Only in Florida
does Santa Claus catch fire, a lawyer attack a client, a convict break into prison, an iguana drive a car And more true tales from the strangest state.
by Matt Schudel, Sunshine Magazine.
We're going to take a mad romp - with the emphasis on mad - through the strange, outrageous, scary and downright goofy things that happened in our state in the past year.
On January 8, a Brinks armored truck overturned on Interstate 95 and tumbled off the highway, causing the doors to pop open and money bags to go flying.
The truck was loaded with $3.7 million in cash, coins and food stamps, which spilled out into the Overtown section of Miami. Call it pennies from heaven - or crash cash.
Within minutes, hundreds of people were picking money out of trees and scooping change off the ground. It was strictly a cash-and carry business.
"My sister called me and said, 'Girl! A truck full of money just fell off the highway!" exclaimed one happy resident. "It's free money!"
Well, not exactly. After the police and shovel-toting Brinks crews tried to restore a form of order, they estimated that about $550,000 was missing. A half-hour after the crash, a Miami fireman found a bag that contained $330,000 - but turned it in, setting an example that few others followed.
"It is theft, whether you picked up a quarter or $100,000," the police announced. An amnesty was declared, allowing people to turn in their loot with no penalty. Sure enough, two honest citizens of Miami - one of them an 11-year-old boy - came forward and turned in a grand total of... $20.38.
In January, a Broward County nurse found herself fending off a lawsuit brought against her by a North Miami Beach man who claimed she was hiding their 3-year-old-son him. He wanted visitation rights and child support.
There was one major hole in his case, however: There was no son.
With a stew pot full of old clothes at his side, the man claimed that President and Mrs. Clinton had called to wish him and his son well.
"I think they'll be a good influence on him," said the man. "They told me that my son and Chelsea get along just fine."
During the proceedings, it was learned that the man and the bewildered woman had in fact met more than five years before when she was a student nurse and he was a patient at Jackson Memorial Hospital - in the psychiatric ward.
Stalking took a celebrity turn in September when Margaret Mary Ray was arrested outside the Kissimmee home of astronaut Story Musgrave. She had pounded on his door in the early-morning hours and turned on the outdoors water faucets. Musgrave said Ray had pursued him for years with phone calls, letters and packages.
Proving that loose screws tend to shake loose and roll south to Florida, Ray is the same woman who was arrested seven times for stalking talk-show host David Letterman in Connecticut. After turning her attentions to the bald, 62-year-old Musgrave, Ray had this to say: "He told me to stop calling him, and I knew that was his way of saying he needed me close to him."
South Florida has long been a center of the billion-dollar drug importation industry. For sheer chutzpah on a global scale, though, it's hard to top the scheme allegedly hatched by a Russian resident of Miami named Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg.
Tarzan, who owned a Hialeah strip joint named Porky's, was jailed last January on charges accusing him of running a multimillion-dollar criminal enterprise. According to federal agents, he and his Russian pals were busy with a lot of things, most of them illegal: counterfeiting, drug trafficking, prostitution and dealing in contraband cigarettes and booze.
The most exotic charge was that Tarzan's gang was arranging to buy airplanes, submarines and helicopters - the choppers went for $1 million apiece - from the old Soviet Union. Before he was locked up, Tarzan supposedly boasted that he would use a nuclear-powered sub-marine to ship cocaine and heroin from South America to Russia. We may never see this breakthrough in transportation, since Tarzan is now awaiting trial.
International diplomacy led to the arrest of a Kendall man in early December. Known to his colleagues as a mild-mannered used-car salesman, Gaspar Axpe was charged with having a second life as
Ramon Aldasoro Magunacelaya - a Basque terrorist. He was arrested by the FBI for the murder of two police officers in Spain, and is expected to be returned to his homeland.
No one seemed to think it odd that a suspected foreign terrorist was living in South Florida, selling cars.
Drugs got a Pensacola woman in trouble in March. Convinced that she had been ripped off, Rosie Lee Hill called the police to complain two rocks of crack cocaine she bought were fake. The police obligingly tested the suspect crack, found that it was real thing and hauled Hill off to jail.
At least a couple of Florida's men of the cloth stumbled over commandments this year.
In Pensacola, the Rev. Danny Lynn Livingston, pastor of the 750-member First Assembly of God Church, took a leave of absence after he was arrested in Alabama while making an obscene phone call.
During the 25-minute call, an Alabama woman said she was told her daughter had been kidnapped and would be harmed unless the woman undressed and performed sexual acts as directed by the caller.
During the call, the woman's husband came home, copied the phone number from a caller-ID box, and police nabbed the Pensacola preacher while he was still talking on a pay phone outside a Dairy Queen.
"He's the nastiest man I've ever encountered," said the victim of the call "He never once stuttered."
