TBT - The Trouble With Roatan Prison

When you are young and you realize that you do not know what you can do until you try - you push your boundries. As a young man on the island of Utila in the early '70s I had ample opportunities to push boundaries.

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Place: Island of Utila - Bay Islands, Honduras.
Date: July 1972

At that time there was a treasure hunting group on the island called 'Fathom Expeditions'. They had government permission to recover artifacts from old shipwrecks in the main harbor of Utila. This was basically a scam operated by Dennis Standefer (who later went on to repeat the scam in several other countries). He would place ads in international magazines like 'Treasure Hunter', 'Skin Diver', and 'Soldier of Fortune' - offering the adventuresome an opportunity to participate in finding sunken treasure in the Caribbean. The catch was - they had to buy 'shares' in the expedition - the more money they paid into the company, the bigger their cut in whatever treasure the expedition found.

A beautiful scam when people pay you - and then they work for you for free!

Dennis had a couple associates hustling corporate sponsorship in the U.S.. After a couple of friendly media pieces covering their operation (which they probably paid for) they were able to find companies in the States to contribute equipment to their treasure salvage efforts - expecting future media exposure of their products. One California company, Rix Industries, loaned them a huge $10,000 compressor for filling their dive tanks.

When the reality of this scam became too blatant to ignore the CEO of Rix Industries came to the island to find a way to get his valuable compressor back. He was staying in our hotel, the 'Bahia Lodge', and asked if I could recover the compressor from where it was located on a small cay about 8 miles from town. I was bored at the time and thought what an interesting challenge to move such a big piece of equipment - as usual I was too focused on the logistics and ignoring other ramifications of my actions.

So within a week of getting the compressor back to town, I am arrested for grand theft! Wearing some shinny interlocking bracelets I am escorted on the daily DC-3 flight to the regional capital Roatan, where they whisk me away to the 'prison'. What happened: just after I had moved the compressor, Dennis went to San Pedro Sula and had a false invoice created for the compressor - proving his ownership. Then he reported the compressor stolen - naming me as the thief. How ironic - but Honduras is definitely a place where money counts more then justice.

On Roatan I was on friendly terms with the governor of the Bay Islands and the mayor of Coxen Hole - where the prison is located. My 'prison cell' was a small single room bungalow on stilts over the harbor waters, with just a hammock inside. I was allowed a conjugal visit by my wife - but have you ever tried doing that in a hammock?! During the day I was allowed out of the bungalow to sit in the shade on the porch of the security office located on main street and read novels and talk with people passing by. It was sort of a restricted movement vacation for two weeks while waiting for my attorney to prove the invoice was bogus, and that I acted as an agent for the real owners of the compressor.

This was an important lesson in life. Some jobs require you to work in the background while letting others take the risks. Plausible deniability is smart thinking - and not just for the Mafia and politicians!