In today's episode, we look at the first act of the Houseboat Mafia, scourge of the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Keys. How could two mild-mannered Midwesterners, a friendly beach bum, and an aging trophy wife turn into one of the most fearsome pirate crews of the modern era? Find out here, only on Liminal Criminals.
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CONTENT WARNING: Liminal Criminals is a fictional crime/comedy podcast, and contains elements which may not be suitable for all audiences. Listener discretion is advised.
Florida, 1993. The Effluence, a superyacht belonging to glassware oligarch Melvin Pleasance, is rocked by an explosion that pierces its hull, condemning it to the briny deep off the shores of Key Mammon. Bystanders believe it was a freak accident. They are proven wrong when six more craft are capsized in harbor. When investigators search the damaged ships, they find that all seven had been picked clean of valuables. This is the story of the perpetrators. This is the story of how a middle-aged couple and a gang of beach bums changed the annals of pirate history. This is the story of the Houseboat Mafia.
I’m Sam Putnam. And you’re listening...to Liminal Criminals.
The Gulf of Mexico’s pirate lords were not nautically inclined from birth. Mary Armand, Queen of the Gulf, was an elementary school teacher. Her husband and King of the Waves, Ben Clarkson, was an assistant manager at the local Omnimart. The two were born in 1945 in Apple Caverns, Missouri, a northern exurb of Saint Louis. The two began dating in high school, where Armand was class president and Clarkson ran track. The two attended the University of Missouri in Saint Louis, and wed soon after graduating in 1968. Their daughter, Ava Clarkson, was born shortly thereafter.
Life was good for the Clarkson family. Ben was, by all accounts, a devoted husband and father, while Mary was an equally loving wife and mother. Ava displayed a natural aptitude for academics, and in 1985, she was accepted to Washington University in St. Louis on a full-ride scholarship. With their daughter having fled the nest, Ben and Mary decided to sell their home and move into a houseboat, which they christened the Clean Getaway. The couple was content with their new life. A former coworker of Ben’s, Jeffery Molina, told biographer Mel Peters, “I had never seen a couple so happily in love. Seriously, it was disgusting. I hated that bastard.”
The family’s fortunes turned for the worse in 1986, when corporate restructuring of Omnimart lead to a round of brutal layoffs. Among the now-unemployed was Ben Clarkson. To supplement their diminished income, the Clarksons became quote-unquote “investors,” in DigiFish Incorporated. DigiFish offered its marks an opportunity for self-employment selling prototypical singing animatronic fish that used primitive MIDI and voice-synthesis technology. The couple used their home as collateral to take out a loan to buy several dozen units, which they believed they could resell for a hefty return. Regrettably for the them, DigiFish was not only a forerunner in the field of novelty consumer electronics, it was also a pioneer in multilevel marketing scams and Ponzi schemes, and few “investors” in the company ever saw a dime of profit. To make matters worse, these early singing animatronic fish were far inferior to their modern counterparts. Rather than singing “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” in a familiar voice, these fish droned out “Crossroad Blues” in an uncanny electronic screech, often without prompting. Over the next year and a half, the Clarksons struggled to sell their disturbing wares. The debt that they incurred to purchase them worsened, and the possibility of their home being repossessed grew ever more plausible. In September of 1987, the couple could no longer take it. Financially-unstable, angry, and laden with shrieking mechanical nightmare-fish, they unmoored their craft from the dock at the Mississippi Belle Marina and began the long journey south.
The journey was not kind to the Clarksons, or to the Clean Getaway. A series of storms in the fall of 1987 made the river waters treacherous, and by the time that the rickety houseboat had cleared the southern border of Missouri, it was barely functional. The boat limped into the Mud Palace Marina in Memphis Tennessee, where the Clarksons’ lives continued to spiral out of control.
The Mud Palace Marina was run by Darryl McIntyre, a local celebrity who also ran Darryl’s Discount Boat Repair and the Carp Shack, a local seafood restaurant. Upon seeing the shambling wreck that was the Clean Getaway, McIntyre offered to get the vessel into river-worthy conditions for “a reasonable fee.”
