EDITOR'S NOTE: Ellen Sugarman is a nationally known investigative reporter. She has given KWTN permission to serialize her new book about environmental terrorism in the Florida Keys.
In Chapter One, officials from County Code Enforcement, the Sheriff's Office and the Florida Marine Patrol off duty and in civilian clothes, but armed pay an unofficial visit to property owners on Little Knockemdown Key. A few days later, the owners were cited, ordering them to tear down unpermitted structures even though many of those structures had been there prior to the law requiring permitting. In Chapter Two, Sugarman used Fantasy Fest as a backdrop to introduce us to her cast of characters. In Chapter Three, an investigative reporter hears about an alleged conspiracy by multiple government agencies to take over private property in the Keys and, in Chapter 4, she starts to look into it. Chapter 5: Officials "raid" Little Torch Key. Chapter 6: Government officials charge a Sugarloaf resident with environmental infractions and, in Chapter 7, they take his house. Chapters 8 and 9: Code Enforcement records begin to reveal a pattern of deceit. Chapter 10: A lawyer tells a property owner, in jail on seemingly trumped up environmental charges, that he can get him off if he will sell his property cheap to a prominent conservation organization. In Chapter 11, the investigative reporter shares her suspicians with the editor of the local newspaper. To read previous chapters of The Willing Seller, see our website www.kwtn.com.
"Let's do some brainstorming," Gideon said. "You feel something is up You smell a rat. What's it all about?
"First thing that comes to mind, there's a lot of money out there. Let's call that interesting Fact Number One. Millions and millions of conservation dollars, billions, I believe. The state of Florida has committed more money to saving land than the federal government has.
"Fact Two, what you're describing is against the law. It's patently unconstitutional. If a public entity wants to take someone's property for the common good, our founding fathers set it up so they'd have to give you, the property owners, just compensation. Fair market value. And that's highest use fair market value, as I understand it. Which you say is not happening here?"
"Hell no. Just look at the Warner's fine. $250 a day, how long will it take for the county to simply own that property? I figured it out, it's $7500 a month."
`No time at all. Where did you say their lots were?"
"Big Pine, Cypress Drive."
"Well, roughly speaking, lots there are going for about $20,000. Wouldn't take long to reach the estimated value, which I believe was your point."
"I rest my case."
"You said in collusion. Who else are we talking about?"
"Enforcement types, first of all, zealots. The sheriff's department. Marine Patrol, that's Louis Sanchez. Maybe others. FDLE. FBI. I don't know."
"And what about all the different agencies that are active down here lately? Carpetbaggers as people refer to them, and generally with good cause. The so-called `green militia,' the environmental police. The Department of Community Affairs. Or, as I've heard them called, Department of Communist Affairs. The Department of Environmental Regulation.
"Then you have Fish and Wildlife, that's Department of the Interior. They're up to their ass in all this. What about Florida Game and Fish Commission? and so on and so forth. I'd suggest looking for something on all of them. In that, maybe I can be of some help. Come down to the office anytime and you can look through the microfiche, we probably have the entire history of this thing."
`Another point you might want to consider. How all this regulatory environmentalism has affected Monroe County's tax base. You know, these constantly changing regulations affect the value of property, of course. A little over a year ago, when the county drafted the new land use plan, some 900 undeveloped lots were completely devalued with the stroke of the pen. This had the effect of reducing the tax rolls in the neighborhood of $500 million a year. You might want to go over to the Property Appraiser's office, talk to them about it."
Kate nodded. Good suggestion.
"Oh, yes, of course. How could I have forgotten? You're not going to believe it, but I'm afraid I've buried the lead."
"What?" Kate asked, intrigued. But Gideon just chuckled, took a drag on his cigarette and blew a few contemplative smoke rings. Kate watched and waited, savoring the moment. She could tell form his expression that he was aobut to open a door for her, let her in on some musty secrets, the best kind of secrets. Finally, he dropped his voice into a slightly lower register as if someone might be listening and spoke.
`What aobut the Conservation League? Clive Farrell and his people? You know Clive? They call him The Reverend?"
Kate nodded. "I know who he is, that's all."
"Now, he's someone who comes to mind when you ask the question, Who's behind this? Of course, I myself am not familiar with what role, if any, he may be playing in all this but I'd be surprised if he wasn't connected somehow."
"What do you know about him?"
"I've been acquainted with him since he came down here about four, five years ago. Not intimately, but I see him around. Because of my position, he does tend to cozy up to me. Only in a manner of speaking, of course. Clive is a world class egotist, I think that's the best description. He wants everyone to notice him. He used to be a preacher, a long time ago, somewhere in the deep South. Today he's an empire builder, the environment is his bully pulpit. The Conservation League is the perfect vehicle for his ambitions, although I couldn't say if they include the sort of things you're talking aobut, illegal actions. Let's say unethical at best. Whether there's money in it for them, I leave it for you to find out. I'll be interested to hear what you come up with. So keep me posted . . . If you really want my opinion . . . "
"I really want your opinion."
Gideon grew quiet, thinking and staring out of the window at the black silhouettes of trees in the garden as they described psychedelic patterns against the inky blue of the night sky. "Entre Nous. If something underhanded is going on in land preservation, Clive Farrell probably has a hand in it. That'd be my guess."
