Redefining the Bill of Sail

Two words of advice for anyone planning to purchase a boat in the Venice of America: Caveat emptor. You could run into the likes of yacht broker Antonio Aguiar.

By all accounts Aguiar is the kind of salesman who could talk an Eskimo into buying an air conditioner. He's a raconteur who loved the good life, and his clients felt they could trust him with huge sums of money. He'd entertain potential buyers at his comfortable waterfront home on South Gordon Road off Las Olas Boulevard while his wife, Pam, cooked dinner. Afterward everyone would have a drink and talk boats; Nordhaven trawlers to be exact, because that's what Aguiar sold. He often kept a Nordhaven docked behind the house so clients could spend some time on board getting a feel for the boat.

He was so good he earned a con man's ultimate praise: Some of the people who say they were swindled by him still consider him a friend. "I can tell you right now I still like him," says Bob Crow, a yacht broker who used to work with Aguiar and is out $23,000 in missing commission money because of the relationship. "I miss the atmosphere I worked in there. It was really nice."

Until about six months ago, Aguiar was the owner of Pilot Yachts, a Fort Lauderdale brokerage with a solid reputation in a business known for fly-by-night operators. Today he's a wanted man, on the lam from two felony counts of first-degree grand theft in excess of $100,000. Fort Lauderdale police detective Jan Blackburn believes Aguiar may have embezzled about $900,000 from Pilot Yacht clients, then sailed for Cuba. "The last I know, he was in Hemingway Marina in Havana," says Blackburn. "We are right now trying to get him out of there."

Blackburn adds he's tried to enlist the help of the FBI and the Swiss Embassy to extradite Aguiar from the island, but thanks to the Elian Gonzalez case, this isn't a great time to get cooperation from Cuban authorities.

Aguiar, age 46, was born in Angola and holds a Portuguese passport. He moved to Florida from San Diego in the early '90s and was living in a motel with his wife, daughter, and son when he was hired on as a broker at Altech Yachts. He went to work for Pilot Yachts in 1993. Richard Gopfert, who owned the business at the time, remembers Aguiar as a top-shelf salesman. "He could sell boats," says Gopfert. "He had the gift of gab."

In 1997 Aguiar hooked up with a wealthy client interested in buying a brokerage. Gopfert, who had been in business since 1984, was toying with the idea of getting out anyway and decided to sell.

Aguiar proved more adept at selling boats than running a business. "He was not the best of businessmen," says Bob Crow, a broker who worked with Aguiar. "Watching some of the moves he made, we would be the first to question whether they were wise."

As it turned out, they weren't.

Pilot Yachts sold both new and used boats. Their specialty was acting as a representative for Nordhaven, based in California. When a Pilot Yachts broker sold a Nordhaven, the customer was expected to put a 20 percent down payment into an escrow account to get construction rolling and make periodic payments as the boat progressed. The money was supposed to be passed on to the factory. Brokers didn't get their commission until the boat was delivered.

Aguiar, says Crow, got into the habit of paying himself upfront. That meant the escrow account would come up short unless new customers kept coming in the door. "He was always one boat behind, praying to God he sold another boat so he could close the other one," he says.

Keeping tabs on yacht brokers is the task of the state's Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The department does not make regular checks -- instead it acts on complaints. Aguiar's state file shows only that he was sanctioned once in 1995 for acting as a broker on an expired license.

He apparently spent the deposit money living the good life. "It looks like he blew it all on himself," says Detective Blackburn, "bought a couple Mercedes, a nice house, his high-rent wife, a kid in private school."

The scheme worked until August, when several deals were closing at once. When Aguiar couldn't cover them, he disappeared. Crow remembers the day well.

"Tony had to come up with a few hundred thousand," he says. "I had several boat deals that had all materialized at the same time. I was out of town closing on a 70-foot Hatteras. I came back and found Tony was nowhere to be found. He was gone, his car was gone, his boat was gone."

So was about $900,000 from the Pilot Yachts escrow account, according to Detective Blackburn. Pilot Yachts has since gone out of business.

Crow got a job with another Fort Lauderdale broker. One day not long after Aguiar disappeared, a man came into Crow's office interested in buying a boat and mentioned that he was staying at Hemingway Marina in Havana right next to the owner of Pilot Yachts. The man even knew Aguiar's name. "My ears perked up," says Crow. "That's how we knew he was down there."

Evelyn McGlone, a 55-year-old widow who owns and operates a business fixing truck suspensions in Long Island, bought a 46-foot Nordhaven from Aguiar several years ago. She had her eye on a 57-footer but didn't have the cash. When Aguiar worked a deal to sell her old boat for a good price and use the money as a down payment on the 57, she and her fiancé couldn't resist.

"He was very convincing," she says. "It took him only a moment or so to bend us, and we decided that yes, we would part with our baby the 46, and put our money toward the 57."

Aguiar sold the 46-footer for $450,000. McGlone planned to sell her house, retire, hop aboard the bigger boat, and motor off into the sunset. She spent a week in Fort Lauderdale looking at the 57-footer, selecting options, making plans.

Aguiar never put in the order for McGlone's new boat. As she understands it now, he used $330,000 to pay off other orders and pocketed the rest. "I got a phone call one day from Bob Crow, who said I better sit down and compose myself, because Tony has taken off with everybody's money."

McGlone still seethes when talking about Aguiar. She trusted him, had dinner at his house, chatted with his wife, and was completely taken in. "I still wake up 3:30 in the morning, I see Tony's face laughing. It's unbelievable. You work all your life, since you were 14, and you have this schmo take off with your life's savings."

Ultimately Pacific Asian Enterprises, the California company that makes Nordhaven trawlers, was left holding the bag.

Pacific Asian's president, Dan Streech, says he was taken in by Aguiar's charms just like everyone else. It won't happen again. "We will never, ever, ever, in the new millennium or the next millennium after it, ever let the dealer handle the customer's money. Tony was the death blow to that kind of activity. We were caught off guard; it was poor management to get caught in the first place. He was kind of a charmer as these kinds always are."

Four people buying Nordhaven trawlers, including McGlone, were burned by Aguiar. Pacific Asian settled with all of them, either by reimbursing lost deposit money or selling them boats below cost. And they did it in a very un-American way: without going to court. "We took a step forward and tried to treat this as if valued customers were in distress," says Streech. "It was partly because that is the personality of our company, and we wanted to turn this disaster into something that we could hold our heads high about.

"It put a dent in an otherwise profitable year," he adds.

In the end McGlone got her 57-footer. She'll be able to write off some of her losses on her 1999 taxes, but she's still out money. And a lot of faith in her fellow man.

"He is just a professional con artist, and I believe that no matter where he goes in life, even if it is in jail, he will be wheeling and dealing. He would be the one with all the cigarettes."

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:

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Bob Whitby