Keys investigators trying to crack what appears to be a well-organized Marathon-based boat theft ring thwarted such a caper early Wednesday with the help of federal agents and some well-aimed shotgun slugs.
"We suspect the boats are being stolen for illegal migrant or drug smuggling," said Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay, referring to at least four boats reported stolen in the past two months. "We've had that many in a short period of time and each taken with the same M.O. We've been working with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and trading intel bulletins on what appears to be a ring operating out of Marathon."
The rash of boat thefts is confined to the Marathon area, Ramsay said.
The trend continued with a high-speed water chase at 2 a.m. that ended when two men in a stolen boat en route to Cuba rammed federal agents, he said.
"When you see a boat leaving any island at 2 a.m., that's not good and generally means they're up to something," Ramsay said.
The chase began when CBP agents and a Sheriff's Office detective spotted a 2007 26-foot Robalo with twin Yamaha 250 engines outfitted with 27 15-gallon drums of gasoline off the ocean side of Boot Key, he said.
The CBP and detectives turned on their lights and tried to stop the boat, which began making "sharp turns to evade law enforcement," according to arrest reports.
That led the Robalo to "intentionally ram" the CBP boat, which cracked the hull of the suspect boat, causing it to take on water. Shortly after that, agents shot the Robalo's engines with 12-gauge slugs, disabling the boat, Ramsay said.
Ledian Yusnier Acosta-Gonzalez, 29, and Dioselis Fuentes-Nodarse, 31 -- both live in Las Vegas, Nev., but were born in Cuba, according to arrest records -- were charged with grand theft with property damage and a health and safety law violation for having the gasoline on the vessel. Acosta-Gonzalez was additionally charged with assault on a law enforcement officer, fleeing police in a boat and criminal mischief.
Both allegedly admitted stealing the boat from a slip behind 1505 Sombrero Blvd. the night prior, then loading it with gas, food and water in order to get to Cuba, where they were reportedly planning to illegally smuggle five Cubans into the United States.
The pair intended to beach the stolen boat and flee on foot, reports say.
While officers were sorting out the chase, the boat owner on Sombrero Boulevard called to report his $65,000 vessel missing, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Becky Herrin.
The case was solved instantly for him, Ramsay noted.
"He was very happy to get his boat back within minutes of reporting it stolen, even though it appears to be a total loss," he said.
The special patrol with the CBP, set up due to Sombrero Boulevard residents' recent reports of suspicious activity, included Sheriff's Office road patrol, detectives, the Sheriff's Office High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) unit as well as CBP agents.
Detectives remain on the lookout for a missing $300,000 Intrepid Cuddy Cabin with twin Yahama 300 horsepower outboard engines, which was reported missing in August from behind a house on Bulevar De Palmas.
The insurer of the boat, Harbor and Ocean Services Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, is offering a reward of $10,000 for its safe return, according to a Monroe County Sheriff's Office press release.
Meanwhile, an Everglades boat called the Vodka Tonic, stolen from 122nd Street about a month ago, was last seen by airborne CBP agents about 250 miles from the Keys, headed toward Mexico, Ramsay said.
"These are very brazen and well-organized thefts," he said. "That's why we believe they're being used for illegal purposes. These numbskulls are probably not the ringleaders, but I think we put pressure on the organizers, who are probably from the Miami area. Now they know we're on to them and they see we're working with our federal partners. We may have scared them off the Keys. Maybe we caused more of a disruption, but I don't think we have the main guys in jail, in my opinion. They were players paid to make a run. That's my opinion."