The hull truth: Boats in Southwest Florida are a prime target for smugglers

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LEE COUNTY, Fla. Southwest Florida’s coast is a paradise for beachgoers and boaters alike. But it’s also makes the area a prime target for boat thieves. They know how and when to steal it, all within minutes.

Jack Thomas remembers the day his boat was stolen like it was yesterday.

“I never imagined I’d see my boat 8 feet in the air running along at 40 to 50 miles an hour in 6 to 8 foot seas,” Thomas said. His 36-foot Invincible Open Fisherman boat was heading straight for international waters, full throttle, on Christmas eve 2015.

The suspects tried to run for 30 hours smuggling, but not before hitting a marker in what Lee County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Chris Nyce called “literally the craziest thing I’ve seen on the water.”

“A majority of these boats are being used for either human trafficking or they’re being used for narcotics,” Lee County Sheriff’s Office Detective Tim Galloway said.

But it’s just one of dozens of cases linked to an organized crime ring in South Florida. Criminals spend weeks doing their homework according to Galloway “They would go to mostly residential areas, high end areas, high end boat areas and they’d essentially pick out the boat they want. In 2014 and 2015 the trend was go-fast boats, boats 25+ feet with high powered engines on them.”

The big targets usually have multiple engines. The more horsepower the quicker they can get out of the country.


Lee County is a target for thieves with more than 47 thousand registered boats. “Any time you have that number of targets of opportunity, or potential property , criminals are going to have interest in that. That’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” Galloway added.

And the trend is spreading across the state. Since 2014, Lee County has seen more than 30 boats stolen that were in total valued over $2 million.

Charlotte County has seen about eight and Collier County 60. On the east coast, the numbers are even higher. Palm Beach county saw 68 boat thefts in 4 years. And Miami-Dade more than 700.

Two minutes. That’s all it takes to back up to an unsecured boat trailer and haul it away.


In the middle of the night LCSO marine deputies Kendall Wisely and Lieutenant Chris Nyce and are tasked with active marine patrols.

Chris Nyce says “We’ve come across individuals on these patrols that we know are out scouting, looking for contacts that they want to steal, or these guys are doing their counter surveillance, doing their homework to steal their next boat.”


How do you keep it from happening to you?

Detective Galloway says it’s all about investing in the right protection. “People pay 40, 50 thousand dollars for their boat but they do very little to prevent that boat from being stolen.”

He suggests getting a GPS tracking device installed. Some manufacturers make alarms for boats; or at the very least set up surveillance cameras and better lighting around your boat, “Invest that little bit of money to protect your asset.”

Since Jack Thomas had his boat stolen nearly two years ago he’s upped his game. His new Invincible now has the latest in security, “If somebody were to step aboard the boat or attempt to take the boat, we would be aware of it. It’s worth the investment for that piece of mind.”

Detective Galloway is confident LCSO is doing the job to keel Southwest Florida safe “I think these criminals and these organizations are realizing that Lee County right now, we don’t mess around, we’re actually putting people in jail and affecting their organization.”

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