guy is located in Fort Lauderdale, and I can't get them to service a warrant," says Mike English. "They didn't want the trouble."

Mike says his mother and father were in failing health and simply gave up. "My parents were old and dying; they just didn't pursue this thing," he explains. John died in June 1996, and Otilie died in December 1998.

The Mach Turtle was still out there somewhere, perhaps even in Fort Lauderdale. But no one was looking for it.

It's not unusual for authorities to be less than enthused about finding a stolen boat. In fact in Florida it's the norm, even though the state leads the nation in boat theft. According to the most recent FBI statistics, 6538 boats were listed as stolen in Florida as of July 1998, roughly twice as many as in second-place California. But in terms of retrieving boats, there's little coordination among police agencies. If a boat is stolen in Fort Lauderdale, police in Deerfield Beach or Hollywood or anywhere else in Broward County might not know about it. And the Broward Sheriff's Office's marine patrol is primarily concerned with water safety; BSO handles stolen-boat cases through its auto-theft division. Don't count on the Florida Marine Patrol either. That agency's new mandate is to concentrate on safety and environmental infractions.

"Basically nobody in Florida gives a crap about stolen boats," says Lt. Lee Palfrey, an eight-year FMP veteran. "Nobody cares. It goes back to the old saying that, if you steal a man's horse, that was a hanging offense, but if you steal luxury goods, you're a Robin Hood. Who cares if you stole a boat? You stole from a rich person."

Palfrey himself used to work boat-theft investigations but was pulled off as the FMP was redirected by the legislature to put more effort into environmental protection. It takes a practiced eye to tell one boat from another, he says, and most of the police simply aren't trained to do it.

"This is a good time to be in the stolen-boat business," he adds.

Phone service from Cuba to the U.S. is not 100 percent reliable. It takes Kellerman several attempts to reach McGhee, the Fort Lauderdale source who led us down here in the first place. He finally connects at about 8 p.m. He has one question:

"Mike, this is Dave. What the fuck is going on? Nobody knows anything about this boat. It's never been down here."

It's a brief conversation, Kellerman shouting into the phone, McGhee sheepishly insisting the boat has to be there. Kellerman finally slams down the receiver. "I'm going to break his legs," he says. "Don't print that."

Lucky for McGhee, Kellerman can't get back to Fort Lauderdale for almost 24 hours. He has time to cool down, collect his thoughts, make a plan of action.

Our plane lands in Fort Lauderdale at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. By 5:30 a.m. Wednesday Kellerman is on surveillance detail, parked outside Perrin's Fort Lauderdale apartment. Perrin leaves his place at 8 a.m., and Kellerman follows him to the post office, then breaks off so his cover isn't blown. That afternoon McGhee ponies up a useful tidbit: Perrin used to work on a boat called the Knot Tide, which at the moment is dry-docked in Dania Beach for repairs.

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Bob Whitby