Episode 21: Boat Rackets and Bad Bosses
So, it’s been a while since I wrote a Chronicle. Not because I didn’t want to, or lack of contents, but because, well, life gets in the way. I spent 4 months filming an outdoor adventure series for YouTube that’s still in post-production. My apparel line, “OUR THING” Apparel, will soon be available at Amazon. I’m constantly working towards getting my TO BE A KING novels (link below) made into a movie. And I’m even working on getting these Chronicles made into a TV series for a network like of Netflix or Amazon.
However, I’m a writer and miss writing, which is my true passion. And I am constantly remembering stories I’d love to share. Stories usually sparked into existence by someone or some thing. For example, I have this nutcase friend named Steve. Greek dude who in the past was also heavily in the streets, although not connected to LCN in any way. Just a hustler and through and through. His racket was insurance scams. He mastered the racket and made millions. Today I was on the phone with him and he mentioned to me that he might be interested in selling his boat. Which sparked a memory. Many years ago, in my early 20s, I made some good money stealing and re-tagging boats. Some of them were yachts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, because I was just a grunt, I was lucky to make a few grand. Still though, it was quite a racket and a rush.
Let me first preface this story by saying I lived in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, at the time, with my grandma and grandpa Tocco. This is relevant because the city was an area with HUGE money—home to William Clay Ford (owner of Ford Motors), Art Van the furniture mogul, Mike Illich, owner of the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings. Needless to say, the demographic could afford boats. In fact, there area was known for having the most registered boats, per capita, in the world. Where I grew up, anyone who was anyone had a boat. They were a sort of status symbol. All the ballers and bigshots had boats. Even the wannabe ballers had boats.
So, this is how it all began. I had a friend named Mike Timmons. A real scumbag character who loved to steal. One night, he brought my boy Ricky and me with him to pillage a boat marina. It was wintertime so all the boats were in dry-dock storage, neatly shrink-wrapped to protect them from the elements. The marina had a security guard who did regular patrols, but we were like ninjas—dressed in all black, everything from masks to gloves. I wasn’t a thief, but Mike assured me we could make some serious bank by relieving these high-end boats of all their expensive electronics. And he was right.
After climbing a fence at the back of the marina, we slunk through the shadows, ducking under the massive yachts and sleek offshore race boats, keeping an eye out for the roving security guard. Within minutes we were slicing a hole through the blue shrink-wrap on a large cabin cruiser. Ricky stood watch as we climbed inside. Using a small pen flashlight and a few tools, we went to work. Anything of value was targeted—fish finders, GPS units (which were still new technology and VERY expensive), stereo systems, TVs, CB radios, navigation systems. Even high-end liquors from the boat’s bar.
We ended up hitting a few boats that night and did alright. We took most of the merch to my uncle’s pawn shop and dumped it for about a grand. Mike and Ricky continued doing it but I just didn’t like stealing. Call me a criminal hypocrite, but, like I’ve mentioned before, petty thievery never sat well with me. It just wasn’t my thing. Too many things could go wrong. I preferred to always be in control of my criminal exploits. I guess that’s why I preferred things like collecting for bookies and selling drugs.
However, about a year or two later, I was once again presented with the opportunity to work the boat racket. And this time, it was on a much larger scale. In fact, it’s what inspired a scene in my book, where Omnio (“King”) is given an offshore race boat for his 21st birthday. It was my cousin Anthony’s 21st birthday. I can’t say his last name because he is still an active in the Family “business.” When he reads this, and I’m sure he will, he will have a good laugh. It was mid-summer and his father told us to meet him at Metropolitan Beach, in the marina, for a surprise. We got there just after noon and found the whole family partying on a big cabin cruiser. I mean big! Like 54 feet. And beautiful, with three levels, hard wood floors, massive sound system, a full wet bar, a cabin to sleep 6, and a little 12’ dingy attached to its swim platform. The name on the back read “MONEY TALKS.” I had no idea whose boat it was, and we really didn’t care. Tony was now 21 one and legal to drink, so that’s exactly what we proceeded to do. Drink and get drunk. Although, I think I was only about 19 at the time. Still, none of my aunts and uncles said anything while a knocked back beer after beer.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Metro Beach during the summer is the place to be if you live on the east side of Metro Detroit. Especially if you have a boat. There are two marinas and both stay packed with boats. Several hundred of them. It’s like a car show for boats. Everyone in town goes there to show off. Guys to show off their expensive boats, and women to show off their bikini bodies—hoping to catch the attention of some bigshot baller with a big yacht and an even bigger bank. In hindsight, it’s both funny and pathetic. It’s a freak show of pasty, older, potato-shaped men using their over-priced, midlife crisis boats to lure 20-year-old girls into having sex with them. Yeah, I know, creepy. But the girls are just as bad. Subtle young tits bursting out of bikinis two sizes too small. Flirting with fat middle-aged bald men, laughing at their jokes, listening to their aggrandized tales how rich and powerful they are, hoping that with a little luck and some drunk sex they might land a free ride to life. It still goes on, all summer long at Metro Beach. It’s like one big freak show.
