By Natalie Pompilio

A boat racing champion accused of faking his own death last year to avoid fraud charges pleaded not guilty in a New Jersey criminal court on Tuesday.

Andrew Biddle, 45, disappeared last July in what police say was a staged boating accident. Biddle had recently been summoned to appear in court on charges of defrauding customers at the boat shop he ran in the coastal town of Northfield, when the crash occurred.

Biddle, who has a wife and children, resurfaced in February to face the charges against him. The circumstances of his disappearance and whereabouts have so far not been explained publicly.

Biddle’s codefendant, Tracy Blumenstein, 49, also pleaded not guilty. Both men are free on bail.

Assistant District Attorney Shannon Phillips offered the men eight years in state prison and full restitution to victims as part of a preliminary plea deal. They can still choose to accept the deal, Phillips said in court.

In February 2014, prosecutors charged Biddle and Blumenstein with 13 criminal complaints, including selling a boat and trailer without repaying the owner, taking money for undelivered goods and misleading customers about the costs of certain items.

Since Biddle’s return, he and Blumenstein have had more charges filed against them, including second-degree theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars and second-degree conspiracy.

Biddle, who appeared tan and calm during his court appearance, did not comment during his arraignment, which took less than five minutes.

In addition to running the boating shop, Biddle was an active powerboat racer, winning races including the P1 SuperStock Championship.

(Editing by Laila Kearney)