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February 2010    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 36, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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San Diego Dive Shop With a Dark History

a suicide, a dead diver and accusations of lies and theft

from the February, 2010 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dive Connection in San Diego apparently has so many violations, complaints and near-fatal mistakes that it was not a shocker to the local dive community when an Arizona policeman died while diving from one of its boats last fall.

But when you have feuding owners accusing each other of lies, robbery, and identity theft, and one of them apparently commits suicide after a diver dies, what can you expect? And what can Undercurrent expect when we receive a suspicious, self-incriminating e-mail allegedly from one owner that may have fraudulently been written by someone else - - maybe even the other guy? These are some very bad vibes.

A History of Violations and Disgruntled Divers

On September 28, Daniel Forchione went on Dive Connection’s D&DII dive boat for a noontime dive a mile off of San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs. San Diego lifeguard Nick Lerma told San Diego TV station KFMB that Forchione was overweighted and surfaced in a panic. He was found an hour after the dive, unconscious at 65 feet. He had taken off his BC but still wore his weight belt. Lerma said he was out of air, tangled in the kelp, and sank to the bottom.

No way is anyone going to send
Undercurrent a confessional that
would put him in jail.

It’s not hard to find operational complaints levied at the company. Ryan Wilbarger of Waterhorse Charters told KFMB after Forchione’s death that he has heard plenty of horror stories from former Dive Connection passengers. “They run up on Dog Beach [in October 2008 when the new captain missed the channel]. They run out of fuel at Coronado Islands. You name it, they’ve done it.” Online scuba boards have plenty of bad stories as well. One diver complained that the captain anchored in the middle of the kelp “so thick you couldn’t even get off the boat. Two people had to have the divemaster go get them.” Another said “a third of the tanks had to be replaced because they weren’t filled prior to departure, the captain didn’t know how to turn the battery on, and crew forgot breakfast and the bread to make lunch.”

But more seriously, KFMB researched U.S. Coast Guard records that show a history of mechanical and safety violations on various Dive Connection boats. There was worn-out equipment, failure to keep training logs, and rudder and steering problems. Coast Guard reports over the past five years detail medical problems with divers surfacing in distress, coughing up blood, running out of air, and having to be airlifted to hospitals.

Moreover, KFMB discovered feuding partners, uncovering lawsuits filed against each other for breach of contract and false ownership of stock shares. Apparently, two of the owners have even filed restraining orders against each other – Barry Punshon claims that Richard Sillanpa tried to run him over with a van, but then Sillanpa accused Punshon of holding him at gunpoint with a .45-caliber gun.

“A Disgrace to the Dive Industry”

Barry Punshon, Dive Connection’s former majority owner who says he still has shares in the company, has taken his complaints against Richard Sillanpa, the majority owner, online. At the Web site, he wrote that the operation went downhill after he gave control to Sillanpa and three other men in 2007. He also wrote that Forchione’s death was gross negligence, and the owners should be charged. (Punshon claims to be just a shareholder when the death occurred, however, that means he was an owner of Dive Connection at the time.) “The divemaster, Robert Ellis, was not insured that day, required by our lease, and he had let his divemaster certification card lapse two and a half years before. Sillanpa pumps bad air, explodes tanks and compressors, runs boats aground and almost sinks them, drives boats with no divemaster or valid captain’s license. All the good people I had left when I was gone . . .These men are a disgrace to the diving industry.”

We e-mailed Sillanpa at his Dive Connection e-mail address in mid-December to get his side of the story. To our surprise, we instead got an e-mail answer the next day from Barry Punshon, who had apparently been forwarded the e-mail by a Dive Connection staffer. In his e-mail to us, Punshon claimed Sillanpa is guilty of tax evasion and using a rigged credit-card machine to hide money. He says Ellis, the divemaster, was a known drug addict who was using drugs on the day of Forchione’s death and ran away from Coast Guard investigators to avoid a drug test.

