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Mystery of 'El Dorado' deepens

First, the floating casino vanishes from Tarpon Springs. Then it pops up 270 miles away. Now it's gone again.

By KELLEY BENHAM
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


Like a lot of people, Sharline Bundy was not looking for the El Dorado.

But there it was, three stories tall, 128 feet long and 270 miles -- as the sea gull flies -- from home.

Since it vanished from the Tarpon Springs docks a week ago, fishermen, shrimpers and residents have speculated as to the whereabouts of the Stardancer cruise lines floating casino, which was said to be loaded with cash, liquor and slot machines like a lost treasure ship.

It was repossessed, some said. Stolen, others said.

"It's in our back yard," Mrs. Bundy said Thursday, as if to settle the matter. "It's a big one."

Mrs. Bundy, 78, had no idea why the El Dorado turned up off the Panhandle town of Niceville and docked in Rocky Bayou, outside her kitchen window. It just showed up.

Niceville, population 11,000, was a stopover for the El Dorado. It is back at sea now, headed ... somewhere, maybe New Orleans.

The boat's arrival was as much a surprise in the little sailboat community of Niceville as its disappearance was in the little sponge boat community of Tarpon Springs.

Local authorities in either place remain unconcerned.

Stardancer president Sam Gray has tried to report the boat stolen. But police say it was repossessed. If Gray wants the boat back, police say, he'll have to negotiate with Wayne Hesson of Entertainment Cruises Ltd., who holds its title.

The Tarpon Springs police are not looking for the boat. Neither is the Coast Guard.

If the Niceville police had been looking for it -- which they were not, they said -- it would have been hard to miss.

Niceville police Detective David Shoenfeld saw the boat, and he wasn't even trying. "I said, "Hey, that's a pretty big boat for in here,"' he said.

"It's not missing," Tarpon police spokesman Jeffrey Young said Thursday for about the fifth or sixth time in a week. "It's a civil matter, and we don't get involved in civil matters."

It's the biggest repossession Young can remember. "It's not like repossessing a '97 Dodge," he said.

Stardancer lost the boat Saturday night after it returned from its cruise. Someone called Tarpon Springs police that night to say they were repossessing the boat, and they evidently did. The next day, Gray called and said the boat should not have been taken.

Since then, Gray has not returned repeated calls for comment. But he did call Tarpon Springs police again earlier this week, Sgt. Young said, to report the boat stolen. The police would not take the case, and told him he could take the matter to court, Young said.

The repossession is the latest of Stardancer's troubles. The Internal Revenue Service has filed at least $835,000 in liens against the company in five counties including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough, public records show.

The FBI froze money in Stardancer accounts after a key investor, Ohio banker Mark Steven Miller, was charged with embezzling in February.

The Coast Guard said the repossession by Wayne Hesson's Entertainment Cruises Ltd. appears to have been legal. Hesson used to operate Entertainment Cruises out of the Marco Island area. He could not be reached this week.

For now, the boat is under the immediate control of captain Michael Chavis, who used to captain the El Dorado for Stardancer Casinos, his wife, Cindy, said. He returned to the helm to repossess the boat for Hesson, she said.

Chavis, an engineer and two deck hands brought the boat to Niceville, where Chavis lives. He told a reporter for the Northwest Florida Daily News he had repossessed the boat and is taking it for repairs at a shipyard he won't name. He stopped at home to wait out Tropical Storm Hanna, he said.

So the El Dorado ended up near Rocky Bayou Bridge on the north shore of Choctawhatchee Bay, by Mrs. Bundy's house.

The Coast Guard boarded the boat there and found nothing amiss, spokeswoman Debbie Lindquist said. She did not know where the boat had come from, or why, she said. She thinks it was headed for New Orleans, or someplace near there. She doesn't know much about the boat, she said, because like a lot of people, she wasn't looking for it.

-- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kelley Benham can be reached at 445-4182.

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