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St. Petersburg man sentenced for blocking charter boat deaths investigation

Patrick Dines made multiple attempts to mislead Coast Guard investigators looking into the incident, officials said.
 
The 71-foot charter boat Jaguar that two passengers disappeared from in rough waters off Pass-A-Grille Channel in March 2017.
The 71-foot charter boat Jaguar that two passengers disappeared from in rough waters off Pass-A-Grille Channel in March 2017.
Published June 19, 2023

The owner of a Pinellas charter company has been sentenced to three years of supervised release and must pay a $150,000 fine for misleading federal investigators after two people drowned in the waters off of a boat he brokered.

A federal jury found Patrick Dines, 75, owner of Florida Yacht Charters, guilty after he urged passengers to lie to Coast Guard authorities. Dines was charged with obstructing a federal proceeding, which can bring a maximum of five years in prison. A federal judge sentenced him May 31.

Dines’ sentencing is the latest development concerning the deaths of Jie Luo, a 21-year-old student from Colorado State University, and Andrew Dillman, a 27-year-old Florida Yachts Charter employee. In March 2017, a group of 15 college students chartered the Jaguar, a boat skippered by Captain Todd Davis, for a sunset ride.

Rough waters forced Davis to anchor the vessel in Pass-a-Grille Channel. Luo and four friends jumped off the boat repeatedly during a rip-current warning. While the students say Davis told them they could swim, Davis told authorities he warned them against it.

On Luo’s third plunge, he struggled to make it back to the Jaguar. That’s when Dillman jumped in after him without a flotation device.

Authorities found their bodies a week later.

Luo’s family filed a lawsuit against Davis, claiming Davis gave the Coast Guard incorrect information that delayed search efforts and that he was missing the correct charter license.

However, Davis died boating under the influence of drugs in an accident in 2019, according to a report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The report says another boater pulled Davis from the water and brought him to a hospital after Davis struck a channel marker in the Anclote River.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident aboard the Jaguar, Dines passed blame onto others, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa, which prosecuted him. When the Jaguar returned to Maximo Marina after dark, Dines was there to meet them.

Because the Jaguar was over the legal limit of passengers allowed by its charter license, he urged Ian Cheng, the Colorado State student who chartered the boat, to pose as a crew member and mislead Coast Guard investigators about the number of passengers onboard, according to one court memo.

Dines also asked Cheng to sign a dubious charter contract containing the wrong yacht name, time of voyage and number of passengers. Cheng refused. If he had signed the agreement, it would have made Cheng responsible for the boat’s captain and crew.

Reached by the Tampa Bay Times by phone, Dines declined to comment at length.

“I don’t really want to talk about that,” he said. “It’s not fun.”

Court documents paint Dines’ behavior as a “pattern of conduct.”

“Amidst the tragedy that was unfolding, the defendant’s primary concern was covering his tracks and ensuring any blame fell at Cheng’s feet,” Roger Handberg, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, wrote in a court memo.

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Three charter captains testified about instances where Dines trained them to mislead the Coast Guard about passenger numbers in a similar way, according to court records.

Dines also tried to shift blame to his then fresh-out-of-college step-daughter, depicting her as the company’s manager and himself as just a consultant, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

James Felman, Dines’ lawyer, argued that his client’s age and a number of health conditions — including a bad back, a recent knee replacement and a past battle with prostate cancer — made him a poor candidate for prison time.

Felman declined to comment to the Times. “I try to do my talking in court,” he said.

Local captains have seen a change on the water since the drownings, said Captain Dan Peretz, who owns Dolphin Landings Charter Boat Center. He said he and other captains have noticed fewer overcrowded vessels leaving the marina.

“Since then, there’s . . . a few people that we know that have been reported,” Peretz said. “But we don’t see it as blatant as we used to see it.”

About two weeks before Luo and Dillman’s deaths, Peretz sent a formal letter to the Coast Guard warning them about the Jaguar and other overcrowded charters.

“We were fearful that it was going to come to a bad ending as it unfortunately did,” he said.

In August 2016, the Coast Guard followed up on reports that Dines was exceeding the passenger limit on his boats. Dines assured Coast Guard Senior Investigating Officer Brian Knapp he was acting within the bounds of the law, but he continued overcrowding boats, according to a court memo.

“The Coast Guard’s primary goal is to promote and ensure the safety of all maritime activities,” Knapp wrote in a statement to the Times. “By asking for mariners’ credentials, inquiring about crew qualifications, and being aware of indicators of legal and safe charters, the public can make informed decisions that prioritize their well-being.”

Peretz said illegal charters have replaced overcrowded ones. He said he now sees smaller boats that he suspects are operating without a license.

“They’re like mosquitoes,” he said. “They’re irritating, but I’m not gonna go out and devote my life and time to take care of all the mosquitoes.”

Peretz said he just hopes tragedy doesn’t strike again.