The sky was clear as the sun set over Big Marco Pass on the first Saturday in January.
A slight breeze blew over the calm Gulf water as the high-powered speedboat charged along the horizon.
The driver of the boat, 31-year-old Harper Simpson II, turned toward the wake of a passing vessel. Simpson, his fiancee, Meagan Molter, 22, Molter’s mother Linda, 42, brother James, 20, and sister Jennifer, 16, had been jumping wakes in the boat all day long.
The boat hit the wake and launched into the air.
When it landed, bow first, the deck and hull blew apart. Four of the passengers were killed immediately.
The sole survivor of the wreck, 16-year-old Jennifer, was ejected from the boat and received minor scrapes and bruises.
For more than eight months, Simpson’s father, also Harper Simpson, has been searching for the answer to one simple question about the crash.
Why did it happen?
The family was riding in a 33-foot 1994 Powerplay speedboat that Harper Simpson II had purchased less than a month earlier from a dealer on the east coast. But Powerplays are designed for racing and moving through rough waters at a high rate of speed.
Why, the elder Simpson asked, did his son’s boat virtually disintegrate for what seemed to be no reason at all.
“Why does a boat come apart in the water if it doesn’t hit anything?” the elder Simpson, a former coroner, asked.
Information obtained by the Daily News documenting the history of the boat, a recently completed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation and the opinion of two boat experts who analyzed the wreckage begin to paint a picture of what may have happened that ill-fated day.
The findings indicate that in the past few years, the vessel went on a winding journey through the hands of two big businessmen, a bankruptcy trustee and a small boat dealer before being purchased by the younger Simpson.
And somewhere along the way, some experts believe, work was done that may have compromised the integrity of the boat’s hull.
It was around 1 p.m. on Jan. 6 when Harper Simpson II, his fiancee and her family went out for a cruise on the Powerplay. Simpson’s best friend, Adam Doria and Doria’s young family also were out on the water in his own boat, Doria said.
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After spending some time at Keewaydin Island, the two boaters shipped out, Doria said. Simpson wanted to cruise some more, Doria said, so he took his boat to the ocean side of Gordon Pass while Doria headed inland.
They planned to meet at the entrance to Big Marco Pass.
“He never showed up,” Doria said.
A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report indicates that around 5:20 p.m., while Simpson was operating the Powerplay at “excessive speed,” he turned the boat and attempted to jump a large wake from another boat.
The Powerplay left the water at a 45-degree angle. The back end of the boat then hit a second wave causing the front of the boat to “stuff” into a third wave, the report said.
The hull was destroyed by the impact and four of the five passengers were killed immediately.
“Whatever speed they were going, they stopped right now, like hitting a brick wall,” the elder Simpson said.
Rod Sullivan, a Jacksonville attorney representing Simpson, said the boat shouldn’t have been destroyed by what happened.
“These boats are designed to go this fast,” Sullivan said. “There are many clubs and people who do it every day. They jump over wakes and don’t have accidents.”
After the crash, Sullivan had two boat experts, a naval architect and a marine surveyor, examine the wreckage, he said.
What they found, Sullivan said, is evidence that someone who previously had possession of the boat made alterations that compromised the integrity of the hull.
“The boat was repowered with new engines,” Sullivan said. “The deck to hull joint, it came apart. It was re-put back together again and the boat was sold to Mr. Simpson’s son.”
The boat’s trail
The story of the boat begins on the east coast with a Vero Beach-based businessman and philanthropist named Jeffrey Saull who ran a multimillion-dollar import business selling candles and office chairs to mass retailers like Wal-Mart and Target.
Department of Motor Vehicle records indicate that Saull was the original owner of the Powerplay and it was registered to him at least as early as 1996.
Attempts by the Daily News to reach Saull for comment were unsuccessful. His Boca Raton-based bankruptcy attorney, Alvin Goldstein, said he’d heard there were questions about the boat, but hadn’t heard about the claims being made by Sullivan and the elder Simpson.
Saull’s wife, Karen, ran a self-financed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004, but eventually pulled out, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Just over a year later, on Oct. 14, 2005, Saull filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, according to records in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Southern District of Florida. Saull previously had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1989, court records show.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy, also known as “liquidation” bankruptcy, involves a bankruptcy trustee selling the debtor’s nonexempt assets to pay creditors.
Before filing for bankruptcy, Saull arranged to have a man named Avi Corcos list the Powerplay for sale over the Internet, Corcos said.
Corcos, who said he knew Saull through past business transactions, had the boat in storage for about six months.
He only had the Powerplay advertised on the Internet for about two weeks before Saull changed his mind about selling the boat, he said.
Corcos described the 10-year-old boat as being “like brand new.”
“I didn’t even use it,” Corcos said. “I never went out on it. I was tempted to go out on it a couple of times, but it never worked out.”
In May 2006, Deborah Menotte, a trustee from the U.S. Department of Justice, took possession of the Powerplay, which was being stored in dry dock in Fort Lauderdale, she said.
Corcos, she said, gave her a hard time about taking the boat.
Menotte had the boat transported to Riviera Beach via flatbed truck, she said, even though it would have been cheaper to have taken it over the water.
“I said not a chance,” Menotte said. “That boat is not going in the water. ... I don’t want anything to happen to that boat. That’s why I had it put on a flatbed and moved.”
Menotte recalled selling the boat “as is” at an auction in late May or early June 2006, she said.
The purchaser was a man named Alexandre Oliveira Jr., the owner of a Pembroke Park auto storage business called Izion Inc.
Izion Inc. placed an advertisement for the Powerplay in the Nov. 9, 2006, edition of North Florida Boat Trader magazine. The list price was $68,000.
