'A living hell': extortion case reveals the dark side of TC parasailing

Nov 21, 2016

If you’ve spent a summer day on the beaches of Grand Traverse Bay, you’ve probably seen parasailers soaring across the sky. Parasailing is a popular, fun way to get out on the water, but the Traverse City parasailing business also has a cutthroat side.

That came out earlier this year, when a hotel owner was accused of extortion. The State Attorney General said Bryan Punturo intimidated a competing parasailing operator, Saburi Boyer, into paying him big money.

That was the version of events that played out in court. The case was widely covered by the press, but another side of the story was never told – and it paints an entirely different picture.

Saburi Boyer has owned Traverse Bay Parasail for 20 years.

“Most Americans, they work 50 or 51 weeks out of the year,” says Boyer. “They work really hard, and anticipate and save up for that one week where they get to have a family vacation. We’re blessed enough to be a part of that.”

Captain Chris Poehlman watches a trio of parasailers.
Credit Aaron Selbig

Boyer looks like he spends his days on the water. He’s tan and muscular. He wears dark sunglasses and a “Love Michigan” hat. He says during the busiest stretch of the summer, he sometimes has more business than he can handle.

Six years ago, Boyer worked a little way down the beach, at the Park Shore Resort – for resort owner Bryan Punturo.

A 'friendly' partnership goes sour

“It was friendly,” says Boyer. “It was a little bit of an arms-length business transaction. I paid him rent, he cashed the check and that was pretty much it.”

Saburi Boyer
Credit Aaron Selbig

The business relationship between the two men went along like that until 2006, when Boyer moved from the beach in front of the Park Shore to Sugar Beach Resort, where he is now.

Boyer says Punturo wasn’t happy about that. And when Boyer bought out Punturo’s son, Casey – that’s when the emails and phone calls started. Boyer says Punturo sounded mad, and he threatened to run Boyer out of business.

“He was going to offer rides not for a little less, not for a lot less, but for about a quarter or a fifth of the going rate,” he says. “He told me that he was willing to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars, if that’s what it took. He told me that he was certain that, at some point in time, I would go out of business. It was only a matter of time.”

The emails and messages grew more frequent, and more threatening. Punturo said he would “bury” Boyer. He said he would “make him pay.” In one email, Punturo wrote, “You instilled this hatred within me … and now you will realize my resolve to witness your demise."

“It was personal for him,” says Boyer.

The phone call

The situation escalated for months, until a phone call one night in 2014. Boyer says Punturo told him time was up. He was ready to begin his plan to run Traverse Bay Parasail out of business. The only thing that would stop him would be if Boyer agreed to pay him $19,000 a year.

Bryan Punturo [right] listens to Judge Thomas Phillips during a hearing.
Credit Aaron Selbig

“He basically ran over me verbally, and I froze,” says Boyer. “My wife told me I turned white as a ghost. I froze up, didn’t have much at all to say, He told me he was going to make my life a living hell, that he was going to crush me and everything that mattered to me, and that he was going to bury me by the end of this. I just froze up and took it. I realized that he was very motivated to hurt me. Whether that was business or personal, I was in fear.”

After the phone call, Boyer accepted Punturo’s deal, and he started writing him checks.

Bryan Punturo has a history of strong-arm business tactics. In 2004, he was accused of inflating the value of four tanning salons he sold in Indiana.

Then in 2013, in Traverse City, Punturo was unhappy that his investment in the Tamarack Lodge hadn’t panned out, so he hired picketers to stand outside the lodge during the busy summer season.

Both of those cases went to court, but none of the charges against Punturo stuck.

A devastating diagnosis

By the summer of 2015, Saburi Boyer had bigger problems than Bryan Punturo.

“I thought I had the flu, and I was super stressed about this whole ordeal with Bryan,” he says. “I just thought I was sick from stress. I ended up going into the hospital and finding out, after I had woken up from a medically-induced coma, that I had leukemia.”

Boyer was 34 years old – healthy and fit. The diagnosis was devastating. While Boyer was going through chemotherapy, Punturo wanted his money.

“Bryan had been trying to get paid while I was in the hospital,” says Boyer. “I was in a coma. I wasn’t writing any checks. He wanted to know where his money was, and wanted it now.”

Punturo turned his attention – through texts and emails – to Boyer’s wife, Danielle. And that was the last straw for Boyer.

Danielle took the contract to the family attorney, Brace Kern, who filed a civil case, alleging Punturo broke antitrust laws. He also thought the State of Michigan might be interested.

"Usually extortion is ‘burn your house down and break your legs.'" - Jonathan Moothart

“So I contacted the Attorney General Antitrust Division, sent them a copy of the contract and said, what’s your opinion?’” says Kern.

In May, the Attorney General’s office sent a press release to news organizations in northern Michigan, announcing extortion charges against Bryan Punturo.

It would be the first extortion case tried in the 86th District Court since anyone could remember.

'There's hatred dripping in that letter'

Punturo’s attorney, Jonathan Moothart, argued that just because Punturo said some “mean” things to Saburi Boyer – and threatened to out-compete him in the parasailing business – that does not rise to the level of extortion.

