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    Stuck at the dock, gambling boat taking on debt

    Employees of the Victori haven't been paid, nor has a gambler owed $10,000.


    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 13, 2001

    TARPON SPRINGS -- Ken Whitcomb had hoped to turn a corner this week with the troubled Victori casino boat.

    That hasn't happened. Athena Cruises, which runs the boat, had to cancel cruises this week, because a part for the engine still hasn't arrived, Whitcomb said Thursday.

    The company had received numerous calls from people interested in going on one of the twice-daily cruises, including some people who wanted to book groups of 10 or 15, said Whitcomb, president of Athena Cruises.

    "It was going to be nice," he said. "We would have been turning them away."

    He now expects to take the boat out at the end of next week, he said.

    "The whole thing has been totally frustrating," Whitcomb said.

    The company also has been unable to pay some employees, who were owed paychecks on Monday. A sign on the company's door notifies staffers that they will be contacted when their paychecks are ready, which should be Monday or Tuesday of next week, Whitcomb said.

    Billy Johnson, a former engineer on the boat, said he isn't counting on it.

    "I'm pretty much going to give it up. What can you do?" said Johnson, a Largo resident who no longer works on the boat and said he is starting a new job this week.

    Johnson said he is owed for 58 hours of work at $11 an hour. Whitcomb said he doesn't know how many employees or former staffers are owed money but said there aren't many of them. He said they are owed for one week of work.

    Because the boat hasn't operated in several weeks, Whitcomb said, several employees have quit their jobs.

    Employees aren't the only ones who haven't been paid. Bob Bowman, a retired trucking company owner known to local casino boat operators as "Bud Light Bob," said Thursday he still hasn't been paid $10,000 of his winnings by Athena Cruises.

    In a couple of lucky nights at the Victori's craps tables last month, Bowman, 56, won $28,069. He has only been paid $18,069 and was given an IOU for the remainder.

    Meanwhile, one of Whitcomb's other problems might go away. The city is still examining documents Whitcomb turned in last week, including an amendment to a Coast Guard certificate of inspection that states the boat's capacity is 100 passengers and 24 crew members, said City Attorney John Hubbard.

    Under city ordinances, boats with a capacity greater than 124 are classified as offshore tour vessels. Two offshore tour vessels are not allowed to be docked within 1,500 feet of each other, which would prevent the Victori from sailing out of a slot on the Sponge Docks if the capacity hadn't been reduced.

    If the revised capacity figure is accepted by the city, the boat will be allowed to continue taking cruises out of property owned by George Billiris, a local sponge merchant who is married to City Commissioner Beverley Billiris, Hubbard said. Hubbard said he still wants to see the Coast Guard's original certification for the boat before making a ruling.

    -- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182.

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