In the Central Florida town of Sanford, the Rev. George Crossley was convicted in December of hiring a hit man to kill the husband of his onetime mistress.
The key piece of evidence was a videotape of Crossley, a conservative television evangelist, handing a gun to an undercover federal agent.
Fancying themselves a latter-day version of Frank and Jesse James, a pair of brothers wanted for bank robbery in their hometown of Greenville, SC, came to Florida with crime on their minds. At an intersection in Fort Myers one day in July, Billy and David George leapt into a green 1997 BMW convertible stopped for a red light, pointed a gun at the driver's head and ordered, "Drive!"
"I thought, I'm in trouble here," said Edie Silver, a 59-year-old real-estate agent and grandmother who became the inadvertent getaway driver.
"This is going to be a bad day."
The fugitive brothers boasted of their long crime spree and spoke of being the subject of a movie. But as they drove across the Tamiami Trail toward Miami, 150 miles away from Fort Myers, four cars from the Florida Highway Patrol closed around the BMW. The brothers told Silver to roll down the windows.
"I knew what that meant," she said later. "Bullets were about to fly."
Wounded by police gunfire, Billy George, 30, kept shooting until he was killed by a second bullet. After Silver rolled to a stop, the lifeless body slumped over her, the younger brother, David, 27, tried to make a run for it through the Everglades. He was quickly captured.
Silver said she was able to survive the ordeal because she treated the brothers "as if they were my boys gone bad.
Speaking of boys gone bad, Joseph Gullo shouldn't have a problem getting first-hand knowledge of his major field of study. The Florida Sate University criminology student was arrested in April for robbing a Pinellas County bank of $2,000. Police believe he was responsible for several other bank robberies in the area.
"The kid's got some problems," one cop explained.
South Florida strip-joint king Michael Peter, long the subject of federal investigations, finally landed in the pokey earlier this year on racketeering charges. In March the dapper Peter, a multimillionaire from his national chain of upscale nudie bars, evidently walked away from his minimum-security prison in Miami. No one noticed he was gone until he and a few of his inmate pals were caught sneaking back into prison in the wee hours.
Red-faced officials said it appeared that Peter had arranged a late-night rendezvous with prostitutes outside the prison grounds. Peter was transferred to a tougher prison out of state, but prosecutors weren't sure he could be charged with escape, since the place he escaped to was his own cell.
On opening day of the 1997 baseball season, Billy the Marlin, the mascot of the Florida Marlins, was going to enter Pro Player Stadium in the most dramatic way possible: by parachute. A member of the Navy SEALs sky-diving team was disguised as Billy, but during his jump, he lost his head in high winds. Rather than disturb the 43,000 fans assembled for the game by showing up head-less, the sky-diver landed in the parking lot. Billy's long-billed, carbon-fiber head landed... who knows where?
The search for Billy's noggin went on for weeks.
The Marlins offered a reward of season tickets to anyone who returned the giant fish head. Finally, two months after its upper-atmosphere decapitation, Billy's head was rescued by a couple of guys who found it alongside Florida's Turnpike in Broward County.
His head restored, Billy was a whole fish again and the Marlins went on to win the World Series.
Where other people might look into a cupboard or refrigerator and see groceries, resourceful Floridians see, well, weapons.
In January, after a minor car accident in Pompano Beach, one driver hopped out and began attacking bystanders with a rawhide doggie bone. He then grabbed a container of baby powder and sprinkled it on his victims.
In September, a Fort Lauderdale woman didn't believe her boyfriend's excuse for why he came home late and reached for the closest projectiles she could find. The boyfriend found himself the target of flying frozen chicken legs.
According to a Broward Sheriff's Office report, the enraged girlfriend then pummeled her beau in the arm with a telephone, whereupon he decided to flee the house. She followed him into the driveway and flung a circular saw at his car, cracking the windshield.
Mark Gusow of Boca Raton paid a $4,000 retainer to a hard-nosed lawyer and found a little more than he had bargained for. Facing a charge of perjury in Broward Circuit Court in September, Gusow decided his lawyer, Laura Morrison, hadn't worked hard enough on his case. He told her she could keep the money, but she was fired.
According to numerous witnesses - and Gusow himself - the 52-year-old Morrison flew into a rage, wrestled her client to the courtroom floor and held him in a headlock. It was an unfair match from the opening gavel.
I weigh 140 pounds," grumbled Gusow, 36, "and she weighs 240."
"She went bananas," he continued. "You never expect to be attacked by your own lawyer in the courthouse. Later she was outside the courtroom cursing me out and threatening me."
No charges were filed.
In Florida, not even James Bond is safe from crime. This past June, 007's custom-built silver Aston Martin - the car Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger and Thunderball - was stolen from a locked hangar at Boca Raton Municipal Airport.
