Man ‘lost at sea’ faces federal court hearing

Troubled financial adviser’s allegedly staged disappearance triggered a costly Coast Guard search

A Boca Raton, Fla., investment broker who is alleged to have staged his disappearance on a boat rented from a local marina “to escape legal issues” — the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office description of why he vanished — has been charged with causing a false distress alert.

Richard W. Ohrn went missing for 12 days last year after his blood-spattered boat was found abandoned and dragging anchor two miles off Delray Beach, Fla., triggering a Coast Guard search. Now he faces the false alert charge.

After 12 days in hiding in a rental house in Albany, Ga., the 45-year-old financial adviser returned to his home in Boca Raton on April 12 last year, called police and acknowledged that he had faked his disappearance to get out of his legal morass, police say.

On Feb. 25 this year a federal grand jury in Palm Beach, Fla., returned an indictment alleging that Ohrn “did knowingly and willfully” cause a false distress message to be communicated to the Coast Guard, which deployed boats and planes to find him when, in truth, he was not in any kind of maritime distress.

According to the sheriff’s report, the alleged ruse started on March 31, 2015, about 4:15 p.m. when two crewmembers aboard the 157-foot megayacht Top Five saw a 19-foot Sea Ray unmanned and adrift off Delray Beach. Boarding the boat, they found dried blood on it, leading them to suspect foul play. Ohrn’s wife, Kathleen, later would tell investigators that her husband recently had surgery on his elbows and they were seeping blood, police say.

The good Samaritans found the key in the Sea Ray’s ignition in the off position, its anchor deployed on about 50 feet of line, a pair of sunglasses, an iPhone, a ball cap and a dry bag containing car keys and a wallet with Ohrn’s driver’s license and credit cards.

The megayacht crew called the Coast Guard, which undertook a three-day search for Ohrn, covering 31,000 square miles with a Dolphin HH-65 helicopter, two 154-foot cutters, two 33-foot special purpose craft, two HC-144 medium-range surveillance aircraft and an HC-130 Hercules transport — during 20 searches, sheriff’s police say.

The search turned up no trace of Ohrn. Meanwhile, his allegedly orchestrated disappearance began to unravel, as the sheriff’s office, investigating what appeared to be a crime scene, uncovered suspicious circumstances and inconsistencies. First, Kathleen Ohrn told investigators that Wells Fargo Advisors, Ohrn’s former employer, was suing him for the $400,000 the company advanced him as a signing bonus for breach of contract.

That was just the latest of several costly legal skirmishes for Ohrn over several years. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent, not-for-profit agency that oversees the securities industry, permanently barred Ohrn from working for any of its 4,000 member firms in an April 2015 settlement.

The broker neither admitted nor denied allegations filed with FINRA, but they included converting $15,250 from the accounts of four elderly customers, forging the signatures of four clients on nine documents and changing the account addresses of three customers from their own to the firm’s branch, all while working for Chase Investment Services Corp., and — while employed at Wells Fargo — guaranteeing an elderly customer against a $9,000 loss incurred as a result of an early surrender of her variable annuity contract.

Interviewing staff at Marina One in Deerfield Beach, where Ohrn had rented the Sea Ray, investigators learned that he had said he wanted to rent the boat so he could take a client fishing and planned to pick the client up at Pioneer Park, just up Hillsboro Canal from the marina.

They said Ohrn did not load any obvious fishing gear onto the boat, just a 5-gallon bucket with a lid on it, a large black garbage bag with something in it and a change of clothing rolled under his arms. He left a fishing pole in the bed of his pickup truck in the marina parking lot. Ohrn motored up the canal toward Pioneer Park, as planned, but the staff noticed when he motored back down the canal that he was the only one aboard.

After further investigation and interviews later with Ohrn, detectives pieced together an outline of his “disappearing act,” which, according to the sheriff’s office, he confessed to. First, Ohrn bought a second truck and left it near Pioneer Park. Then he went to West Marine in Pompano Beach and bought an inflatable with a motor — in cash — with friend George Grokhowski, who later told police he thought it strange that Ohrn said he wanted to buy the inflatable for him.

On the day of Ohrn’s disappearance, authorities say, he towed the inflatable to Pioneer Park, drove to Marina One and rented the Sea Ray, then motored up the canal in the rental boat to pick up the inflatable at the park. He motored back down the canal to the ICW, then the ocean, anchored the boat, launched the inflatable and motored back up the canal to Pioneer Park, where he pulled the inflatable out of the water with his prepositioned truck, dropped the inflatable off at Grokhowski’s office and drove to Albany.

About 2:45 p.m. on April 12, the lead detective on the case fielded a call from Ohrn that was placed from his wife’s cellphone. Ohrn told the detective he was back home and wanted to talk, and gave the officer a statement about his disappearance, according to police.

A U.S. District Court judge in Palm Beach County set Ohrn’s bond at $1 million. He was released March 1, his bond secured by his wife and her company, RKJMO Enterprises, a real estate investment firm. If convicted, Ohrn faces a civil penalty of as much as $10,000 and the cost of the Coast Guard search — hundreds of thousands of dollars. As of late June a plea bargain was being negotiated, according to court filings.

In a 2007 11th Circuit Court appellate case, United States of America v. Steven Wayne Haun, Haun staged a disappearance, but he went missing to avoid appearing for a court date. The appellate ruling said Haun went boating with a couple of acquaintances at night and that as they towed him 40 feet behind on a raft in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City, Fla., he deliberately slipped off, took off his life jacket, left it floating in the water and swam to a nearby island, where he had stashed a personal watercraft.

He returned to land alone on the PWC. Meanwhile, his friends on the boat, thinking he was lost, placed a distress call to the Coast Guard by cellphone, and a search began. Sometime later — the opinion does not say how long — an Indiana state trooper found Haun asleep in the sleeper berth of an 18-wheeler in Indianapolis.

Authorities arrested him and charged him with “knowingly and willfully” causing a false distress message to be communicated to the Coast Guard. Convicted in U.S. District Court in North Florida, he appealed on grounds that although he staged his disappearance he did not intend that his friends call the Coast Guard to save him.

The appellate court affirmed the lower- court ruling and did so with a liberal sprinkling of nautical metaphors: “Buoyed by our common sense, which we do not throw overboard, we conclude that the purpose of the statute is to penalize those who cause the Coast Guard to become involved when no help is needed, regardless of whether the individual who precipitated the drama in the open seas knew with certainty that the Coast Guard would needlessly answer the distress call,” Judge Joel Dubina wrote for the court.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.


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