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Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power--A Dispatch from the Beach

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Here, in all its neon-colored, cocaine-fueled glory, is the never-before-told story of the making of Miami Beach. Gerald Posner, author of the groundbreaking investigations Case Closed and Why America Slept, has uncovered the hair-raising political-financial-criminal history of the Beach and reveals a tale that, in the words of one character, "makes Scarface look like a documentary."

From its beginnings in the 1890s, the Beach has been a place made by visionaries and hustlers. ...

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Here, in all its neon-colored, cocaine-fueled glory, is the never-before-told story of the making of Miami Beach. Gerald Posner, author of the groundbreaking investigations Case Closed and Why America Slept, has uncovered the hair-raising political-financial-criminal history of the Beach and reveals a tale that, in the words of one character, "makes Scarface look like a documentary."

From its beginnings in the 1890s, the Beach has been a place made by visionaries and hustlers. During Prohibition, Al Capone had to muscle into its bootlegging and gambling businesses. After December 1941, when the Beach was the training ground for half a million army recruits, even the war couldn't stop the party. After a short postwar boom, the city's luck gave out. The big hotels went bankrupt, the crime rate rose, and the tourists moved on to Disney World and the Caribbean. Even after the Beach hosted both national political conventions in 1972, nobody would have imagined that this sandy backwater of run-down hotels and high crime would soon become one of the country's most important cultural centers.

But in 1981, 125,000 Cubans arrived by the boatload. The empty streets of South Beach, lined with dilapidated Art Deco hotels, were about to be changed irrevocably by the culture of money that moved in behind cocaine and crime. Posner takes us inside the intertwined lives of politicians, financiers, nightclub owners, and real estate developers who have fed the Beach's unquenchable desire for wealth, flash, and hype: the German playboy who bought the entire tip of South Beach with $100 million of questionable money; the mayoral candidate who said, "If you can't take their money, drink their liquor, mess with their women, and then vote against them, you aren't cut out for politics"; the Staten Island thug who became king of the South Beach nightclubs only to have his empire unravel and saved himself by testifying against the mob; the campaign manager who calls himself the "Prince of Darkness" and got immunity from prosecution in a fraud case by cooperating with the FBI against his colleagues; and the former Washington, D.C., developer who played hardball with city hall and became the Beach's first black hotel owner.

