Casino cruise ship vanishes in Tarpon Springs
By SUSAN THURSTON and KELLEY BENHAM
TARPON SPRINGS -- It's 128 feet long and stands three stories high, but on Sunday the Stardancer Casino Cruise ship was nowhere to be found.
Police think it was the subject of a middle-of-the-night repossession from its dock in Tarpon Springs, although U.S. Coast Guard officials said they got calls saying it had been stolen.
"How could you steal a casino boat that size?" asked Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Talbot of the Coast Guard.
With no ship for passengers to board Sunday night, a planned gambling cruise was canceled.
Tarpon Springs police said a boat captain had repossessed the ship as part of a civil dispute.
Sgt. Ed Miller said he had received a call Saturday night from a man who did not identify himself and said he planned to legally repossess the ship when it returned from a cruise about midnight.
Several hours later, about 5 a.m., a man called from a hotel in California asking if someone had taken his ship. He said the captain had no right to seize the vessel, claiming it was protected by a federal restraining order. The man identified himself as Mr. Gray, presumably Sam Gray, Stardancer's president.
Gray could not be reached Sunday night.
The situation has authorities baffled.
Police said the employees on the boat when it docked Saturday night left without protest. Yet police can't say for certain that the repossession was legitimate.
As of Sunday night, no one had officially reported the boat stolen.
The incident is the latest trouble for the struggling casino boat company. In February, the FBI froze its bank accounts after accusing an Ohio banker of helping to finance the operation with embezzled money.
That same month, a circuit judge ruled that the company's shuttle boats were causing environmental damage. At the time, the company was behind on dock rent owed to Hubbard's Marina in Madeira Beach.
The company, based in Little River, S.C., runs cruises out of Port Richey, Madeira Beach, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The vessel stays offshore during the day and docks at night in Tarpon Springs. Gamblers take shuttle boats to the ship while it's at sea.
People who live near the docks where the Stardancer shuttles depart said Sunday that they wondered why no one was boarding.
"We've seen people coming to the boats. They turned around and went back," said Tammy Pumphrey, 41.
John Graham, a security guard for SunCruz Casinos next door, said he wasn't surprised.
"You hear so many stories, you don't know what's true," he said. "They've been in hot water."
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