But at the time, we didn’t pay any attention to that. We were also there to play the game. The difference was, we didn’t need money and a boat to get girls. We just had to be the young bucks that we were. At the time, I was doing bodybuilding shows and still had my Jersey Shore good looks. Tony wasn’t much of a stud in terms of looks, but what really helped him with the ladies was that his family was well known in the city. Just the mention of his last name was enough. Even young girls from our area knew who the Family was. And what it was. Wherever we went, as soon as people learned who we were, we were treated like celebrities. And this day was no different. By the time night settled in, we must have had 20 girls on the boat. Music was bumping. Girls were dancing all over the boat in their bikinis. Unlimited bottles of liquor and ice-cold beer. Barbecued chicken and burgers. It was a hell of a 21st birthday party. I remember some of the Detroit Pistons, John Sally, Vinny Johnson, and Joe Dumars were there, hanging out on Sally’s new boat a few slips down from us. At one point, they came over and hung out with us because we were the biggest party at the beach, and we had all the hotties hanging around our boat. A lot of people seemed star struck by them, but I didn’t care. To me they were just three tall dudes hanging out at the beach like the rest of us. At one point, I started bugging Vinny Johnson to play me in a game of 1-on-1 basketball, just to say I did. After bugging him for a good hour, he walked over to a nearby court and we shot around. He even let me score a point on him. Back then there were no camera phones, but I wish I could have gotten it on video. I mean, he was one of Detroit’s “Bad Boys” who won back-to-back championships the previous two years. But hey, I have the memory.
Now this is where things get interesting. Most of the older members of my family left by sundown. Only my two uncles and my aunt, Tony’s mom, were still there. I was pretty drunk and having a great time when my uncle (Pete Tocco, my mother’s brother) pulled me aside.
“Listen, Al, you think you can drive this boat?” he asked in a hushed whisper so nobody else could hear.
I glanced at the boat. It was huge. I had driven plenty of boats but never one this size. Not even close. Plus, I was pretty hammered. And for the record, I was NOT a good drunk. I was belligerent, careless, and often violent. It’s why around age 20 I quit drinking altogether. I was smart enough to know that I was going to kill someone or someone was going to kill me.
“Yeah, sure, I can drive it,” I answered, too stubborn to admit I probably couldn’t.
He grinned one of his maniacal grins, which I had already come to know. It was the grin he made when he was using me for his advantage, to handle his dirty work. I would see it a lot in the years to come.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” he said, leading me away from the party and into the shadows. “Hang out with Tony on the boat. Party it up. Dry up the bar. Spend the night here. Have fun…” He reached in his pocket and handed me a folded yellow piece of paper from a small notepad.
“That’s the GPS coordinates to a marina across the lake. In Canada. Just punch them in the boat’s navigation. It’ll take you right there. It’s got auto pilot and shit, you’ll figure it out. When you get there, call the number on the paper. Name’s Frankie. Windsor Frankie. He’s a friend of ours who handles things in Windsor for us. He’ll meet you at the marina and give you some money he owes me. He’s got another boat you can drive back. Bring it to Jefferson Beach Marina and park it behind Brownies. Go inside and call me. I’ll pick you up.”
Again, I glanced at the boat, wondering what the hell was going on? But even pickled from the booze it only took me a second to connect the dots. I felt like I was being positioned between a rock and a hard place. I mean, he was technically my boss. I had to do it. Well, I didn’t HAVE to do it, but if I wanted to continue reaping the benefits of being part of my uncle’s crew, I had to do what he asked. All part of the game. But he was always dumping his dirty laundry on me. It had already become a recurring theme. I knew he must have been contracted to get rid of this boat, but rather than take the risk handling it himself, he was dumping another pile of dirty socks on my lap. And of course, he would get all the money for it.
“The boat’s hot?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
His maniacal grin grew wider.