Over the ensuing weeks that it took to repair the Clean Getaway, McIntyre and the Clarksons developed a rapport of sorts. In a rare interview, Mary Clarkson told biographer Mel Peters that she and her husband had explained the events that led to their fateful journey to McIntyre, and that McIntyre had agreed to repair the boat for two payments of novelty fish, the first consisting of four bluegills which sang “Dias Irae,” and the second consisting of two pike which sang “Hellhound on my Trail.”
This alleged arrangement went south on October 27th\, shortly after repairs on the Clean Getaway were finished. At around 2 AM, Clarkson walked two blocks over to the Carp Shack, where McIntyre was attending to the establishment’s finances. He was carrying a bag containing two singing electronic pike.
What happened that night is unclear. According to Clarkson’s interview with Mel Peters, he had walked to the Carp Shack with the intention of delivering his second payment, when McIntyre attempted to renege on their deal. Clarkson claimed that McIntyre suddenly demanded cash, and threatened to inform both DigiFish and the debt collectors hounding Clarkson of his location. Xavier Leng, crime reporter for the Memphis Mumbler, disputes this claim, citing local sources on the Memphis riverfront to suggest that McIntyre was using Clarkson to transport contraband around the city. According to Leng, the argument had regarded a missing shipment of cocaine and counterfeit bobbleheads, which McIntyre suspected Clarkson of stealing. Harold Larold, a Facebook friend of mine from high school, offers a third story, namely, that Clarkson had been infected by a bioengineered fungus that hijacked his brain and turned him into a pawn of the Illuminati. Regardless of the story, the evidence offered for it, or the lack thereof, the result was the same. Benjamin Clarkson bludgeoned Darryl McIntyre to death with a singing plastic fish, stole 1200 dollars from the Carp Shack lock box, and fled back to his houseboat.
At 6 AM, Carp Shack server Alexandria Fontaine came into work to find her boss dead, with a novelty pike tunelessly droning its Robert Johnson cover next to his bleeding corpse. By then, however, the Clarksons had already begun their escape down the Mississippi.
A combination of blind luck and police error preserved the couple on their fraught voyage to the Gulf. When McIntyre’s body was discovered, the Memphis PD was unable to determine whose fingerprints were on the murder weapon. McIntyre had destroyed any records of doing business with Clarkson; the Mud Palace Marina ledger indicated that the dock had been used by one John Smith, owner of a fishing vessel dubbed the S.S. Incognito. Moreover, the presence of a singing robot pike further concealed the fugitive’s tracks, as Ben Clarkson’s MO was inadvertently identical to that of the DigiFish Killer, who was then running rampant in Memphis. By the time that Detective Adrian Wilcox of the Memphis pd had identified the Clarksons as potential suspects, the two had already made it to New Orleans.
After making the last leg of their trip into the Gulf of Mexico, the couple laid low for a few weeks. They puttered along the coast until they reached the town of Clam Hole, Alabama, where they holed up at an abandoned dock. While Clam Hole was a desolate village of 200 people, it had the two things that the Clarksons needed the most. First, it had a usable dock. Second, its populace were utterly indifferent to the presence of the strange new houseboat floating off the edge of their town, preferring to silently wish it would go away. For the remainder of 1987, the Clarksons were able to make do with what they had.
