Detroit Boat Detective: Cpn. Jeff Henderson

Yachts are expensive toys. HMS took a Hatteras one time and an Italian-made Sunseeker another time. Both yachts are in excess of $2.5mil each.”- Jeff Henderson

From 1987-2014, Harrison Marine Services (32575 S. River Road, Harrison Township, Michigan) was the largest boat repo business in the Midwest before owner and operator and Chief Boat Detective, Jeff Henderson, retired. That title is now held by National Liquidators in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During his peak, Jeff was locating boats for up to 20 banks, the U.S. Marshalls, D.E.A. and U.S. Customs.

In the Beginning

Harrison Marine Services (Harrison Twsp, MI)

“In the beginning, it was a one-man operation, it was just me. On my best day, I took 6 boats in one single day. Then it grew and I hired retired cops as field agents to help me locate boats. We usually recovered boats in a matter of days or weeks. Two weeks was our standard average. Harrison Marine did everything, A to Z, one-stop shopping for banks from recovering boats to their eventual sale. I would usually get a 10% commission rate.”

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“Originally, I wanted to do boats, planes, specialty vehicles, high-end stuff but we quickly began doing boats exclusively. Our territory was in the Great Lakes. As we grew, we covered down to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri over to Atlantic City and up to Minnesota. Wherever the loan went, we went. Also did a lot of work in Florida.”

“My gear for boat detective work was: bags, bolt cutters, tool kits, snorkel fins, flashlights, several guns (Glock, .38 snubnose, etc). We had a fleet of pickup trucks and hydraulic trailers to transport the boat back to Harrison. I would also always treat people with the utmost respect thru this process because I know that bad things happen to good people sometimes. Just because someone defaulted on a loan does not mean they’re a bad person.”

Jeff’s Biography

Cpn. Jeff Henderson

Jeff grew up in Shelby Township. He graduated Eisenhower HS 1978 and received his B.S. in Criminal Justice from Ferris State University in 1982.

“Jobs in law enforcement were hard to land, so I became a Police Officer for the U.S. Army. My official title was Military Police Investigator. I was stationed out of Fort Hood, Texas 1984-1987 and would investigate personnel on Army bases or any crimes involving military members. After a few years, I missed the transition of the four seasons, the leaves changing, so in 1987 I moved back to Michigan and ended up in the boat repo biz.”

Every Case Was a Detective Mystery

Harrison Marine Services (HMS)

“We took it all. Jet boats, Wave Runners, Zodiac dinghy’s, motor homes (in the early days), houseboats, pontoons, yachts, etc. Sea Rays (15 to 65ft) were the most popular boats that I took. I also took a lot of Bayliners, the blue collar Yugo of boats, before taking any yachts. Lot of banks got stuck with Bayliners that people had defaulted on. Oftentimes, the D.E.A. or U.S. Marshalls would seize a boat, have me drive it away and store it until the case was deposed then I would auction it off or they would. I would warehouse personal property found on-board the boat and we kept it until the boat sold. If nobody claimed it, it became ours to dispose of.”

“To locate a boat, we would start with a ‘Circle Search’ starting with where the target lived and worked. If you can find where they live and work, chances are they do their boating within 20-30 miles of their house. I had this character tell me one time, ‘you will never find my boat’. So as I’m driving his boat beneath the Ambassador Bridge, I called him back and said ‘Oh, really? I’m on your boat right now’. We located it in Canada over in LaSalle, Ontario.”

“After years of working with a huge variety of boats, you gradually became very good with mechanical stuff. For instance, if I had a breakdown in the middle of the lake, 90% of the time I could diagnose the problem. If I couldn’t, I would call, Michigan Marine Salvage, to come get me. Also, dealing with the conditions of the Great Lakes was rough. Sometimes I’d have to call up freighter captains to break the waves for us as we’re getting pummeled by waves, taking green water over the bow.”

Dealing with the Banks

Banks always win.

“The collection departments at banks have a collections specialist. Banks are provided very little information, thus, the info we often received from them was sketchy at best. Major banks like Bank of America, PNC, Citizens, JP Morgan, etc would send me lists of wanted boats. When I located a boat, I would tell them the hull number and they would look up the loan. Invoicing, gas, mileage, anything related to the recovery of the boat, the bank would pays us. The only thing that takes precedence over the bank’s loan is a maritime lien against the boat.”

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“I would charge the bank to locate, acquire, store, clean, inspect and eventually sell the boat. I would take charge of the repoed boat, send the bank a status report and ballpark value of the boat based on overall general appearance of the boat. Marina’s loved me too because the bank’s customers usually owed the marinas money so the marinas would get paid when the boat was located.”

