SNOW HILL – A Virginia man accused of stealing a sport fishing boat from a marina in West Ocean City in October before crashing the vessel into the Route 50 bridge and running it aground on a sandbar pleaded guilty last week in District Court to an amended charge of unauthorized removal of property and now faces a minimum mandatory sentence of six months in jail.
The bizarre case began shortly after 1 a.m. on Oct. 2 when a witness, an employee of the nearby Harborside Bar and Grille on the commercial harbor, reported a 47-foot sport fishing boat called the “Hooked Up” leaving the harbor dragging its moor lines behind with an unknown suspect at the helm. The witness knew the boat owner and knew that whoever was behind the wheel was likely stealing the vessel.
The alleged boat thief, later identified as Christopher Bornaschella, 24, of Chincoteague, allegedly stole the “Hooked Up” from Fisherman’s Marina at the foot of the commercial harbor and attempted to flee when the boat’s propeller became disabled and the vessel crashed into the Route 50 Bridge as many as three times. Bornaschella apparently did not untie the boat from its moorings before pulling out of the slip, breaking off a piling and dragging it behind the vessel.
Eventually, the rope tied to the piling got wrapped around the boat’s propeller and disabled the vessel, hampering its navigation ability. It apparently didn’t help that the suspect, Bornaschella, was intoxicated at the time and later admitted as much to police. After striking the bridge, the “Hooked Up” ran aground just south of the span.
Maryland Natural Resource Police (NRP) personnel arrived on the scene shortly thereafter and questioned Bornaschella, who told police another man he met earlier that night known only as “John” had stolen the boat with him and he believed “John” had gone overboard during the collision with the bridge. The conversation touched off a massive search effort for the missing man including Coast Guard and NRP vessels along with a Coast Guard helicopter.
The search briefly focused on a man named John Edward Cropper, a local waterman, but Cropper eventually turned up unharmed and was never implicated in the boat theft. The search was eventually called off and it remains uncertain if there ever was a man named John involved in the theft or if he had ever been on the boat.
Bornaschella was arrested by NRP officers on the vessel and taken to the Maryland State Police barrack in Berlin for processing. He was charged with felony theft over $500, operating a vessel while intoxicated and operating a vessel in a reckless manner. In addition, he was found wanted in Virginia on a warrant for burglary and theft.
Last week in District Court in Snow Hill, Bornaschella pleaded guilty to an amended charge of unauthorized removal of property. The amended charge is a misdemeanor that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of six months in jail and a maximum sentence of four years. Under the statute, a person convicted of the charge shall restore the property taken, or if unable to restore the property, pay its owner the full value of the property.
District Court Judge Gerald Purnell accepted the guilty plea and ordered Bornaschella held without bail while holding the case in “sub curia,” or literally under the law, while a full extensive investigation is undertaken. It essentially boils down to a pre-sentence investigation, but the court will make an effort to determine Bornaschella’s ability to pay restitution to the owner of the “Hooked Up” before determining his sentence.
The boat is valued at an estimated $450,000, but its damages as a result of the theft and grounding are not known. Bornaschella is scheduled to return to District Court on Dec. 28 for sentencing.