May 30, 2001
Haul the Rampaging Nitwits Off to Tourist Court
Florida needs a special prison for tourists.
Not all tourists—just the ones who trash the place, rob, shoplift, vandalize, drive drunk, assault the cops, puke in the alleys, pee in the medians, and so on.
For some reason, Memorial Day brings out these troglodytes in droves.
This year it was South Beach that got the full treatment, but outbreaks of mayhem occur all over the state.
Maybe it's time to stop worrying about crimes committed against tourists and do something about the crimes committed by tourists.
As it stands, rampaging visitors are tossed in jail with local criminals. This plainly is cruel and unusual punishment, and it's only a matter of time before the criminals file a class-action suit.
Nobody deserves to be locked in a cell with obnoxious, whiny, ill-clad tourists. Such sociopaths belong in an institution of their own, a mini-Raiford specializing in hard-nosed discipline and social graces.
In fact, the entire justice system should recognize and deal with the uniquely repulsive nature of tourist misbehavior.
Say you're driving through the Keys and some dork in a neon-blue rental yells, "Yee-haw!" and hurls an empty Southern Comfort bottle off the Bahia Honda Bridge. Under current statutes, that's good for a wimpy charge of littering. It doesn't even rate any jail time, only a piddling $50 fine.
You want deterrence? Put fangs in the law. Let the police snatch the boor off the highway and drag his sorry butt straight to Tourist Court. Same goes for the drunks, stoners, and public urinators.
Tourist Court should be set up sort of like Drug Court, only not as lenient. The judges would come from smaller venues, such as Kissimmee, Key West, Naples; places that get a rush of visitors yet still have a vestige of hometown pride.
First-time offenders in Tourist Court would be permitted to plead guilty in exchange for a one-week hitch at Sandal Camp. This would be set up like Boot Camp, only much tougher.
Here, inmates would spend seven days and six nights being drilled on vacation etiquette. For example, they'd be taught how to read speed-limit signs; how to park within the parallel lines of a parking space; how to drink and dispose of alcohol; how to vomit inconspicuously; how to steer a Jet Ski and chew gum at the same time. . . .
The drill instructors would be selected from an elite pool of former Highway Patrol troopers, ex–Navy SEALs, and retired tour guides from Epcot.
Defendants who don't want to tackle Sandal Camp could instead risk a trial. However, all jurors in Tourist Court should be chosen from the hospitality industry—waiters, waitresses, bartenders, chefs, motel desk clerks, cabbies. Not easily fooled, those folks—and no tipping allowed in the courtroom!
Once convicted, it's off to Tourist Prison. Admittedly, finding a location for such a high-risk facility won't be easy.
In the event of an escape, you'd have renegade tourists scurrying all over the place with no cash or credit cards—a nightmare scenario for resort communities, especially during the season.
Consequently, the prison is more likely to end up someplace like Mims or Plant City than, say, Turnberry Isle.
Inevitably, the age-old debate will come to a boil: Is the goal of incarcerating lawbreaking tourists merely to punish them, or should we make a good-faith effort at rehabilitation?
Many Floridians would argue, persuasively, that the conduct of some visitors is so abominable that they are beyond redemption. Yet a humane approach compels us to consider the possibility that a few of these nitwits might actually get the message if the screws are firmly applied.
It's even conceivable they might someday become lawful and productive vacationers who treat their holiday destinations with care and respect—no more stealing baby lobsters and flushing the heads down motel-room toilets!
Yet for the incorrigible ones, the hard-core slobs, a stretch in Tourist Prison will serve mainly to keep them off the streets, beaches, and waterways—temporarily.
Unfortunately, vigilante justice might be the only kind these outlaws understand: an angry mob in minivans and Winnebagos to chase them up the Turnpike, all the way home, and do to their backyards what they did so heedlessly to ours.
August 12, 2001
Stop Shark-Feeding Dive Expeditions
No summer would be complete without delirious shark hype, even though bumblebees and lightning bolts kill more people.
Still, in the wake of two harrowing attacks, it's significant to note that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently decided that there's no reason to ban shark-feeding dive excursions.
While of dubious scientific footing, the ruling was consistent with the state's anything-for-a-buck approach to marine management. At least four outfits in South Florida advertise shark-feeding scuba trips. These are promoted as "interactive experiences," meaning dive operators get to interact with your money.
Giddy explorers descend to a place where sharks are chummed in and hand-fed pieces of smelly dead fish. The sharks themselves have no interest in communing—they come strictly to eat, which is what nature so exquisitely engineered them to do. They are also engineered for hunting, not begging, like stray cats. That's why many dive captains and marine biologists oppose the chumming expeditions.
Supporters say the practice is educational, helping to raise appreciation for a creature that's being ignorantly slaughtered worldwide, but whose presence is vital to sustaining the bounty of our oceans.
No one can dispute that sharks are maligned and misunderstood. However, teaching them to seek snacks from humans doesn't seem like the smartest way to save them from extinction or to prevent future maulings.
Not that most suckers care, but a commercial shark dive is hardly a natural encounter. Sharks don't naturally behave like Central Park pigeons.
And pigeons, of course, can't sever a human limb.
In the Bahamas, where these dives have become popular, nine injuries were documented through 1996. Usually, the bitten party was the shark handler, not a paying customer.
The Florida expeditions concentrate on nurse sharks, a relatively slow and mopey species. Granted, it's not easy to get nailed by a nurse shark, but it does happen. Three years ago, an Illinois teenager snorkeling in the Keys decided to tug the tail of a baby nurse shark, which promptly whipped around and chomped him. It did not let go. With the fish firmly attached to his chest, the boy was rushed to a Marathon hospital. There the shark was surgically dispatched, and its jaws were pried off.
