Witness in Nicolas Estrella’s sunken-yacht case implicates the Miami tycoon in plot to collect insurance money

A witness in the legal battle over wealthy Key Biscayne businessman Nicolas Estrella’s sunken yacht claims he was told that Estrella plotted to scuttle the boat to collect insurance money.

09/05/2012 6:13 PM

09/06/2012 7:31 AM

The whodunit case of Nicolas Estrella’s sunken yacht has dramatically changed course, as a witness now claims he was told that the Key Biscayne tycoon steered a plot to sink his vessel off the Bahamas to collect the insurance money.

The sworn statement from witness Eric MacKenzie is the first apparent link implicating Estrella in the alleged plot. Estrella strongly denies the allegation, which his attorney called “double and triple hearsay.”

MacKenzie said that Estrella’s former boat captain, Robert “Bobby” Figueredo, asked him to help scuttle the 85-foot yacht. He said Figueredo told him the job was necessary because the auto insurance mogul was struggling to sell the Star One while he considered buying a new sport fishing vessel.

MacKenzie said he met with Figueredo at a Cape Florida State Park restaurant in Key Biscayne in spring 2009, when Figueredo proposed recruiting him and another boating buddy to scuttle the boat.

“So, anyway, Bobby tells me Nick said he would give him 10 percent of the value [of the boat], which was about $2 million, if he sunk it, which was $200,000 to Bobby,” MacKenzie said in the sworn statement.

“At that point, he promised me at least 10 percent, which was to be $20,000 cash,” MacKenzie said, adding that Figueredo told MacKenzie that he would pay him after Estrella collected the insurance for the loss of Star One.

Estrella, whose auto insurance company is named after him, has been fighting with his insurer in federal court over what turned about to be a $3 million loss claim. He reported his yacht stolen from his Key Biscayne mansion on May 3, 2009.

“The absurd theory that Mr. Estrella needed money in a hurry is ridiculous,” said his civil attorney, Robert Burlington, noting his client owned Star One outright. “But even more ridiculous is the fabrication that he orchestrated the sinking of his boat in order to raise money.”

A major hearing in the dispute between Estrella and Federal Insurance Co. is set for Thursday, when his lawyers will ask a judge to put an upcoming civil trial on hold until a related state criminal case is resolved. Federal Insurance, which refuses to pay Estrella and believes he was at the center of the alleged scuttling scheme, wants to proceed to trial immediately.

MacKenzie gave the sworn statement in July as part of his agreement to plead guilty to insurance fraud in the state criminal case alleging that Estrella’s boat was deliberately sunk. The submerged vessel was recovered at sea and towed back to Miami.

MacKenzie’s credibility will be a major factor if he testifies in the Estrella/Federal Insurance case. He has already recanted numerous sections of his civil deposition.

Also, MacKenzie was convicted in federal court earlier this year of smuggling Haitian migrants from the Bahamas to South Florida in a go-fast boat. He was sentenced to 1 ½ years in prison after a judge found that he lied during his testimony at trial, records show.

Estrella’s lawyer, Burlington, said MacKenzie’s statement, given at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, “reveals nothing but raw conjecture when it comes to my client.”

In his statement, MacKenzie said he never saw or spoke with Estrella, Burlington noted.

In the statement, MacKenzie also said he drove his friend, Figueredo, to a Doral auto body shop owned by Estrella to pick up “10 grand” as “partial payment” for the yacht scuttling. He said the shop’s manager gave Figueredo the cash in a “packet.”

MacKenzie said Figueredo gave him $3,000 in cash for his supporting role.

MacKenzie, who originally gave a deposition in the federal civil case saying he knew nothing about the disappearance of Estrella’s boat, is not the only witness accused of changing his story.

Jose Caballero also gave a similar statement, then recanted it and pleaded guilty to insurance fraud in the state criminal case. Caballero admitted he helped Figueredo and MacKenzie with the sinking of Star One, and that he brought them back to Key Biscayne in a second boat.

Figueredo, represented by prominent criminal defense attorney Richard Sharpstein, faces grand theft and insurance fraud charges in the state case.

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