From the mid-level coke dealers and their suitcases of cash to the questionable billions that financed the ocean-view condo towers, the Beach has seen it all. Posner's singular report tells the real story of how this small urban beach community was transformed into a world-class headquarters for American culture within a generation. It is a story built by dreamers and schemers. And a steroid-injected cautionary tale.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Dangerous, corrupt, and gaudy, Miami Beach seems like the fictive creation of a jaded crime writer, but as Gerald Posner shows in this adroitly researched book, this Florida hot spot is all too real. Miami Babylon lives up to its title with riveting story after story of shifty high rollers. Just a few teasers: the German conniver who fled his homeland under criminal indictment -- and then bought the entire tip of South Beach island with $100 million in questionable cash; late mobster Meyer Lansky's lawyer, whose family bailed out Michael Jackson not once but twice; a former Miami Beach mayor, convicted of fraud, who now devotes his time to promoting his self-published book about his criminal exploits. And that's just a sample.
Publishers Weekly
Miami Beach proves a multilayered topic for Posner: investigative journalist, bestselling author (Case Closed) and denizen of America's most “decadent” city. Posner examines how Miami Beach turned from a quiet resort into the interconnecting site of crime, finance and politics (which one mayor described as “a blood sport”). The author gives a penetrating look at the sun-drenched history of South Florida, the swampland and scoundrels, rumrunners and smugglers in speedboats from Prohibition on, a major military training center during WWII and the glitzy playground of mobsters. The book comes alive from the start with an account of South Florida overwhelmed in 1980 by the influx of 125,000 Cuban refugees, followed by gritty segments on the coke wars, South Beach fun and frolic, the gay glam party life and the revitalization of key areas of the Beach. Corruption in City Hall and immoral real estate moguls conclude this thoroughly entertaining analysis of one of the original American pleasure domes and the good times that continue to roll. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Oct. 13)
Library Journal
Cocaine, celebrities, nightlife, real estate developers, corrupt politicians, visionaries, and crooks—Miami Beach has it all. This is a detailed history of the development and life of Miami Beach, adopted hometown of noted investigative reporter and author Posner. Beginning with the first signs of life in Miami in the late 19th century, followed by the 1912 arrival of automotive entrepreneur Carl Fisher with his vision for an exclusive resort, Posner ends with the current bust of the housing bubble. In between, he covers the various boom-and-bust real estate cycles, the arrival of almost 20,000 Cuban refugees during the Mariel Boatlift, and the explosion of the nightclub scene in the 1980s. The book's verisimilitude is clear from the firsthand accounts. Posner and his wife, author Trisha Posner, conducted extensive interviews—most on the record—with Miami Beach luminaries, politicos, and criminals. The heart of this story is the development, redevelopment, reinvention, and remaking of Miami Beach. VERDICT Posner fans might find less gritty crime than they seek, but Posner does a good job of chronicling Miami Beach celebrities. Recommended for readers interested in Miami and/or urban history. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/09.]—Karen Sandlin Silverman, CFAR, Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
The dark, dark story of the sunny American Riviera. Investigative reporter Posner (Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-U.S. Connection, 2005, etc.) marshals more than 200 personal interviews and oceans of research to trace the troubled history of Miami Beach, the seductive city with stunning beauty and beset by vice. In 1913, Carl Fisher-a voluble daredevil, promotional genius and virulent racist and anti-Semite-saw in the swampland of Miami a potential tourist's paradise. He set about developing the area with a combination of recklessness, greed and hubris that would characterize subsequent generations of speculators. Major obstacles to this dream of an upscale tropical playland included an entrenched community of poor elderly retirees and vicious gangs of criminals emanating from the infamous Mariel Boatlift of 1980, during which Fidel Castro opened Cuba's prisons and insane asylums, sending tens of thousands Cuban miscreants into the region with predictably catastrophic results. Posner deftly cuts between accounts of horror and deprivation endemic to the area with such sparkling monuments to luxury as the Fontainebleau Hotel, beloved local institutions like Joe's Stone Crab, glittering nightclub pleasure palaces like the Forge and Nu and the beautiful Art Deco architecture that gives the Miami Beach its iconic skyline. The author covers the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and the recent economic crash, illustrating Miami Beach's paradoxical nature as both paradise and purgatory. The narrative is dense with information, and the many players and their complicated wheeling and dealing can difficult to follow. However, the story is fast-moving and colorful and featuressuch scene notables as mob bosses Meyer Lansky and Al Capone, actors Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rourke, '80s party girl and nightclub promoter Ingrid Casares and charismatic, corrupt mayor Alex Daoud. Tales abound of the exploits of the "cocaine cowboys" and their astonishing mountains of dirty cash, the impact of entertainments such as Miami Vice and Scarface and Miami's emergence as a fashion capitol, culminating in the sensational murder of designer Gianni Versace. An awesome catalog of crime, corruption, depravity and visionary chutzpah. Agent: Sam Pinkus/Veritas Media
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416576563
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Pages: 454
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.36 (d)

Meet the Author

John Martin of ABC News says "Gerald Posner is one of the most resourceful investigators I have encountered in thirty years of journalism." Garry Wills calls Posner "a superb investigative reporter," while the Los Angeles Times dubs him "a classic-style investigative journalist." "His work is painstakingly honest journalism" concluded The Washington Post. The New York Times lauded his "exhaustive research techniques" and The Boston Globe determined Posner is "an investigative journalist whose work is marked by his thorough and meticulous research." "A resourceful investigator and skillful writer," says The Dallas Morning News.

