By Gene Kira, August 11, 2003, as published in Western Outdoor News:
This is an ugly one.
As reported last week by Western Outdoor News editor Bill Karr, thirty, fully paid-up anglers were left stranded on the dock, Sunday, July 27, when the sportfishing panga mothership Capitan Villegas refused to sail on a scheduled trip out of his home port of San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico.
Another thirty or forty Capitan Villegas clients on two other trips are still at risk of being cheated. The boat is dead in the water, its shattered reputation spreading a big stink over the whole San Felipe marina and a mothership industry with a fifty-year tradition.
How did this rotten screw-up happen?
In a near-replay of the problems they had last year with another San Felipe mothership, the Erik, the booking agents for these trips--Ernie Peñaloza and his former partner, Gordon Bryne, d.b.a. Baja Sportfishing Tours and/or Cortez/Pacific--collected the money but didn't deliver it to the boat's owner, in this case, Hector Villegas.
Last year, the harpoon hit Gustavo Velez of the Erik, who says his dealings with Peñaloza and Byrne cost him roughly $45,000 in free replacement trips that he gave stranded clients in order to save his boat's reputation.
This year, Hector Villegas is possibly looking at a comparable amount, for free trips to save his reputation.
I may not have an M.B.A., but this does not seem to me like a very profitable way to do business.
Considering all their nightmarish problems last year, the biggest question in my mind has always been why Hector Villegas would hire Peñaloza-Byrne as agents in the first place.
Last week, I met with Villegas, and determined the following:
1. Villegas says he was unaware of Peñaloza-Byrne's earlier problems with the Erik. Frankly, I find this claim harder to swallow than a 600-pound black sea bass. Much more likely, I think, would have been the false hope that the estranged booking agents would unscrupulously make use of the Erik's old customer list to sell a lot of trips for the Villegas. If that was the idea, it turned out to be mistaken; Peñaloza-Byrne only managed to sell a disastrously inadequate seven trips.
2. After four paid up San Felipe fishing trips earlier this season, Hector Villegas suddenly received no money for the stranded clients' trip, nor for two subsequent trips, either from Peñaloza, or from Byrne, who recently disassociated himself from the business.
3. Villegas said he did not abandon the clients on the dock, as some have asserted. On Saturday, just prior to the scheduled departure, he was waiting at the Wells Fargo Bank in San Ysidro, Calif., desperately hoping for the money to arrive from Peñaloza at the last second. He was in cell phone contact with his San Felipe guide, Victor Romero, ready to order the crew to work all night long, if necessary, to get the boat ready to leave on Sunday morning. But the money never arrived.
4. His last contact with his agent was during a call that Saturday, when he pleaded with Peñaloza, "I can't go (without the money to buy fuel and food)! They are in San Felipe! What am I going to do?" At that point, Villegas said, Peñaloza responded, "No fué posible," it wasn't possible, and hung up. Despite numerous calls and a fax, Villegas said, he had not been able to reach Peñaloza since then.
Two weeks earlier, Villegas said, another trip departed San Felipe a day late, after Peñaloza finally did send the money, but not in time for a normal departure.
Based on that experience, Villegas said he made a mistake with the July 27 trip, during a conference call between himself, his interpreter Franco de Casas of Vista, Calif., and the trip's charter master, Doug Boyd, of Laguna Hills, Calif., Villegas said when Boyd assured him that all monies due for the trip had been deposited with the agent, he mistakenly assumed the funds would eventually be passed through to him, just as they had two weeks earlier.
"That was why I told Doug Boyd the boat would leave for sure," Villegas said. "But the money never came."
It should be noted that charter master Boyd has a very different recollection of that crucial conversation. "We had a three-way call," Boyd said. "Hector (Villegas) told me, 'you've been a good customer. I will make sure the boat goes, even if I don't get the money from Ernesto (Peñaloza).' I asked him to repeat it three times."
As a result of Villegas' misspoken promise, and its subsequent failure, Boyd's group traveled to San Felipe and was left on the dock, while Villegas waited at the bank on Saturday and frantically tried to contact Peñaloza. By Sunday, it was too late, with the banks closed, and Villegas said he instructed his guide, Victor, to attempt to locate as many clients as possible in San Felipe and tell them the boat could not leave. (Villegas himself speaks only halting English.)
Since then, Villegas said, he has come to an agreement to give the Boyd charter group a free boat next year, regardless of whether or not he ever receives the money from Peñaloza. Boyd himself said he felt a free trip was fully justified, given the travel expenses of clients coming from all over the country.
For another group, headed by Claudio Beltran, Villegas said, he will give individual free trips, or half-price trips if they receive refunds from Peñaloza.
A third group, organized by Harold Davis of Davis Boats in Paso Robles, CA, should run as originally planned, thanks to the commitment of Davis himself, who said he is planning to make up for his group's missing deposits out of his own wallet. "Hector has been good to work with," Davis said of the Capitan Villegas' owner. But he had another opinion of booking agent Peñaloza: "He (Peñaloza) said he spent my deposit money to print brochures and things. I said, 'Well, I guess that means I'm going to have to come after you for it.' He said, 'Get in line.' That set me off like a rocket." In addition to taking care of his clients, Davis said he plans to recover his money from Peñaloza by legal means.
Contacted by phone last week, Peñaloza characterized his relationship with the Capt. Villegas as a partnership, not a booking agency, and said that promotional expenses and a lack of clients had left him with insufficient funds to pay Villegas in full for the trips (the July 27 trip, nevertheless, was completely booked with thirty, fully-paid clients). He said that when Villegas refused to run the boat with partial payments, he, Peñaloza, decided not to send any money at all. "We would have broken-even by September," Peñaloza said, "and it would have worked out."
Both parties to the dispute said they never had a written contract or partnership agreement to define their relationship formally.
Peñaloza said he is working with the local police department (Santa Paula, CA), who, he said, have told him not to make refunds to clients directly, but to work through them. He said no charges have been filed against him, and that he is attempting to refund the money. Referring to his similar dispute with the Erik last year, Peñaloza said four clients of that boat still have not received their refunds.
Hector Villegas was scheduled to meet in Santa Paula last week with investigating police detective Joey de los Reyes, who said persons with information on the case may call him at 805-933-4236. On Friday, Doug Boyd said the Santa Paula police department told him Ernie Peñaloza had delivered a "substantial check" to them, but it was unknown how much of the missing money it represented.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This scandal does not involve the other three San Felipe motherships--Celia Angelina, Erik, or Jose Andres--who either book for themselves, or have very reputable booking agents (Jigstop and Longfin).
Hopefully, Hector Villegas will make good on his promises, survive this financial disaster, find an honest and reliable agent, and reestablish a good reputation for the Capitan Villegas as well.
Said the beleaguered boat owner: "I want to apologize to the fishing community. I've been doing this for 13 years. I want to recover my reputation. I am now looking for a new agent, and at the appropriate time, I will let everybody know who it is."
In all of that, I wish him buena suerte. C'mon, Hector, let's do it.
(Related San Felipe articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main San Felipe information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the San Felipe area in "Mexico Fishing News.")