“Extortion is unusual to begin with and this is even more unusual, because usually extortion is ‘burn your house down and break your legs.’ And that’s not present here,” said Moothart in court.

Punturo faced 20 years in prison. To send him there, the state relied on the emails and text messages Punturo had sent to Boyer.

Prosecutor Matthew Payok read aloud from the letter Punturo wrote – the one where he said, “You instilled this hatred within me … and now you will realize my resolve to witness your demise.”

“There’s hatred dripping in that letter,” Payok told Thomas Phillips.

After weeks of trying to get his side of the story, Bryan Punturo agreed to talk. We met at his lawyer’s home on Elk Lake. Punturo laid down a stack of documents that never made it into court – emails and text messages from Saburi Boyer.

The contract

The first thing he showed was that the actual contract they signed – the $19,000 contract we heard so much about in court – was drawn up by Saburi Boyer.

Punturo says the whole agreement was Boyer’s idea.

“I think when you review all the text messages and emails, you’ll see there’s no indication whatsoever of fear in his voice,” says Punturo. “Saburi has been an aggressive, diligent businessman his entire life. I couldn’t intimidate him if I wanted to.”

Punturo and his attorney say Boyer was aggressively pursuing a plan to become the only parasailing operator on Grand Traverse Bay. 

In a text message, Saburi Boyer warns Dave O'Dell "don't mess with me in Michigan."

First, Boyer bought out Casey Punturo. Then he got aggressive with Dave O’Dell, a parasailing operator in Florida who was considering opening up shop in Traverse City. In a text message to O’Dell in May of 2014, Boyer said, “don’t mess with me in Michigan. There’s no way I’m gonna let you get away with putting a boat … in my hometown without coming after you in every way I know how that is legal.”

After O’Dell backed down, Boyer offered to buy out another competitor, Eric Harding. Harding rejected Boyer’s offer, and Punturo says that’s when he first heard from Boyer.

Punturo says Boyer offered three options, including paying Punturo "to do nothing."

In an email, Saburi Boyer tells Bryan Punturo "I think my proposal is more than fair."

Text and email records show no animosity during the contract negotiation. Boyer was trying to sell Punturo on the contract, saying he should take it so he wouldn’t have to hassle with vendors or parking. In one email, Boyer said, “I think my proposal is more than fair. Please let me know what you think.”

They finally settled on a deal, and Boyer drew up the contract.

“After we structured our deal and we went away, everything was fine,” says Punturo. “Eighteen months later, he defaulted on our deal. When he defaulted, I knew the mistake I made getting into a relationship with him.”

Punturo says the only reason things got heated between the two men was because Boyer stopped paying. He admits he did pursue Boyer for the money he was owed, and he used language that he regrets now. He says he could’ve been more “diplomatic.”

Guns and badges

But he had no clue how far things would go until several weeks later, when he got a phone call from his office.

“My secretary called me one day and asked me what on earth is going on, because we had six armed state officers in back jumpsuits, with guns and badges, knocking on the door saying, ‘We’re doing a search of your corporate offices,’” says Punturo.

"Saburi lied to everybody. He took the facts on the table [and] he manipulated them to the point where he appeared to be the victim."

Last month, Judge Thomas Phillips threw out the extortion charges. Phillips called Punturo’s behavior “nasty, mean-spirited and reprehensible,” but he ruled that nothing he did was illegal.

Punturo’s attorney, Jonathan Moothart, is happy about the verdict, but he notes that since it was a hearing and not a full trial, the court – and the public – never got to hear the full case against Saburi Boyer.

Bryan Punturo's mugshot was all over the news when he was charged with extortion.

“We never really got to tell our side of the story,” says Moothart. “Indeed, today is really the first time that’s occurred. And so I wouldn’t put too much stock in statements of judges, as much as I respect them, who really haven’t heard everything yet.”

State’s attorneys have declined to comment on whether they will appeal to the circuit court.

Asked about the contract he signed with Punturo, Boyer admitted he was the one who drew it up.

“I guess if you want to be technical about it, I produced the physical contract. Yes,” he said in a phone interview.

Boyer says he wrote the contract under duress, and in terms dictated by Punturo. He also says there was a big difference between what was said in emails and what was said over the phone.

“Bryan has shown aggressive behavior, not just toward me but toward many others … in Traverse City, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in the tanning business,” says Boyer. “So it’s really convenient for him to say that I’m the aggressor, but I’d like you to point out one thing that I said that was aggressive … one thing that I did that was aggressive.”

The fallout

Boyer says this experience has been hard on him, and it’s taken a toll on his marriage.

Punturo is glad the criminal case against him was thrown out, but the damage is done.

“Oh, it’s brutal,” he says. “It weighs on you heavy. You wake up at three o’clock in the morning, thinking through the facts and the details. It’s been a long, hard process.”

Punturo says he’s paid thousands in attorney fees, and after his name and mugshot were all over the news, his business suffered.

“Saburi lied to everybody,” he says. “He took the facts on the table [and] he manipulated them to the point where he appeared to be the victim. And the fact that it could run this far, this long, and could cost this much money is just inconceivable.”

Punturo and his attorney are now considering a lawsuit against Boyer.