By Eric Freedman
A charter captain faces prison and a fine when he is sentenced early next year for violating a Coast Guard order to stop commercial operation of his unlicensed boat on Lake St. Clair.
Benajmin Jones, 39, of Detroit pleaded guilty to a felony charge of deliberately violating a July 2021 Coast Guard order with his 39-foot Sea Ray, PWR TOWER, federal prosecutors said.
It’s illegal to engage in commercial charter operations with a vessel that the Coast Guard hasn’t inspected and certified as meeting all the agency’s requirements. It’s also illegal to serve as a charter captain without Coast Guard credentials.
It is unusual for criminal charges to be filed after such an order is issued because violators generally cease operations or become compliant, said Lt. Adeeb Ahmad, a Coast Guard public affairs officer.
Jones neither complied with the law nor discontinued his charter business despite a Captain of the Port order to do so.
Jones continued to advertise on Instagram at least as recently as June 2022, according to an affidavit from Timothy Janz, a now-retired special agent in the Coast Guard Investigative Service.
The criminal inquiry began in May 2021 when Coast Guard stations in Detroit and St. Clair Shores received anonymous tips about a suspected illegal charter operation, the affidavit said.
One of the tipsters reported that PWR TOWER was operating near a marina in St. Clair Shores “with large numbers of people onboard and was advertising charters on Instagram and Facebook,” it said.
Investigators determined that Jones didn’t have the mandatory merchant marine license.
They found Instagram ads, including one for an upcoming charter with the words “food-drink-smoke” and another that said, “I’m on a yacht,” and stating it had a maximum capacity of 20 people at $100 each, the affidavit said.
A few nights later, Coast Guard and Department of Natural Resources personnel boarded the PWR TOWER on Lake St. Clair and found about 23 people aboard.
The boat was towed for a safety inspection, which found only 18 personal flotation devices, the affidavit said, and then conducted a “more comprehensive dockside inspection that revealed about 20 small bags containing personal use marijuana and three handguns.”
Several passengers acknowledged paying Jones for the charter, and the Coast Guard issued a violation notice and prohibited Jones from carrying passengers for hire until he followed “all applicable laws and regulations.”
The Captain of the Port order said, “I have determined that operation of your vessel with passengers for fire represents a significant unsafe boarding condition and environmental threat to the port and navigable waterways of the United States.”
After receiving the order, Jones came to the Coast Guard’s Detroit office, where he “became irate” while talking to an investigator and then “stated words to the effect of, ‘You need to leave me alone,’ continuing with a profanity, the affidavit said.
Soon afterward, Jones received another order to stop violating the law and was assessed a $3,250 civil fine. The fine was sent to a collection agency, Ahmad said.
Then, on Aug. 10, 2021, the PWR TOWER caught fire with nine passengers aboard on Lake St. Clair. No injuries were reported, but the affidavit said one passenger “reported being scared during the fire, crying, and she vomited while she was being rescued by another vessel.”
“Jones’s passengers were rescued and the PWR TOWER was towed to shore by the Coast Guard” with him aboard, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release.
Passengers told investigators that they were aboard for a birthday party and had paid for the trip, the affidavit said.
One passenger “recalled the vessel had an oil pressure issue, but the captain continued to keep going. She saw fire in the panels under the floor as the captain attempted to put it out with a fire extinguisher,” the affidavit said.
U.S. District Judge Judith Levy set sentencing for Feb. 27.
The crime Jones pleaded guilty to, “willingly and knowingly violating the terms a Captain of the Port Order,” carries a maximum penalty of six years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Under the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped a second charge of making a false statement.
Eric Freedman reports for Capital News Service