Conditions for Marine Reposession

“When the outstanding loan reaches 90 days, the banks collection department puts it out for collection and the bank contacted me with a ‘Hold Harmless’ document and the order. They would give me the name, DOB and address and say go find it. They sometimes, but more often than not, would supply the MC number. This is the Marine Craft number, a boats license plate, supplied by the state of Michigan.”

Jeff’s Top 20 Most Memorable Cases:

Cpn. Jeff Henderson

1.) “The longest I’ve ever looked for a boat was 9 years. And it was by happenstance really that it was located. This guy lived in St. Clair, Michigan, ran a limo company and had a house in Florida. We could never locate him or his 42ft long Offshore “go-fast” boat. The case became one of those files you keep on your wall and stare at regularly. So one day I was talking to an attorney in Yale, Michigan who had handled my Aunt’s estate when she died. This attorney had been noted in the file with the bank and he knew where this boat was. He said ‘Oh yeah, I know that boat. It’s on a farm just west of Port Huron in a chicken coop.’ And sure enough, that’s where we found it. The boat was in a storage building on the property and had three quarters of an inch of dust on it.”
2.) “90% of the time it was me doing the detective work alone. I’ve been chased by dogs, I’ve had fist fights, I’ve thrown people off boats into the water. I have a concealed weapons permit and I’ve experienced many many close calls but thankfully never discharged my firearm. There was this one case, policeman was hiding a boat he had defaulted on. That area he was in had a lot of lakes with little channels and canals. I could see the boat behind the house but to get to it I had to navigate the canals. So, I get a Zodiac dinghy, locate it. I cut the line and I’m floating the boat away but he took the distributor cap off the motor, so we’re towing it instead of driving it. He comes home during all this. Next thing I know, he’s standing there pointing his service revolver at me. I take his flare gun out and tell him ‘I’ll blow it up. Just call your lawyer’.”
3.) “Another time in Memphis, Michigan, just north of Richmond, there was this motorcycle-trucker guy who had gotten into an accident and they had to cut his legs off. I went to the house, saw the trailer. I’m on the porch talking to the guy and his wife comes up behind him, racks a shotgun and points it at me. ‘Wow lady, I don’t know who pissed in your Cheerios but it wasn’t me’. I eventually located the boat in the water, 28-footer.”

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4.) “One time by Eastland Mall in Harper Woods, there was a boat on this guys property, it was fenced-in and locked. Can’t go on private property, it’s trespassing. So, I hired a crane and lifted it up over the fence and took it away.”
5.) “One of the Detroit Red Wings defensemen kept his boat behind the house of a man who owned a titty bar in Canada. I went there and a gorgeous woman in a very loose-fitting robe answers the door. She quickly gets the Red Wings lawyer on the phone and now we’re sitting at the table. Now she’s fully exposed, breasts hanging out and the lawyer is asking me ‘Is there any way you can leave this boat here today?’ I look at her and say ‘Yeah, sorry, I gotta take it’.”
6.) “One time I took a TV Televangelist’s boat down in Florida. When you opened the closest in the Master State Room, it was filled with S&M whips, dildos, sex toys, and a wide variety of female bathing suits for many different women.”
7.) “Professional scam-artists were usually quickly identified by ‘the 1st payment default’. They would acquire the boat with phony credentials, default on the first payment and zoom off with the boat. Banks would get 10 loans from boat dealers. Dealers would sell the loans to the banks and banks would buy them, including picking up marginal stuff from shady customers. Less than 3% of all loans went bad. Times were different then. There was the case of the scam-artist boat builder. He would make up hull numbers. Hull number is a 12-digit manufacturer’s number on the bank of the boat. So essentially, the bank would finance these ‘fantasy boats’. I approached him about one of the boats and he says it was stolen. So I called the police and had him fill out a police report. As soon as filled it out, he was arrested. Since the boat never existed in the first place, he just technically filed a false police report. He ended up getting 6 or 7 boats before he went to prison.”
8.) “One Detroit Tigers pitcher had a boat on a farm down in Ann Arbor. Then one of the Detroit Pistons defaulted. I went inside his garage right after he moved and took his Waverunner.”
9.) “The Detroit Red Wings guys had a couple boats on Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River area that we snapped up.”
10.) “We took boats from professional boxers, Detroit celebrities, etc. I sold boats to a few Detroit Lions but never repoed any boats from the Lions. A lot of wealthy sports players and celebrities are poor money managers and have people pay their bills for them and once in a while they would screw up.”
11.) “Biggest repo I ever did were two 90’ Tugboats back in the low-water days when harbors were being dredged. This one case, I went to a major yacht club in Detroit on a Sunday morning. I was taking the tugboats and a barge with this giant crane. Had to bring in a team on that one. Gave the worker $20.00 and said ‘go to the bar, you’re done working’.”
12.) “A guy actually stole a boat back from me one time. I didn’t disassemble the motor and he had an extra set of keys, so he cut the chain and took the boat out of Harrison Marine. I went back to his house with the Sheriff’s because it was theft at that point.”
13.) “Another guy has his boat ‘bubbled’ behind his house in the water in the Winter. People had ice rinks everywhere. So we came in there with a crane on top of a steel hull tug boat, ripped up all the ice rinks and took the boat. I felt bad.”
14.) “We handled several boats where deaths had occurred onboard. Somebody would die and the banks had us go get it.”
15.) “One time in St. Clair Shores, I opened the door to this boat and there’s a live parrot in there just hanging out. Took the boat, took the parrot, took everything. Guy finally came and took his parrot and guitar back and leaves.”
16.) “Another time, I was taking a boat out of the Mullett Lake near Cheboygan. There was no canvas on this Flybridge boat, flybridge meaning you’re sitting on top, not driving from down below. So I’m at the local Wal-Mart buying blankets to keep warm since I had to drive this thing from Mackinac to Detroit in April. It was a long cold journey.”
17.) “This one guy, north of Lake Orion, stored his boat on a hoist. And the bank wanted the hoist and boat. It was very tough to get. We ended up working all day, disassembling the entire hoist, put it inside his boat and hauled everything away.”
18.) “One time, picking up a boat at night, I’m just south of the Ambassador Bridge, had to pull off the freeway since the canvas was coming loose. I had fallen recently and was on crutches. So I pull on the off-ramp in a well-lit area to secure the canvas. I got out and I’m approached by two black guys who come out of nowhere, apparently they were living under the overpass. One guy starts to swing a glass bottle at my head, so I hit the guy in the throat with my crutch and I beat the shit out of the other guy with my other crutch, hop in the truck and zoom off.”
19.) “I found a boat by accident down in the British Virgin Islands one time when I was down there racing in a sailing event. The boat was moored in a cay, which is a cove or small harbor, with Ohio tags on it. I called on it and sure enough, it was a anted boat. However, the boat was in such bad shape, it wasn’t cost-effective to take it, so I left it.”
20.) “One time and one time only, the wrong boat was mistakenly taken. A marina in Wyandotte was given an owners MC number. He says ‘oh yeah, I know that mother*****, he stiffed me’ so he sends his guys to pick up the boat. They get the boat, drop it off at Harrison Marine. Everything is the same, color, make, model, year, everything…except the MC number is off by one digit. We were looking for 3497 and this was 3498. So, two days later, the owner of the boat calls me and says ‘you stole my boat.’ We had to comply with his all demands, what else could I do? It cost Harrison Marine $5,000 out of my own pocket. That was the one and only time.”