The lesson of the story is twofold: Never underestimate any shark, and never overestimate any human. These are two life-forms that were never meant to fraternize. It's telling that the supposedly advanced species is the one initiating eye-to-eye contact.
A shark easily can be conditioned to slurp mullet from a diver's hand. If one day that shark meets up with a diver who has no mullet, it might impulsively settle for the hand instead. They are primordially swift and opportunistic. The ones that mangled little Jessie Arbogast in Pensacola and Krishna Thompson in Freeport weren't rogues. They were doing precisely what sharks have been doing for 420 million years—chasing what they thought was supper.
With its crowded beaches, Florida leads the nation in unplanned shark encounters. The vast majority are nonfatal nips of surfers and swimmers in murky water.
Humans are not a shark's normal prey, and typically, it flees after the first taste—but not always. Last summer, a tenacious bull shark killed a man swimming in a canal near St. Petersburg.
Three Broward cities—Hillsboro Beach, Lighthouse Point, and Deerfield Beach—have outlawed the offshore feeding of sharks and other marine animals. State officials contemplated a similar ban, then backed off. Instead, the FWC asked the dive industry for guidelines ensuring that the excursions will be safe for both the divers and the sharks. The proposals didn't satisfy some commissioners, so the FWC is supposed to tackle the controversy again next month. Among the options are prohibiting feedings by hand and requiring chum zones to be located far from recreational beaches.
A smarter idea is stopping the dives, which are about as educational as a rerun of Jaws III. Chumming sharks is nothing but a thrill gimmick designed to hook tourists.
Visitors to Florida needn't feel deprived of a swim with the ocean's most magnificent predator. They're out there every time you go in the water, all over the place.
If you're lucky enough to see one, be bright enough not to try making friends.
April 21, 2002
Even Death Doesn't Free Us from Crookery
Before you die, make sure your relatives install a LoJack transmitter in your casket. That way they can find your body if it gets swiped, dumped, or stripped for parts.
Even the dead are up for grabs in the Sunshine State.
Last week, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement officially set up a crime scene at a cemetery in Palm Beach County. They found evidence of victims who are in no shape to testify.
The attorney general says that Menorah Gardens & Funeral Chapels has been burying people in the wrong plots, stacking coffins like Tupperware, reselling occupied grave sites, and cracking open private mortuary vaults to make room for more corpses.
It's hard enough to find a decent parking space when you're alive. Evidently, things only get worse after you pass away.
According to state investigators, Menorah Gardens failed to inform family members that 44 of 136 burials in one section of the cemetery had been staged in the wrong location. Other residents were roused from eternal slumber by backhoes. Former gravediggers have told authorities that they were ordered to use heavy machinery to break into vaults and then scatter the contents, including human remains, in nearby woods.
Not even the young and innocent are safe. At a Broward cemetery also operated by Menorah Gardens, two babies were allegedly buried in the same grave on two occasions. Soon we might have to redefine the term "sleazeball," or at least create a special odious category for those who treat the deceased like Dumpster fodder.
Menorah Gardens is owned by a huge Houston-based company called Service Corporation International. SCI disputes the sordid Florida allegations and says that it's cooperating with the state to correct any problems. Initially, the company suggested that the discarded bones and skull fragments videotaped by cemetery workers were actually those of dead animals. On Thursday, FDLE agents confirmed unearthing bones that were definitely human.
The sight of yellow crime tape strung around a graveyard is enough to make a person consider cremation as a less risky alternative to burial. In Florida, though, you might well be kissing your ashes goodbye—assuming you even get to the crematorium.
Professional corpse hauler Joseph Damiano is being investigated for allegedly taking bodies marked for cremation and selling them to an embalming class for $110 each. Damiano, who has previously been sued for misplacing human ashes, denies the new accusations and says he is the target of a vendetta by jealous competitors.
Family members and caretakers of 23 persons who recently died told the Herald that their loved ones were sent without consent to the mortuary school at Lynn University in Boca Raton. There the bodies were embalmed.
School officials say they thought that the families had given permission for the bodies to be used in the classes and have promised a full investigation. Damiano insists that he sold no corpses to Lynn without first consulting with relatives.
A North Lauderdale man has sued, claiming his wife was embalmed against her religious beliefs. Other problems face Damiano, who was recently arrested for illegally operating an incinerator, and had his state licenses revoked.
These latest scandals might not have happened if the death industry were policed even halfheartedly, but it's not. Funeral operators contribute heavily to politicians and finance lobby groups that help snuff most attempts at serious reform.
Service Corporation International, for instance, has its own political action committee. It donated more than $518,000 to chosen candidates around the country between 1996 and 2001.
Here in Florida, where the Legislature often appears embalmed, the funeral lobby continues to keep a death grip on top lawmakers. Again this year, all efforts to strengthen regulations and expand consumer rights died a swift death.
One bill was single-handedly snuffed by Rep. Mark Flanagan, R-Bradenton, who took $1,000 in campaign donations from funeral associations last year. Flanagan says the money didn't influence him one bit. Neither, apparently, did the heartrending stories of those who had learned that Menorah Gardens was allegedly playing musical tombstones with the remains of their relatives.
Approximately 163,000 persons will die in Florida this year, and most will end up in the urn or grave where they had planned to be. Sadly, some won't.
Because the state isn't protecting the public from unscrupulous human buzzards, we are left to worry about our loved ones long after they're dearly departed.
These days, there's no peace for the dead.