Fire and Extortion at Tortugal Marina - The Full Story

Monday, July 4, 2005

015-40.200 N
089-0.000 W
Marine forecast for this location

This log tells the full story of of what happened as a result of the fire at Tortugal Marina. I had intended on just trying to forget about this event as it's very painful to relive it, but when I saw that Tortugal had the audacity to provide a link from their web site to an article on mine which talked about how wonderful Tortugal was, I just had to set the record straight.

First off I want to say that Sue & I loved Tortugal. It was a wonderful place with top notch facilities. Their biggest problem was that the management changed constantly and most of the staff had no experience managing anything, let alone a marina in Central America. Finally the owner brought in Manfred and Andrea who seemed to have their heads on their shoulders as well as a good work ethic. We became good friends and spent a lot of time working with them on basic business issues. I spent a lot of time working with them on business operations and keeping their Internet running while Sue straightened out their books and helped them get some control on expenses and inventory. Life at Tortugal was very nice.

Daphne Becker owns Tortugal and typically runs it from a distance. She would hire people who shared her earthy-crunchy view of the world and set them free to run her marina while she went off and traveled. She'd then return, decide that she didn't like the way that things were running, fire people, hire new staff and disappear again while the cycle repeated itself. We had watched this occur several times. We had also watched her befriend cruisers, become best buddies, end up in some childish fight with them and then she'd kick them out of the marina.  As a result we tried to keep her at a distance and have a purely business relationship. This worked well until July 4th, 2004.

I'll tell the story of what happened on July 4th, 2004 in 2 parts. The first part is my trip log from July 14, 2004 which I wrote upon returning to the US. The next part, describes what I can only call an attempt at insurance fraud and extortion. If you want to know the moral of the story without reading it all...

Before I start, here's a list of the major players:

Daphne Becker - Owner of Tortugal
Joan and Barbara O'Connell of S/V Constance from Glouster, MA
Greg and Judy Berndt of S/V Lone Star Love from Houston, TX
Geoff Schultz & Sue Waudby of S/V BlueJacket from Newport, RI

**************** Log entry from July 14, 2004 ***************************

Ahoy from the Marlborough, MA in the US of A!

Yes, we're back home in the States, and it sure feels good to be here. It's been a long, strange road that we've been down since I last wrote. What follows is a story of bad judgment, a fire, machete fight, threats, mismanagement, collusion and running away from responsibility.

The last time that I wrote we were in Puerto Escondido, Honduras on our way to the Rio Dulce. We had a good sail to Cabo Tres Puntas and then crossed the bar into Livingston, Guatemala the next day. We cleared in and made our way up the Rio Dulce to Fronteras where the Tortugal marina is located. We had a wonderful welcome from the staff and it felt like coming home again. This was our 3rd season in the Rio and we've spent a lot of time working with the marina staff working. As a result and we really felt like Tortugal was a second home.

While we were still in Honduras we were e-mailing the staff at Tortugal trying to get them to organize a 4th of July party. They had done a good job of letting people know that we were going to have a BBQ. When we arrived we loosely organized a BBQ/potluck for the afternoon of the 4th. Sue & I decided to provide sufficient hot dogs and hamburgers for the groups just in case everyone brought salads or beans. Since hamburgers and hot dogs are a 4th of July institution, we thought that this would give the foreign boats a chance to experience the 4th in an American way.

Our biggest problem was that we had 25+ people coming and we needed a large area to house everyone. I had Manfred, the marina manager, approach Jose, the restaurant manager, to see if we could hold it in the restaurant. Jose initially refused, but then agreed when he heard that I was going to e-mail the owner who was in the US. Jose is a local who got promoted to manager when the previous manager got fired. Jose only has a 6th grade education and has the typical Latin American machismo. He really didn't like Sue because she had spent a lot of time in Jan/Feb helping the staff reorganize kitchen, books, etc and women shouldn't be in a position of power over men. Anyhow, he finally agreed to let us use the restaurant.

The BBQ/potluck was a great success with lots of people attending. The French boats even provided the Star Spangled Banner and lots of dance music. It was a lot of fun and by 5 everyone had left and we had the restaurant cleaned up. Sue and I went back to the boat and sometime between 6 and 6:30 we went back to the restaurant. When we arrived we found that Constance and Lone Star Love had gathered some of their expired flares and had a pile sitting on a table. At about 7 PM they decided to fire them off. I went back to BlueJacket to get two of our expired flares.

