The operators of the 91-foot Miami Vice more than lived up to the sleek luxury vessel's name, an overt nod to the 80s TV show about cops and cocaine cowboys that speaks to the Magic City's long love affair with blow. On March 29, the yacht’s part owner Laurent Maubert-Cayla filmed the boat's captain, Mauricio Alvarez, taking a hearty bump from a small baggie containing a "white powder that appeared to be cocaine," according to a recent criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court.
Maubert-Cayla's voice is heard on the recording saying, in French, "The captain takes his vitamins." The 39-year-old then pans to Alvarez's hands and the baggie. "That's how we do it," the owner intones, per the complaint. The footage, which US Coast Guard investigators said they obtained from Maubert-Cayla's cellphone, is part of the evidence prosecutors are using to argue he knowingly allowed an unlicensed, coke-addled captain to pilot his Italian yacht.
Of particular interest to the feds: Three days later, a Miami Vice excursion ended in the death of 25-year-old passenger Raul Melendez.
The criminal complaint states that Alvarez hit the throttle in reverse while Melendez and another passenger were out swimming behind the Miami Vice. Melendez was sucked underneath the boat and ripped to pieces by the propellers. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Office determined Melendez suffered deep lacerations to his head, chest, neck, pelvis and torso, according to the complaint. The victim's left arm, left leg, and right foot were also amputated.
The captain, Alvarez, was charged with misconduct or neglect of a ship officer that resulted in death soon after the tragedy. He has pleaded not guilty, and is being held without bond because federal agents caught him trying to flee to Panama, according to court documents. But last week, prosecutors charged Maubert-Cayla in the tragedy too, slapping him with his own count of misconduct or neglect of a ship owner and charterer resulting in death. On Monday, Magistrate Judge Andrea M. Simonton set $350,000 bond for Maubert-Cayla’s release, placing him under house arrest with a GPS monitor. He had yet to formally issue a plea, and his lawyer Albert Levin declined comment.
The investigation into Miami Vice’s operators exposed the dangers associated with a clandestine cottage industry of recreational boat owners in luxury locales who rent out their vessels to locals and visitors seeking a few hours of pleasure on the sea.
Corey Hubbard, vice-president of Tampa Bay Passenger Vessel Association, said illegal operators have bruised the image of licensed commercial charter boaters—and eaten into their business—by offering customers snazzier vessels at lowball prices. Another problem, according to Hubbard: The upstarts tend to ignore strict safety precautions required by local and state maritime agencies, as well as the Coast Guard.
“Many of these one off operators with a sexier product can do more business,” Hubbard told me. “They can offer that sleek yacht at a cheap price because they skirt the law. Then everybody goes out on the boat, jumps in the water and someone dies. What happened with Miami Vice is just so vile. It is the worst situation ever.”
A Coast Guard spokesman could not immediately comment on the agency’s response to illegal charters or the particulars of the Miami Vice case.
Based on the criminal complaint, it certainly appears that Maubert-Cayla cut corners when it came to operating the Miami Vice, a high-performance 4500-horsepower yacht with three cabins and a gunmetal paint job. Maubert-Cayla rented it out for half-day tours at $2,500 and full-day trips for $5,000.
In an interview with Coast Guard investigators after Melendez was killed, Maubert-Cayla said he hired Alvarez as his captain after watching him pilot a “large yacht skillfully on one occasion,” the complaint states. Between November 2017 and April 1, Alvarez was Miami Vice’s captain for approximately 40 charters—even though he did not have captain’s license from the Coast Guard, according to the complaint. Around March 18, Coast Guard officers had issued Alvarez two citations for operating a commercial charter without a proper captain’s license and for operating a vessel that had not been inspected by the agency. Yet Maubert-Cayla continued to employ Alvarez as his captain.
Maubert-Cayla said he knew Alvarez was “heavily using” cocaine and alcohol during those five months, but the last time he saw his captain doing blow was two to three weeks before April 1, the day Melendez was butchered by the propellers, the complaint states. However, investigators said, they got Maubert-Cayla’s permission to look at his phone and found the video apparently filmed by him of Alvarez doing a substance that strongly resembled cocaine just three days before the accident. On April 2, one day after the accident, Alvarez provided a urine sample to law enforcement that tested positive for cocaine, the complaint states.
In Florida, which led the country in boating deaths in 2015 and 2016, drugs and alcohol often play a significant role in such accidents. Of 67 boating accident deaths in 2016, 16—or 24 percent—were alcohol- or drug-related, per the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency charged with enforcing state maritime laws. Among the dead in 2016 were Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and two of his friends, who were killed when the star baseball player slammed his boat Kaught Looking into a Miami jetty that September. The medical examiner’s toxicology report showed Fernandez’s blood alcohol level was .147, nearly double the legal limit, and noted the presence of cocaine. Had he survived, Fernandez would likely have faced state charges of boating under the influence, manslaughter and vessel homicide.
For his part, Maubert-Cayla told the investigators that he was unfamiliar with Coast Guard regulations and that he believed a Venezuelan’s boat captain license Alvarez had shown him was enough, according to the feds.
But to Hubbard, who is also business development director for the family-owned Hubbard’s Marina in Madeira Beach, the charges against Maubert-Cayla and Alvarez came as a welcome surprise. “The Coast Guard has done a great effort with the limited resources it has to combat illegal charters,” she said. “Whenever something like this happens, they should face criminal charges."
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