The pain of the missing pleasure craft: Surrey family fights for return of its boat

When Matt and Justine Brown decided to sell their boat through a Surrey broker, they had no idea they'd be left high and dry — no boat, no money, and no one able to help get their property back.

Yet, they know exactly who has their boat.

Their 2007 Bayliner disappeared at Breakwater Marine last summer, right before the company was raided by the RCMP in a major fraud investigation. 

Then mysteriously, their boat showed up last month in the possession of a Pitt Meadows man, who claims he bought it.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

With ownership now in dispute, the RCMP, Transport Canada and the Brown's insurance company say there's nothing they can do.

"It just boggles my mind and doesn't make sense how it happened," said Matt Brown, 34. He says he and his wife are "completely devastated and just bewildered."

Justine Brown, 30, is unshakeable: "It's our boat 100 per cent."

But that's what the new owner says, too.

Fraud alleged

On July 20, the Browns consigned their six metre-long Bayliner with Breakwater Marine owner Aaron Fell.

Matt Brown/ supplied

Fell signed a contract promising they'd receive $17,000 — money the Browns felt would be better spent raising their two young boys.

But on Aug. 8, Surrey RCMP swept in to Breakwater Marine, alleging fraudulent business practices.

Fell was arrested but has not been charged. He has denied any criminal wrongdoing, saying he merely ran into financial difficulties.

The RCMP has appealed for potential victims to come forward.  

The Browns realized their boat was missing and opened a file with investigators.

They also contacted Transport Canada, which grants pleasure craft licences, alerting the regulator to the Breakwater raid — and asking it to be on the lookout for attempts to re-register their vessel's hull ID number. 

There were no leads for two months — then, a break.

'He ... drove away with your boat'

In October, Aaron Fell resurfaced on Facebook after his arrest.

When the Browns asked him what happened to their boat, Fell had a surprising answer — he claimed another customer had stolen the boat from his lot, just before the raid.

Google Street View

CBC News is withholding the customer's identity since he hasn't been charged with a crime. He, too, appears to have been caught up in Breakwater's meltdown.

"We owed him $8,000 for a consignment [on his boat]," wrote Fell in a text to the Browns. "And the next thing we knew he had hooked up and drove away with your boat." 

Armed with the name, the Browns hired a private investigator.

In December, the P.I. discovered their missing Bayliner in the yard of a Pitt Meadows mini-storage, just a block away from the man's home.

Christian Amundson/ CBC

Bill of sale discrepancies

But when the RCMP were called in, the man produced a bill of sale, purporting to show he had legally purchased the boat from Fell with an $8,000 trade-in and $8,500 in cash.

The new owner had used that document to register the Bayliner in his name with Transport Canada —  despite the Brown's earlier warning the boat had disappeared and despite discrepancies in the bill of sale.

The hull serial number was wrong by several characters but corrected in the online application for a pleasure craft licence issued by Transport Canada. 

Initially, police seized the Bayliner. But on Dec. 18, after the new owner's lawyer got involved, investigators returned the boat to the Pitt Meadows man.

The only thing the Browns ended up with was their boat trailer —  because police told them it was still registered in their name through the Insurance Corporation of B.C. and there had been no transfer of ownership.

Matt Brown/ supplied

It now sits empty in their driveway.

"It's a constant reminder of the frustration for us", said Matt Brown. 

'Wholeheartedly empathize' with Browns: RCMP

In a statement to CBC News, Ridge Meadows RCMP say they "wholeheartedly empathize" with the Browns but had no choice.

"Unfortunately ... two separate parties have reasonable documentation showing ownership and police cannot determine who lawfully purchased or owns this property," said Const. Julie Klaussner in a written statement. 

"Therefore, the avenue we are suggesting to resolve the matter is through a civil court process."

The Browns say they don't have money for a lawsuit against Fell or the new owner.

Transport Canada says it's in communication with police and "has provided all relevant files" but won't say more because the wider investigation against Breakwater is still active.

'I'd be livid'

Aaron Fell, contacted by the CBC, claims there was no fraud on his part —  and the bill of sale was simply a draft for a proposed deal he was trying to work out, before the customer drove off with the Brown's boat.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC

"My assumption was once I gave the RCMP and the Browns the information about the person that was trying to buy the boat, that they simply could just go to his house and take it because it's not paid for in full," said Fell.

"If I was the Browns, I'd be livid."

The CBC contacted the man who now possesses the Brown's Bayliner. He declined to comment.

'Do the right thing'

Matt Brown says he is frustrated and "let down big time" over the loss of his boat.

"It's $17,000 ... that's multiple years of savings for us," he said. "Whether it was potentially activities or trips or savings towards our sons' education, those options are gone for us now."

Justine has a simple appeal to the new owner.

"I would just hope that he would find kindness in his heart to realize ... he's been involved in something wrong, whether intentional or unintentional," she said.

"Help us out and do the right thing."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.