As the new year rolled around, however, the Clarksons began to run low on funds. Upkeep on the Clean Getaway was burning through their meager resources. The nearest grocery store was five miles inland, and added a 50 percent surcharge when selling to Yankees. The clams along the Alabama beaches were hard to gather, and their flesh was mildly hallucinogenic, a symptom that did not gel well with the fact that the animatronic fish aboard the Clean Getaway could still sing. In her interview with Mel Peters, Mary Clarkson explained, “Ben wanted to stay another couple of days until we could find more fuel, but then one of the Billy Bluegills we had on board turned towards us and began speaking in Aramaic. That was when we knew that we had to leave. We had to think of a plan and get out of town.” The next day, the couple walked into town to the local Omnimart, where they purchased a pair of shotguns, ammo and ski masks with what little money they had left. They returned to their ship and set sail to the east. Two days later, they landed in Cape Ensenada, Florida, a small town of about fifteen hundred people. They barely had to set foot on dry land to find their first target. Cape Ensenada may have been small, but it was home to Bait Master’s Fishing Supply and Liquor Store, the pride and joy of Sandbar County, Florida. Located just off of the quiet Cape Ensenada marina, Bait Master’s was undergoing its typical early-morning lull in customers. It was conveniently-located, well-stocked, and pleasantly quiet. In short, it made the perfect target for two fledgling robbers. With masks donned and guns drawn, Ben and Mary Clarkson walked into Bait Masters’ Fishing Supply and Liquor Store and screamed for everyone to get on the ground.
Chaos ensued. Two customers drew their guns and turned to face their assailants, but were immediately blown away for their trouble. After a brief standoff and the Clarkson’s repeated orders for everyone to drop their guns and get against the wall, the two still-living customers, and the store owner Brett Masters, complied with the robbers’ orders. The pair tied up Masters with zip-ties and a ball of twine, then barked their orders at the captives. One was to begin loading cash and supplies onto a dolly, while the other went outside, followed by Mary Clarkson, to cut the phone lines. Once they had gathered enough, cash, alcohol, and tubs of what they were assured was food, the Clarksons ordered their victims to haul the materials to the boat and load them on. Their heist complete, the couple then marched the hapless customers back to the store, restrained them alongside Masters, and ran from the store back to their boat.
The Clarksons fled before any of the victims were able to escape from their bonds. Unfortunately for the fugitives, while they were now richer in money, liquor, and premium live bait, they were not as rich in fuel. Almost out of gas and not wanting to be be left adrift in the middle of the Gulf during a manhunt, the two pulled into the nearest dock and hoped for the best.
They got what they hoped for. the Clarksons had just pulled into unincorporated settlement of Los Borrachos, Florida. While it now stood in disrepair and poverty, Los Borrachos was once the eastern Mecca for beach bums, tropical drink enthusiasts, and elderly swingers. It is the home of the Mega Mai-Tai, the International Tropical Shirt Festival, and the world’s second-highest concentration of Jimmy Buffet tribute bands. The Clarksons, laden with high-proof liquor and kitsch, had found a safe haven. While bartering their questionable spirits and nightmare robo-fish in exchange for food and fuel, they met the man who would change their lives. They stumbled on Richard Dox, known to his friends as Dockside Dick.
Like his fellow citizens of Los Borrachos, Dockside Dick was down on his luck and had no great fondness for the law. Unlike his fellow citizens, he had vision and serendipity on his side. Sensing that these new arrivals were kindred spirits, he told them of Los Borrachos’ litany of woes. The town’s attempts to become incorporated were laughed off by the county. Sporadic visits from the county sheriff’s department were the de facto form of municipal governance. No citizen of Los Borrachos was legally allowed to drive. Faced with a sympathetic ear, the Clarksons broke down and confessed their numerous crimes to their new brother-in-arms. As the three commiserated over their lives well into the night, a realization dawned on them. If life had given them lemons, they would make lemonade. Lemonade which they would then ferment and distill into something flammable.
The next day, with his new best friends in tow, Dockside Dick gathered as many of the conscious citizens of Los Borrachos as he could, shepherding them towards the 30-year-old Winnebago that served as the area’s city hall. In a rousing speech, Dockside told the people of Los Borrachos that today, their years of disenfranchisement and alienation were over. “We may not have a proper town hall,” proclaimed Dick, “We may not have a functioning power grid. We may not have a single driver’s license in town. But today, none of that matters. Today, we have hope. Today, we have a pair of armed murderers on a rickety houseboat that is wanted by every cop from here to Memphis! And they still! Have! More! Liquor!”
