Bogus boat buyer gives broker the slip Annapolis scheme suspect held in Italy

July 20, 1991|By Peter Hermann

ANNAPOLIS -- He said he was a German television producer who had covered the Persian Gulf War. He claimed he had bought a $1 million house off the South River near Annapolis and was looking for a yacht to take his wife and 9-year-old daughter sailing on Chesapeake Bay.

The stocky, muscular 52-year-old met several times since December with an Annapolis yacht broker. And when he came up with two checks for $310,000 at the end of June for a deposit, the broker let the man he described as an expert sailor take home the 51-foot sloop he intended to buy. Just to be sure it would fit in the slip at a house in the 2600 block of Green Briar Lane.

But the checks bounced, the Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 51, a French-built yacht worth $400,000, wound up at the bottom of the Atlantic, and Peter von Liebig Knips is in an Italian jail awaiting extradition to the United States to face federal charges.

Eric Smith, the owner of the Bay Yacht Agency, said he had trusted Mr. Knips because he had known him six months, his stories seemed to check out and he had financial statements showing that he had $200,000 in Farmers National Bank.

"It was the first time I ever had a person unsolicited show me a bank statement," Mr. Smith said. "It was a very sophisticated scheme."

The international odyssey started June 29 when, federal authorities say, Mr. Knips, also known as Wilhelm Peter Knips, took the boat for the test sail. Instead of returning it the next day as promised, he continued sailing, only to run into trouble July 3 when the boat developed steering problems in rough seas about 400 miles southeast of Cape May.

A British cargo ship, the Penteli, answered Mr. Knips' distress calls and took him, his wife and daughter off the sinking boat, according to FBI Special Agent Jim Dearborn.

Meanwhile, the two checks Mr. Smith had been given -- $179,000 from a German bank and $130,000 from Farmers National Bank -- bounced, the FBI said. Authorities sent a warrant for Mr. Knips to the cargo ship's next port in Gibraltar.

But the ship bypassed Gibraltar and instead went on to Taranto, in southern Italy, where Italian police arrested Mr. Knips about 3 a.m. Thursday as he stepped ashore. He is charged with interstate transportation of stolen property and transporting stolen property outside the three-mile limit of territorial waters.

His wife and daughter, whom authorities could not name, were not charged.

His arrest seems to have relieved those who knew him in Maryland, who now say much of what Mr. Knips, a smooth talker who usually dressed in slacks and open-collared shirts, told them has proved to be false. No one knows for sure if he works for a TV station in Germany, but they do know he never bought the house with the deep water slip on Crab Creek. In fact, the owner of the house said most of the rent checks from Mr. Knips bounced.

"He said he was a German television producer, made $600,000 a year," said Mr. Havas, who lives in Wilmington, Del. "I'm not sure I believed him, but my real estate agent said they did substantial checks on the guy."

When a third check bounced, Mr. Havas began to do some checking of his own. By then, Mr. Knips, his family and the yacht were gone.

While he lived in the house, Mr. Knips, who speaks with a thick German accent, threw at least one party and invited Mr. Smith, along with several neighbors.

It was the party, where he regaled everyone with stories from the war in the Middle East, that helped convince the yacht broker of his customer's trustworthiness.

"He invited us over and we met his neighbors," Mr. Smith said. "Everybody said what a wonderful fellow he was."

Vivian Kilsheimer, a neighbor who lived two doors away, said she went to the party but never talked with Mr. Knips except to exchange pleasantries. She said Mr. Knips told her he worked for a German newspaper.

Just before Mr. Knips disappeared with the boat, Ms. Kilsheimer said, she and her husband noticed the family's absence.

"They were only supposed to be gone a week," she said. "We would come in and out with our boat and always check to see if they were in. They were not in, so I figured they must be out having a good time somewhere."

At the same time, Mr. Smith was getting anxious about the fate of his yacht. When Mr. Knips was one day overdue, Mr. Smith chartered a plane and launched his own search. When that failed, he called the FBI.

The day before the British freighter received the distress signals, Mr. Smith joined federal agents in a search of the house. He said that they found numerous documents purporting to be U.S. Coast Guard licenses and bank statements and portfolios from an unnamed printing company.

Special Agent David Williams could not confirm if the house was searched.

Mr. Smith said that he hoped the arrest will scare off any who might try to con local yacht brokers. "I hope the message goes out that Annapolis is not an easy mark," he said.

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