Crew member admits he conspired to sink fishing ship to aid owner in collecting $400,000

CAMDEN – A former crew member of a fishing boat admitted Monday that he participated in a conspiracy to help the boat’s owner sink the ship, the Alexander II, in order to collect $400,000 from the insurance company that insured the boat, U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman announced.

Arthur “Todd” Vitola, 50, of Wildwood pleaded guilty to an Information charging him with conspiring to destroy the boat on the high seas. Vitola entered his guilty plea here before U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb. He faces up to a five-year prison term when he is sentenced on April 16.

Vitola engaged with the others in a scheme to sink the Alexander II so owner Scott Tran could collect on an insurance policy with State National Insurance Co. Tran, of Cherry Hill, pleaded guilty in November to an Indictment charging him with one count of conspiracy to destroy a vessel on the high seas.

Tran’s right-hand man, Manh Nguyen, 58, of Philadelphia, pleaded guilty the same day to a superseding Information charging him with a similar conspiracy offense. Two other former crew members also have pleaded guilty to similar conspiracy offenses: Christopher Martin, 40, of Wildwood and Erik James, 40, of Goshen.

In July 2009, Tran hired a captain for the ship, whom Tran and Nguyen then solicited to sink the Alexander II in return for payment. The captain then recruited a crew, including Vitola, to help him sink the boat. On Aug. 2, 2009, the Alexander II left Cape May. Although the Alexander II had little fuel, ice, food, and other supplies for a lengthy fishing trip, the ship’s log was falsified to read that more than 50 fish, weighing a total of approximately 3,000 pounds, had been caught.

Once the Alexander II reached a point approximately 86 miles southeast of Cape May, the captain and his crew worked together in an unsuccessful attempt to sink it. Vitola admitted that he and other members of the crew filled parts of the boat with seawater, after which a distress signal was sent to the U.S. Coast Guard and the crew members abandoned ship in a life raft.

The U.S. Coast Guard rescued the captain and crew. Martin admitted giving false statements to the Coast Guard regarding the incident, per the captain’s direction. The Coast Guard found no fish aboard the boat or in the hold.

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