Posner was one of the youngest attorneys (23) ever hired by the Wall Street law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore. A Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (1975), he was an Honors Graduate of Hastings Law School (1978), where he served as the Associate Executive Editor for the Law Review. Of counsel to the law firm he founded, Posner and Ferrara, he is now a full time journalist and author.

He is the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Daily Beast. In the past, he was a freelance writer on investigative issues for several news magazines, and a regular contributor to NBC, the History Channel, CNN, FOX News, CBS, and MSNBC. A member of the National Advisory Board of the National Writers Union, Posner is also a member of the Authors Guild, PEN, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and Phi Beta Kappa. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, author Trisha Posner, who works on all his projects (

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Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

"Gasoline on a Fire"

April 1, 1980, in Havana was oppressively hot and humid; Miamians would have called it a "steamer." That afternoon a speeding bus manned by five Cuban hijackers smashed through the gate of the Peruvian Embassy. The guards sprayed the bus with machine-gun fire; one guard was killed in the crossfire. Once inside, the Cubans received political asylum. Fidel Castro demanded that the men be turned over to federal authorities so they could be charged in the guard's death. Peru refused.

If the Peruvians were willing to accept five Cubans, Castro decided he would test their resolve with many more. Word spread via chismoso, the Havana "bush telegraph," that the guards at the embassy had abandoned their posts, and by Easter Sunday, April 4, some 10,000 Cubans jammed into the embassy's grounds. Then the Cuban soldiers returned and blocked all access.

Conditions quickly deteriorated. There was little food, water, and few adequate bathrooms. But Castro rebuffed the Red Cross's requests to provide assistance.

"Our hearts go out to the nearly 10,000 freedom-loving Cubans who entered a temporarily opened gate at the Peruvian Embassy just within the week," said President Jimmy Carter. He called on Castro to let the people leave the island. Two weeks later, he issued a Presidential Memorandum granting asylum to 3,500 Cuban refugees. Political prisoners had priority; second were relatives of Cubans already in the United States; and third, refugees seeking political asylum. Castro saw this offer as an opportunity to purge his country of many undesirables including political dissidents, hard-core criminals, and the mentally ill. "They want them," he is reported to have told his brother, Raúl, "then they can have them. I will flush my toilets."

Castro announced to Florida's Cuban Americans that they could claim their friends and relatives for transport to the United States at Mariel Harbor in western Cuba; no announcement was made to the Cuban public. In Miami and Key West, exiles hired everything from fishing trawlers to dinghies to old wooden skiffs. Hundreds of makeshift "freedom boats" sailed to Mariel, and on April 21, far more than 3,500 refugees started arriving on Florida's shores. Some boats capsized. "We'll never know exactly how many people we lost during the entire boatlift," says former Coast Guard captain Jim Decker. There were steady reports of bodies and parts of boats floating all over the Florida straits.

As the days wore on, the so€‘called freedom flotilla burgeoned. By April 29, another 1,700 vessels crammed into Mariel Harbor awaiting the processing of thousands of refugees.

"This was a very erroneous policy of the Carter administration, to consider everyone who wanted to leave Cuba for the United States as a heroic dissident," said Cuban vice president Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. "The United States is now paying the consequences."

By May, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officials pleaded in vain for more workers to process the new arrivals. When a tugboat arrived in Key West on May 7, packed with six hundred refugees, there was life-saving equipment for only a third of the passengers. No U.S. official complained about the numbers arriving or expressed concern about the capability of local communities to absorb them.

In mid-May, Carter announced that no further arrivals from Mariel would be accepted, but Castro ignored him. At gunpoint, Cuban officials ordered one vessel's crew to take on 354 refugees with only 80 lifejackets aboard. Carter called up 600 Coast Guard reservists, but instead of intercepting boats and turning them back, they spent their time saving people at sea and towing dangerously overcrowded boats to safe Florida ports. When Castro finally closed Mariel on September 26, more than 125,000 Cubans had flooded into South Florida.