Amid the raucous applause of the crowd, Ben Clarkson privately raised an objection to Dockside Dick’s speech. They did not, in fact, have any more liquor, having traded it all for fuel, ammunition, and nearly-expired Hot Pockets. Riding high from his own speech, Dockside ushered the two back towards the shore, bringing a trusted few of his confidantes along from the crowd. With determination in his heart, glory on his mind, and a six-pack of off-brand wine coolers coursing through his veins, he led the two to the Los Borrachos marina, where he revealed his plan to drive his people to new heights of preeminence and intoxication.
Dockside Dick was the proud owner of the Coked Up Seagull, a trawler he had named after a beloved childhood pet. Unbeknownst to his fellow citizens of Los Borrachos, Dockside Dick was a boat mechanic in a prior life, and had spent the past ten years souping up his craft to keep his skills sharp. The Coked Up Seagull was not a pretty craft; while Dockside had lavished his attention upon the mechanical workings of the vessel, he had done little for its appearance. He had taken to painting its exterior with whatever boat paints, marine varnishes, or colorful fluids he could get his hands on. This approach left the boat looking like something that could charitably be called “A mess of sheet metal and dried-out whale vomit.” It reeked of dead fish, dead rats, and dead hopes. Its engines, when gunned, sounded less like a boat and more like a seaborne industrial accident. But it was fast, it was resilient, and unlike the Clean Getaway, it was rated for deep water. In short, it was the perfect craft for a gang of latter-day pirates. With a hearty, but bleary, wave Dockside, the Clarksons, and the fledgling pirate crew boarded the vessel and bid farewell to their hometown, claiming that they were going out for cigarettes.
The comparative lack of survivors from the Houseboat Mafia’s early raids makes it difficult to establish a clear timeline of their exploits. Dockside Dick was known to brag that their first raid was conducted on the Tiny Fish, a private yacht belonging to Ontario canning tycoon Michael St-Pierre. Conversely, both Ben and Mary Clarkson insisted that their first target was the Samurai, a yacht owned by Jeffery Owens. Biographer Mel Peters lends more credence to the latter theory.
Owens was a corporate attorney based in Tampa, who was described by his colleagues as “Exuberant,” “Obsessed with what he thought was Japanese culture,” and “Honestly kind of a jagoff.” He and his long-suffering wife, Cynthia Owens, nee Hawke, had taken the Samurai up to the panhandle on something that Jeffery referred to as his “Journey as a Ronin Warrior” This fact has been confirmed by Owens’ coworkers. This is a thing that he actually said.
According to the Clarksons, the raid on the Samurai was as fast and brutal as it was clumsy and unprofessional. Dockside Dick sped the Coked-Up Seagull up to the target as Mary Clarkson fired a warning blast of buckshot at the boat, hoping to damage its engines. Unbeknownst to the dilettante pirates, however, the Samurai not only sported a koi-themed paint job, a hibachi grill, and a genuinely garish number of katanas in its internal décor, but also had been outfitted with enough armor over its hull and engines to deflect small-arms fire. Rather than leaving the Samurai dead in the water, Clarkson had instead awakened its twitchy, irascible captain.
In a stroke of good luck for the crew of the Coked-Up Seagull, Jeffery Owens was not the type of person to radio for help when under assault by a gang of pirates. In a stroke of bad luck for the crew of the Coked-Up Seagull, he was the type to carry questionably-legal modified automatic rifles on his personal yacht. The pirate crew was met with a hail of gunfire, blistering in intensity and lacking in accuracy. Owens devotion to the “spray and pray” method of marksmanship was accompanied, however, by his obsessive hoarding of ammunition. He could have potentially kept up his assault against the rickety vessel for several minutes. Through the power of large numbers, a handful of bullets struck the Coked-Up Seagull. While the bullets missed all living targets aboard the ship, they made a bit of an impression on the fresh-faced crew. Faced with an onslaught of suppressing fire, Dockside Dick wisely decided to turn the ship around and flee as his crew fired a parting shots at their would-be victim.
