A Monroe County judge sent a message this week that marine-related thefts are not tolerated in the Keys.
Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia Thursday sentenced Roberto Morales-Diaz of Miami to 13 years in state prison. He was convicted on one count of grand theft of more than $20,000 and nine counts of burglary. He broke into Unique Marine at mile marker 93 and tried to steal high-end Garmin GPS units. He failed in making off with the stash only after a Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputy confronted him.
Before the deputy stopped him, Morales-Diaz had already cut a hole in the back of the dealership's fence and cut the wires to the GPS units that were installed on the boats in the lot.
Unique Marine owner Todd Ebelein said all the units were returned, but he spent at least $10,000 reinstalling them because of the cut wire and buying new harnesses.
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Morales-Diaz's sentencing was so important to Sheriff Rick Ramsay that the county's top law enforcement officer attended the hearing at the Plantation Key Courthouse. In the months leading up to Morales-Diaz's arrest, the Keys were plagued with a rash of high-end marine equipment thefts.
"People were in fear. They didn't want to go on vacation and leave their boats," Ramsay said after the May 26 hearing. "I was in fear myself. I own a Contender with a Garmin GPS. I'm the sheriff and I'm worried about my electronics."
The thefts became so much a concern for Ramsay, he set up a task force with state and federal law enforcement agencies. Ever since Morales-Diaz and his accomplice were caught, the thefts stopped, leading Ramsay to believe his agency caught the sole offender.
He said in all the other cases, the thieves followed the same mode of operation.
"They were all Garmin GPSes and they all came in through cut holes in the back fences," Ramsay said. "This guy knew what he was doing."
Morales-Diaz decided to plead guilty rather than go to trial in July.
With the sentencing, Ramsay said he hopes it sent a message to "people from Miami that we take a hard-line stance" to boat burglaries and other marine equipment thefts.
Morales-Diaz's accomplice, Yoscany Izquierdo Marquez, also of Miami, is awaiting sentencing. He was the lookout and was arrested at Burton United Methodist Church. Ramsay said he "worked a deal out to save" himself a long prison sentence. He pleaded guilty to loitering and prowling and being a principal to theft.
"He was a cooperating defendant," Ramsay said.
Morales-Diaz's attorney asked Garcia for leniency, saying the maximum sentence of 15 years did not fit the crime.
"If this happened in Miami, he'd probably get probation," Morales-Diaz’s lawyer Grey Tesh said.
But Assistant State Attorney Demetrios Efstratiou said Morales-Diaz, 39, has a long criminal history, including other crimes related to burglarizing boats, and was on probation on a grand theft charge in Miami-Dade County when he was caught burglarizing Unique Marine.
"If any case calls for the maximum sentence, the state believes this is one," Efstratiou said.
Even though Morales-Diaz was stopped from leaving the Keys with the GPS units, he was still able to escape the initial confrontation with the deputy.
He reportedly fled in someone's white Nissan Altima that Sheriff's Office Lt. Al Ramirez spotted on the 18-Mile Stretch and followed into Florida City. He called mainland police, who stopped Diaz at U.1 and Palm Drive.
At the sentencing, Morales-Diaz, through an interpreter, asked the people of Monroe County to "forgive me."