This is yet another factual and true story where names of persons and places have been altered to protect the identity of the individuals and country concerned.
Brief Circumstances of the Claim
This case relates to the investigation of a fire onboard a private motor yacht moored in a secure marina on the coast of South America and the bizarre events surrounding the incident that we became engulfed in whilst attending the scene of the fire.
The yacht was insured for US$ 800,000.00 by a British insurance company which we regularly assisted with claim investigations.
A report was filed with the insurers by the owner, a South American national. He stated that one Sunday afternoon, whilst the vessel was moored within the harbour, he was busy repairing some electrical problems on the bridge and smelt burning. Within a few minutes the bridge was engulfed in smoke and flames. He stated that he had used several fire extinguishers that were kept onboard to try and extinguish the fire, which had spread below decks into the engine room. The local fire brigade attended and extinguished the remains of the fire. The owner claimed a total loss of the vessel.
Brief enquiries by the insurance company suggested suspicious circumstances involved and they appointed us to investigate, then report back for their consideration of the claim.
Travel to South America
I travelled to South America with one of my assistant marine investigators via Madrid and onwards to San Carlos airport. I had arranged beforehand with the local harbour master to have the vessel cleared by the authorities for a fire inspection. I also asked him if he could warn the owner that we needed to interview him following our inspection.
Whilst making these arrangements I got to know the harbour master quite well, albeit via phone calls and emails only. The harbour master Hans Oberson was a Dane with an impeccable command of English. He and his wife had been living and working in South America for over 20 years, both involved in looking after the marina from a small office within a secure fenced in compound.
San Carlos was going through some rather violent times, with a great deal of lawlessness on the streets. So much so that foreign business visitors were accompanied by armed bodyguards from the airport to their destinations via business meetings to their hotels, which were heavily secured in razor wire fenced compounds. The bodyguards were for hire and Hans had arranged for one to meet us at the airport, transport us to the hotel and the following morning he was to take us to his office.
The journey to the coast from the airport that night was rough in a ramshackle vehicle, along some grim roads where gangs of youths frequented on almost every street corner. There were few other vehicles on the road and those present were driving around at high speeds, lacked proper lighting and were in such a condition that would have probably rendered them scrapped in a European country.
We arrived at the hotel which was purported to be a 4 star but resembled a 2 star in every respect. The food was a single choice menu, tasteless and served in dour surroundings by surly faced waiters. We had a couple of drinks and retired for a good night’s sleep, little realising what was facing us the next day.
The Contact’s Demise
The following morning, we rang the marina to make liaise with Hans. The phone was answered by a female secretary, who appeared to be in a severe state of shock. She explained that Hans and his wife had just been shot dead whilst they were driving into the marina compound. I didn’t know what to say or how to react, I was totally stunned. I asked if there had been a motive for the shooting and if the attackers had been caught. She stated that there could be no motive for such a despicable act, on two elderly and totally innocent people going about their business as they did every day for the last 20 years. She kind of jokingly said that there would be no chance of the attackers being caught, since the Police were not active enough to do anything about it. I explained that we had arrived to inspect a vessel that had caught fire, this having been arranged by Hans and his wife. She was aware and therefore dispatched our bodyguard to pick us up in yet another unroadworthy vehicle.
He took us to the marina and the subject vessel, then we arranged for him to return in about 4-5 hours.
The vessel was a 70-foot motor catamaran and it was obvious at a distance from the exterior that there had been a fire, due to severe scorch marks and smoke stains all over the hull and within the cockpit.
We began our fire investigation by carefully sifting through the debris, examining all areas, particularly the electrical equipment and the engine room.
The first discovery, after removing some debris in the cockpit to access the decking below, was a strong smell of petrol or other form of accelerant. There were still traces of this substance soaked into the wooden decking despite the fire brigade’s attempts to extinguish the fire. This is quite normal when an accelerant has been used to start a fire and traces of such substances, if present, are often discovered after careful examination.
We next discovered several small plastic containers which were in the inner accommodation and on the deck. These either had traces of petrol within or were quarter full. The vessels engines were diesel driven and there was no dinghy or outboard motor attached to the vessel. We had already confirmed that there had been no outboard motor present. The petrol was redundant and had no reason for being onboard, particularly in what appeared to have been large quantities.
A further important discovery concerned six fire extinguishers that were found onboard. Only one had been partially discharged and that was lying on the fore deck, the remainder were unused and securely fastened in brackets on the bridge, in the saloon and in the cabins. We had no idea where this extinguisher was located prior to the fire or why it was on the fore deck close to the fire. The question also arose as to why the extinguisher on the bridge, where the fire was allegedly discovered had not been used. This was contrary to the claimant’s report to the insurers which stated that he had used several fire extinguishers to fight the fire.
Careful examination of the electrical system revealed no short circuiting. There was no evidence to suggest that the fire had started from any other source than with the deliberate use of petrol, which incidentally had ignited three separate seats of fire, each unconnected with the other. The verdict was that someone (probably the owner, judging by his earlier explanations and our findings), had deliberately set fire to the vessel, to claim the insurance value.
We wrapped up some samples for a laboratory examination and met the bodyguard who drove us back to the hotel.
The Ultimate Shock
I then phoned the number I had for the owner, intending to interview him that evening. A lady answered in broken Spanish. From what I could understand she was in a panic as her husband, the owner of the yacht, had been shot that afternoon and was in the hospital. I made little further sense out of the conversation, so I rang the marina office and spoke to the secretary. She advised me that the vessels owner had visited a bank that afternoon to collect a large sum of cash in order to make some payments to his clients and whilst he was leaving the ATM machine and crossing the street, a man approached him and fired two shots at him from a hand gun and then grabbed his briefcase where the money had been contained and ran off.
The yacht owner was quite “lucky” in a way. He had sustained serious bullet wounds to both legs and was rushed to hospital where he remained in a critical condition for some time due to severe loss of blood. We were later informed that he was making a good recovery. Due to this incident we were unable to interview the owner and therefore postponed it to a later date.
Well that turned out to be strange old day and seemed to be enough for us to handle all at once; what with the shooting dead of our two colleagues, the shooting of the claimant and the discovery of what can only be described as a perfect insurance fraud, complemented by the major clues, so carelessly left for us to find. It was time to retire to the dingy bar for a long-earned drink.
My reporting commenced the next morning, whilst my partner arranged for our departure back to Europe.
The laboratory tests provided a positive result and our report recommended denial of the claim to the insurance company on the grounds of fraud. They contacted the Assured and explained the circumstances to him and nothing further was heard of the case which claim was later withdrawn by the Assured for reasons well known to him.
This was probably one of the strangest circumstances coupled with the easiest insurance fire/fraud case I have ever negotiated in my career of 30 odd years in the industry. It was brought about by a very careless owner who tried to destroy his boat to recover the insurance value. In doing so he made several very basic errors, which when discovered and documented allowed him no room to manoeuvre and forced him into a situation whereby he had no alternative than to withdraw his claim or perhaps face prosecution for insurance fraud. A pretty good result I believe despite the tragedies along the way.