Yacht Fire Claim - Final Episode

| Author: Ray Ashton [member (F2016)] | Filed under: Case Studies
Yacht Fire Claim - Final Episode

INTELLIGENCE GATHERING

Our final operation as discussed and agreed with our legal team was to attend the owner’s home town and at his home port where the vessel was usually laid up during the winter months; to glean as much further evidence as was possible from witnesses and from surveillance upon the subject.

We put together a hand-picked team of eight specialists, consisting of members of our staff and ex specialist detectives, also a translator and set off to the Eastern Mediterranean island.

Our first task was to mount surveillance on the owner before we were identified on our second task which was to be an overt enquiry in the port.

Our plan was to locate him at his apartment in the middle of the capital and to then follow him to his various destinations throughout an 18-hour period, gaining intelligence along the way. Intelligence gathered prior to the mission identified that he was in residence at his home during this period.

The main objective was to connect the target with persons and companies, also to identify his assets. The surveillance revealed relevant facts that contributed towards proving untruths that the owner had stated in his official statement.

Our next task was to overtly, in teams of two, commence a boat to boat enquiry within the port. This operation assisted greatly in establishing the vessels previous movements, its condition, any maintenance that had been effected and general important information about the owner. He was well known in the port and particularly disliked by quite a few of the port users. Debts were owed to technicians whom we found eager to tell us all about the bad condition the vessel was in and the neglect that the owner was responsible for.

This added to the strong evidence we had already secured of the vessels poor condition, played a major role in the valuation aspect of the vessel and subsequent misrepresentation of material facts by the owner.

DANGEROUS INTERVENTIONS

That first evening, following completion of our enquiries in the port, we went for dinner in a restaurant some distance from the town in a nearby village. Whilst we were ordering some food and wine, we noticed seven or eight well-dressed gentlemen and two ladies arrive at a nearby table. They were locals and spoke in the local language.

At some stage during the evening one of the gentlemen came over to our table and obviously noting we were foreigners asked in an almost perfect English accent if we were on holiday in the area. We advised that we were on a boating trip and that we were looking for good fishing grounds for the weekend that was almost upon us. The gentleman seemed to accept our story and offered to assist us should we require any information or help. He then sent over three bottles of the finest local wine to our table and they all cheered us from their table. We accepted the wine with thanks and continued with our meals.

It was reasonably obvious to us that these people did not buy us the wine out of the goodness of their kind island hearts and that they were probably Mafiosi characters that had connections with the owner. Our suspicions were well founded by our translator who was listening into part of their conversations unaware that we could understand their language.

At the end of the evening around 23:00 hours, the same gentleman approached our table and told us that they were attending a large party at a local dignitary’s villa in the mountains and that we were welcome to join them to partake in some island hospitality. I accepted the invitation without consulting my colleagues as it would have been too suspicious not to and I was keen to see where this would lead us.

We had four hire cars between us and therefore followed our host and his entourage to an enormous villa which was covertly nestled into a corner of the mountain, accessed by a private road.

Upon arrival, our vehicles were parked by some official looking uniformed men in chauffeurs’ hats. We could hear loud music and the voices of what seemed like a whole village full of people coming from the pool area at the side of the property.

We entered the villa via the front door led by our gentleman friend and quickly found ourselves in a gigantic area, fitted out with bars and a huge swimming pool. Uniformed waiters and waitresses were milling around the guests and I quickly guessed that there were probably over 150 people, male and female guests present. They were well dressed and quite obviously well-heeled guests, judging by the size and makes of the many dozens of cars parked in a row around the driveway. I noticed quite a few of the men were carrying small arms underneath their jackets, evident by the bulge and sort of guessed what company we must have been in.

The garden was full of small private areas fitted with high class seating and small marble tables scattered over what I recollect was probably 10,000 square metres of land which was populated with groups of people in every corner.

We were offered drinks and high-end snacks with a private waiter and waitress being allocated to us for the night and we were told that we could wonder and mingle anywhere we wanted to and to enjoy the evening as it was scheduled to continue till daybreak.

I instructed my team to continue with the story that we had first communicated to our friend and to split up in pairs and mingle with the guests and then wait to see what was going to happen next.

Prior to leaving the vehicles in the car park, I had communicated the circumstances and our current position to our office by mobile phone and advised that if we did not communicate back by the morning, they should be worried and send out a search party.

The night went on with music, singing and dancing and the occasional speech from what looked like important members of the community.

It would be around 04:00 hours when our gentleman friend approached myself and my colleague and first mentioned the owner’s name and his yacht. I was not surprised as I had already gathered that there was a good chance that they knew who we were and what we were on the island for and was expecting an approach. What kind of an approach was not really known but turned out to be better than we were prepared for.

The gentleman introduced himself as Fernando and it did not take a great deal of brain power to imagine which team he supported or more likely was the manager of.

He was very calm and collective in his manner and spoke in a fluent Oxford English accent with a slight twang of a foreign accent at the edge of some of his words. He came straight to the point and recognised the fact that we were not on holiday and that we were in the area investigating his friend the owner. He accepted this, and of course I had to admit that this was exactly why we were there, to perform overt enquiries in the port, to try and source background information on the yacht and its owner for the insurance company.