A person who answered the phone at the number listed on the ad said he didn’t know Oliveira or Izion Inc. It is the same telephone number the Broward County Tax Receipt Office has listed for Izion.
On Dec. 8, 2006, Harper Simpson II purchased the Powerplay from Izion Inc. A bill of sale indicates he paid $40,000 plus an additional $2,400 in state sales taxes, though his father claims he paid at least another $20,000 in cash.
“It rode like a Cadillac,” the elder Simpson said of the vessel. “Everything responded correctly. It was a very nice boat.”
Attorney: Work done caused crash
Though the Powerplay looked to be in mint condition, the elder Simpson said it was really a time bomb ready to explode.
Somewhere along the line, Sullivan and Simpson said, someone had work done on the boat that they believe ultimately led to the wreck.
“There is no doubt that the work that was done to this boat caused the crash,” Sullivan said. “There’s no doubt that this boat should have withstood the speed and the conditions at the time of the crash. The boat is designed to travel at high speed.
“Nothing about the operation of the boat was unusual for this kind of vessel.”
Initial concerns about “stress cracks” were unfounded, the elder Simpson said. There were cracks in the paint, he said, but they played no role in the collapse of the hull.
Sullivan and the elder Simpson said they learned from the boat experts that the screws used to reattach the deck and hull damaged the deck to a point that when the boat hit the wave, the deck ripped away.
“There was nothing holding that deck on,” the elder Simpson said.
Photos of the deck provided by the elder Simpson show that the new screw holes from when the deck was reattached are cracked and broken out.
“When it stuffed (into the wave) ... I believe at that point the deck came up like the hood of a car comes up in the wind and the hull immediately collapsed and the boat came to an immediate stop,” Simpson said.
People who had seen the boat said it looked like new and they didn’t notice any repair work. A boating accident report said the boat had been used less than 100 hours.
However, Sullivan said the work had been covered up.
“The rub rail covered the holes that secured the deck and the hull,” he said. “Carpeting obscured the fiberglass work that had been done in the cab. Fresh paint obscured the work that had been done in the chain locker.”
In fact, a repair order included with Corcos’ online advertisement for the Powerplay indicates that in January 2004 someone paid more than $62,000 to install two new 496 Mercruiser engines and a drive package in the boat. The document also mentions an order to modify the boat’s deck.
The name on the work order reads “Saul/Marcelo.”
Taylor Creek Marina in Fort Pierce was listed on the repair order as the pick-up and drop-off point for the boat.
Sullivan and the elder Simpson said they tracked the repair site to an address in the Orlando area owned by Felix Serralles Jr., a powerboat racer and the president and CEO of Distillerias Serralles Inc., the producer of the Puerto Rican “Don Q” rum brand.
A former member of the Don Q racing team, Henry Simon, is believed to have installed the engines on the boat.
Patrick Patel, an attorney representing Serralles and the Don Q racing team, said that Simon did work on the boat, but that he did it on his own, not as a representative of Don Q.
“As I understand the evidence, he only replaced the engines,” Patel said. “He didn’t do anything to the boat structurally at all.”
Reached by telephone, Simon told the Daily News the work had nothing to do with Don Q. The only work he did on the Powerplay, he said, was installing the new engines and cleaning some black marks from the bottom of the boat that were caused by a forklift.
Simon, who no longer works with the racing team, said he didn’t do any work on the deck or hull.
“I didn’t need to,” he said. “The boat was perfect.”
In the past week, Jeff Burke, an investigator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, finalized his report on the January crash.
Though the report hasn’t officially been completed and released, Burke said his investigation showed there were multiple factors that could have contributed to the crash, including high speeds, alcohol and operator inexperience.
The elder Simpson believes the investigators didn’t go far enough digging into the boat’s history.
“Their allegations are completely incredible,” Patel said of Sullivan and the elder Simpson. “It’s an operator error situation. The person who was operating it was operating it beyond his capabilities.”
Though Patel said “there had to be something wrong with that boat for what happened to happen,” he said the burden of proof is on Sullivan to show that work done by the Don Q racing team, which officially disbanded in 2001, caused the boat to break apart.
Patel said he doesn’t even know, exactly, what the allegations are.
“They’re trying to find deep pockets,” Patel said. “They’re trying to find somebody who’s got money.”
Life without loved ones
More than eight months after the crash, the elder Simpson said he is still adjusting to life without his son.
“We go one day at a time,” Simpson said. “We do the best we can. We miss him big time. It’s a big hole.”
Though Sullivan and his team still are investigating the crash and assembling facts, he said the next step will be to file a lawsuit.
“The facts are going to show that the Don Q racing team is going to be the primary defendant,” Sullivan said.
Any money from the lawsuit probably would go toward Jennifer Molter’s education, Simpson said.
The rest would go toward paying off the final bills of those who were killed.
Doria, who knew Simpson II for about 14 years, said he still thinks about his friend every day.
“I’ll just be sitting around and he pops in my head,” Doria said. “I just wonder why that happened and how could that happen. ... Why to him? With so many other people in the world, why to him?”
The sole survivor of the crash, Jennifer Molter, now 17, is a freshman at Edison College. She said she is living with her grandparents, Bill and Sonja Stelzer, and is still working part time at Straight from New York Bagels in North Naples.
Jennifer Molter said something had to be wrong with the boat to cause the crash.
“I definitely believe that has everything to do with the wreck,” she said. “I know it doesn’t have anything to do with the driver of the boat.”
The elder Simpson believes there needs to be stricter regulations in Florida on people who work on boats. More than anything, though, learning what happened the day of the crash has helped ease his mind.
“I’m satisfied that Harper was not at fault here,” Simpson said. “That’s what my main concern is.
“I’m pretty sure I understand what happened here.”