That was the second time the name had come up. Kate was thinking, Two out of two ain't bad. She and Gideon sat a while longer mulling over the subject until they'd polished off the wine. Then Kate thanked Gideon for the wonderful evening and excused herself. On the walk back home, the air was redolent with jasmine and the night blooming cereus were luminous on their thick green spiky stalks. She recalled that the ancient Greeks used to plant `moon gardens,' all white flowers that would reflect in the light of the moon. Even Bruiser's mainly white coat seemed to shine as he bounced on happily ahead of her. Despite all the beauty, she could not get the Reverend off her mind.
Sam O'brien sat in his darkening office at NBC News without bothering to get up and turn on the lights. A tall lanky man in his thirties, he wore a blue and white pin-striped oxford shirt opened at the throat, his suit jacket was hanging on the back of the door which was closed and he had loosened the knot on his navy blue Gucci tie. His black hair, styled and plastered back with gel for the `wet' look he liked, had begun to look disheveled, sticking out here and there in spikes. And since he hadn't bothered to use the electric razor he kept in his desk drawer for the single purpose of maintaining a civilized edge, his jaw was covered with a dark stubble that was popular with some of the men in the office, but not with Sam. His rimless glasses sat on the desk in front of him.
On the wall opposite his desk, four color television monitors were playing network news with no sound, with the fourth turned to FOX. This was a carryover from his past life as a producer at Dateline and an anchor with ABC News. Compared to those days - - chasing hostile witnesses around with a camera crew, seven days a week, fourteen hours a day and spending your life on the road, watching it tick away in seven-minute sound bytes his current job as a hard-nosed investigative reporter at the Herald was toast. Plus, Sam liked straight reporting, it gave him time to think.
Right now, he wasn't paying attention to the images on the screen, he was just staring in their general direction and doing just that thinking. Worrying might be a more apt description, he corrected, editing his thoughts from force of habit. He'd been sitting there worrying for a couple hours now. Not about his work, that was fine. He was on a steadily rising trajectory at the paper, had been for quite a few years now.
He was worrying about his so-called personal life. To be specific, Lisa, the woman he lived with. Lisa was a prosecuting attorney in the D.A.'s office and he could tell she was about to make a case.
During their last conversation, which had taken place two nights ago, just as Sam was leaving for Toronto, Lisa had voiced her concerns about where the relationship was going. In all honesty, Sam told himself - - though he hadn't been honest with Lisa, he'd just blown her off and left for the airport it was going downhill and they both knew it.
Unlike Sam, Lisa had the guts and the temperament to frame the question that Sam didn't want to confront. Which was why he was still sitting in his office hours after touching down at Dulles instead of going straight home. Once he started answering her questions, he was afraid he wouldn't be able to stop. He knew the tape, what she'd say, what he'd say. He'd have to defend himself for being unable to commit, a complaint that wasn't exactly new to him. Then he'd find himself in the sticky position of having to do the right thing by asking her to marry him, which he really didn't want to do. Or the bigger hassle of breaking up, something he didn't want to do either. Just thinking about it made him feel exhausted.
His thoughts were interrupted by the jarring noise of the telephone. He checked the Caller I.D. It was Lisa, probably wondering where he was. He didn't pick up the receiver, just let it ring until it stopped. He waited a minute or two, then checked the voice mail. Lisa sounded stressed. Without even listening to the whole message, he pressed `3' to erase it. He just didn't have the energy for all this emotional crap.
* * *
Thursday night, Sara and Kate rode their bikes down to Blacktown, or, as the Chamber of Commerce would have it, Bahama Village. That was what it said on the ornate wrought iron arch at the entrance to lower Petronia Street, Bahama Village. Most Key Westers, including the denizen of Blacktown, weren't fooled by the Chamber's P.R. Blacktown was just that, where the blacks lived, most of them descendants of Key West's original `conchs' settlers who came over from the islands. The poorest, albeit most colorful, neighborhood in Key West. The old timey part of town.
As a popular tourist destination, new money had given a face lift to the rest of Key West and changing demographics had altered it forever.
Blacktown, however, was largely unchanged. Neglect had given it character, rendered it historic. Tiny unpainted shanties, broken sidewalks or dirt paths, people sitting at the curb on rickety kitchen chairs listening to boom-boxes with chickens scratching around at their feet. This was a neighborhood defined by all the things it didn't have. Like rehabed houses, parking meters, sidewalks, certainly no commerce to speak of.
Only a few years back, Blacktown didn't even have electricity or workable sewers. Then the City Fathers had seen fit to bestow a few modern improvement, so now Bahama Village was on the grid and the streets were less likely to fill with water when it rained.
The charm really paled if you knew that down at the bottom edge of this seemingly quaint ghetto, addicts were smoking crack rocks in the shell of a dilapidated school building, while other kids were jiving to the music from car radios cranked up high, with nowhere to go.
Kate's curiosity was peaked and she was looking forward to the evening ahead, the Last Chance monthly meeting which was being held at St. Matthews Baptist church. The draw for her was that Clive Farrell would be "testifying for the environment," as Sara had put it when she suggested they go.
Something told Kate this was going to be an epiphany for her, but the enlightenment she expected to attain wasn't exactly on the agenda. She was hoping for another piece of the puzzle. And thanks to both Sara and Gideon, she had a feeling she'd find it here in the person of the Reverend Clive Farrell.
Continued next week.