Mike Sanders started worrying about his $50,000 this spring when he heard rumors in boating circles about Bohnenkamp’s Whitewater Customs, the Boise business he commissioned to build his jet boat.
Sanders heard murmurs that boat production had stopped at the BWC office and warehouse on the corner of Morris Hill and Curtis roads. He heard owner Christopher Bohnenkamp might file for bankruptcy. Then he started calling Bohnenkamp’s cellphone and other phone numbers associated with the business, first to ask for progress reports, then to cancel the order. The calls went unanswered. The voicemail boxes were full and not accepting messages.
In May, Sanders said he received a call from the company telling him to pick up the boat and trailer he had paid for in June 2014. His boat was a partly completed hull. His trailer had no wheels, no lights, nothing but a metal skeleton.
Two weeks ago, Sanders thumbed through a pile of records in his South Boise home: the build order; the reply to his complaint to the Idaho Attorney General’s Office; the photocopy of the cashed $50,000 check. There is no record of the $7,500 aluminum propeller boat Sanders said he traded in to BWC and hasn’t seen since.
“I don’t care how much money you make, $50,000 is a lot of money to throw down the toilet,” said Sanders, a technician at Micron Technology.
Sanders wasn’t the only customer feeling shorted.
Bohnenkamp and his boat sales and manufacturing businesses have been sued multiple times by disgruntled customers and by companies looking to collect on unpaid bills. Four people filed formal complaints with the Idaho attorney general this year. Multiple customers told the Statesman that they have talked with the FBI.
Now, Bohnenkamp is working on a new endeavor: a boat tour company, Niagara Jet Adventures, in Niagara County, N.Y.
Bohnenkamp did not respond to calls. A person answering a call to the management extension at Niagara Jet as “Christopher” said Bohnenkamp was not available.
His lawyer, Mia Murphy in Meridian, said Bohnenkamp did not mean for this to happen. His business unexpectedly ran out of money, she told the Statesman, and now his customers are being uncooperative and hostile, threatening him and spreading misinformation instead of waiting for a team of four attorneys and two accountants to help Bohnenkamp make good on the customers’ purchases.
Murphy said the customers will have a resolution plan to look at in August or September, and many of them can pick up completed hulls now. She called the hulls “90 percent” of the finished product.
“We have been communicating with those boat owners who will communicate with us,” Murphy said in an interview. “Frankly, each and every one of these people — and there’s only about 17 — each and every one of them has a different set of circumstances ... from completely done boats, to boats that weren’t even started.”
John Basye, of McCall, said he has a “carcass of a hull” of a jet boat to show for the $130,000 he paid in April 2014.
Leland Spindler, who lives in Boise part of the year, told the Statesman he paid more than $100,000 in June 2014 for a boat he never received.
Brice Vineyard, of Coeur d’Alene, said he is out $65,000 paid upfront in August 2014 for a new jet boat, as well as his own boat that he traded in for an $8,000 credit toward the new one.
They and Sanders all said they were supposed to have their boats by now.
Vineyard said he is convinced that he will never see his money or a completed boat.
“I’ve been sitting back,” Vineyard said. “We’ve all been sitting back, waiting for all of this to unfold.”
Bohnenkamp’s first brush with broken financial obligations came in October 2009. He and his wife, Rachel Bohnenkamp, filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $4.7 million and assets of $765,000. At the time, they lived in Wilder, and Bohnenkamp was operating three businesses he had started in 2006 and 2008.
The filing included Bohnenkamp’s Custom Weld Marina — a business that sold boats but did not manufacture them, according to Bohnenkamp’s lawyer — on many of those unpaid bills. The bankruptcy showed $1.7 million owed to one creditor for “floored boats,” for example.
Custom Weld Marina was hit with two lawsuits in 2009.
A former employee sued in March 2009 for more than $4,000 in unpaid commission on a boat sale that went sideways and eventually yielded a separate lawsuit from the boat buyers. Bohnenkamp argued he did not owe the commission because the boat sale was fraught with problems. In July 2009, Bohnenkamp’s business settled, agreeing to pay the employee most of the commission.
A parts company sued both Bohnenkamp and Custom Weld Marina on Oct. 20 for unpaid bills.
A week later, the Bohnenkamps filed for bankruptcy. In December 2009, they filed paperwork to dissolve all three businesses, saying the dissolution of those businesses had been approved by Bohnenkamp as of Oct. 19.
