Archive for » December 21st, 2014«

Mystery, suspicion in late-night Egg Harbor boat crash

LONGPORT, N.J. – Buoys bobbed in the bay near the tip of this town on a recent frigid day. Many of the waterfront homes were empty – their inhabitants absent and elsewhere. Gone, like Andrew Biddle.

It has been five months since Biddle, an internationally honored powerboat racer, was declared missing after a pontoon boat he was said to have been aboard struck a buoy and crashed into a jetty.

What at first seemed to be a tragic boat accident turned into the launch of Biddle’s plunge into mystery. The case has continued to yield only theories, shared and debated like a local tale of far-reaching interest.

“He drowned – or he’s in a different country,” said Kathy Costanzo, sales clerk at All Seasons Marina in Marmora, where Biddle once sold boats in rented space. “That’s what I’ve heard.”

Talk to enough people who knew Biddle, and one thing becomes clear: No one’s quite sure what to believe about the July 20 late-night crash. Local police, for their part, remain adamant about their theory.

“I can tell you with certainty, he is alive,” Egg Harbor Township Detective Ray Theriault said this month in an interview. He described the search for Biddle – listed as “wanted” in the National Crime Information Center, with full extradition in the U.S. – as a “waiting game.”

Authorities believe Biddle orchestrated the accident to avoid prosecution on theft and related charges that amassed in the months before, through an investigation by Egg Harbor Township police. The complaints allege Biddle and business partner Tracy Blumenstein defrauded customers of Professional Boat Sales, Blumenstein’s company.

Still, some family members aren’t so sure about Biddle’s fate. His uncle, Joseph Biddle, searched on a boat for his nephew the day after the crash.

“I was convinced at that moment that he had died,” said Joseph Biddle, 78, of Huntingdon, Pa., about 30 miles south of State College, where his nephew was raised. He said no facts relayed to the family indicated he was dead or alive.

“I don’t have any reason to believe, other than his past history, that he’s still alive,” said Biddle, a former newspaper publisher.

Since Andrew Biddle’s disappearance, Baia, the Somers Point restaurant where he was before the accident, has closed for the winter. The Egg Harbor Township home he shared with his wife went up for sale. He turned 45.

And the complaints against Biddle have continued after the crash: Police have filed three additional charges against him, bringing to nine the total active charges in Atlantic County. One complaint alleges he and Blumenstein sold a $19,000 pontoon boat and never paid its owner.

Biddle has left behind a checkered impression: a likable and friendly salesman who reveled in the rush of racing boats and speeding motorcycles – a small celebrity on the water who, on land, was repeatedly at odds with clients and the law.

The Huntingdon native grew up fascinated by boats and mechanics, family members said. He went on to attend Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, beginning in 1991 as a civil engineering technology major, a spokesman said. He later switched to general studies, but left the school in 1993 without a degree.

That year, Biddle pleaded guilty to arson in Lycoming County, according to Pennsylvania court records. During the next 12 years, an additional dozen criminal court dockets were logged, many in Huntingdon County, in relation to charges against Biddle.

In 2000, he was charged with failing to remit sales and income taxes collected by his boat repair and sales company, Raystown Performance Marine Sales. He pleaded guilty to many of the counts. That business also involved Blumenstein and members of their families.

In 2002, Biddle pleaded guilty to harassment in a case in which a woman accused him of striking her during an argument. Four years later, he pleaded guilty to selling cocaine to a confidential informant.

From 2002 to 2011, Biddle was in Huntingdon County Prison in four separate terms that totaled about six years, a facility officer said.

Biddle was ordered to pay $96,000 to a woman who, in a 2000 civil suit, claimed that she had been injured while on a boat with Biddle in the Gulf of Mexico and that he had been speeding against rough conditions.

In the early 2000s, he declared bankruptcy at least twice, court records show.

“He burned his bridges pretty badly with people,” said a cousin, Hunter Biddle, 54, of Norristown. “But he’s family. You always love family.”

New Jersey State Police are saying only that the case remains a boat crash involving a missing person. “We have used all of our underwater abilities to look down in there . . . for recovery of remains,” Capt. Stephen Jones said. “We’ve been unable to turn anything up.”

The boat crash occurred about 11:30 p.m. Witnesses said a passenger, Justin Belz, swam to shore, yelling for his friend. The Coast Guard conducted an 18-hour search.

Belz, 23, who also races and sells boats, provided initial statements to police, but later requested an attorney, Theriault said. Belz, who has not been charged with any crime, did not return requests for comment.

