ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich. – A Michigan man who was told to stop chartering his 39-foot boat because he didn’t have any licenses to do so lied to the Coast Guard before eventually needing to be towed back to land when his boat caught fire in the middle of a lake, authorities said.
A criminal complaint against Benjamin Michael Jones was unsealed June 29, 2022, and accuses him of willfully and knowingly violating the terms of an order from the Captain of the Port.
Boat charter in St. Clair Shores
Officials said they received a tip on May 20, 2021, about a 39-foot Sea Ray boat named “PWR TOWER” that was operating out of Michigan Harbor in St. Clair Shores.
Michigan Harbor is a marina that shares waterside access with Miller Marina and land-side access with Colony Marine in St. Clair Shores, according to authorities.
The area connects directly with Lake St. Clair and is considered navigable waters of the United States, the criminal complaint says.
Jones was identified as a co-owner of PWR TOWER, according to court records.
Officials said commercial charter operations have to be inspected and certified as meeting all safety requirements by the Coast Guard. A person also must be credentialed by the Coast Guard to serve as the captain of a commercial charter, they said.
The tipster told authorities that PWR TOWER was being used during illegal charters out of Michigan Harbor. On the same day, an anonymous tipster told officials that a 39-foot Sea Ray operating near Miller Marina had a large number of people on board, according to authorities.
Officials said PWR TOWER was being advertised for charters on Instagram and Facebook.
The Coast Guard sent a vessel to the location to see if there was any evidence of an illegal charter, court records show.
PWR TOWER inspection
When they arrived at the marina, members of the Coast Guard said they spoke to someone who told them PWR TOWER was moored a few slips down from them at the Michigan Harbor. That person told authorities that the boat was operating illegal charters, the criminal complaint says.
Jones was identified as the person in charge of that operation, and the witness told authorities that Jones would advertise charters through his Instagram account, they said.
A check of their database showed members of the Coast Guard that Jones didn’t own a Merchant Mariner license, authorities said.
Officials said they found an Instagram account advertising specific charters, including one that said, “I’m on a yacht, $100 pp.” The maximum capacity was posted as 20 people, according to the criminal complaint.
Court records show members of the Coast Guard and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources boarded PWR TOWER on May 25, 2021.
Around 9 p.m., PWR TOWER departed Michigan Harbor with 23 people onboard, according to authorities.
A Coast Guard vessel found the boat operating in Lake St. Clair and boarded for a safety inspection, court records say. The inspection revealed there were only 18 personal flotation devices available for the 23 people on board, which is a violation, officials said.
PWR TOWER was escorted back to Michigan Harbor Marina for a dockside inspection, the criminal complaint says.
During that inspection, officials said they found about 20 small bags of personal-use marijuana and three handguns. One of the handguns was unregistered, police said.
Officials spoke with several passengers, and three of them said they had paid Jones for the charter. None of them provided an amount or method of payment, according to authorities.
Officials told Jones that he was suspected of operating an illegal commercial vessel. They issued him a notice of violations on suspicion of serving in a position/master without a license, failure of marine employer to comply with chemical test requirements, and failure to have issued USCG certificate of inspection while operating as a passenger vessel.
Here’s part of the Captain of the Port order that was issued to Jones:
Officials said Jones refused to sign a receipt of the notice of violations and the order, but, according to the complaint, he wrote on a piece of paper, “I, Benjamin Jones, will not operate commercially until I meet federal requirements! ... P.S., further, I AM NOT OPERATING COMMERCIALLY NOR HAVE I BEEN!!!”
Jones signed and dated that written statement, according to officials.
Parking lot confrontation
On May 26, 2021, Jones went to the USCG Sector Detroit on Mt. Elliott Street to dispute the notice of violations and the COTP order, authorities said.
He was approached in the parking lot to talk about the notice and the order, but during the discussion, Jones “became irate,” the criminal complaint says.
“I’ve got 26 people getting onboard tonight,” Jones said, according to the complaint. “Y’all better leave me alone.”
Officials said the person speaking to him responded, “I hope none of them were paying passengers.”
Jones responded, “You better leave me alone. You need to leave me alone or you’re gonna get f-----,” according to court records.