A Boca Raton developer had bought the car in 1986 for $275,000, but its secret-agent devices - machine guns under the headlights, saws spinning from hubcaps, passenger-side ejection seat - were of no help. The one of-a-kind car had been sitting in a locked hangar surrounded by barbed wire, under a 24-hour watch. Determined thieves clipped the wires of the alarm system, cut a padlock, sliced through the door and made off with the car.
Could this nefarious caper have been pulled off by SPECTRE?
A 14-year-old boy in Orange Park was charged with attempted murder for shooting his sister because she spent too much time on the telephone. When police arrested him in September, he was talking on the telephone.
In September, a dozen serious fire-code violations were discovered in Fort Lauderdale. The buildings lacked smoke detectors and fire sprinklers and had improper exits. These fire traps were, alas, the 12 stations of the Fort Lauderdale Fire Department. Not a single firehouse passed inspection. It was estimated that it would take $10 million to upgrade the faulty fire stations.
The consultants who did the study said five of the stations were so bad, they should be torn down.
When Bobby Whipple of Miami was working on his car in September, he wrapped a dark sock around his hand to avoid getting greasy. Suspicious neighbors alerted the police and said an armed man was loose on the street.
Fourteen officers surrounded Whipple, and when he didn't "drop his weapon," five of them opened fire. Whipple was ventilated with 23 bullet holes but somehow managed to survive in good condition.
"We don't have any indication that the officers acted inappropriately when faced with deadly force," a police spokesman said. Still, you have to wonder when it became a crime to be armed with a deadly sock.
Florida has long been a leading center of, ahem, bald-faced scam artists. But the plan devised by one Jacqueline Sabal was so bold, so revolutionary - and so bizarre - it's a wonder no one thought of it before. Appealing to vanity - and a sizable niche market - the Pompano Beach woman claimed she could make bald men grow hair.
"Every hair you had as a teen-ager is still there now," she declared, with absolutely no scientific authority to back her up. Her slogan was: "Get back the hair that's already there."
By her theory, every bald man had a thick, luxuriant head of hair buried inside his skull, just waiting for her special creams and lotions to set it free. She went on The Maury Povich Show, declaring, "This is not a scam." (She failed to mention that she had been convicted for fraud in 1991, for enticing people to invest in a similar scheme.) Sabal persuaded dozens of people - dozens of men, to be precise - to invest $5 million in her, well, "hair-brained" plan before she was charged with grand theft and sent to jail.
Palm Beach Circuit Judge Robert Colton did double duty in October. First, he sentenced Mitchell Drew Everson to 13 months in prison for possession of marijuana and cocaine - then he performed Everson's wedding service.
The bride wore black lace. The groom wore leg shackles. A public defender served as best man.
Everson had to give his gold ring back to his new wife, Mauva Christine Weeks, because prisoners are not allowed to have jewelry.
Last June, a plainclothes policeman followed a suspicious car moving erratically along U.S.
19 in Clearwater. What made it suspicious was that the car appeared to be driven by a 3 1/2 foot iguana.
"He had his claws on top of the wheel," a police officer drily explained. "It's not every day you find a lizard driving a car."
The officer called for backup and followed the car for two miles without incident - which is better than many warm-blooded drivers can do. After checking, the police found John Ruppell slumped low in the driver's seat beneath his pet iguana and charged him with drunken driving.
The iguana, whose name was Finley, was taken to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Another animal act took center stage in October - also near Clearwater, as it happens. A golfer. named Frank Landstrom had taken off his $450 gold bracelet in order to make his approach shot on the 12th green at the Spring Hill golf course when a crow, spotting the gold, swooped down and carried the bracelet away. Landstrom gave chase down the fair-way, but not having wings he was at a clear disadvantage. He filed a missing property report with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
That afternoon - 35 miles as the crow flies - Tim Johnson got out of his car in a Clearwater parking lot and found a gold bracelet on the pavement next to his front tire. Two weeks later, after seeing a newspaper story, Johnson reunited the missing bracelet with its owner.
Johnson refused the offer of a reward. There's no word on what happened to the crow.
A gunfight broke out in a Miami funeral parlor in October, leaving bullet holes in the walls - and in at least one participant. Shortly before dawn on Oct. 22, about 10 men broke into a Little Havana funeral home, kicked out the grieving family and placed a bottle of rum in the dead man's right hand. They performed a Cuban Santeria ritual, making a cross of ashes on the man's forehead and chanting, then performed the traditional Miami ritual of open gunfire.
The family keeping the death vigil had never seen any of the gun-toting interlopers before. One man was critically wounded in the gun battle, which spilled out into the parking lot.
No one was arrested in the melee, and the dead man was buried on schedule.
Rest in peace.