Egg Harbor Township police are firm that Andrew Biddle will be located. “He’s going to run into the law somewhere,” Theriault said.

Biddle’s wife since 2011, Christina Kupcinski, and his father, Andrew Biddle Sr., declined comment.

At the time of his disappearance, Biddle and Blumenstein were placed No. 1 in the annual P1 Superstock U.S. championship, a series of offshore powerboat races held in Florida. The pair – Team Pro Boat – fell to No. 8 out of nine teams after not participating in the final two rounds.

“I missed his competition,” said Bill Kingery, 50, who placed No. 4 in the competition this year. “I trusted Andy. When you’re racing side-by-side like that, you’re trusting him, and he’s trusting you.”

Biddle and Blumenstein had twice won the national competition. They also won the United Kingdom equivalent in 2013.

Kingery, of Columbus, Ohio, added that Biddle’s “heartbreaking” story is a topic of conversation among fellow racers.

Blumenstein, approached in his Northfield office, referred questions to his attorney, who did not return calls.

“I really don’t know what the hell is going on,” Blumenstein said of Biddle’s disappearance.

Those who say they were conned by Biddle are quicker to decide.

“This is just a big hoax,” said Frank Casey, 45, of Douglassville, Pa.

Casey and his wife, Dianna, purchased a nearly $50,000 pontoon boat from Biddle through Professional Boat Sales. It was delivered in April 2012 and, though it was supposed to be new, had visible signs of use and other issues, the couple said.

The company agreed in October 2012 to take the boat for repairs and later return it to the Caseys’ vacation home in Delaware. It was never returned.

The Caseys sued in 2013 and were awarded a judgment in March for nearly $370,000, according to their attorney, Donald Benedetto. Attorneys were moving toward completing an agreement to instead provide the Caseys with a new pontoon boat. The boat never materialized.

The July crash only added insult to injury: The involved boat was the one the Caseys purchased in 2012, police said.

With Biddle gone, any resolution seems far from the horizon.

“We just want to walk away,” Casey said. “It’s a Lifetime story is what it is.”

 


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera



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Ragamuffin 100 "amazing": Wharington

Sydney to Hobart stalwart Grant Wharington has declared renovated super maxi Ragamuffin 100 far and away the best boat he’s ever sailed on.

Wharington, one of the race’s best-performed big boat skippers of recent times, won’t be campaigning his own boat for the first time in 17 years.

Instead he will be part of the crew aboard sailing icon Syd Fischer’s 100-footer.

Ragamuffin 100 has been completely overhauled since finishing third across the line last year, having been fitted with a new hull, keel and rudders.

While Fischer and his team have released very little information publicly about Ragamuffin 100, she is known to be about 10 per cent faster upwind and 20 per cent quicker downwind than last year.

“The new boat is just amazing, it’s just incredibly fast,” Wharington told AAP.

“it’s just far above and beyond the performance I’ve seen in any of the other boats that I’ve sailed on.

“The numbers that we are seeing from this boat are just absolutely staggering.”

Like new American super Maxi Comanche, Ragamuffin 100 will go into the Hobart as a unknown quantity, not having raced since her revamp.

“Sure, we would love to have had more time and definitely would have loved to have raced,” said Wharington, who will be a watch captain and do some steering on Ragamuffin 100.

He will be sailing with 87-year-old Fischer for the first time, though he was part of a successful multi-boat Australian team with the legendary yachtsman back in the 1990s.

`”I’ve always known Syd and got on really well with him and been amazed by his enthusiasm,” Wharington said.

“He steered the boat down Sydney Harbour doing 21 knots. Obviously he’s still in great health and great fitness and (for him) to be able to do the race is just an inspiration to all of us on the boat.

“It’s my 26th (Sydney to Hobart) race this year and I’m just excited to be sailing a new boat with such a great bunch of blokes.

“No special people, there’s no egos and everyone is there for the one reason, and that’s to support Syd and his program and make sure it’s successful.”

Wharington won line honours on Skandia in 2003 and has logged six more top-10 placings, including a second (Skandia – 2008) and two thirds (Skandia – 2005, 2006) over the past decade.

In his last two Hobart races in someone else’s boat, he finished third across the line in 1996 and 1997 aboard Foxtel Amazon and P.L Lease Future Shock, respectively.

There’s one thing Wharington definitely won’t miss about not sailing his own boat this year.

“The great thing is no bills arrive,” said Wharington with a smile.


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