The white yacht bobbed at the end of a pier on the St. Johns River in Central Florida. On the opposite riverbank, several men tried to convey boredom from a distance: stretching, taking off sunglasses, yawning, squinting, replacing sunglasses. The small team’s leader, Ken Cage, peeked at the boat through binoculars, then turned with a snap. “That’s the one,” he said.
The four men—Cage, his No. 2 man, a boat captain, and a driver—hustled into two trucks, wheeled over a river bridge, and entered the marina. They walked quickly along the waterfront until they saw their target—a gleaming Luhrs yacht—and huddled again behind a patch of tall grass. “That has to be our boat,” Cage said. “Has to be.” The team fell silent. An alligator lay motionless in the grass three feet away.
Photograph by Gasper Tringale for Bloomberg Businessweek
The St. Johns emerges from central swampland and descends less than an inch per mile, lolling instead of rolling. The marsh seemed to be reclaiming the small marina itself, host to only a handful of working boats. It made a strange home for a seagoing sport yacht. “He probably knows we’re after him,” Cage said. “He figured we’d never find it here. See how he has it tied parallel to the dock?” All the other boats sat like parked cars, nose to the dock. “He wants an easy getaway.”
Cage and his guys make a living taking from the rich. He’s one of a handful of the world’s most sophisticated repo men. And while the language may be different from the doorbusters who grab TVs, the game is the same: On behalf of banks Cage nabs high-dollar toys from self-styled magnates who find themselves overleveraged. Many of the deadbeat owners made a killing in finance and real estate during the economic bubble—expanding it, even—and were caught out of position when it burst. So now men like Cage steal $20 million jets like they were jalopies. And fast boats. Even, on one occasion, a racehorse.
A pair of local fishermen stepped out of a building on the dock, looked curiously toward the newcomers, and took a few steps forward.
“Now or never,” Cage said. He bounded to the end of the pier and climbed onto the yacht’s deck. The other team members, including Cage’s lieutenant, Randy Craft, moved to their assigned lookout positions on the dock. Craft always handles security; he’s a colossal human, with a polished bald head and fists that hang like wrecking balls. (He had, moments ago, tried to grab the immobile alligator by the tail, sending it thrashing into the river. “Ah, just a small one,” he said dismissively.)
Cage made his way to the stern and leaned over the rear to examine the hull number. “This is it,” he said.
Craft leapt aboard and pulled out a small set of lock-picking tools. While he kneeled at the cabin hatch, focused on its lock, Cage’s boat captain jumped aboard. “Look,” he said, and pointed to the owner’s cooler full of beer, sitting in the sun with the ice not yet melted. Cage hurried to untie the boat from the dock. If the owner appeared before they got the engines running, they would shove away with no power and drift ever so slowly until they could get her started.
Photograph by Gasper Tringale for Bloomberg BusinessweekCraft picks the cabin lock
With a final flick, Craft popped the lock. He climbed down into the cabin, where the bed was rumpled from a recent sleeper. The whole endeavor suddenly felt less like an act of piracy than a home invasion, but Craft stayed focused. He grabbed the boat’s ignition keys from a shelf and tossed them to the captain, who fired up the twin diesel engines. And then, just like that—as the two locals on the dock stood staring—the yacht pulled away from the pier. The bow tipped up as it gunned toward Cage’s own hidden marina to the south. The owner might return soon from a bathroom, or newsstand, or diner, to find his boat gone.
Cage climbed up to the yacht’s bridge, into the wind, and sat grinning. “This is the best part,” he said. Half-exposed cypress trees lined the riverside where turtles and herons posed in the Florida sun. Not bad for the scene of a heist. “Yeah,” he said. “But I really like doing jets.”