Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Help Me Howard: Boat Battle
Imagine this, your boat is stolen. A month later, it shows up on 7 News in a smuggling operation. Good, now you get your boat back, right? No. Is it legal for the government to keep it? Let's call in Help me Howard with Patrick Fraser.
WSVN -- For Victoria and Francisco, their boat was their escape.
Victoria Llanes: "You are so free, you have no worries."
They had saved for years to buy the 25-foot Wellcraft. Then, one day it disappeared from their front yard.
Victoria Llanes: "So, whoever took it must have planned it for a long, long time, and they must have had a big truck to pull it."
A few days later, Miramar Police sent this letter, telling them there were no suspects and no clues to where their boat had gone. Then, a month later their boat showed up ... on Seven News.
Victoria Llanes: "It was something. We could not believe it. We could not believe it."
Smugglers had tried to use their boat to drop off 13 Haitian migrants. The Coast Guard caught them. Victoria was delighted.
Victoria Llanes: "We were jumping up for joy because we thought we were going to get it right away."
Um, not exactly.
Victoria Llanes: "It's been eight months, and we are still waiting. We are still waiting for the boat."
For months, Victoria has called customs trying to find out where her boat was, what shape it was in and when she could get it back.
Victoria Llanes: "Oh, my God, it's like pulling teeth. Nobody knows anything."
The reason for not telling her anything, customs said, the case was under investigation.
Victoria Llanes: "I don't know what investigation they are doing, unless they want the boat to talk. I mean, I don't know what they are doing. It's just sitting there."
Then, finally in December, Victoria got this letter from customs telling her, you can have your boat, but...
Victoria Llanes: "We have actually less than 30 days to sign a letter where we waive our rights to suing them. Plus, we have to pay for the storage and all their expenses, in form of a cashier's check paid to the US Treasury."
Of course Victoria wanted to know how much the expenses were before she agreed to anything, but the letter said sign the release form first, then we will tell you how much you owe us.
Victoria Llanes: "It is like a gamble. It is very confusing, very overwhelming."
Victoria and Francisco were victims of the crooks who stole their boat, and now they say they feel like victims of the federal government who seized their 25 foot dream boat.
Victoria Llanes: "It is not fair because it is something that we didn't do. We had nothing to do with the whole process, and it's like we are losing everywhere we go."
But if the government has your boat, are you responsible for paying their expenses and storage fees, sight unseen, for a boat that was stolen from you, Howard?
Howard Finkelstein: "Victoria and Francisco are victims of a crime, therefore they do not have to pay the storage fees, the government's seizure costs or any expenses related to the investigation. They are innocent and entitled to get their boat back immediately."
When we contacted customs they would not let us see the boat. When we asked why they needed to keep it so long, they told us, "We can't discuss an internal investigation."
As for the fees to get the boat back, customs told us, "We never charge storage fees to innocent owners," that the letter they received stating they would have to pay was an error by customs. All the fees were waived, they can come see the boat and pick it up.
Victoria Llanes: "There is a lot of damage done to it by the people who stole it."
Late Wednesday afternoon, customs finally gave Victoria her boat back. There is a lot of work to get it back in shape, but at least they have it back.
Victoria Llanes: "The best that happened is that I got to work with you guys and meet you guys because you do wonders. I would have never got this boat back if it was not for Help Me Howard, and I really mean that."
Now, if you have property stolen, if it's insured, it's the insurance company's problem. Victoria's boat was not insured, that's why she had to deal with all this, and before you pick up any stolen property, don't sign a release form until you see it because once you release them from liability, you are out of luck.
Custom made problem stolen your sanity? Need someone to seize a solution? Store it with us. We smuggle in answers all the time, legal ones of course.
Help Me Howard
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