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The Yacht that Vanished

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Years ago, while packing boat-test gear into a Pelican case on the Fort Lauderdale waterfront, I fell into conversation with a white-haired gent in a plaid shirt who’d spent much of his life delivering yachts internationally. A garrulous soul, he told me a rousing story about a 75-foot Burger motoryacht he swore he’d seen down in Colombia 20 years before. She’d been the prettiest, most sophisticated motoryacht the Burger Boat Company had built up until that time, he said. And shortly after her launch-indeed upon her maiden voyage from New Orleans to Clearwater, Florida-she’d made an unscheduled stop in Apalachicola, on the southern tip of the Florida Panhandle, and then simply vanished. "She was hijacked by pirates or drug smugglers, I figure," he said. "She was called the Pirates Lady and worth more ‘n a million bucks-rightly named, eh son?"

I was captivated by the tale. Like most seafarers, I’m a romantic at heart, with a deep interest in all things piratical. But I could also identify with the rest of the story’s bits and pieces. The owner, for example, had been a mover and shaker in the oilfield-supply boat biz, an industry I’d spent time working in. And her captain had transitioned into yachts from the commercial seafaring realm, another detail that squared with my own biography. And finally, I knew Apalachicola well. In fact at the time I was living on Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a stretch of Panhandle swamps, bayous, and flatwoods dotted with isolated fishing villages, Apalachicola among them.

But procrastination’s a hang-up of mine. So for a right long spell the story bobbed in the backwaters of my mind. Then, for some ineffable reason, motivation struck during a meeting of PMY editors trying to develop ideas for upcoming stories. I flat-out surprised myself by suggesting a piece on Pirates Lady. Approval came quickly and within weeks, I’d tracked down the owner, Charles D. Slater, pushing 80, living in a retirement home in Biloxi, Mississippi, and, when contacted by phone, willing to talk.

But before setting off for an interview I figured I needed to do a little preparatory gumshoe work, and what I subsequently dredged up from various newspaper accounts, court documents, and interviews with police officers, reporters, lawyers, and marine-industry executives turned out, to my mind, to be worthy of a book or a movie.

It begins with Slater himself, known in New Orleans during the ‘70s as "Champagne Charlie," thanks to a generous, perhaps extravagant, nature. "Yeah," said Trinity Yachts vice president Billy Smith who’s still friends with Slater and did business with him back in the day. "Charlie was really somethin’. He was big. He was friends with Senator Russell Long and Jim Garrison, the JFK guy. He had his own plane, a private suite at the Superdome, and a magnificent home in New Orleans. And man! He was waitin’ with his new bride when that boat failed to show, and I can tell ya he was some disturbed."

Disturbed indeed. When Pirates Lady failed to materialize on January 27, 1977 and subsequent Coast Guard efforts to find her proved fruitless (no oil slick or floating debris was ever found), Slater rousted the FBI, the DEA, U.S. Customs, and a host of police agencies. And when they too made scant progress, he used his personal clout and that of his global supply-boat business Euro-Pirates International to force a congressional hearing. Newspaper coverage burgeoned. A 60 Minutes segment with Morley Safer aired from Apalachicola. "I seem to recall Charlie goin’ down to Colombia with a bunch of soldiers of fortune when he heard that his boat might be down there," added Smith.

But the mystery only deepened. The crew of Pirates Lady consisted of Capt. Tony Latuso, a 46-year-old Euro-Pirates employee, and David Diecidue, a 21-year-old college student who was the son of the CEO of Slater’s company, Ignatius Diecidue. Latuso was a superb seaman, by all reports. Young Diecidue had begged a berth onboard at the last minute looking for adventure. According to newspaper reports, the young man telephoned his father the evening of January 26, 1977, from the old Standard Oil dock in Apalachicola, where witnesses said the boat had tied up, and told him all was well. A minor mechanical problem had arisen, he said. He and Latuso were going to address it and get underway in the morning.

