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The World | COLUMN ONE

He's his own port authority

A seafaring `repo man' uses stealth and trickery to seize cargo ships taken by thieves or corrupt officials. Once, a witch doctor came in handy.

March 01, 2007|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

WITH his graying hair, walrus mustache and moderate build, Hardberger doesn't fit the profile of a swashbuckler.

He taught history and English at parochial schools in Louisiana and Mississippi after graduating from the University of New Orleans and earning a master's degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Outside the classroom, he worked on Gulf Coast oil rigs and the vessels that served them. For several years in the 1980s he skippered a cargo ship in the Caribbean and later wrote "Freighter Captain," a novel based on the experience.

In 1998, after a four-year correspondence course, he passed the California bar exam on the first try. He now practices maritime law, mostly in the Caribbean, but regularly comes to Southern California to handle cases.

Hardberger fell into the ship extraction business in 1991 while managing two freighters for Morgan Price & Co., a wastepaper exporter in Miami.

Morgan Price had chartered one of the vessels, the Patric M, to a Peruvian company that used it to carry steel to Venezuela.

When the company refused to pay Morgan Price $80,000, the Miami firm instructed the captain to dock at Puerto Cabello in Venezuela, its destination, but not unload the cargo.

In retaliation, Hardberger said, the Peruvian firm bribed court officials to detain the Patric M in port and allow the company to operate it. A judge even jailed the master and chief engineer, but not before the engineer was forced at gunpoint to power up the vessel's cranes so unloading could proceed.

Hardberger flew to Venezuela. He says he persuaded court officials to put the captain and chief engineer under house arrest at a hotel.

Hardberger then met with the two men. The captain refused to participate in the repossession, fearing for his safety. When the chief engineer agreed to help, he and Hardberger slipped out of the hotel through a laundry room.

In the evening, they took a taxi to the waterfront and walked along the port wall that was topped with barbed wire, finally gaining entry by crawling under a railroad gate.

Once inside the port, Hardberger said, they hid in doorways, culverts and the shadows of shipping containers to elude guards and stevedores.

"Extractions are a big risk. If you get caught, you are looking at a very serious charge," Hardberger said. "In some countries, you could wait two or three years for trial and end up with a 20-year sentence."

At the unguarded ship, both men climbed the gangway, and Hardberger found the first mate, a heavy-set Panamanian, who agreed to cooperate.

The Patric M's crew, which had not been replaced by the Peruvian company, was assembled in the mess for a briefing. Everyone signed on to the plan.

Later in the evening, the crew cut the ship's lines from the deck. The main engine came to life with a few deep thumps.

Proceeding at "dead slow ahead," Hardberger steered the 340-foot cargo ship past a naval base and through the narrow harbor entrance.

En route to Aruba, Hardberger said, he received a radio message saying Venezuela had notified Interpol -- the global police agency -- that the ship had departed without permission.

He soon found an isolated anchorage off the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico. The crew ground off the original name and identification numbers that are stamped into the steel of every cargo ship when it is built.

All the Patric M's documents -- plans, ledgers, log books and certifications -- were copied and altered to reflect its new name. The originals were destroyed, including its Panamanian registration forms.

Then, Hardberger said, he found a country willing to register stateless vessels, no questions asked. He declined to name the country, but there were only a few at the time, such as Honduras, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands. International regulatory agencies have since banned the practice.

About a year after acquiring its new identity, the Patric M was sold by Morgan Price.

"International waters," Hardberger said, "are worse than the Wild West. In many ways, there is little or no opportunity to avenge the wrongs people have done to you."

For the last 3 1/2 years, Hardberger has operated Vessel Extractions with Michael L. Bono, an admiralty law attorney and one of his former high school students.

BEFORE repossessing a ship, they make sure the vessel has been seized illegally and the claims filed against it are fraudulent.

If negotiations and legal methods fail, the company will proceed with an extraction, a step that might include payments to local officials if a nation's government is corrupt.

Those payments, Hardberger said, are made under exceptions in the federal Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from bribing foreign officials to retain or obtain business.

"In a rogue state, you can't tie your hands behind you," Hardberger said. "It is common to find that the court system is rife with corruption."

Extracting a ship can cost a client $100,000 or more.

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