Arrests made in Florida Keys marina arson

Florida Keys detectives arrested a charter fishing boat owner Tuesday in connection with a suspected arson at an Islamorada marina in February that critically burned one man, destroyed two boats and badly damaged another.

The case languished for almost a year even though police suspected arson from the beginning. But the investigators’ main witness, and the person they say lit the match, was so badly charred by flames they couldn’t question him for months after the fire about who else was involved.

The players continue to be shrouded in mystery, with connections throughout the country, from the Keys to Arizona and Georgia, and all the way to Seattle, where the boat owner and another suspect lived before they were arrested this week.

Police think all three men are related, but they’re still not sure.

“We suspect so, but we can’t say that with 100 percent certainty that that’s the case,” Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward said Tuesday.

Nicholas Toby Johns, 22, from Homestead was arrested Tuesday morning. He owns the Double Agent, a 34-foot Glacier Bay catamaran that police say was set on fire Feb. 11 at the Coral Bay Marina on Upper Matecumbe Key, an island in the four-island Village of Islamorada.

Nicholas Johns.jpg
Nicholas Johs MCSO

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said at the time that Johns was trying to sell the boat, but had trouble finding a buyer.

Also arrested Tuesday was Joseph Marks, 45, who is listed by the sheriff’s office as living at the same Homestead address as Johns’.

Joseph Marks.jpg
Joseph Marks MCSO

Johns and Joseph Marks were booked Tuesday on charges of being an accessory after the fact in an arson. Each is being held on $150,000 bond.

They turned themselves in at the Plantation Key courthouse.

The fire destroyed a 50-foot cruiser and badly damaged a 45-foot, double-hulled pontoon boat that operated snorkel tours out of John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. All the boats were in dry dock.

Angelo Marks, 44, who was whisked away from the scene by two men who hurried him into a pickup truck while he was still on fire, was so badly burned that police at first did not expect him to survive. He was treated at Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami and suffered severe injuries to his hands and feet.

According to sheriff’s office reports, Angelo Marks, who police suspect sparked the fire, had second- and third-degree burns covering more than 40 percent of his body.

He’s since been released from the hospital, and sheriff’s office spokesman Adam Linhardt said he is “at large” and facing arson charges.

When the fire occurred, deputies responded about 12:45 a.m. and found firefighters battling the blaze. One witness said he saw a dark-colored pickup truck parked next to the Double Agent. He saw a man on fire running away from the vessel and toward the truck, according to reports.

One woman who lives near the marina said she saw a man holding a flaming stick and throw it onto the boat.

Deputies found burned clothing next to two dumpsters in the alley between the marina and another business, according to the reports. They also found a wallet holding a Mesa, Arizona, identification card belonging to Angelo Marks, according to sheriff’s office reports.

Police spoke with the marina’s owner, who told them the dry dock slip was registered to Joseph Marks, who listed a Homestead home as his address.

A Miami-Dade County detective called deputies that morning and said he was at the house and a dark-colored Ford F-150 pickup truck was parked in the driveway, and there were burned clothes inside the vehicle.

The vehicle registration number was traced to a Tavernier house in the Upper Keys. Monroe detectives found no one at home, but inside the recycling bin, they found three bottles of lighter fluid, according to the police reports.

Shortly after 5 a.m., police in the Keys received a call from Joseph Marks saying he was at Ryder and there was an accidental fire at the marina earlier that morning.

Detectives were suspicious of his story because he waited hours to report the fire and drove so far before getting Angelo Marks medical help.

Mariners Hospital in Tavernier is nine miles north of the marina. But instead of going there, the men drove to Joseph Marks’ house in Homestead to switch vehicles before taking Angelo Marks to Ryder, according to the report.

“None of the suspects called to report the fire or the injury until approximately four hours later,” a detective wrote in the arrest report.

Joseph Marks told investigators with the state Fire Marshal that the boat belonged to Nicholas Johns, who Marks said is his son, although investigators said they aren’t sure of any of the men’s relationships with one another.

Joseph Marks said he, Angelo Marks and Johns were trying to fix the boat’s port side engine and clean pelican feces from the deck using paint thinner and gasoline. In the process, Angelo Marks lit a cigarette and the match he used blew back onto the boat after he tossed it, and this caused the boat -- and Angelo -- to catch fire.

Johns told investigators a similar story.

But detectives said they had doubts about that story after both Fire Marshal investigators and an insurance company investigator said they found gasoline and other flammable liquid spread throughout the boat, including inside the cabin.

Detectives wrote that the insurance investigator report ruled “the fire incendiary in nature, in all probability, the result of person or persons having placed an ignitable liquid in various places on board the vessel and causing them to become ignited.”

The sheriff’s office spokesman said anyone with information about the case or Angelo Marks’ whereabouts should call (305) 853-3211. Callers who wish to remain anonymous can call Crime Stoppers at 1-866-471-8477, Linhardt said.

Tipsters can remain anonymous, and if a tip leads to an arrest in the case, the caller may be eligible for a cash reward. Tips may also be submitted online at www.floridakeyscrimestoppers.com or via a text message using the smartphone app called P3 Phone. Tips can also be submitted via social media such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the @CrimeStoppers305 hashtag.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.