But get this. The day after receiving Punshon’s e-mail, we got an e-mail signed by Richard Sillanpa, admitting he was responsible for every one of Punshon’s charges. “My inexperience of running dive boats has left this company in shambles . . . I realize with great shame that everybody, including myself, would have been much better off if we would have continued to allow Mr. Punshon to run the company . . . Mr. Punshon somehow acquired proof that I have been processing credit cards through a credit card machine used for Hawaii Snorkel Surf and Dive. I admit to doing this . . . I was able to disguise how much money DCI was making each month which resulted in paying less [to the] city . . . at the end of the month . . . I apologize for these mistakes openly and only hope you will post these regards in your story. I was a victim of my own greed and pride and only hope I am not held responsible for my bad decisions.”

No way anyone is going to send Undercurrent a confessional that would put him in the pokey. And when we called Sillanpa in mid-January to ask, he denied sending the response and said he had never even seen our original e-mail to him. He believes Punshon wrote the e-mail response, charging that his nemesis hacked into Dive Connection’s web site last year and stole its e-mail addresses and URL. “We haven’t been able to run a dive trip for the last two months because we no longer have access to the web site, and Barry has slandered my reputation in the dive community.”

Sillanpa’s Side of the Story

Seven years ago, Sillanpa owned five percent of Dive Connection; Punshon and six other partners owned the rest. In 2005, Sillanpa bought out four partners, raising his stake to 54 percent of the company which, he says, irked Punshon. Still, Sillanpa gave Punshon the title of president but he says that when he found out Punshon was forging documents, stealing money and selling off assets, he and the other shareholders voted him out as president and off the board of directors. Sillanpa claims Punshon ran off to Mexico to avoid jail time for a minor crime, and that’s when he started bad-mouthing Dive Connection. Last September, Sillanpa negotiated with Punshon to buy out his remaining 32 percent of the company. After Sillanpa had made several regular payments, Punshon told Sillanpa he was changing the terms. Then, Sillanpa says, he found out he was paying for shares Punshon didn’t own – the man had lost the stock back in December 2008, leveraging it to buy cars while in Mexico.

Sillanpa says Punshon belittled the company to the point where Dive Connection lost the lease late last year on the dock where its boats were docked since 1987. He says Punshon stole $8,000 from the bank accounts, broke into the credit-card accounts, forged Sillanpa’s name on bank records, and finally broke into the shop and stole the computer. “It has been domestic terrorism for the last two years.”

Punshon’s Side of the Story

We also contacted Punshon in mid-January to see if he knew about this forged e-mail with Sillanpa’s signature. After all, we had sent our original e-mail request to Sillanpa only once, at Dive Connection’s e-mail listed on its web site, in mid-December, and Punshon had replied, though apparently he was no longer affiliated with the business. Punshon denied forging the e-mail and said that it did not come from his IP address (how he would have known the IP address is unclear, as it was not written anywhere on the suspect e-mail). Punshon says he took control of Dive Connection’s web site in early January, after Sillanpa was facing trouble with city officials. “Whoever hacked into their system must have done this.” However, he added, “Everything on there is pretty darn accurate. It’s the definite truth.”

Punshon denied losing his stock and said he still owned 34 percent of the company, while Sillanpa owned 43 percent, not 54 percent. He said he was in Mexico to get a visa for his stepson but meanwhile, Sillanpa was putting private investigators on his tail and getting court injunctions accusing him of things he had never done.

But Punshon admits he did get into the company’s bank account, only to find that Sillanpa was diverting funds to another company. He got liens put on Sillanpa’s boats and got the marina owners to evict Sillanpa. “I want him out of business and I do not want him to hurt the general public anymore. His lease ends on January 17. He’s done.”

The Aftermath

After having lost his marina lease, Sillanpa told us he would shut down Dive Connection in late January. The Dive Connection web site is now owned by Punshon, who renamed it and farms out divers to “reputable dive shops in the community.” Whoever, if anyone, hacked into and stole control of Dive Connection’s web site is unknown, as is the truth about all the charges these two are aiming at each other.

Sillanpa says the Coast Guard, after investigating Forchione’s death, ruled that Dive Connection was not responsible. However, Robert Ellis, a Dive Connection shareholder and the divemaster on that fatal dive, was found dead with a knife wound in his chest on December 20. He was discovered in his bedroom five days after dying. According to the medical examiner, the cause of death is suicide.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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