When I returned a large group had gathered on the docks that surround the swimming area in front of the restaurant. John from Constance was the first to fire a parachute flare. These flares go up quite high and have a parachute that slows their fall and provides a 40 second burn time. John had never fired one and when he did it appeared that he didn't take into account the prevailing winds which were blowing toward the marina. This flare drifted over the boats at the west end of the marina and extinguished while it was still in the air. However, it appeared that there was still something burning as it descended. I lost track of it due to a large power boat which blocked my view. John continued to fire additional flares, all of which appeared to land safely. Manfred and another boater noted that the flare appeared to still be burning and went to investigate. Apparently they did not see any problems. However at this point it appears that it landed on the side of the house roof facing away from the water and you couldn't see that side unless you walked down a nature trail, which is something that you wouldn't want to do in the dark.

The crew of Lone Star Love then proceeded to fire off a variety of flares, all of which appeared to land safely in the water. A French boat fired off 2 flares from a pistol, one of which fired but apparently failed to ignite. I was the last one to fire off flares and both of my flares landed in the river well away from Tortugal.

Sue had gone to look for the marina dogs just before I fired my flares. My second flare had just landed in the water when she saw the fire from the marina bathroom and called for help. Sue says that there were flames shooting from the roof of the house. This was probably 10+ minutes from the time that the first flare was fired. Lots of people ran towards the house. I was one of the first there and when I arrived I saw a fire burning in the roof on the south west peak over the porch. Despite valiant attempts to put out the fire, we had insufficient water to contain the fire and the house burned down.

Through the efforts of many people we were able to keep the fire from spreading to the other structures on the property. And believe me, it took an amazing effort by probably close to 100 people to keep the fire from spreading. The roof of the house was thatched and most of it had been covered by tarps due to leaks. As a result it was very dry and burned with intense heat, casting glowing embers down wind onto other thatched roof structures which included hotels rooms and a water tower. Plastic water mains to the house melted and we couldn't locate valves.  As a result the wasn't sufficient water pressure to soak the roofs of the other structures and a bucket brigade was formed to move water from the river to the other structures which were about 200 feet away and up a hill.

A major problem is that there is no fire suppression system at Tortugal (or at the majority of marinas on the river). It took about 45 minutes for pumps to arrive and then we had to do repairs and combine parts to make one working system. By that point the house was lost, but it was instrumental in completely putting out all of the hot spots. By midnight everything out and we were standing around talking about what had happened. Everyone appeared to be in complete agreement that it was Constance's flare that had caused the fire as no other flares had come close to the house.

We were all very thankful that no one got seriously hurt fighting the fire and that we were able to contain it to the house. One of the marina dogs, Joe Friday, ran off during the fire and hasn't shown up yet. We've combed the ashes and he's not in there. The marina staff and Sue & I have searched the area looking for him without success. Sue & I created "missing" posters with a $Q400 reward (that's 10 days average wage) and posted them all over town, but no one has come forward with Joe. Sue, being the animal person that she is, is very upset. I keep telling here that Joe ran off and found a short legged dog...The other marina dog, Mancha, is quite depressed.

Early the next morning Sue & I were in the restaurant when the phone rang and Jose answered. It was Daphne, the owner, and the first thing that Jose said was that BlueJacket had a party and that we fired flares and there was a fire and here house burned down. This was hardly the entire story, but then again Jose had it in for us. Oh, did I forget to mention that Jose did nothing to fight the fire, refused to let Sue take the large restaurant fire extinguishers and Sue had to get them from boats, threw a chair at Sue and pushed her when she was trying to secure one of the marina dogs in the kitchen during the fire? But back to the story...I yelled "What are you saying?" and Manfred ran around the bar and slammed his fist down and yelled "That's not true!" Suddenly Jose grabbed a machete from behind the bar and had the point at Manfred's stomach. I lunged across the bar and grabbed the blade along with someone else. Jose finally put the machete down, but not before I managed to cut my hands on the blade. The cuts weren't bad, but in a were in a bad spot between my thumbs and forefingers. Jose also managed to tell me in Spanish that "I was dead" and issued threats against BlueJacket. Amazingly he wasn't fired on the spot and later was seen walking the docks down by BlueJacket with a large butcher knife in his hand. Needless to say the tension was intense in the days that followed.

Manfred assumed that Constance was going to come forward and admit responsibility and as a result he didn't confront them. He also didn't collect statements from those who were present. I kept telling him that he needed to do so, but for some reason he was reluctant to. Manfred is only 30 and has never had to deal with a situation like this and didn't have the upper management providing guidance on what to do. Daphne and her boyfriend were in the States and didn't appear to be anxious to come back. I was e-mailing them daily providing "the only clear description of what was going on there" (quote from Daphne). I was constantly emphasizing the need to take statements and the need for one of them to be back here.

