INSURANCE

Fraught yacht — stolen or scuttled?

• Insurance mogul Nicolas Estrella is at the center of a legal battle over the alleged theft and attempted sinking of his luxury yacht.

BY JAY WEAVER jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

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In the early morning of May 3, 2009, auto insurance mogul Nicolas Estrella’s 80-foot yacht was stolen from the dock next to his Mediterranean mansion on Key Biscayne.

Last week, state insurance fraud detectives arrested the vessel’s former boat captain, Robert Figueredo, on charges of stealing Star One — before he allegedly sank it off the Bahamas.

But the case does not involve a routine theft, according to the insurance company that refuses to pay Estrella’s $3 million claim for the loss of his Azimut yacht. In a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed by Estrella, Federal Insurance Co. in turn has accused him of collaborating with Figueredo to purposely sink Star One to collect a big insurance payout.

Estrella, 60, who founded Estrella Insurance in 1978 and built it into an insurance powerhouse, strongly denies Federal’s accusation “essentially alleging fraud,” saying in court papers that “he did not do this or pay to have the boat sunk.”

Estrella’s civil attorney, Robert Burlington, said his client “is a victim of theft and a victim of an insurance company that has three million excuses for not paying an insured loss. . . . Mr. Estrella owned the boat outright, free and clear. All Mr. Estrella knows about the disappearance of his boat is that it was stolen when he was in Texas on his cattle ranch.”

In the court papers, Estrella’s attorney said the insurer’s accusation is based on the false claim of Figueredo’s “jealous” ex-girlfriend, Lorene Bariso. She claims Figueredo told her that he and a colleague sank Estrella’s boat for the insurance money.

Figueredo, in depositions, disputed her account, saying he did not sink Estrella’s boat, nor was he paid to do it. His accused “accomplice,” Eric MacKenzie, also denied helping Figueredo. In a separate federal case, MacKenzie was convicted earlier this year of smuggling Haitian migrants from the Bahamas to South Florida in a go-fast boat in 2011, records show.

Estrella’s attorney, Burlington, said Figueredo last worked for Estrella 10 years ago and was not the captain of Star One, as Federal Insurance has insisted to create the impression that he and the owner were in cahoots to sink his luxury power boat. “Mr. Estrella does not believe that Mr. Figueredo took the boat,” he said.

Estrella’s legal fight to collect from Federal Insurance is going to trial in U.S. District Court in Miami in early June. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office also faces a deadline early next month to file formal first-degree grand theft charges against Figueredo.

Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the state attorney, said the prosecution involves just a “theft case.”

But a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Financial Services’ insurance fraud division, which filed the criminal complaint against Figueredo, said the case is still under investigation.

“We don’t have a definitive motive for” the alleged theft of Estrella’s yacht, said department spokeswoman Anna Alexopoulos. “We’re still trying to connect the dots.”

The New Jersey-based company that insured Estrella’s boat maintains it has connected many of those dots. In a counterclaim to Estrella’s suit, Federal Insurance paints a picture of a profit-making plot.

According to the company’s investigation, Estrella’s yacht was abandoned partially submerged over the deepest trenches off the Bahamas, with its hatches and ports wired open to let in water and its flotation tubes slashed or deflated. Its hoses also were cut, and an access plate was opened to the ocean.

Federal Insurance’s lawyers maintain the sinking of the boat, which was salvaged and returned to Miami, was not an accident. They said Estrella had lost interest in Star One and that his yacht was not in tip-top shape, as he struggled to sell it for almost $2.7 million in 2009. (State insurance fraud detectives said in Figueredo’s criminal complaint that the boat needed more than 70 repairs and had an estimated market value of about $1.9 million.)

“It is believed that Roberto Figueredo, a close family friend of Nicolas Estrella, was directly involved with the scuttling and was acting at the instruction of or with the approval of Nicolas Estrella,” the lawyers argued in Federal’s counterclaim.

They asserted that Estrella’s motivation was the result of alleged personal financial problems during the recession, pointing out that in May 2009 a financial arm of his insurance business owed more than $16 million on a Wachovia line of credit. Estrella had personally guaranteed $2 million of the credit line, which was for a total of $20 million.

In a lawsuit with Wachovia, Estrella “admitted to being illiquid at the time of the loss” of his yacht, Federal’s lawyers asserted. His attorney, Burlington, said the company’s financial division has paid back most of the debt to the bank, which is now part of Wells Fargo.

In 2006, Estrella Insurance, known for its green-and-white star symbol and with 45 agencies offering auto, life and other insurance services, reported collecting more than $137 million in revenues.

Without providing direct proof in court filings, Federal’s lawyers place Estrella in the middle of an alleged scheme to dupe the insurance company. “Estrella had ample motive, opportunity and knowledge of the peculiarities of the Star One to scuttle her,” the lawyers asserted.

Estrella’s lawyer, Burlington, in his client’s lawsuit, accused Federal Insurance and its attorneys of treating Estrella as a “suspect” rather than a “victim.”

“Federal Insurance Company’s goal in subjecting [Estrella] to its labyrinthine maze of requests and impossible requirements is utterly transparent: unable to come up with a defensible reason to deny [Estrella’s] $3 million claim . . . Federal Insurance Company perpetuates its ‘open investigation’ indefinitely,” Burlington said in court papers.

He also said the insurance firm maligned his client when it offered a $50,000 reward in the Bahamas for information about the theft and sinking of Estrella’s boat, by “unfairly and falsely associating [his] name with the crime itself.”