“Not yet, but it will be. Insurance job. Won’t be reported missing ‘til you’re across the lake, in another country.”
I glanced down at the yellow paper.
“So, all I have to do is get the boat across the lake?”
“Yup, that’s it. But right now, it’s yours for the night. You guys have fun. Tap one of these little hotties running around here. Finish off the liquor cabinet. Just make sure you get to Frankie by noon tomorrow.”
“Nice of you to dump this shit on me,” I said, letting him know I was annoyed.
He slapped me on the back.
“Relax, kiddo. I’ll take care of you.”
Those were his famous words, “Relax kiddo, I’ll take care of you.” But he rarely did. He usually screwed me. And he would this time, too. But I’d screw him back. Worse. He was my uncle, and I loved the guy. He was funny as hell and like a big brother. He always had my back. But even to this day I can’t help but resent him for pulling me into this life, and for always fucking me over on money. He’d try to justify it with some bullshit. His lawyer. His new business. His wife. The Boss wanted his cut. Whatever. Eventually, I got to the point where I was like, “Fuck you. We are family. Pay me!” And he did. But towards the end we barely had any business dealings. I refused to pay him or anyone else a cut of what I earned on my own. That led to my eventual downfall.
But on this night, we had a riot. A bunch of our cousins showed up and we partied the night away. Sometime after midnight I crawled into a cabin with some bikini-clad brunette and got as far as a kiss before I passed out. The next morning, Tony and my cousins were long gone. So, after cleaning the boat of empty beer cans and passed out strippers, I called my best friend, Jay, to ride with me as I made the 30-mile journey across Lake Saint Clair. I’ll never forget how nervous I was. Not because I was driving a quarter million-dollar yacht, but because I knew my uncle was full of shit. I was sure the boat was already stolen. Trying to steer the massive boat out of the marina was a royal pain. I damn near hit 4-5 other boats. At one point, the harbor master cop guy (whatever the hell they’re called) yelled at me through his megaphone to slow down because I was in a “NO WAKE ZONE!”
We ended up making it across the lake with no problems. That’s the crazy thing about Detroit. You can literally bounce back and forth, from the U.S. to Canada, with impunity on a boat. Sure, there are a few coast guard boats and border patrol, but you never see them. And even if they see you, they don’t bother you. There are just too many boats. Too many people. It’s the reason why during prohibition, Detroit was instrumental in the trade of high-end European liquors. The Detroit Partnership literally controlled all the booze coming in from Canada, much of which ended up in the hands of Al Capone and LCN families in New York. It’s the reason that even to this day the Detroit Family has strong ties to the New York and Chicago Families—many of their sons and daughters cross-family married. In fact, the current Underboss in Detroit is a Chicago guy.
Frankie pulled up in a pickup truck and walked right over. He did not look how I pictured him in my mind. I figured he would be a middle-aged fat dago, but he was a handsome younger guy, maybe 30, dressed real sharp, hair slicked back. Reminded me of the actor Tony Danza. Except he had a nose that looked like it had been broken five too many times. He was cordial enough, but all business. After inspecting the boat, he brought a pizza box in from his truck. I was starved so I was excited for a slice of pie. But when I opened the box, there was nothing inside but a paper bag containing $40,000.
“Tell Pete thanks,” Frankie said.
“If he comes across any more boats, let me know. I got a broker.”
Of course, my mind began to race so I started asking questions. And I could NOT believe what this guy told me. Apparently, he had a crew of guys who would re-tag stolen merchandise from the States, and then re-sell it in Canada or even back in the States. I felt stupid for never thinking of it. What they did was genius. They could take cars, boats, big machinery, whatever, and completely re-tag and sell them in another country. No record of the theft. They had someone on the inside in the Canadian Department of Motor Vehicles who would give them all new paperwork. I mean, they would contrive all kinds of false records to make it look like it had a history there in Canada. Sometimes—get this—they would basically duplicate the VIN and paperwork of an already existing boat or whatever. So suddenly there would be two boats with identical VINs, but nobody would ever know. Far as the DMV knew, it was the same boat. I was baffled by it all.
“So if I bring you a boat, you’ll cash me out and re-sell it?” I asked, surely a look of excitement on my face.
“Sure, we usually find a buyer before we put feelers out for big shit like this. But yeah, if it’s a nice boat, I’m sure we can work it out.”