Six days after the fire the need to gather statements seemed to have grabbed hold. Daphne called and talked to Oscar, her 3rd in command, and somehow a simple request to take statements got translated into taking myself and Jose to the port captain and tourist police in Livingston to give statements. Somehow or another going with Jose to give statements in Spanish didn't sound like a good idea to me. I could see myself ending up in a jail. I declined to go and decided to have a trusted friend translate a statement that I had already prepared. Jose and his restaurant staff ended up going along with Manfred (who was completely against taking this group). Manfred reported to me that the staff implicated BlueJacket as being the cause and he was so upset over the handling of this that he quit. Later reports stated that I was not implicated. I have no idea which report is true.

As a result of being told that I was implicated I decided that I needed to file a statement with the local police and have the report forwarded on to Livingston. I took my detailed statement and distilled it down to something like "Several boaters fired flares. BlueJacket's ended up in the water. A fire later broke out." I showed this to John from Constance and Greg from Lone Star Love. John was very upset that I was filing this report in an attempt to clear my name. His premise was that we all had to stick together and he even stated that "It's like we were all firing guns into the air and someone gets killed. It's no one's fault." I was shocked and I know that Greg was too. It was very clear that John was in this for himself and he was quite happy having me taking the blame. I'll admit to an error in judgment in firing the flares off, but I won't accept responsibility for causing the fire. Had it been my flare that caused the fire, I would have immediately accepted responsibility and done what was needed. John, who grew up in Southy (a very rough and tumble section of Boston) apparently didn't share that view.

After spending the night thinking about this, I decided to file a full report. One very scary thing that was occurring was that all kinds of inappropriate conversations appeared to be going on among people who witnessed the firing of the flares. I could only imagine that some form of collusion was taking place. I had earlier asked witnesses if they would provide statements, but they declined for a variety of reasons. This was not good. Finally I provided my full English statement and a translated version to Oscar who was supposed to take it down to Livingston. No other statements had appeared. I must admit that it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of my shoulders once I had signed them.

The day that we were heading to the States, Daphne called and talked to Constance. Based upon an e-mail I received from Daphne, Constance denied responsibility and came up with all kinds of alternate possibilities which included a second flare (which would have had to have come back against the wind based upon from where it was seen), people smoking in the house (it was empty), construction (true, but the fire started on the roof) and several other possibilities, none of which I found credible.

We left for Guatemala City on Wednesday, July 7th with heavy hearts. It appears that Constance had sneaked out of Guatemala during that evening and their current position is unknown. We had warned Manfred that they would do this. A local boat services business, The Shop, was left with $582 worth of paint that they ordered. Needless to say lots of people have been burned by them.

I can't tell you how glad I was to hear the wheels lift off the ground in Guatemala. I was afraid that somehow my passport would have been flagged and they wouldn't have let me leave. I didn't expect that, but you never know. One good piece of news is that the restaurant has been closed and Jose and staff have been let go. The Shop has taken over complete management of the boat and hopefully we've got enough friends at our end of the dock to keep a close eye on the boat.

We're back home now and the house is fine. I just hope that all of this sorts itself out and that when we return we find Tortugal back to it's normal tranquil state.

-- Geoff & Sue                      ****************** End of July 14 trip report ***************

My hope that this was going to sort itself out did not come true and the situation went from bad to worse. Sue & I were attending a wedding in Oregon when I received e-mail from a friend in the Rio stating that BlueJacket, Lone Star Love, and Constance had been named in a law suit and that there were only a few days left to respond.  Someone served the papers to Greg Berndt from Lone Star Love, but Greg refused to sign for them.  Instead Manfred (from the marina) signed for them and did absolutely nothing to contact us to let us know that this had occurred. A 15 day clock for responding started when the papers were served and we didn't hear about this until the final day of the response period! To say that I was upset would be putting it mildly.

Trying to deal with this while traveling in Washington state and British Colombia was not easy and this essentially ruined the trip for us. We had limited Internet access and trying to track down contact information was next to impossible. Daphne's lawyers refused to provide copies of the suit that they had filed. By the time that we found a lawyer to represent us the 15 day period had long passed.

One of the first things that we noted about the suit was that only American boats were targeted. The French boat which had also fired flares wasn't included in the suit. We could only guess that this was due to the fact that Daphne knew that most US boats carried insurance while many European boats don't. A large portion of Tortugal's income comes from European boats and Daphne may have decided not to cause problems with them.

I was in contact with Greg from Lone Star Love and I told him that if I had a chance to get BlueJacket out of Guatemala, that I would and that if he left the country that I wouldn't hold it against him. Greg was able to clear out and during the night he moved Lone Star Love down the lake and through the canyon (which is an amazing feat in the dark) and headed to Honduras.

Unfortunately I was in the US and BlueJacket had been de-commissioned for hurricane season. Electronics were removed or disconnected, so it wasn't like someone could just jump on board and safely drive it away. I had also been informed that an "arriago" had been issued against me, which would not allow me to leave the country. I came up with all kinds of schemes to get BlueJacket out of the country, but decided not to act on any of them. I felt safer trying to deal with this from my home instead of potentially dealing with it from a jail cell in Guatemala!