Apalachicola is a small place. Shrimp boats enliven the waterfront, along with a smattering of recreational vessels, small marinas and fuel docks, and a few commercial wharfs, all lining the west side of the Apalachicola River. Even today, the docks are quiet in the evenings and poorly lit, with nobody around and virtually no security. Vessels headed for Apalachicola across the desolate 50-mile stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway from Panama City in Bay County enter a shadowy, empty milieu upon arrival, especially after night’s fallen. This last point’s critical to understanding the tragic chain of events that locals believe preceded Diecidue’s telephone call.

During the early hours of January 23, 1977-just three days before Pirates Lady pulled into Apalachicola-a 70-foot shrimpboat called Gunsmoke entered the mouth of Sandy Creek, a forlorn spot on the ICW just east of Panama City. An offloading operation ensued, with jonboats and inflatables ferrying bales of Colombian Gold marijuana ashore to trucks waiting at the end of a dirt road. The 26-ton cargo had a street value of approximately $21 million. There were five men onboard and close to 20 more ashore.

Catastrophe struck at 5 a.m. Four people from nearby Springfield stumbled upon the operation. A shore-side lookout immediately shot and killed one and soon executed the others gangland-style after transporting them elsewhere. In the midst of all this a passing tugboat beamed a spotlight on Gunsmoke’s bulwarks, engendering panic. Not only did her crew now see themselves entangled in a capital crime, they feared they’d be caught as a result of the tug’s operator’s report. While this fear proved unfounded (no one ever heard from the tug), the shrimpboat nevertheless fled, probably east on the ICW, away from the populated environs of Panama City. They were likely hunting a woodsy bayou to hide in, having left behind an overturned jonboat and 3,000 pounds of marijuana, clues that would lead to the capture of the shoreside workers.

What happened next remains a matter of speculation, but retired Bay County sheriff Lavelle Pitts, who at the time was a Florida Marine Patrol (FMP) major in charge of statewide anti-smuggling operations, has a theory based on an extensive investigation and two informants.

"The Gunsmoke went to Apalachicola," Pitts told me, "where two of the smugglers boarded Pirates Lady from a skiff after dark. They shot the crew in the engine room, took the yacht for future drug runs, and followed the shrimpboat south. Eventually though, they realized Pirates Lady was too high-profile for their purposes and scuttled both her and the shrimpboat."

The theory gives Pitts little comfort today. The informants refused to go on record, he said, fearing reprisals by those who organized the Sandy Creek operation but were never implicated. And although both Gunsmoke and Pirates Lady were later discovered on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico some 120 nautical miles apart-the former several miles west of the mouth of Tampa Bay and the latter arrayed in pieces some 50 nautical miles southeast of Apalachicola-what happened to Slater’s crew remains a mystery. "And we could never prove a darn thing about the Gunsmoke except that she was scuttled the very day the Pirates Lady disappeared," Pitts added.

I visited Slater on a summer afternoon. He’s a tall, powerfully framed fellow with massive hands and the steady, can-do manner of an old, oilfield hand. I had one big question for him: What about the official version of events promulgated by the FMP in 1992, right after commercial divers from Tallahassee discovered Pirates Lady sunk and broken up? Did Slater buy the explanation of it all being a mere "boating accident," complete with a mysterious fire that cut electrical power so quickly it nixed distress calls and the deployment of lifesaving equipment?

"Baloney," Slater said dismissively. "I did business with Magnavox back in those days, so I had some of the most sophisticated marine communications equipment in the world on that boat. All Tony had to do was push a button, and my office would have been notified. He’d have done that had he been alive and onboard."

Slater sighed, "My boat was boarded in Apalachicola and then sunk...destroyed. The sightings down in South America? Who knows? Maybe they made at least one run with ‘er. I don’t know."

"And the crew?" I asked.

Slater sat silently, then fumbled for a box of tissues. "Even after all this time," he said, "I still think of ‘em, you know. David-he sort of snuck aboard, the little rascal. I never knew until his mother called. And Tony? Tony worked for me for 18 years!"

"Oh, it was a sad affair," he concluded, wiping his eyes. "A very sad affair."

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.