Crew member pleads guilty, admits conspiring with owner and others to sink boat for insurance payment
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 9, 2012
CAMDEN, N.J. – A former crew member of a fishing boat admitted today that he participated in a conspiracy to help the boat’s owner sink the ship, the Alexander II, in order to collect $400,000 from the insurance company that insured the boat, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.
Arthur “Todd” Vitola, 50, of Wildwood, N.J., pleaded guilty to an Information charging him with conspiring to destroy the boat on the high seas. Vitola entered his guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb in Camden federal court.
On November 12, 2011, the owner, Scott Tran, 38, of Cherry Hill, pleaded guilty to an Indictment charging him with one count of conspiracy to destroy a vessel on the high seas. Tran’s right-hand man, Manh Nguyen, 58, of Philadelphia, pleaded guilty the same day to a superseding Information charging him with a similar conspiracy offense. Two other former crew members also have pleaded guilty to similar conspiracy offenses: Christopher Martin, 40, of Wildwood, N.J., on Nov. 14, 2011; and Erik James, 40, of Goshen, N.J., on Dec. 19, 2011.
According to documents filed in this case and statements made in court:
Vitola engaged with the others in a scheme to sink the Alexander II so Tran could collect on an insurance policy with State National Insurance Company. In July 2009, Tran hired a captain for the ship, whom Tran and Nguyen then solicited to sink the Alexander II in return for payment. The captain then recruited a crew, including Vitola, to help him sink the boat.
On August 2, 2009, the Alexander II left Cape May, N.J. Although the Alexander II had little fuel, ice, food, and other supplies for a lengthy fishing trip, the ship’s log was falsified to read that more than 50 fish, weighing a total of approximately 3,000 pounds, had been caught.
Once the Alexander II reached a point approximately 86 miles southeast of Cape May, the captain and his crew worked together in an unsuccessful attempt to sink it. Vitola admitted that he and other members of the crew filled parts of the boat with seawater, after which a distress signal was sent to the U.S. Coast Guard and the crew members abandoned ship in a life raft.
The U.S. Coast Guard rescued the captain and crew. Martin admitted giving false statements to the Coast Guard regarding the incident, per the captain’s direction. The Coast Guard found no fish aboard the boat or in the hold.
The count to which Vitola pleaded guilty carries a maximum potential penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, or twice the amount of loss caused by the offense. In addition, the government will seek restitution for expenses, including attorneys fees, that the insurance company has incurred to defend the lawsuit. Additional victims include the U.S. Coast Guard, which devoted resources and manpower to rescuing the captain and crew, and salvage and towing companies, which brought the boat back to shore and repaired it. Sentencing for Vitola is currently scheduled for April 16, 2012.
U.S. Attorney Fishman credited special agents of FBI, Atlantic City Resident Agency, Newark Division, under the direction of Special Agent in Charge Michael B. Ward; and investigators with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, under the direction of Prosecutor Robert L. Taylor, for the investigation. He also thanked the Philadelphia and Cape May office of the U.S. Coast Guard, Investigative Division, for its assistance.
The government is represented by Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Wiener of the U.S. Attorney’s Office Criminal Division in Camden.
Defense counsel: David Rudenstein Esq., Philadelphia