Miami Herald, The (FL)
October 15, 1984
SOME CALL MIAMI MARINA A BASE FOR DRUG RUNNERS
R.A. ZALDIVAR Herald Staff Writer
Marina regulars call them the Cha-Cha Boys.
Their tastes run to fast boats and gold chains. They carry briefcases stuffed with cash. They lounge the day away waiting for their beepers to buzz. On calm nights, they gun the engines of their Cigarette boats and head for open water without lights.
Bimini? Freeport? Andros Island? Try Coconut Grove. Try the Merrill-Stevens boatyard. It's located on municipal land next door to Miami City Hall, where in recent weeks commissioners have been trading accusations about the drug industry's penetration of Miami.
"Within a Dan Marino pass of City Hall, city-owned property is being used for a drug smuggling base," says Ted Niarhos, a retired broadcaster who has kept a boat at Merrill-Stevens for five years.
Metro's Organized Crime Bureau, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Coral Gables police department, which patrols the bay between the mainland and Key Biscayne, say people who appear to be smugglers regularly use Merrill-Stevens' docks and repair facilities.
And a month ago, three men were arrested at Merrill-Stevens when they docked a boat carrying 600 pounds of marijuana. Police say liveaboards at Merrill-Stevens told them the boat had sailed from there.
Marina managers say they have followed up on customer complaints by contacting the FBI and giving their cooperation. "We don't like this any more than our customers do," says company president Fred Kirtland. "Merrill-Stevens does not condone, nor do we want this."
But the Boys are undeterred.
"It's hard to respond to," says Maj. Hank Blair of the Customs Service. "By the time we get there, there's a cold boat sitting there and there's nothing we can do."
"Blatant," Niarhos calls it.
"When everybody else is in, these guys go out," says lawyer R.W. "Buddy" Payne, a marina customer for 15 years. "And they don't take women, children and fishing poles."
Lawyer Edwin Ratiner, another Merrill-Stevens customer, says the Cha-Cha Boys "under other circumstances, might be singled out according to a profile at an airport."
"At first I thought it was some sort of club," says lawyer Homer Marlow, a customer for 10 years. "But then I realized that wasn't the case."
"It was a nice family marina," says Marlow. "Now it's not."
OCB Lt. Randall Watson sympathizes with the marina's customers.
"These people are used to the beautiful life on Biscayne Bay," he says. "Now it's not so enticing anymore because you could get blown away by a drug boat coming in with machine guns blazing and being chased by police."
Payne says the trouble began about 14 months ago. That's when Merrill-Stevens regulars noticed that a new group had moved into the marina and dubbed them the Cha-Cha Boys.
At first it was a petty annoyance, Payne says. The parking lot was always full. Men working on speedboat engines dumped oil on the docks.
The liveaboards at the marina saw other things. One, who asked that his name not be published, said the boat lift suddenly started being used after hours to retrieve high-speed Cigarette boats returning from late-night trips. The boats, he said, run without lights.
"In the middle of the night, the wake hits you," says the man. "You look out and there's a whole squadron."
One worker, who also asked that his name not be published, reported seeing two men in a parked car counting out a briefcase full of cash.
As suspicion grew, Payne went to the marina's management to complain.
Company president Kirtland says management contacted the U.S. attorney's office. They met at least twice with representatives from Customs and the FBI. "We offered our full cooperation," Kirtland says.
The company opened its books to government agents, says Kirtland. On at least one occasion, the company provided cover for agents who docked incognito at Merrill-Stevens to take in the scene. "Merrill-Stevens is a forerunner in cooperating with the authorities," says Kirtland.
Kirtland says his customers' complaints, coming at a time when the company is seeking to renew its lease with the city and is threatened by plans to put a parking garage on boatyard land, are "politically motivated."
Replies Payne: "Bull----."
Philip Everingham, the Merrill-Stevens executive directly responsible for the Coconut Grove operation, says dealing with drug runners is unavoidable for anyone in the marine business in South Florida.
"I don't doubt for a minute that some of our customers deal with drugs, but I can't tell you who they are," says Everingham. "Some of these guys are pretty rough characters and I wouldn't want to rile them up one way or another."
An OCB source, who asked not to be identified, said several suspected drug runners currently under investigation keep boats at Merrill-Stevens.
The boatyard is now doing a larger volume of business in cash, says Everingham. "The bulk of our business is paid for by credit card and check. However, I have to admit a noticeable increase in the amount of cash.
"Any business in this area would say the same thing. Ten years ago it was unusual; now it's not that unusual."
The company also has done some investigating of its own. Kirtland says an undercover detective went to work in the boatyard and found no evidence that employees were involved in smuggling.
Employees also were confronted with the allegation that the boat lift was being used after hours. "We got nothing in the way of confirmation back," says Everingham.
A new security system, scheduled to go into effect this week, should cut down on after-hours access to the docks, says Everingham.
"Our philosophy is opposed to drug dealing," he says. "But we don't feel it's our job to play policeman. We quite frankly don't know who is and who isn't (smuggling)."
"To separate the wheat from the chaff is pretty difficult."
Copyright © 1984 The Miami Herald
SOME CALL MIAMI MARINA A BASE FOR DRUG RUNNERS
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