Two sprawling tent cities served as the first stop for the refugees, one in the parking lot of Miami's Orange Bowl stadium, and the other under the shadow of an elevated stretch of Interstate 95. To avoid generous resettlement financing, the INS denied the Marielitos "refugee status" and instead created a special category for them. INS officials photographed and fingerprinted every arriving Cuban and issued them flimsy IDs with no picture. Counterfeit Mariel IDs were soon on sale in Little Havana, and as the refugees were processed and released, almost 20,000 chose Miami Beach as their new home. The word was out: the cheapest housing in all of Florida was the dilapidated waterfront property south of Sixth Street, a neighborhood that Miami Beach's government had set aside to be razed and redeveloped. The federal government rented blocks of dirt-cheap, run-down apartments for the newcomers. Almost none of them spoke English. In a town of 85,000 residents, two-thirds Jewish and less than 10 percent Hispanic, the Marielitos changed the demographics overnight.

Joining them were thousands of Haitians. Correctly gambling that with the U.S. Coast Guard overstretched they could avoid being intercepted at sea, an estimated 35,000 made the grueling 600-mile journey to Miami, packed aboard hundreds of barely seaworthy vessels in what locals dubbed "the poor man's Mariel." Scores of Haitians drowned off South Florida's shores, often in view of tourists. U.S. Customs established a special unit to retrieve bodies that washed ashore. But the risks were worth it to escape a country with one of the world's lowest per capita incomes ($260) and an oppressive dictator, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. A popular exile saying was, "The teeth of the sharks are sweeter than Duvalier's hell." In Miami's Little Haiti, there was a sharp increase in fires attributed to all-night Voodoo services, complete with candles and burnt sacrifices meant to help the newcomers arrive safely.

Florida's Governor Bob Graham pleaded in vain with the federal government to resettle or deport the Haitians. Over 1,000 were crammed into Dade County's Krome Avenue North Detention Center, designed for no more than 530 people.

The flood of illegal immigrants pushed up the county's unemployment from 5.7 percent to 13 percent, taxed social services to the breaking point, and exacerbated racial tensions. Whites resented an influx of poor immigrants they suspected would soon be on welfare. A local newspaper report about how some of the Marielitos had quickly mastered food stamp fraud fed those worries. Blacks, stuck on the bottom of South Florida's economic ladder, feared losing low-paying, nonskilled jobs to the newcomers. And even Cubans who had arrived twenty years earlier in the great exodus after Castro's revolution were concerned that the Marielitos could tarnish the reputation they had so carefully cultivated.

That same May, in 1980, adding to the tension, Miami suffered its worst race riots after an all-white jury acquitted several white police officers in the beating death of a black Marine Corps veteran. Black neighborhoods like Overtown and Liberty City erupted. A curfew was imposed, but after three days, 18 were dead, more than 400 injured, and over 1,000 arrested. The city suffered $100 million in damage.

Early INS processing revealed that while most of the Marielitos were decent immigrants who had been politically bothersome to Castro, a sizable number were either career criminals or mentally ill. Some arrived still wearing hospital wristbands. About 24,000 had criminal records; 5,000 were "hardened criminals" and more than 100 had murder convictions. A Miami Detention Center was set ablaze when authorities tried to deport some career criminals back to Cuba. The New York Times estimated that "only 30 percent of the refugees on each boat are relatives. The remaining 70 percent included not only criminals [but] prostitutes, delinquents, and mildly retarded people that the Cuban government has sought to get rid of."

During the first year of resettlement, fifty-three Cuban refugees were arrested for murder; many more were jailed for rapes and robberies. Within twelve months, a quarter of Miami-Dade's jails were filled with Marielitos. As some resettled in other parts of the country, trouble followed. In Las Vegas, where 3,000 Marielitos had moved, they would account for about 25 percent of the narcotics trade four years later, and 23 out of 100 homicides. In Los Angeles, several hundred criminal Marielitos boosted the city's crime numbers, especially in robberies and drug busts.

