It was commissioned by the DEA in the 1980s, and built by a legendary cigarette boat builder.
Country music star Willie Nelson reputedly owned the only other one like it. Fast, sleek and designed to chase down drug runners, the 50-foot off-shore powerboat was a rich man’s status symbol that in perfect condition might have fetched $500,000, its owner, Ted Nicholas, estimates.
Today, the boat is worth just a fraction of that.
While stored at the Riverdale Marina under the care of smooth-talking felon John Thomas, it was robbed of $300,000 worth of equipment and was even at one point sold without Nicholas’ permission, according to a police report.
“An absolutely horrendous disaster, a nightmare,” is how Nicholas, 42, of Bartlett, describes his dealings with Thomas. Nicholas said he agreed to pay Thomas $4,000 a year to look after the boat.
Riverdale officials, who once backed Thomas as the savior of the troubled marina, share Nicholas’s pain as they survey the wreckage of the ransacked boatyard. So do more than a dozen other victims of major thefts that happened on Thomas’s watch, according to police reports.
A federal indictment unsealed last month alleged Thomas embezzled $370,000 in tax increment financing from Riverdale that was meant to be used to develop the marina into a crown jewel of the south suburb. Thomas is a convicted 51-year-old fraudster who got a second chance at life and dodged a prison term a decade ago by wearing a wire against disgraced political fundraiser Tony Rezko.
A review of police records and interviews with current and former marina staff show a trail of complaints during Thomas’ ownership of the marina.
In addition to boats, trailers, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of customers’ boating equipment, motorcycles, TVs, stereos and booze allwent missing after Thomas bought the marina and got his hands on taxpayers money in 2012, police reports allege.
Forklifts — used to place boats on indoor storage racks during the winter — have disappeared, staff say. And railings, outbuildings, even dumpsters, have been ripped out, chopped up and sold for scrap.
Thomas, who is under house arrest at his downtown condo, denies all wrongdoing. His attorney, Joe “The Shark” Lopez, said that the marina was under the control of a court-appointed receiver for much of last year, and that once Riverdale officials turned against Thomas, “there was no money for security,” leaving Thomas powerless to prevent overnight burglaries.
“The place was wide open,” Lopez said.
But many of the thefts, including those from Nicholas’ boat, happened before the receiver was brought in. Others occurred while Thomas was on the marina property, according to police reports.
“They took everything,” said Lee Baker, 58, as he dealt with a stream of angry boat owners who came to the marina gates last week hoping to find their boats ready for spring, only to discover that they’d been looted of their engines, transmissions and drive systems.
Baker and his business partner, Shahnawaz Hasan, say they bought the trashed marina from Thomas earlier this year and are now left dealing with outraged boat owners. Customers sick of their experience have been trying to break into the boatyard at night to take back their own property, Baker said, adding that he was considering keeping his pet tiger in the marina as security.
“I can’t abide a thief,” Baker said.
Despite the sale of the marina — which Lopez confirmed Friday — Thomas tried to offer the deeds to the marina as security for his bond last month, the feds say. And Thomas himself recently told The Sun-Times that he planned to make a gift of the facility to Riverdale taxpayers.
The long list of people angry with Thomas also includes his fellow convicted felons. Disgraced former Country Club Hills Police Chief Regina Evans — who was sent to prison for five years last week in an unrelated scam — called the cops after she claimed that Thomas took sports memorabilia she owned from the marina, according to a police report.
Thomas claimed Evans had left the items unclaimed for months, but police found her framed Joe Namath New York Jets jersey in the back of Thomas’s BMW.
And Thomas admitted he had “loaned” other items that belonged to Evans to his friends, the report states.