One of the first things that I did was to contact my insurance companies. My home owner's policy had an umbrella policy attached to it that covered such events. Commerce Insurance, who underwrites in MA and NH, was completely unprepared to handle a case like this. They're used to handling "normal" homeowner claims and were way out of their league with respect to handling a claim in Guatemala. I don't even want to tell you how long it took them to even figure out how to place a call to Guatemala! It became clear right from the start that if I wanted this to proceed forward, that I was going to have to drive the process. The biggest problem was that Tortugal's lawyers were regularly filing paperwork with the courts while we were doing nothing. I told my lawyer in Guatemala that I would pay the bills for now and that later on we would figure out the billing.

I had several phone calls with Daphne Becker that absolutely blew my mind. Daphne stated that Barbara from Constance admitted that it was their flare that caused the fire. Daphne also stated that she had been negotiating a settlement with Constance, but was unable to come to an agreement and then Constance fled the country. She further explained that the captain of her 60' catamaran, Hans, had seen a similar situation during which the boat was seized and the insurance company had simply paid. She knew that many US boats had insurance and that was why she was suing us. She told me multiple times that she didn't want anyone to get hurt and that we should just tell the insurance companies that we did it and that they would pay. I told Daphne that I wouldn't do that as I wasn't responsible and that I had already had provided statements to that fact and that the insurance companies just weren't going to pay her without a fight. Her response was that she had suffered a loss and that someone needed to pay. Unfortunately that someone was me.

Daphne wields a large amount of influence in the Rio Dulce area and no one was willing to move BlueJacket to another marina. We were informed that BlueJacket was locked to the dock and that an armed guard was posted to watch over it. The Shop, who had been contracted to maintain BlueJacket, was not allowed on the boat to perform any of the work we had specified. I also received e-mail from multiple people warning me that Daphne was not a person to be messed with. According to the reports several years ago Daphne had a dispute with an ex-boyfriend of hers in which she hired ex-military people to deal with him. From what I was told several gun battles and knife fights broke out over this. When I told my lawyer about this, he said that he had people who could "neutralize" this problem...WHAT?!? From a separate source, I was told that for $5K I could "take care" of the problem. I guess that we weren't in Kansas anymore!

According to we were told, Tortugal was looking for $420,000 US for damages. I have no idea where this number came from, but this was a thatched roof building with cement walls. Most of the contents had been moved out as they were getting ready to replace the roof which was falling apart. Perhaps I missed the gold plated fixtures, but there was no way that this remotely reflected reality. In a later conversation Daphne claimed that the loss was $95K, but she failed to explain how she arrived at these figures.

As much as I wanted to fight the law suit, my Guatemalan lawyers convinced Commerce Insurance and myself that this could take years to work through the court. Under the Guatemalan system of law, I had to prove my innocence. We had finally obtained statements from multiple people clearly stating the chain of events and clearing my name, but it was made clear that it would be very easy for Tortugal to create any testimony that they wanted. All of the other defendants in the law suit were out of the country and Tortugal had BlueJacket locked to their docks. This was a losing proposition for us. Many months passed and a settlement was finally agreed to in late December and BlueJacket was moved to Catamaran Marina. I can't tell you what a happy day that was!

In the end it cost Commerce Insurance $60K US to settle with Tortugal plus another $25K in legal fees (we had to pay Daphne's lawyers) for a total of $85,000 US. My home owner's insurance was canceled and I had to go into a high risk pool which provides significantly lower coverage at a much higher rate. I estimate that I'll pay an additional $10K in insurance premiums over the next 7 years as a result.

To say that this experience left a bad taste in my mouth would be an understatement. Daphne, despite her peace-and-love, earthy-crunch demeanor is actually a vindictive person who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, regardless of innocent people that she hurts along the line. If you leave your boat at Tortugal, realize that you do so at your own risk and that being innocent means nothing.

It's been well over a year since the fire and Tortugal still doesn't have a fire suppression system.  Based upon what we heard from friends on the Rio, many of the marinas held 4th of July celebrations last year at which flares were fired off.  The bar at the Hole in the Wall in Roatan, Honduras was burned to the ground due to a flare.  I guess that some people never learn.

The Rio is a very beautiful place, but there's a very dark underbelly that most people don't see. After spending 3 hurricane seasons in the Rio we got to know people who exposed the reality of life there and in Guatemala. It's a lot different from the US! You need to be aware of what can happen to you, and if you happen to get caught up in something, get you and your boat out of Guatemala and fight it from afar.

-- Geoff

Log ID: 1127

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