They needn’t have bothered. While Jeffery Owens unleashed hell upon his assailants, his wife Cynthia had, evidently had enough. Jeffery met Cynthia at the age of 43, while she was a student at Tampa Bay Technical College. Taken with Owens’ wealth and seeming worldliness, she dropped out to pursue a new career as Owens’ housewife. As Jeffery aged, grew more erratic, and developed a series of ever-more-obnoxious hobbies, a rage began to bubble in Cynthia’s heart. Having subsisted on a diet of daytime television, rotten sushi, and regret, she was in no mood to brook her husband waking her up, still hungover, with incessant gunfire. Her response to this indignity was measured and proportionate. Cynthia Owens strode over to one of the walls of the ship and grabbed Chinpoko, one of the few katanas on board the Samurai that had an edge. She crept up on her husband as he laughed, screamed one of the five Japanese words he actually knew, and emptied his magazines into the water. Whipping out Chipoko, she charged towards Jeffery, unleashing a guttural howl. As the preoccupied attorney turned to face his charging spouse, she swung her blade at him, decapitating him in a single blow. The momentum of Cynthia’s charge had knocked Jeffery backwards, causing his head to drop unceremoniously into the water below, which was followed by his staggering corpse shortly thereafter.
Confronted with this sight, Dockside Dick turned the Coked-Up Seagull back towards the Samurai. In a later interview with crime journalist Davy Logan, he said, “The moment I saw Cynthia take that dude’s head off, I felt good about her. I’d say I was in love, if I weren’t afraid of her. Seriously, don’t tell her I said any of this.” The reborn Cynthia Hawke, for her part, had a mutual sentiment towards the crew of the Seagull. “I was pissed-off, hung-over, and had just decapitated my jackass husband with a sword. I took a look at Ben, Mary and Dockside and knew who they were. They were my kind of people.” Dockside Dick and the Clarksons boarded the Samurai and introduced themselves to their savior. They explained their lives and motives to her, and she, in turn offered a deal. Provided that she had a place in the nascent gang, and provided that said gang would get her husband’s tacky crap off the ship, she would ensure that the militant wing of Los Borrachos Florida would enjoy the fruits of Jeffery Owens’ fortune and private bar. The crew of the Coked-Up Seagull agreed instantaneously, and began to haul back a few dozen handles of liquor, several bundles of decorative swords, and Jeffery Owens’ hibachi grill. The people of Los Borrachos enjoyed all three of these for the ensuing weeks, and mercifully suffered only eleven severe injuries from their use.
Cynthia Hawke, now short a husband, surrendered her ship to her new comrades. They dropped her off in Bayport, and she got a cab back to Tampa. As she got out of the taxi in front of her home, she perfected her cover story. She would tell people that on their excursion, Jeffery had met an exchange student and run off with her, taking the craft and abandoning his wife. She knew the lie would hold up for the handful of weeks she would need to drain the shared bank account sell their home for a song, leave a voicemail for Derek, Jeffry's idiot son from a prior marriage, informing him that she was taking the rest of his tuition money, and vanish. In mid-March, her plans came to fruition. In the wee hours of the balmy spring morning, she lit a cigarette, loaded a handtruck with boxes of cash and valuables, and strode out to the private dock of her beachside home. There, concealed in the darkness, awaited Dick and the Clarksons, having come to return the Samurai to its new rightful owner. Strapped down with millions of dollars, gallons of alcohol, and boxes of ammo, she boarded the Samurai and claimed her seat as captain of the vessel.
As soon as Cynthia steered her craft out of port, she drew forth a bottle of champagne, strode onto the deck, and smashed it across the ship’s prow, rechristening it in her image.
And so, the newest member of the Houseboat Mafia’s pirate royalty piloted the Good Riddance into the horizon.
What has happened since then? We’ll find out in the next episode.
This has been Liminal Criminals. I’m Sam Putnam. I’ll see you next time, and remember: they have seen us.