He was very understanding and then began to tell us all the good things that the owner had done for his country and the fact that he was not a bad guy as many had obviously advised us. He went on to say that these people were enemies of his cause and that we should not lay any credence on their information. He had in mind a little cash sum to tide us over and to ignore any information that showed up his friend in a bad light. The sum he had in mind was no less than 6 figures. In a very polite manner I declined the offer and re-assured him that our enquiries were purely routine and technical and had no serious consequences for his friend. They were the kind of enquiries an insurance company would expect when considering a marine claim of this magnitude and indeed the company had dispatched us to complete this aspect of the claim. I advised him that I had just spoken to our office and had told them where we were and that we were enjoying the hospitality of the island and that we were all very pleased to have met him. Fernando appeared happy with our discussion and left us but not before advising us to be very careful on the island as there were some very bad people around. I thanked him and we hung around for an extra half hour so as not to appear rude and once I had gathered my team together, we set off from the villa back to our hotel in the town for a debriefing.

This had been quite a daunting experience even though there were eight of us, all of whom were very capable of looking after ourselves, however we were at a disadvantage being unarmed amongst a crowd of apparently armed persons. The fact that I informed Fernando of my recent communications with our office may well have been a deterring factor, who knows, but we survived to tell the tale and never saw Fernando or his band of merry friends again.

WITNESS PROTECTION

Once we had returned to base and had debriefed, a full report was dispatched to the insurers and it was now time to tighten up on “B”’s statement. This necessitated several further interviews in various countries, finally ending at our base office after he had completed his current contract on the new yacht.

It was now time to consider the security factors for the safety of the witness “B”. By now his statements were being dispatched to our legal team and it was not long before the procedures of disclosure between both legal parties were to commence. At that stage it would be well known that “B” was to become a substantially important witness in the case.

“B” was now free of employment and was on a temporary basis residing in our base area. Discussions were entered with the insurance company with a view to providing 24-hour protection for “B” up to the trial date and beyond. It was agreed that in the circumstances it was important to protect the witness in view of threats made by the owner and his associates.

The only persons that knew “B” by sight were members of my team. No other sub contracted operatives or independent witness, the legal team or Underwriters had ever sighted “B”. It was anticipated that the trial date would be fixed in 6 months so I had to make arrangements to protect “B” for that period and through to the trial and beyond. I arranged for “B” to be employed under a pseudo name and could house him in a “safe house” close to our establishment. He was observed daily and provided with communications and CCTV equipment that instigated immediate contact should the need arise. Two members of staff on a rotating basis were placed in charge of the security arrangements during daylight hours and remained on standby during the hours of darkness. “B” was restricted to his work place during the day and the “safe house” during the night and should he wish to venture out for social or personal reasons, he would be observed by or would be in the company of two members of our staff always.

THE TRIAL

Over two years of investigation had elapsed before the court date was set for the trial in the London admiralty courts. A great deal of our working lives over those two years had been expended on this case to ensure the total accuracy of the evidence. Suffice to say that a great deal of cost had also been involved. We were well prepared for the court battle ahead.

The day before the hearing our investigation team together with the witness “B” were transported to London and set up in a “safe house”, close to the city but far enough away to afford good protection for the witness. An anti-surveillance team was set up to transport the witness to and from the hearing and suitable protection was provided within the premise of the courts. Despite this the owner found the odd opportunity to glare at “B” in passing and to mutter threats.

The trial lasted two weeks as a great number of witnesses from both sides were involved in giving evidence, including myself. The witness “E” was not called by the defence to give evidence. Whilst we, the prosecution, called the witness he did not appear.

The witness “B” was a star and spent three days in the witness box being cross examined by both parties. Despite the fact that the defence made every attempt to discredit his evidence he never faltered. He was later described as being the most instrumental witness in the case.

On the Friday of the second week, the trial came to an end and the judge retired to consider his verdict. On the following Tuesday morning, the verdict was pronounced in that the owner had failed to prove his claim which was dismissed and costs were awarded to our clients. An investigation into the owner’s assets was ordered by the judge to secure costs.

The case was over and we could finally celebrate the verdict and boy was that some celebration.

“B” was later employed on a full-time basis by us as an assistant marine surveyor operating from our office in St. Lucia in the Caribbean for a period of 12 months whereupon he decided to return to Europe for personal reasons.

No further contact was made with the owner or any of his crew and we lived to tell the tale without any hindrance from other parties, only to go on to the next extraordinary case which will form part of the next case study tale.

This is a true story derived from a full file of documentation, notes and photographs. Names and locations have been changed to protect against identification of any parties or vessels involved. Some facts have been altered or omitted to prevent against recognition of the case. This investigation took over two years to complete and the case was found against the owner in the Admiralty courts. Assets are still being pursued against the owner for compensation against legal costs incurred. The owner did not appeal the judgement.

Submitted by Full member F2016 - Ray Ashton of RA & A (UK) Ltd. See www.rayashton.eu for further info.

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