"That first year was like a war zone," says Charlie Seraydar, then a Miami Beach homicide detective. The Beach had been slowly declining for more than a decade and crime had been rising. Cheap air travel and package tours to Europe, Hawaii, and new lush Mexican and Caribbean resorts had siphoned off hordes of tourists. With legal gambling and newer hotels, Las Vegas had supplanted the Beach for travelers who wanted topflight entertainment. There was little political leadership and the city's tourism promoters were stumped as to how to revive the town's fortunes.

"We went from being a seasonal tourist town to suddenly dealing with seasoned criminals who had nothing to lose," says Seraydar. "No matter how badly we treated them, no matter how low they lived, it was better than the jails they called home in Cuba. That first year, our crime rate went up 600 percent. Our entire police force was smaller than a single New York City precinct. It felt like we had been invaded and were losing the battle."

Alex Daoud was only five months into his first year as a Miami Beach commissioner when the boatlift began. He watched as the Beach buckled under the influx of the Marielitos.

"Mariel was like pouring gasoline on a fire," he says. "Murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping, assault and battery, muggings, home invasions, we were reeling out of control. Our police force was overwhelmed. The city's services were besieged. Narcotics were being dealt openly in the park, on street corners and in the backs of stores. We ranked among the top ten cities in the nation for murder and violent crime. And South Beach's elderly residents were easy victims. The city where I was born was not the one I knew and loved. Miami Beach was a mess."

Alex Daoud was born to Lebanese Catholic parents in Miami Beach on May 19, 1943. His mother, the youngest person to pass the New York bar exam in the early 1920s, and his father, an antiques dealer, moved from New York to Miami Beach during World War II. His father's eclectic furniture and bric-à-brac collection on Lincoln Road included diverse customers such as mobsters Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel and Hollywood stars Clark Gable and Joan Crawford.

When Daoud was six, he developed polio. At first the prognosis was grim — a priest administered last rites. He was confined to a wheelchair for six months and then a spent year on crutches and in a heavy leg brace. His classmates were brutal. "It was horrible," he recalls. "I lost count of how many times I was tossed out of my wheelchair or knocked off my crutches. Kids used to dance around me when I was on the floor."

After graduating from the University of Illinois law school in 1979, Daoud returned to the Beach. He developed a passion for boxing and hung out at the Fifth Street Gym, where he met Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee.

A year after earning his law degree, he ran for one of seven city commission seats. South Beach had become one of America's poorest neighborhoods. Daoud became a relentless cheerleader for what he promised would be a renaissance. His political career was launched without focus groups, fund-raising dinners, or glad-handing with lobbyists, things he could barely tolerate. Instead, he walked the city, knocking on doors: the Scher Pawnshop, Goldenstein Clothiers ("A Stitch to Make a Gentleman"), the Modern Drug Store boasting that its standing penny scale was the state's largest, Sonny's Pizza Parlor ("A Taste of New York"), Wolfie's Deli with its flashing 24/7 sign, and the Deuce, a dive bar with a few dozen stools and neon lights tracing the ceiling's edge. Daoud heard how seniors barely survived from one government check to the next and enthusiastically addressed everything from grinding poverty to rampant crime. He visited synagogues, hung out at kosher butchers, danced with elderly widows at Club Seven for senior citizens, and was a regular at feisty Hadassah and B'nai Brith gatherings.

Before long, crowds flocked to pool halls, diners, and the Tenth Street Auditorium to hear him. He gave out free ice cream to children, served hot meals to Jewish seniors, and bought Cuban coffee for local workers. He could not walk down the street without people yelling, "Hey, Alex. How ya doing? Keep it up, Alex!"

"For me, campaigning wasn't work. Many of the elderly residents were politically and culturally active. It was a vibrant community. There were a lot of great thinkers, musicians would play in Flamingo Park, and there were animated debates at the beach between radical Socialists and anti-Zionists. They had a great dignity and character. And their stories were interesting and intriguing, and as I got to know them, they were almost like my extended family."

