PALM HARBOR — With an aging father sick in the hospital and a son just graduating from high school, Andrew Kashella was between jobs and knew what he had to do.
His 21½-foot Sea Pro, the first boat he has ever owned, had to go. Hearing Gulf Coast Boat Sales on U.S. 19 N in Palm Harbor stored vessels for free while they worked a sale, Kashella said he had the business collect the boat from his rented slip at Speckled Trout Marina in January.
Gulf Coast Boat Sales manager James Laden told him in March the boat had sold, and he'd receive his 85 percent share of the $14,499 deal once the buyer's check cleared. Two months later, Kashella hasn't seen a penny.
When he stopped by the business on May 2 to investigate, Kashella said, he got no answers about his money. Scouring the yard, he saw his boat wasn't there either.
"This whole time I'm thinking I can use the money to get my son squared away at college," Kashella said. "I didn't really have any other choice but to trust (them). They looked me in the eye and lied."
About 20 customers have filed complaints with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in the past month about Gulf Coast Boat Sales, prompting an investigation by the county's Consumer Protection Office. Some, like Kashella, sold boats through the business and never got paid. Others were never given legal documents for vessels they bought and paid for, according to Sheriff's Office incident reports.
Robert DiMarco, 40, told investigators he paid Gulf Coast Boat Sales $27,862 for a Stott Craft he never received. After contacting the manufacturer, DiMarco was told the boat had been built but Gulf Coast Boat Sales had never paid the company, according to an incident report.
Gulf Coast Boat Sales owner John Hartnett and Laden did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A sign on the window of the locked-up business states the company is "restructuring" and refers all questions to the law offices of Berkowitz & Myer. The attorneys also did not return calls for comment from the Tampa Bay Times.
According to Pinellas County Consumer Protection operations manager Doug Templeton, Gulf Coast Boat Sales had nine fraud complaints that were resolved through the county last year. Templeton said his office has three open complaints and is working to get them resolved through mediation.
If that is not successful, Templeton said, the case could be referred to the State Attorney's Office as a criminal complaint.
"Was this bad business practice, or was it criminal intent?" Templeton said. "That's what we have to find out."
Hartnett has been sued directly, or through his business, five times since 2013 for a variety of deals gone wrong, according to court records. All, except the most recent, were ultimately dismissed.
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On May 15, Thomas Pepin of Tampa sued Gulf Coast Boat Sales, alleging he paid a deposit of $83,500 for a 26-foot custom boat that turned out to have serious structural problems. The business stopped returning Pepin's calls and did not return his deposit when they failed to negotiate a deal for another vessel, according to the lawsuit.
Templeton, whose staff of 13 handled 1,100 cases last year and has an average of about 20 percent classified as criminal investigations, said the record of an offender can be considered in an investigation.
"When you start getting complaints and nobody is getting their money back, that could go to our criminal section," he said.
Ted Thomas, 61, of Belleair said he has hired attorney Brad Hissing after paying Gulf Coast Boat Sales $19,271 for a Stott Craft that's never been delivered.
After being told his boat would be ready May 1 and "getting the runaround" on the phone, he said he drove to the business on May 12 to find the gate locked and his dreams dashed.
Thomas said he and his wife, Dawn, had been saving to buy a boat since moving from Seattle five years ago.
"I'm not a rich man, so $20,000 is huge to me," Thomas said.
Thomas still works part time as a radiological technologist, while his wife works as a respiratory therapist. His dream was to have a boat parked in his driveway that the couple could enjoy for their years of work, but now he's just left feeling "swindled."
"I just feel like I was robbed and taken advantage of. I do have some culpability. I was a little too trusting.
Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tracey McManus at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.