Taking a German TV Crew to Jobbie Nooner 2007

Jeff Henderson

German Television even came to film us at Harrison Marine in 2007 and I took them out to Jobbie Nooner! Girls were flashing them, they loved it. When the television special aired in Germany, it was Nicole Kidman, airplanes, diamond-encrusted dollar signs, American opulence, etc, then me, the Repo Man. After that, I was on the Repo Man reality TV Show. They came to Harrison Marine. If your face isn’t shaded or blurred out, you have to sign a waiver. I was on the front page of the New York Times. It goes out on the AP Wire. Suddenly, I’m on ABC News Nightline, 20/20, etc. They all came to Harrison Marine. However, around 2009-2010 the boating business just dropped. People simply stopped building, buying or selling boats like they used to. This swift drop-off in business forced me to cut back on staff. Eventually it just wasn’t profitable, so I retired.”

Captain Jeff the Full-Time Sailor

Cpn. Jeff Henderson, Commodore of Bayview Yacht Club

In 2012, Jeff was Commodore of Bayview Yacht Club (100 Clairepointe St, Detroit) one of America’s most prestigious yacht racing clubs with over 1,000 members and he is widely known for his yachting and sailing expertise.

40ft Beneteau Sailboat

“Now I’m a full-time Captain. I’m into sailing. I own a 40ft Beneteau sailboat and I have a center-counsel power boat, an old classic fiberglass 1974 Chris Craft. I’ve raced down the East Coast, Annapolis to Newport to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Key West Race Week. Miami in the winter. Heineken Regatta in St. Maarten. My top favorite places to sail are the British Virgin Islands, Saint Maarten and Antigua. Last year, I transported a boat about 900 miles from Cabo to San Diego.”

Final Thoughts

Commodore Maritime Service

Jeff is currently developing his boat captain business and he teaches first time boat owners how to handle boats and navigate the waters.

I used to be a Legal Pirate. If you didn’t pay your bills, I took your boat. I still love the water and now I’m a full-time Captain.

Commodore Maritime Service (Cpn. Jeff Henderson

Schedule a Boat Charter or Lessons with Jeff:

Bells Beer Bayview Mackinac Race 2015


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