He ran as — and many people felt he was — one of them, an average guy looking out for their best interests. And his naïveté, mixed with a healthy dose of idealism, made politics seem virtuous. Daoud understood that there were two Miami Beaches. In one, a flood of new cocaine money fueled parties at iconic Beach restaurants like Joe's Stone Crab and the Forge and a building boom in waterfront mansions. In the other were mid-Beach condo towers for middle-class snowbirds and the decaying, poverty-stricken retirement village that was South Beach.

Daoud ran against Joe Malek, a popular commissioner and a successful attorney. Malek was an Orthodox Jewish cantor, and his Israeli wife, Rochelle, was active in social and civic organizations. That was an advantage in a town that was two-thirds Jewish. Gerald Schwartz, a political strategist, warned Daoud: "Your Arab ancestry could cause you a lot of problems if you go against Malek. The campaign will be brutal."

"Schwartz was right," Daoud recalls. "It was a nasty fight. They called me 'Dow-ood' and reminded people I was Catholic, hoping to turn Jewish voters against me. They circulated rumors that my family was anti-Israeli. No lie was too big. It did not take me very long to realize that in Miami Beach, local politics is a blood sport. It's a sewer in which you do anything to win."

But Malek underestimated how much a populist campaign could spark enthusiasm and overcome aspersions and innuendo. In November 1980, Daoud won 75 percent of the vote, the biggest landslide in Miami Beach politics in twenty years.

The following September, the last wave of Marielitos arrived in South Florida. Daoud met with the police chief, who described how young male prostitutes now controlled Lummus Park, where elderly Jewish men had once read aloud from the Talmud. Some kosher restaurants had been forcibly taken over for late night cockfights. Robberies of the elderly had increased. "He told me there were two towns," Daoud says. "South Beach, during the day, was a quiet neighborhood filled with retirees. At night, it became a place gripped by fear, where residents would not venture outdoors."

Daoud wanted to see for himself and asked the police chief if he could go on an overnight patrol with a squad car.

On September 26, Daoud went for a ride-along with Detective Seraydar. Their shift kicked off with a high-speed car chase. They went after two heavily armed suspects in a stolen Cadillac who were killed when they smashed into a streetlight. Next were five domestic dispute calls. Then someone threw a cinder block off a building roof and just missed the patrol car's windshield. On another call, an elderly Cuban woman had been beaten by a Marielito nicknamed El Loco ("the Crazy One"), a homeless deaf-mute who had been terrorizing the neighborhood.

"Halfway through the shift, I was completely exhausted," recalls Daoud. "I had seen a night population I didn't know existed. There were groups of rough, tattooed young men, shirtless, hanging around run-down bars and small sandwich stands. They were looking for victims."

At dawn, Seraydar took a call about a "bleeding body in the alley" next to the Betsy Ross Apartments at 1440 Ocean Drive.

"Murder?" Daoud asked.

"Could be, but more likely a jumper."

"A jumper?"

"Yeah, it happens all the time, a couple of times a week, especially with the elderly. They get sick and are in pain, their kids don't want them, and they don't see any hope. They have little money. So they kill themselves."

The squad car pulled into one of South Beach's narrow alleys. The streetlights were broken and the surrounding buildings mostly boarded up.

"When we drove into the alley," says Daoud, "I could see a crumpled body on the ground, dressed in a T€‘shirt and pajamas, and drenched in blood."

At an open third-floor window directly above the body, an elderly woman was staring out blankly. Her eighty-five-year-old husband had jumped to his death.

Daoud couldn't take his eyes off the corpse. "There's got to be a lot of pain to make you do that," he murmured, almost as much to himself as to Seraydar.

"Yeah, Alex. Suicide is one of the worst sins of South Beach."

