TIERRA VERDE — Deputies say the three men came prepared for a very long — and very illicit — trip.
They're accused of sneaking behind Jay Pilini's home early Tuesday, lowering a 34-foot triple-engine Spectre boat into the canal, loading enough fuel and water to reach Mexico or Cuba, then quietly slipping away with the $225,000 craft in the early morning darkness.
Such high-end boats have been targeted up and down Florida's coast by professional thieves who use them for human trafficking and drug smuggling. But the red-and-silver Spectre center-console "go-fast" fishing boat named Wet Willys didn't even make it to the Gulf of Mexico.
A Pinellas sheriff's boat intercepted the three men creeping along the coast on a single engine, lights off.
That sparked a chase and manhunt that ended on land, where three suspects were cornered by deputies and their dogs as a sheriff's helicopter flew overhead.
Christobal Rodriguez-Contreras, 36, of Miami, Diomere Mendez, 32, of Hialeah, and Yordis Gutierrez, 31, of Naples were each arrested around 3 a.m. on one count of grand theft. They could face more charges, and are each being held on $50,000 bail.
The Sheriff's Office says the men are part of a ring of boat thieves, and that the arrests may be the break investigators need to crack open the criminal underworld behind these thefts.
"This might open the door really to see whether or not these individuals are involved in more local boat thefts," said sheriff's spokesman Marianne Pasha, "or if their activities extend across the state."
There were seven thefts of high-priced boats in south Pinellas last year, and at least two attempted thefts in Tierra Verde this year. The sheriff's boat that noticed the suspects was part of an operation targeting such thefts.
Pilini was storing the boat for a friend. After taking the boat from Pilini's home off 11th Street E, deputies say, the three men crashed it into a residential piling behind 416 Eighth Ave. and fled on foot.
Mendez and Gutierrez were tracked down by sheriff's dogs and found hiding under stairs at 437 Seventh Ave. Mendez was bitten in the arm by a sheriff's dog, the agency said, and another dog caught Rodriguez-Contreras next door.
Pilini said deputies told him they found Dramamine motion-sickness pills, water and 32 fuel-filled plastic containers on board. The Spectre's 257-gallon tank was also full.
That's enough fuel to reach Mexico or Cuba, or rendezvous with a bigger boat in international waters, which is the usual path of these stolen boats, according to Jacksonville private investigator Charles Meacham, who has tracked dozens of them from Florida to Mexico.
"When they go offshore, they get refueled, they get cans of fuel, they run to Cuba, pick up a (human) load, then go to Mexico," he said.
Mexican cartels have been known to use these boats to smuggle people out of Cuba and drugs into the United States, Meacham said, adding that federal authorities also are investigating the three men.
Pilini, 48, is the owner of Spectre Sportfish in Pinellas Park, a firm that designs and builds these custom, high-powered fishing boats and built the Spectre that was taken. He thinks the three men tried to steal another boat docked at his house. One of the men cut his hand on the dock during the theft, leaving a trail of blood.
They left blood on the Spectre and on his 43-foot Ocean Sportfish yacht, the Spectress. But they left that boat behind.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.