Gasparilla Day boat thief gets five years in federal prison after ramming Coast Guard vessel in wild joyride

TAMPA — We may never know why a Tampa Realtor with no criminal record decided to steal a powerboat on Gasparilla day, lead authorities on a 45-minute chase and ram a Coast Guard vessel.

Mark Stevens Koert says he hasn't the foggiest idea what caused him to snap.

"I've tried countless times to remember what happened, to make sense of what I'm told happened. But unfortunately, I cannot," Koert, 28, said Friday in federal court, calling the Jan. 26, 2008, incident a fluke.

That didn't sit well with U.S. District Judge Virginia Hernandez Covington.

"I find that incredibly hard to believe," she said, telling Koert she wished he had tried to offer an explanation. "I suspect that you had too much to drink and you got carried away that evening. In this case, it had devastating results that could have been even more devastating."

She sentenced Koert to five years in federal prison. He pleaded guilty in December to forcibly assaulting federal officials while using a deadly weapon, criminal damage to government property and failure to obey an order to stop a vessel.

Prosecutors said Koert was drunk when he stole a 28-foot Maxum powerboat docked at Harbour Island.

What began as a joyride quickly turned into an assault on the lives of six law enforcement officers, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Perry.

The events began about 7 p.m. after most boaters had cleared downtown Tampa's waterways following the Gasparilla flotilla and parade. A Sheriff's Office marine unit spotted Koert speeding in a no wake zone and tried to stop him.

At the sentencing, Deputy Paul Shute detailed a "cat and mouse" chase that ensued, with his patrol boat and Koert's alternately chasing each other around the bay.

Shute testified that at one point, Koert made a U-turn, then gunned it toward him.

Koert would have crashed into the sheriff's boat if Shute hadn't moved, the deputy testified.

When a nearby Coast Guard crew came to help, Koert engaged them in the same game of speedboat tag, Coast Guard Petty Officer John True testified.

Ultimately, Koert rammed the Coast Guard boat, nearly sinking it and leaving it listing precariously at a 45-degree angle, True said.

The Coast Guard crew found itself with Koert's boat on its deck.

True said he tried to get a gun on the boat thief, but couldn't see past the speedboat's hull. So the Coast Guard crew put the engine in reverse and pulled out from under Koert's boat.

Freed, Koert took off again and finally gave up near the Davis Islands bridge.

Covington viewed a tape of the chase, captured by a Sheriff's Office helicopter that used a heat-sensitive camera. In it, Sheriff David Gee is inside the helicopter and can be heard on the radio in dispatches with crews on the water.

The video, shown by Perry in court, depicts Koert doing "corkscrews," or circles, as the Coast Guard vessel tries to contain him.

Shute and True both told the judge they feared for their lives and the lives of other officers aboard their respective vessels.

"I could only imagine that had I been on that vessel, I certainly would have been very afraid," Covington said.

One of True's crewmen fired twice from a 12-gauge shotgun, trying to disable the stolen boat. It didn't work.

"This is not a situation, your honor, where boys will be boys and it was Gasparilla, so this was a lawlessness day in Tampa, and Mr. Koert should be sent home," Perry said in his arguments to impose prison time.

He said prosecutors could have charged him with attempted murder or multiple assaults, but gave him a break by only charging for one count of assault.

Defense attorney Ralph Fernandez said Koert had learned his lesson. He asked Koert's relatives to speak on his client's behalf, including an uncle who retired after more than 30 years with the Navy Seals and a cousin who works as a sheriff's deputy in Collier County.

"It's confusing and disturbing to me how he ended up in that boat," said Stephen Loyd, the cousin. "There was something altering Mark that night. I am convinced without a shadow of a doubt that was the case."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Gasparilla Day boat thief gets five years in federal prison after ramming Coast Guard vessel in wild joyride 06/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 12:11am]

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