Two days after the bankruptcy filing, Bohnenkamp incorporated two new businesses: Bohnenkamp’s Whitewater Customs and Treasure Valley Marine.
Those businesses prompted questions from bankruptcy trustee Jeremy Gugino during the bankruptcy proceeding.
Court documents from a separate legal action quoted that conversation:
MR. GUGINO: OK. What is Bohnenkamp’s Whitewater Customs Inc.?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: That’s a new business that we are getting going.
MR. GUGINO: OK. When did you start that?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: What is the date on that? It’s been...
MR. GUGINO: October 29th. Is that right?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: Yeah.
MR. GUGINO: So two days after you filed for bankruptcy?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: Uh-huh.
MR. GUGINO: OK. Also Treasure Valley Inc.
MR. BOHNENKAMP: Treasure Valley Marine. That is just the sales and service and repair side of the new business I am trying to get going.
MR. GUGINO: OK. Do either one of them have any assets?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: No.
MR. GUGINO: Do they have any bank accounts?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: We got bank accounts.
MR. GUGINO: OK. Is there any money in the bank accounts?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: There is. There’s, basically we have taken some deposits on some jobs we are going to be doing from customers and I can get you all of that information.
MR. GUGINO: OK. So how much are in the bank accounts?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: I’m not sure at this time. I think there’s, in one account I think there’s 3,000 and the other account I think there is 13.
MR. GUGINO: What is the purpose of the business?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: Treasure Valley Marine is going to be sales, service and repair on boats and Whitewater Custom we are looking to start building our own product.
MR. GUGINO: Where are you getting the money to start this?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: Basically work off of customers that are going to be building with us and deposits, and that’s what’s getting us going.
MR. GUGINO: Did you take any of the assets of Bohnenkamp’s Custom Weld Marina and transfer them into these new companies?
MR. BOHNENKAMP: Absolutely not.
Murphy told the Statesman that the bankruptcy was a “completely different matter involving different parties” and stressed that Bohnenkamp’s businesses before the bankruptcy were to sell boats built by another company — which also ended up suing Bohnenkamp. The postbankruptcy operation was “a very, very small, specialized business when they opened it” and over the years built 120-some boats, she said.
Murphy said she couldn’t answer generally whether asking a customer who paid for a jet boat to pick up a hull and wait for a remediation plan was a breach of contract.
She said Bohnenkamp has settled one lawsuit by agreeing to a breach-of-contract judgment in that case. She said she cannot discuss cases in litigation.
“We are definitely attempting to resolve these issues,” Murphy said. “I want to caution you, though, there is a lot of misinformation, a ton of misinformation that is out there. And before you print anything, I’m giving you this warning that you want to get (facts right). We have sent letters to people telling them they are committing defamation. ... We are just very, very concerned.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY
A lawyer for Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden reviewed four complaints this year against Bohnenkamp, filed between March 19 and May 17. Deputy Attorney General Stephanie Guyon sent a strongly worded letter June 4 to Bohnenkamp, suggesting the state was looking at him for a possible violation of the Idaho Consumer Protection Act.
“The complaints establish a pattern or practice of false, misleading or deceptive conduct by Bohnenkamps Whitewater Customs,” the letter said. “Specifically, the company accepted money from consumers for goods or services that it failed to deliver within a reasonable time.”
Guyon gave the company 10 business days to respond with a written plan to resolve the complaints.
Murphy sent a letter defending Bohnenkamp.
Murphy wrote that Bohnenkamp’s two businesses — BWC and Treasure Valley Marine — are separate, with BWC manufacturing “high end jet boats which range in price from $50,000 to $350,000” and TVM selling those boats. The customers never had contracts with BWC — only with TVM, she wrote.
“Due to a series of unfortunate events, including loss of financing and an increase in supplies, products and labor, BWC began to suffer economically [and] ceased taking boat orders in December 2014,” she wrote. “It finished many boats and delivered them to their owners in the winter and spring of 2015.”
Bohnenkamp sold “most of his personal property and put another $40,000 into BWC to finish additional boats” but eventually all the money and assets were spent, and Bohnenkamp relocated the company to New York, she said. (BWC is not a registered company in New York, but Niagara Jet Adventures is.)
Murphy said the companies estimate 20 boats are either unfinished or not yet started.
“Decisions are being made regarding which funds to reimburse and which boats to finish. A two year plan is being developed,” she wrote.
