SpecialReport
Crime And Justice

 

Marine Investigators
On The Case

By Chris Landers
Published: October/November 2013

Missing boats can end up in some unlikely places.

Illustration of a old-fashioned Wanted poster

It's safe to talk about now, probably, but at the time, sitting in the office of the leader of an international gang in San Francisco, Todd Schwede and Dan Rutherford were sweating bullets. Schwede is the head of Todd & Associates, which specializes in marine survey and investigations. The company is based in San Diego, but they go where the work takes them, which can run the gamut in the world of international boat theft. Rutherford heads Ocean Marine Specialties, doing the same kind of work from West Cape May, New Jersey. They've investigated hundreds of cases, together and separately, and they sat down to tell us about some of them at a recent convention of the International Association of Marine Investigators (IAMI) in South Carolina.

As investigators, Schwede and Rutherford make their living by expecting the worst of people, like the time Rutherford was called in to investigate the "theft" of a 40-foot O'Day. Turns out two geniuses had bought a couple of salvaged boats after a hurricane, glued the two "good" halves together, then tried to make a claim on the boat they'd chopped up. Rutherford was suspicious, but when he noticed the boat was two different colors on the inside, he knew for sure that something was up.

Getting The Word Out

Schwede and Rutherford don't seem cynical, but distrust is an occupational hazard when you've been lied to as much as these two have in their combined 60 years in the business. And sometimes, in this line of work, you're going to have to sit under the watchful gaze of a huge bodyguard as you listen to a gang leader tell a story about his boat being stolen, when you know full well that he paid someone to steal it.

"This was his third strike," under California's three strikes law, Rutherford deadpans. "You know what his second strike was? Murder."

The gregarious Schwede is known in marine-investigation circles as the guy who gets the word out, fast. When the first fax modems came out for computers, he seized on the idea of using it to blast stolen-boat wanted posters to marinas, repair shops, surveyors, and anyone else who regularly came into contact with boats, to get as many eyes as possible searching for the vanished vessels. His stolen-boat files are now online (at www.boatman.com), but despite the technological boost, he really specializes in old-fashioned word of mouth.

For example: At the beginning of February, a 38-foot center-console Fountain powerboat, worth more than $150,000, was stolen from a venerable Miami boating club. The insurance company called Schwede who sent out a flyer and posted the boat online, along with the promise of a reward of up to $17,500. One of the people who saw the flyer was a towboat driver in the Grand Bahamas, who recognized the boat at a local yard two weeks later. He called it in. The hull identification number (HIN) had been removed, but a Florida registration number was left on the hull, and the towboat driver gave it to Schwede and the Bahamian police, who've since made an arrest. It turned out the towboat driver wasn't the only one who saw the flyer. The alleged thief had a copy pinned to his refrigerator.

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Avoiding Theft

  • Lock it up: Lock everything to everything else, then lock all that to something that doesn't move. The trailer, the outboard, the cabin door and any hatches - lock all of them with good quality locks. Take anything that's portable home with you, and don't leave the keys on the boat.
  • Be seen: Keep your boat in a well-lighted area where people will notice a thief. Buy an alarm for when no one's around. Check on your boat often, or make an agreement with other boaters to check each other's boats.
  • Plan ahead: Nobody expects their boat to be stolen. If yours is, make sure you have a record of the hull identification number, serial numbers from the engine (and anything else with a serial number), and VIN from the trailer. Write down anything that will help investigators find the boat, take plenty of pictures, and keep them all in a safe place ashore.

For more anti-theft tips, and information about BoatUS's theft protection, check out www.BoatUS.com/Membership/theftprotection.asp

 

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