Jones was asked to leave the premises. Officials issued him a Coast Guard Barment Order on June 24, 2021, directing him to stay off Coast Guard property, authorities said.
New COTP order
Jones had submitted an Articles of Organization filing on April 11, 2021, to establish a company named Nautical Yacht Masters LLC, officials learned on May 27, 2021.
The company was to be organized by Jones and his business partner, the criminal complaint says.
Due to an administrative error, the original COTP order issued to Jones was rescinded, and a new one was crafted that ordered him to cease all commercial operations until he became fully compliant with the laws for carrying passengers for hire, according to authorities.
That order was hand delivered to Jones on June 24, 2021, court records show.
Here’s the updated COTP order, in part:
Jones signed the order and wrote an “appeal note” that said, “I have not, will not operate commercially, until I have a full captain’s license. I am requesting reconsideration of this violation,” according to officials.
Further contact with Jones
On July 14, 2021, Jones was issued a Coast Guard Preliminary Assessment Letter related to his notice of violations, authorities said. It explained that he could pay a $3,250 fine or request a hearing to dispute the findings.
Jones called the command center several times on July 22, 2021, and became increasingly irritated, officials said.
He claimed he had not been on PWR TOWER during the May 25 boarding, court records show. He also told authorities that he knew all the passengers and that nobody had paid for the charter, according to the complaint.
“As of this affidavit’s date, Jones is delinquent on payment for the assessed Coast Guard fine,” the criminal complaint reads.
The Coast Guard received a report around 2:30 a.m. Aug. 10 that there was a vessel on fire on Lake St. Clair near Pier Park in Grosse Pointe Farms.
When officials arrived, they said they found Jones operating the PWR TOWER with nine passengers onboard.
All nine passengers had been rescued and transferred to another boat before the Coast Guard arrived, according to the criminal complaint.
The fire was extinguished, and PWR TOWER was towed back to the Michigan Harbor with Jones onboard.
When the passengers were questioned, the told Coast Guard officials that they had gone on PWR TOWER to celebrate a birthday, court records show. They said that everyone onboard was friends, according to authorities.
Passengers from the night of the fire incident were interviewed again Aug. 30, officials said. One person said it had been her first time on PWR TOWER and she had gone for a friend’s birthday party, the complaint states. She didn’t know the captain or his name, but provided a description that matched Jones’ appearance, officials said.
She said she didn’t personally pay for the trip, but one of her friends had done so, court records say.
“She recalled the vessel had an oil pressure issue, but the captain continued to keep going,” the complaint reads. “She saw fire in the panels under the floor as the captain attempted to put it out with a fire extinguisher.”
Another passenger said she had paid $175 in cash for her and one other person to get on the boat, authorities said. She told the Coast Guard that she had previously paid to go on PWR TOWER for another charter, and that the normal rate was $100 per person, officials said.
She said she had received a discount because the party was for a birthday, the criminal complaint says.
A third passenger told authorities that she had been invited to get on the boat to celebrate a friend’s birthday. She said she had paid $100 cash to go, court records show. The woman also said she didn’t know the captain or his name, but stated that he “should not have a vessel,” according to authorities.
She reported being scared during the fire, crying, and vomiting while she was rescued by another boat, officials said.
Recent Instagram posts
Authorities said they noticed several Instagram posts from Jones in June 2022.
On June 12, he posted, “Don’t go to nobody boat without at least a hundred dollars for gas and a bottle. That’s standard,” officials said.
A post from June 14 advertised, “Pool and Boat Tings Wednesday…Pool 1pm-5pm Boat 6pm-10pm…I got room for only 10 more people! I’m not personally inviting no one,” according to the complaint. “Standard Boarding rules apply Bottle or food And a blue strip.”
He posted on June 16 to advertise for the Jobbie Nooner event, which was June 24 on Lake St. Clair, officials said. He wrote, “if you going with me, tap in ASAP,” authorities said.
The criminal complaint concludes that Jones “willfully and knowingly” violated a Captain of the Port order.
He also made false or fraudulent statements or representations to Coast Guard investigators multiple times, according to the complaint.
Officials argue there is probable cause that Jones should be charged with violation of a COTP order and false statements.