OTHERS TO BLAME?
Murphy told the AG that, as a lawyer for the business, she has been “amazed at the lack of professionalism and unbridled ruthless conduct perpetuated by third parties and those that they have ‘riled’ up.”
“The jet boat industry is highly competitive. BWC has suffered from a continual barrage of defamatory acts for the last two years,” she said. “BWC built the first boat that was able to navigate the Niagara River. It made local and national news. From that point on, its competitors have launched a calculated and strategic campaign of misinformation and rumors. This resulted in several boat build jobs being pulled halfway through completion by nervous owners, employees leaving for competitors, investors electing to not invest and banks being forced to decline pending finance applications (as the banks’ jet boat manufacturing customers threatened to pull their accounts).”
After hearing from Murphy and seeing some of the communications between her and the angry customers, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office decided not to take action against Bohnenkamp.
“We appreciate Mr. Bohnenkamp taking responsibility for his actions and providing solutions for resolving the complaints,” Guyon wrote in a June 30 letter. “Although we closed our file, we will continue to monitor Mr. Bohnenkamp’s activities, and we would appreciate receiving updates from you regarding any major developments concerning the consumers. Specifically, we would like to know when a consumer’s claim is completely resolved.”
The Statesman obtained the communications through a public records request. Among the documents were emails between Murphy, the lawyer and Sanders, the Boise man with a hull.
“You’ll have to excuse my bluntness when I say I honestly have a hard time believing things will ever be made right by Mr. Bohnenkamp,” Sanders wrote to Murphy last month. “I understand at this time Mr. Bohnenkamp can’t speak to people. I’m not condoning violence but I understand that some people spent over $200,000 on a boat, received nothing and I understand their frustration. In my opinion BWC is a dream crusher.
“I think the worst part of the whole ordeal is the actual completed BWC boats were some of the best boats around,” he concluded. “I hope Mr. Bohnenkamp does the right thing but like I said, after what I’ve been thru that’s a hard story to believe.”
MOVING ON TO NEW YORK
Bohnenkamp’s new business, Niagara Jet Adventures, officially started in March 2013. New York does not require owners’ names to be listed, but Bohnenkamp is the owner, based on Niagara Jet social media posts and news reports from the Niagara area.
Between the time Niagara Jet started and November 2014, Bohnenkamp’s Boise business took orders from at least nine customers totaling at least $1 million, based on public records and interviews. In some cases, the customers traded in boats they say Bohnenkamp then sold.
One of Bohnenkamp’s business partners told city officials last December that “by April 2015, Chris Bohnenkamp will have invested $8 million and by 2016, the investment will be $11 million” for the jet boat tour business.
Niagara Jet Adventures in May 2013 applied for, and later received, a sales tax abatement on an $898,000 project from a Niagara local public development agency. Niagara Jet in the application said it had one full-time employee paid $30,000 a year, with payroll expected to eventually reach $750,000 a year with an average $35,000 annual salary.
Niagara Jet projected it would have seven full-time and two part-time employees by spring 2015, paid a total of $500,000 a year.
Has it delivered? The Idaho Statesman has requested but not yet received the company’s end-of-year audit report from the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.
But officials from a town in which Niagara Jet operates have praised the company’s generosity, saying in public meetings that Niagara Jet offered veterans free rides and put on a fireworks display for the Fourth of July.
The company’s former co-owner, Mike Fox, and Bohnenkamp “bring years of successful business experience to the project,” the application for tax benefits said.
Sanders hoped to spend his summer in a boat with his dogs, hunting on grounds accessible only by river.
Now, his unfinished trailer sits in his backyard in Ada County south of Boise. His unfinished hull is getting worked on in a local shop, and he thinks it will take $30,000 to finish the boat.
He said he should have followed his first instinct and bought a boat from an Orofino company.
“I should have done more research, but it seemed legit,” Sanders said of BWC. “There were hulls being built. Why would I think otherwise?”
Basye fears he is stuck paying $700 a month for the next 20 years on a loan from Key Bank for an incomplete hull. He said those worries are exacerbated by the fact that Bohnenkamp now lives across the continent from the customers demanding their money back.
“How can you pay somebody $130,000 and they just drive to New York and start a new business?” Basye said. “That guy’s eating lobster every night. Life is good for him. You don’t do that to people. You shouldn’t be able to get away with that crap.”