In Search of the Mach Turtle

Page 6 of 7

A visit to the Knot Tide proves fruitful: Kellerman learns Perrin's cell phone number and also that he's leaving for Hong Kong in a week to work on another boat. He calls Perrin pretending to be interested in purchasing the Mach Turtle. Perrin agrees to meet for lunch the following day. He never shows.

More surveillance. This time Kellerman leaves a note on Perrin's windshield outlining who he is and what he wants. Perrin comes out of his apartment in the morning, reads the note, and takes off like a scared rabbit, weaving in and out of traffic on A1A, trying to lose Kellerman, who finally backs off so as not to cause an accident.

Perrin's next stop is a lawyer's office. On Thursday the lawyer calls Kellerman with good news: Perrin is ready to make a deal. He'll reveal the location of the boat if English, the owner, signs a release agreeing not to press criminal charges. Success seems close at hand, but the Mach Turtle could be anywhere from the Keys to Taiwan. "I can't wait to see where the paper leads us," says Kellerman. "I hope my mouth doesn't drop open when I find out the boat's on the moon."

English signs. Perrin comes clean. It's mid-August and the Mach Turtle is found. Not on the moon, but at Mario's Marina, 20 miles up Río Dulce, on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.

"It's floating, but it's not in very good shape cosmetically," says Mario's owner Daphne Hartley. "We haven't touched anything as far as the mechanics."

All that's left for Kellerman to do is to pack his bags, take the next plane to Guatemala, and cruise home aboard the Mach Turtle. He'll be $15,000 richer, English will reclaim the family jewel, Perrin won't end up in trouble. A happy ending?

Not quite.

Instead of cementing an amiable working relationship between Kellerman and English, locating the Mach Turtle precipitates a major-league falling out. Like treasure hunters who unearth a fortune, the owner and the PI suddenly eye each other suspiciously. Suspicion turns to distrust, distrust to hatred, and soon they are both out for blood.

Within hours of signing the release, English claims to have found the Mach Turtle independently through a friend who happened to be in Río Dulce on a catamaran. Therefore no need to pay Kellerman. To make matters worse, English is convinced Kellerman knew all along the boat wasn't in Cuba, and that the trip was a ruse to pad the expenses. "Kellerman is trying to extort me for more money," he says.

This does not sit well with Kellerman, who has invested more than 140 hours and several thousand dollars of his own money in the case. "I get the greatest clients on the face of the earth," he says.

Kellerman decides to extract his pound of flesh via admiralty law, the brand of justice that deals with shenanigans on the high seas. Admiralty law is a branch of federal law, and its special nature is predicated on a simple fact: Boats move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, country to country. By filing a lien with the Coast Guard on the Mach Turtle in rem, or against a property, he can have it physically arrested by U.S. Marshals and held until the matter is straightened out. Providing, that is, the boat is in U.S. waters and he's willing to put up a deposit.

Which he is.

And English knows it. So a few days after signing the release, he sends another captain on a recovery mission to Guatemala. "I'm in a mad scramble to get there before someone else does," the captain says.

Kellerman toys with the idea of beating English's new captain to Guatemala and claiming the boat himself, but by now Hurricane Bret is churning up the Gulf, and the ride back would be rough at best. There's that and the fact that the Mach Turtle's mechanical condition is a big question mark after years of neglect. He decides it would be prudent to file his lien and bide his time.

It turns out to be a good call. English's new captain is beset by problems from the start. A small fire breaks out near the exhaust pipe, and the Mach Turtle has to be towed to Mexico. The captain is finally able to nurse the boat to a port somewhere close to the U.S. By late August English is downtrodden about the boat's condition. "It's totally stripped, in horrible condition, a total wreck," he says. He's also tightlipped about its location for fear that Kellerman might find it and grab it. "It's in the Carolinas," English says. "I really don't want to say any more than that."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Whitby