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The Miami tycoon and his scuttled yacht: a high-seas whodunit

Soon after Key Biscayne insurance magnate Nicolas Estrella’s yacht was found capsized off the Bahamas, a Miami-Dade school teacher says her boyfriend let her in on a secret: He and a boating buddy had stolen the boat and sunk it “for the insurance money.”

Lorene Bariso says her boyfriend, Robert Figueredo, told her that he was going to be paid $100,000 for scuttling Estrella’s luxury power boat, Star One, in 2009. But she says Figueredo, a veteran boat captain who had worked on and off for Estrella, did not reveal who was going to pay him for the job.

“I asked him, ‘Why did you do that, and how are they going to explain the missing boat?’ ” Bariso said in a civil deposition in Estrella’s legal fight to collect a $3 million insurance claim for the loss of his 85-foot Azimut yacht.

“They’ll report it as stolen,” Bariso recalled Figueredo telling her.

This is the story of how Nick Estrella — multimillionaire insurance mogul — got entangled in the theft of his own boat.

The case has spawned two legal dramas, unfolding simultaneously. One is a civil court battle over the $3 million policy. The other is a criminal prosecution, not involving Estrella, alleging grand theft. Anyone who might have first-hand knowledge of what actually happened and why is not talking — at least not at this time. The man charged with stealing the boat and his alleged accomplice have both indicated their intent to plead the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.

Bariso drove Figueredo and his crew mate to Estrella’s Key Biscayne dock on the morning of May 3, 2009, when the vessel disappeared. She has become a key witness in the federal civil case pitting Estrella against his insurance carrier, and in the parallel state criminal probe in which Figueredo was arrested last month.

Estrella, founder of a major Miami auto insurance company named after him, has strongly denied any role in the theft or paying Figueredo any money since 2009 — with the exception of compensating him for a fishing trip to Puerto Rico. He also has said he doesn’t believe Figueredo swiped his vessel.

“Bottom line: At no time has anyone ever said, under oath or otherwise, that Nick Estrella had anything to do with the theft of his own boat,” said one of his attorneys, Robert Burlington. “That is the one truth in this matter. Where the rubber meets the road, there isn’t a single person saying, ‘Nick Estrella put me up to it.’ ”

DRAMATIC TURN

Recently, the civil insurance case, which was supposed to go to trial earlier this month, took a dramatic turn. Figueredo, along with his suspected accomplice Eric MacKenzie, and another boating buddy implicated in the theft, Jose Caballero, all revealed they expect to invoke the Fifth Amendment if called as witnesses, according to lawyers involved in the case.

All three men, longtime boating pals from Key Biscayne who were subpoenaed to testify, had denied in pre-trial depositions any involvement with the theft. The yacht’s carrier, Federal Insurance Co., in turn accused them of lying.

According to Federal Insurance lawyers and state insurance fraud investigators, Estrella’s yacht was taken from his Key Biscayne dock and abandoned partially submerged over the deepest trenches off the Bahamas, with its hatches and ports wired open to let in water and its flotation tubes slashed or deflated. Its hoses also were cut, and an access plate was opened to the ocean.

Federal Insurance’s lawyers maintain the sinking of the boat near Andros Island, where it was salvaged and towed back to Miami, was not an accident. They said Estrella had lost interest in Star One and that his yacht was not in tip-top shape, as he struggled to sell the 2000 Azimut. Estrella said he owned the boat, "free and clear."

The insurer’s lawyers also raised a possible motive: Estrella allegedly suffered a reversal of fortune during the recession. A financial arm of Estrella Insurance Co. owed $16 million on a line of credit to Wachovia Bank in 2009. The subsidiary has since repaid the debt.

Federal’s lawyers also cited Estrella’s 2009 personal income tax return, showing an adjusted gross income of $1.31 million — down from $2.9 million the previous year and $4.8 million in 2007, court records show.

His attorney, Burlington, said neither Estrella nor his businesses had financial troubles, pointing out that the 60-year-old is now retired with a personal net worth of more than $100 million.

Whatever the motive, criminal investigators have not revealed any direct evidence linking Estrella to the theft of his own boat.

This much is known: Records show Caballero told state insurance fraud detectives that he picked up Figueredo and MacKenzie after they allegedly sank the vessel — contradicting his testimony in an earlier civil deposition. Caballero recently filed court papers to recant parts of the deposition, admitting it contained dozens of “false statements.”

That disclosure was a bombshell, delaying the civil trial and fueling the fraud probe. “Our investigation into the boat’s sinking continues,” said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office.

Estrella, however, stands by his longtime employee and friend, Figueredo.

Estrella said in his deposition that he has known Figueredo for years, employing him as a captain of one of his boats in the past, but not for the Star One. He said he socialized with him at his Mediterranean mansion on Key Biscayne and his Immokalee farm. For Thanksgiving in 2009, months after the yacht was stolen, Figueredo brought a turkey to Estrella as a gift.

In the civil deposition last year, Estrella admitted giving $10,000 to a friend to donate to Figueredo’s defense lawyer in the criminal case led by the state Division of Insurance Fraud.

“I gave my friend $10,000 to help him hire an attorney, yes,” Estrella said, adding that he did so because he was being “framed” by Bariso, Figueredo’s ex-girlfriend, and the Federal Insurance Co.

Bariso has been portrayed as a lying, jilted woman by Estrella, Figueredo and MacKenzie.

Estrella has said he was at his Texas ranch when he learned from his son, a lawyer who now runs the family’s insurance business, about the disappearance of Star One. He said he immediately asked the son to call the Key Biscayne police to report that it was stolen.

But when Estrella filed his $3 million loss claim, his insurance carrier refused to pay, leading to a breach-of-contract lawsuit. In response, Federal Insurance Co. accused Estrella and Figueredo of plotting to sink the boat to defraud the company, setting the stage for the civil trial that was supposed to start last Monday.

SEEKING A DELAY

Attorneys for both Estrella and Federal Insurance asked U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams to postpone the trial, according to a transcript of their June 1 exchange.

It was disclosed in the private exchange with the judge that detectives with the state insurance fraud division recently sought to question Estrella for the first time.

“As his attorneys, we’re naturally advising him he has to have first things first, so we’re asking in the interests of justice that the [civil] case be continued until the criminal investigation is resolved,” another of Estrella’s lawyers, Jeffrey Crockett, told the judge.

The more worrisome wild card for Estrella is what his former boat captain, Figueredo, might say about what led to the boat’s theft three years ago. Figueredo’s lawyer, Jorge Calil, did not return calls for comment.

Caballero also figures significantly as a witness. Last year, he said in his civil deposition that he had no first-hand knowledge of what happened to Estrella’s yacht, and denied helping Figueredo. But in a recent federal court filing, Caballero recanted parts of his testimony, acknowledging 65 “false statements” in his 64-page civil deposition given in May 2011.

Caballero later admitted to state insurance fraud detectives that he picked up Figueredo and MacKenzie on the high seas after they allegedly stole and scuttled the Star One. According to a criminal complaint, “Mr. Caballero stated that he was furious that Mr. Figueredo would involve him and his boss’ boat in this crime, and stated that no one said a word all the way back to Miami.”

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