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Sunken Ship Robbed of Everything but Lore

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The former cruise liner Princess Louise, marooned for months in a Terminal Island shipyard, has been plundered by divers who hauled away an estimated $50,000 worth of brass, hand-painted windows and other antique fixtures from the 70-year-old vessel, police said Wednesday.

The scavenging of the 330-foot ship, once known as “Queen of the Northern Seas,” has persuaded its pending owner to sell it for scrap rather than donate it to the state Department of Fish and Game, which planned to use it as an artificial reef for fishing and diving off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

“Why should I give it to divers after what has happened?” asked Wilem Boelman, whose Vancouver shipping and salvage firm this week raised the Princess Louise for the first time since it mysteriously capsized in dry dock Oct. 30.

The ship, owned by the Bank of San Pedro, will officially become the property of Boelman’s firm--Trinav Shipping Ltd.--once it is safely afloat for 24 hours, a milestone that could occur by this weekend.

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Laboring since early April to raise the 2,300-ton vessel from its side, salvage crews finally succeeded late Monday in lifting the ship sufficiently to begin repairs that might once again make it seaworthy enough for towing. Boelman said that when and if that happens, however, he will sell the vessel to a scrap steel yard in Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico, a port city about 120 miles north of Acapulco.

The looting of the Princess Louise is the latest sad entry in the ship’s log.

A San Pedro fixture for 20 years, the vessel fell on hard times in 1988 when its then-owner, who ran it as a dockside restaurant, filed for bankruptcy. The ship was repossessed by the Bank of San Pedro and the Harbor Department ordered it removed from its berth under the Vincent Thomas Bridge last year.

Then, as it went begging for a buyer, the vessel capsized in Berth 241 while undergoing repairs that might help its sale. The cause of the sinking is in dispute between the bank and Southwest Marine, the shipyard repairing the vessel when it capsized.

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What is not in dispute, however, is how the Princess Louise was plundered earlier this year by a handful of divers as it sat, on its starboard side and half-submerged, in the Terminal Island berth.

“They raped it,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Joe Bustos, who coordinated a Harbor Division investigation into the case.

According to Bustos and others, the divers, whose identities are known, pillaged the ship over the course of several months, even throwing an Easter weekend party atop its partially submerged hull. “They called it ‘The Rape of the Princess Louise’ party,” Boelman said.

But none of the divers will be prosecuted, police said, because Boelman’s testimony would be needed at legal proceedings and he says he cannot afford to return repeatedly from Vancouver to appear at them.

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Hauling off hundreds of brass fixtures, leaded windows and other items, the divers brazenly returned time and again to steal from the vessel, officials said. The thefts were discovered in early April.

“They took away everything they could unscrew, cut or burn away. It was just incredible,” said Boelman, who originally placed the loss at $35,000 but this week raised that estimate to $50,000.

Several weeks ago, he said, the identities of the thieves became known when some of the stolen items--including two huge ship’s wheels of Honduran mahogany--were found in a van outside the West Los Angeles home of one of the divers. “We caught the guy red-handed,” Boelman said.

Boelman said he agreed not to press charges if other fixtures stolen from the ship were returned. But, last week, the divers returned merely two bulbs from the ship’s brass lamps and insisted that was all they had taken, he said.

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Boelman said the divers’ refusal to return the stolen items persuaded him to cancel plans to sell the ship to state Department of Fish and Game for $1. Instead, he said, he is negotiating to sell the Princess Louise for an estimated $175,000 to the scrap yard in Mexico. “If we can work out a price, it’s theirs,” he said. In addition, Boelman’s firm and two other salvagers will split a $1-million salvage fee from Southwest Marine, which has been losing business while the ship sits at the bottom of its dry dock.

Lance Oak, president of the Bank of San Pedro, said Wednesday that while “the intent was to do something with the boat that would benefit local divers,” he doubted the bank had legal authority to challenge the decision now that the ship is afloat.

Boelman’s decision troubled John Grant, associate marine biologist for the local office of the Department of Fish and Game. “Certainly, I’m not angry with him because the boat has obviously been ripped off,” Grant said. “But I am disappointed that the boat will not be used as a reef. We put a lot of time and work into that plan. And it would have been a great project.”


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