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Boat launcher who set 2 vessels afloat in Duluth harbor boasted of knowledge during confession, police say

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Gregory Mark Sullwold3 / 4
freighter passes very close to the Vista Queen of the Vista Fleet early Thursday morning, Sept. 21, in the Duluth Harbor. Someone unmoored both the Vista Queen and Vista Star and they were found floating free in the harbor. Courtesy photo / DECC4 / 4

DULUTH, Minn. — The 47-year-old Twin Cities-area man accused of setting the two Vista Fleet boats out into the harbor last week had also been suspected of causing damage to property in Canal Park the same night, as well as allegedly threatening to blow up the Club Saratoga.

Gregory Mark Sullwold, of Greenwood, Minn., was charged by summons Wednesday, Sept. 27, with felony theft-indifferent to owner rights, and if convicted faces up to 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Sullwold is suspected of unmooring both Vista boats, the three-deck Vista Star and smaller Vista Queen, from their docks behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in the early morning hours of Sept. 21. The boats were left unoccupied and adrift for several hours on Superior Bay near the Aerial Lift Bridge.

According to the criminal complaint:

As the investigation into the vessel tampering advanced, one officer remembered dealing with Sullwold earlier that night, for alleged mischief in Canal Park including the alleged threat against the Club Saratoga.

Sullwold was arrested Sept. 22 by Duluth police on an unrelated warrant out of Hennepin County, where Sullwold faces domestic assault charges. During an interview with Duluth Police Department investigators, the complaint states, Sullwold confessed to the Vista Fleet tampering.

Sullwold "was particularly interested in, as he put it, the boats floating on the harbor," the complaint states. "He also seemed to boast of his knowledge in boats."

Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets said Thursday that there have been no other referrals made to the county attorney's office for the other alleged Canal Park incidents outlined in the criminal complaint.

Narrow miss

The complaint describes a narrow brush that occurred between the 66-foot Vista Queen and the 730-foot lake freighter John D. Leitch, which was making entry into the Duluth ship canal while the Vista vessels were adrift.

According to the complaint, the crew of the Leitch was notified of the unmanned vessels by the Aerial Lift Bridge operator, who'd also called 911 to report the situation.

"The Leitch attempted to slow, but given her size, she continued through the Duluth ship canal where the Vista Queen lay in her path. As the Vista Queen was boarded, the Leitch, unable to stop or divert course, bore down on the abandoned vessel, narrowly missing the Queen, endangering the rescuers and crew of the Leitch," the complaint states.

A combined emergency response from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Duluth Fire Department, and two Vista Fleet employees "who were able seamen, capable of piloting the empty vessels," ferried the vessels back to dock.

Because the crime occurred "in such a historic, iconic and important area," said the complaint, police had access to "a plethora of video," including one disseminated widely by media of a sole suspect on shore, leading the Vista Queen down the Minnesota Slip, under the Minnesota Slip Bridge and out into the open water.

The Vista Star and Vista Queen were recovered without apparent damage.

Sullwold's first appearance in court is set for Oct. 31. He had been held in both the St. Louis and Hennepin county jails in the wake of the Vista Fleet incident, but was not being held in either facility as of Thursday morning.