It was 7 a.m. by the time they left the scene. Daoud recalled the words of the medic as they drove away: "I should've been a cop. They've got a better job. All they have to do is write a few reports. No blood, no shit, and no smell."

At 17th Street, near the Theater of the Performing Arts, Seraydar slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting somebody lying in the gutter. Groceries were scattered around. He and Daoud sprinted over.

Daoud knew the person. It was his friend Elsie Cohen.

"At first, I almost didn't recognize her. She had been beaten. Her face was covered in blood. There were welts near her eyes and around her nose. She was moaning, 'Help me. Please help me.' "

Her clothes were tattered. "It didn't take me very long to realize she had been raped," recalls Seraydar.

Daoud had met Elsie in 1978 while he was studying for the bar exam and volunteering at the Tenants' Association, a non-profit outfit that helped residents with housing problems. The petite Cohen had come to the association because her landlord of ten years was threatening to double her rent. As she had reached into her purse to retrieve her lease, Daoud noticed the number tattooed on her right forearm. When he stared a moment too long, she quickly withdrew her arm under a knitted shawl. Daoud promised that he would not let her become homeless. She was so ecstatic that she returned later with homemade babka. It was the start of a friendship with the elderly concentration camp survivor. When Elsie was eventually evicted, Daoud arranged for her to move into one of several apartments his family owned. It was next door to his mother, and the two became good friends. Daoud regularly checked on Elsie and she would drop off baked goods at the Tenants' Association and keep an eye out for prospective girlfriends for him.

Finding her barely conscious, Daoud remembers, "I didn't know what to do. I kept staring at her tattoo. I kept thinking that she had survived the Nazis only to end up beaten and raped and then tossed aside like a piece of garbage in South Beach."

Seraydar remembers that Alex was "just standing there frozen, staring at her. I screamed at him, 'Go get the blanket from the trunk of the car and bring it to me.'

" 'Oh my God, I know this woman, Charlie. Her name is Elsie Cohen.'

" 'She's in shock, Alex. We've got to get her help right now. I need you, and so does she. Don't go south on me now. Get moving.' "

An ambulance arrived. While the paramedics worked on Elsie, Charlie questioned some people who had slowly come out of their apartments.

"They were elderly and they surrounded Charlie and me like a flock of frightened sheep," says Daoud. "All of them were speaking at once."

Three men had attacked Elsie and run west. When another squad car arrived, Charlie and Daoud sped off to look for the suspects.

They spotted three men walking briskly near the Sun Trust building at the corner of deserted Lincoln Road. They were all tall, over 200 pounds, and muscular. Charlie flipped on the car's flashing red lights and stopped in the middle of the street. The men kept walking.

Charlie called for backup and then stepped out of the car. "Stay put, Alex. Let me handle this."

He yelled at them to stop. They ignored him. He yelled again. The tallest one turned around and said with a heavy accent, "No English."

"While he was talking to Charlie," Daoud recalls, "I suddenly spotted Elsie's antique platinum watch that I knew so well, sticking out of the pocket of his pants. The light from the streetlamp reflected off it and it just jumped out."

Before he could do anything, the tallest man sucker-punched Charlie. The other two joined in and tried to wrestle away his revolver. Daoud jumped out of the car and ran straight into the fracas.

"I grabbed the tallest one by the shoulder," says Daoud, "and turned him around and threw my right fist into his nose. I was running on pure adrenaline. Everything I learned in my boxing days at the Fifth Street Gym came rushing back."

Daoud pummeled the ringleader unconscious, knocking out several teeth. Charlie wrestled the second man to the ground while Daoud tackled the third 20 feet from the squad car.

"I drove him into the sidewalk," recalls Daoud. "The more he struggled, the harder I pressed against his neck. I was completely consumed with vengeance."

"I screamed at him, 'Alex, let go! You're killing him,' " recalls Seraydar. Two backup cars had arrived and it took three cops to pull Daoud off the unconscious suspect. Then, without a word, one of the policemen kicked the guy in the face.

