It’s starting to get personal for Brandie Wooten and her crew at River Ventures.
Burglars, thieves and vandals have hit the boat-and-dive tour business in Crystal River on and off now for three years, according to Wooten, the operations manager for River Ventures and its counterpart, River Safaris, in Homosassa.
Taking their latest heist from Friday, Sept. 27 into account, criminals have stolen and damaged up to $30,000 in vessels, motors and other nautical gear from River Ventures' property, Wooten said Wednesday.
“Stop picking on us,” she said. “We’re already hurting.”
Wooten — no relation to Citrus County Chamber of Commerce CEO/President Josh Wooten — said it’s not just money that River Ventures has to fork up to replace its unrecovered items, which aren’t covered by insurance if they’re taken.
She said the biggest hardship is telling her employees they can’t work during the busy tourism seasons because their boat engine’s lines were cut, water got poured in the fuel tank or their motor was stolen.
A downed tour boat can cost River Ventures $1,000 and its captains a couple hundred dollars a day, Wooten said.
“People think we’re a big business … but it affects us in a big way,” she said. “It’s not just a missing engine, it’s someone losing their job.”
Wooten said she reported River Ventures’ latest theft to the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO).
John Novy, a CCSO captain who oversees deputies on the county’s westside and in Crystal River, said the case is still open and active.
CCSO detectives are scouring pawn shops and dealing sites online, like Facebook Marketplace and the Letgo application, to see if River Ventures’ stuff is being sold, Novy said.
“We don’t have anything as of yet; however, that stuff could pop up,” Novy said Thursday. “That’s stuff we have to regularly check.”
CCSO keeps a record of stolen items on its website at www.sheriffcitrus.org/sheriffslist.php.
Wooten said she’s also been keeping an eye on the internet, where she was able to locate River Ventures’ looted skiff from April that was being listed for sale online.
Authorities were able to recover the boat, which had been disassembled, but the motor had already been sold, according to Wooten and Novy.
Novy said it’s important for store owners and homeowners to report missing items to the sheriff’s office.
Knowing where the crimes are happening can help Novy focus and time his deputies’ patrols on land, in the water and in the air.
“I can’t help you if I don’t know about it,” he said. “Those are things we need to be in the loop with.”
Wooten said she and her staff got to work last Saturday morning to find the locks cut on their two trailers parked on the grass lot behind their building and parking lot.
Anything of worth was gone inside; including $1,000 paddle boards, a lawn mower, weed whackers, boat generators, gas tanks and batteries, to name a few things.
“They took a lot more in this one hit,” Wooten said. “Who knows how much is gone.”
Wooten said the thieves also snipped and swiped a motor from the stern of a trailered boat.
It appeared, according to Wooten, as if the criminals backed their transport vehicle(s) up from the neighboring access road off of Three Sisters Springs Trail to haul away the engine — the third to go missing over the last three years, Wooten said.
Novy said he’s working with Wooten to enhance River Ventures’ security.
He also suggested other businesses and homeowners do the same with the affordable and modern alarm and cameras systems on the market today.
“That type of crime prevention that anybody can put in their house is great,” Novy said.
Wooten said she’s been trying to get River Ventures’ owner to improve protection, like installing fences.
“We’re sitting ducks,” she said. “We need to have a reputation of being safe.”
But it’s not just River Ventures that’s being targeted by criminal opportunists.
Mike Engiles, owner of Crystal River Watersports, said somebody earlier this summer took the license plates off two of his trailers, removed a boat propeller, stole the block-and-tackle chain used to lift vessels for maintenance and some boat motor cables.
Engiles said he’s used to vandalism but not theft, and while his costs for his loses were minimal, Engiles said the time it took to get business back to normal was crippling.
“All together, it probably doesn't hit $500,” he said, “but there’s certainly an annoyance factor.”
Engiles and Wooten said even the marine goods belonging to their residential neighbors aren’t safe.
Thieves stole a boat motor parked on a homestead next to Crystal River Watersports, according to Engiles.
“This area is full of crimes of opportunity,” he said.
Novy said the number of boating thefts, especially against dealerships, have subsided over the years in the county's coastal communities, but thieves do still sometimes take smaller things from properties.
Wooten said she sees at least a post a week on social media from nearby homeowners saying their stolen property was for sale.
“You just hear about it through the grapevine,” she said. “Lock it up!”
Wooten said she hopes her neighbors learn from her misfortunes by better safeguarding their expensive water wear.
“If they want to steal from you, they’ll do it once, twice, three times,” she said. “We all got to look out for each other.”