A Costa Mesa man pleaded not guilty Wednesday to stealing a yacht in Newport Harbor on the last day of the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade.
Theodore Liko Wilson, 24, entered not guilty pleas to felony burglary, felony unlawful taking of a vehicle and felony vandalism as well as six misdemeanor counts related to driving under the influence, resisting arrest and operating a vessel under the influence.
At 3:45 p.m. Dec. 23 — less than three hours before the harbor boat parade was scheduled to begin — Newport Beach police and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol responded to calls of a “boat traveling erratically” in the harbor near the 2300 block of Newport Boulevard, sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.
Harbor Patrol personnel were told that the 70-foot yacht, named Gambler, had been stolen, the Sheriff’s Department said.
The person driving the boat “was unresponsive to commands and attempted to accelerate and steer the boat away,” the department said.
A Newport Beach police officer and a sheriff’s deputy boarded the moving boat and gained control of it within minutes, authorities said.
The deputy suffered minor injuries, including cuts and scrapes, while trying to breach the cabin, Braun said.
Wilson was arrested and booked into Orange County Jail, authorities said.
“Obviously this was a significant hazard,” said Braun, noting the number of vessels in the harbor at the time. “There was a lot of concern for life and safety of all individuals in the harbor.”
Justin Aveni, 36, of Fontana was at Woody’s Wharf on Newport Boulevard hours before the boat parade, which he and his friends planned to watch, when he noticed that the large yacht appeared to lose power as it was leaving its dock, then regained it.
“You could see on the left side of the boat ropes and buoys were still hanging out of the boat,” Aveni said.
“Usually on boats like that there are people pulling up buoys,” he said, adding that the yacht appeared to have no crew onboard.
Then the owner of the yacht, a custom 1989 Nordlund, went to Woody’s Wharf and said, “That’s my boat, can somebody take me to it?” Aveni said.
“Let’s get this dude a ride,” Aveni said he told a friend who had a boat docked nearby.
The Gambler “started accelerating rapidly forward and then in reverse,” Aveni said.
At one point, the yacht was speeding toward an electric boat while its passengers were “screaming while trying to get away,” Aveni said. The yacht stopped about 30 feet short of colliding with the small boat, he said.
Aveni and his friends piloted their boat toward the Gambler until a Harbor Patrol vessel tried to stop them.
“We have the owner of the boat — that boat was stolen,” Aveni said they told a Harbor Patrol deputy.
“That’s when everyone realized there was problem,” Aveni said.
The yacht was damaged, though the extent was unclear. The owner could not be reached for comment.