"His head bounced back like a smashed watermelon," recalls Daoud. "There was blood everywhere. No one else moved, and then, all of a sudden, without saying a word to each other, we all began to beat them. It was a desperate act, by desperate and angry men. The justice system in South Beach had failed. The criminals were winning. At that moment, I hated these men. I hated Castro for releasing these sadistic animals in our town. I wanted only raw revenge."

Daoud and the police threw the almost comatose bodies into the back of the squad cars and took the suspects to the trauma unit at mainland Miami's Jackson Memorial. All three Marielitos survived. (Later, they pled guilty to rape and got ten-year sentences.) Then Daoud and Seraydar drove to Miami Beach's Mount Sinai, where Elsie was in surgery.

They sat silently in a private waiting area reserved for police behind the emergency room. Twice, a passing nurse asked Daoud if he needed help. His shirt was torn and spotted with blood. His right hand was swollen and his knuckles were bleeding. His pants were soaked with blood. He waved her away.

At 8 a.m., the surgeon emerged and told them Elsie was in critical condition. She had suffered permanent brain damage.

"The events of that night," says Daoud, "did not scare me. They empowered me."

On Novemb er 24, 1980, a Time magazine article titled "Absolute War in Our Streets" reported what Alex Daoud knew firsthand: that handgun sales had doubled in Miami-Dade during the previous year; a $25, three-hour course at a local rifle range on how to protect yourself had a two-month waiting list. The bestselling novelist and Miami Herald crime reporter Edna Buchanan told Time, "If everyone in Dade County took this course, it would certainly be a safer place to live." The most popular Miami bumper sticker was HELP FIGHT CRIME: BUY GUNS; to attract new depositors, Lincoln Savings & Loan offered pocket cans of mace instead of free toasters or radios. Time reported that in the first eleven months of 1980, thirty-two suspected criminals were shot to death by gun-toting citizens. "No woman or man should venture alone in this city," said Robin Gibb, one of the three brothers known as the Bee Gees, who lived in a wealthy Miami Beach enclave.

The Time story included a quote from Daoud: "An absolute war is being fought in our streets at night."

"People in Miami Beach hated that I said that to national reporters," he recalls. "Everyone knew the problem was out of control, but they wanted it as our own dirty little secret. All the businesses were afraid that if the word got out that we were the Wild West, the city would die. Well, it was dying anyway. Our only real industries were smuggling and tourism. And I wasn't going to sugarcoat it for anyone, no matter how many enemies I made."

A story in London's Daily Express typified the press coverage: "Florida's holiday paradise has become the holiday murder capital of the world." The Beach considered emergency measures to stem the crisis, including an 11 p.m. curfew. The commission rejected that after intense debate but adopted a temporary ordinance that allowed police to stop and frisk anyone suspected of intending to commit a crime. They approved an interim ban on congregating "in a manner that blocks sidewalks or threatens the safety of property or persons," and they closed the city's beaches and parks between 10 p.m. and sunrise.

A year later, on November 23, 1981, Time followed up with a devastating nine-page cover investigation entitled "Trouble in Paradise." Time concluded that South Florida was "in trouble" because of an "epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees" that had hit the region with "the destructive power of a hurricane." Its problems, said Time, threatened to turn one of the nation's most prosperous, congenial, and naturally gorgeous regions into a paradise lost.

That year, Mother Teresa came from Calcutta to help feed the Miami homeless. She established a hostel for the bagwomen who slept in parks and under freeway overpasses, her only missionary outlet in America.

Even Governor Bob Graham admitted, "If you want sustained stability, don't come to Miami."

"It was hard then to imagine," says Daoud, "that Miami Beach would stop its slide and overcome its problems. It took years, but it did." Copyright © 2009 by Gerald Posner

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  • Posted January 6, 2010

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    Tedious, repetitive, just not worth the effort. I live in SEFL and this material would have been interesting if it were condensed into 20 pages - not 400. I finally surrendered at 250.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

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