Well, that was all I needed to hear. Over the next few days, I began scheming. I’d needed a crew. Just a couple guys with balls. Ricky was in right away. He was a thief and could hotwire cars. Turned out, boats were even easier to hotwire than cars. A LOT easier. My boy Jay was down, and my cousin Johnny was in, too. We were ready.
There is a huge Yacht Club in Grosse Pointe called, well, “The Grosse Pointe Yacht Club.” I had grown up not far from it, and had been there many times with friends and family. But this place was where all the biggest ballers kept their boats. Since I was just some teenage kid with no yacht parked there, I couldn’t just walk in the place. There was only one way in and it is guarded by a security gate with an armed guard. But back then, my grandfather’s name held a lot of weight, so on our first mission we simply pulled right up to the gate and I dropped it.
“How you doing?” I said, flashing the guard a smile.
“I’m Pete Tocco’s grandson. I’m supposed to meet him and some of my family back there.”
His eyes registered recognition immediately.
“What slip?” he asked, a perfunctory habit.
“Not sure,” I shrugged. “Just told me to meet him in the parking lot. We are supposed to go for a ride on my Uncle Joe’s boat.”
He flashed me a warm smile and tapped his badge nameplate with a finger.
“Well tell Mr. Tocco I said hi. Loved that box of peaches he gave my wife in the Market. He knows I love peaches. They’re my favorite. He always takes care of us. Good man.”
“Will do, Sam,” I said, and then motioned for Ricky to drive through the gate.
We ended up stealing an older cigarette boat. I can’t even remember the make. Wellcraft, maybe? I just remember it was fast. I mean REALLY fast! When we tore out of there, the twin 500 horsepower motors roared to life like thunder and could literally be heard for miles. It was funny because none of us knew how to work the transom trim settings at first, so the front of the boat was up in the air and there was a massive rooster tail behind the boat. But it only took maybe five minutes before we figured it out.
Frankie jewed us on price because it was an older model, even though we had naively thought it was new. He still gave us $10,000 cash and resold it to a buyer in British Columbia for $75,000. It’s surely still out there somewhere, with a Canadian paper trail saying it was bought and sold at Canadian boat broker in Windsor, Canada.
We ended up jacking a few more boats from the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, but eventually the security guard started giving us a hard time at the gate. It was obvious he knew we were the ones stealing the boats. He was just scared to say anything. I considered cutting him in on a piece, but he was an old man, a civilian who would probably crack under questioning during an investigation. So we began hitting other marinas in the area. I remember the marinas really started ramping up security. Keep in mind, this is early 1990s, before there were security cameras everywhere. There was even an article in the local paper about a boat theft ring in Macomb County. It was funny, because we started using this little Zodiac dingy with a silent electric motor to enter the marinas from the lake. We would launch the little boat from a launch off Jefferson and 9 Mile, called Blossom Heath. Then we would circle out into the lake and head to marinas as far as several miles away! It was super sketchy on days when the lake was rough. A couple times we almost sank from rogue waves. We’d be all decked out in black, even wearing face paint. I remember feeling like we were a team of Navy SEALS on a covert op.
Things went well and we made some nice bank until my stupid cousin Johnny blabbed to our cousin Tony what we were doing. Tony, being the spoiled brat that he was, told his dad he wanted one of our boats. Tony’s dad was the son of a very powerful Boss. When he learned what we were doing, it created a big shit storm. My Uncle Pete was called in to take a tongue lashing from Tony’s grandfather. Apparently, Windsor Frankie was his guy. This swap racket was his, as his crew had been doing this for years. He was livid that my Uncle Pete had used Frankie as a fence behind his back. I was also bitched at by the Boss when I saw him at the Roma Cafe in the Eastern Market a few weeks later.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you kids?” he growled, showing off for the lackies he had sitting at his table.
“Frankie works for me. You want to use him, you go through me. He’s my fuckin’ guy. Capische?”
What he was saying is that if I wanted to continue flipping boats through Windsor Frankie, I had to pay him the Lion’s share. And of course, my uncle bitched me out and said the same thing. So in the end, I just said fuck it, and gave it up. Too many greedy hands wanting a piece of the pie. Johnny and the boys did a few more boats and ended up giving up for the same reasons. Our greedy patriarchs. Even this early on, I had already learned how it worked. If you weren’t spawned from their royal loins, all you’d ever get was table scraps. So, I just forgot about it and moved in to the next racket.
Identity theft. But I’ll save that for next time.
If you would like to sample more of Gunner’s work, checkout his novels, “To Be A King,” and see for yourself why it is being called “the next Godfather…