Sonny's Last Stand

Coming soon to a courtroom near you: dueling conspiracy theories that pit Fort Lauderdale's finest against their political bosses. One certain verdict: There's a price to pay for tangling with civic activist Sonny Irons.

Irons met Latona in the mid-'80s when Latona moved to the city's southwest section. While helping Jim Naugle get elected as mayor in 1991, Irons was also instrumental in persuading Latona, a Yale-educated lawyer, to try filling Naugle's vacant commission seat.

In the spring election of 1994, Naugle and Latona faced a pair of challengers -- Jim Lewis and Bruce Tyrrell -- who were heavily backed by the police department. The election was a brawl. Anti-Naugle bumper stickers appeared on police cars. Officers picketed a League of Cities conference held in Fort Lauderdale and attempted to barricade Naugle's State of the City address. The police union rented billboard space on Sunrise Boulevard to warn of spiraling crime statistics and underpaid cops, effectively scaring the tourists. Airplane banners urged the voting populace to "Save Fort Lauderdale" by firing City Manager George Hanbury. Among others, Hanbury was blamed for a breakdown in bargaining between police and city hall over a contract that would have given police a raise.

"Very tense," is how then-police chief Tom McCarthy described the atmosphere when he arrived on the scene in April 1993.

Philip Cameron, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, calls the period before and after the election "probably the toughest 24 months I've encountered in my career."

At the time Cameron described to a reporter his position vis-à-vis the city administration: "There is a solution for us. We can get get completely active and kick their butts. We're equipped to hurt them. We've reconciled ourselves to the fact that being nice didn't work, so we have nothing to lose."

Meanwhile, thanks to appointments by Naugle and Latona, Irons served as chairman of both the Waterfront Advisory Board (19871997) and the city's Budget Advisory Committee (19921996).

The latter body was in the habit of discussing things that sent chills through the police department: the possibility of turning over homicide investigations to the Broward Sheriff's Office; whether Fort Lauderdale, the only Florida city with a municipal jail, really needed one; why detectives had followed a compulsive gambler all the way to Atlantic City in a case that resulted in no arrest; whether undercover narcotics investigators were really luring Dade County drug dealers to Broward in order to arrest them and confiscate their luxury cars, which subsequently cost a lot to maintain; whether the police union, rather than the department, should be allowed to continue handing out off-duty patrol jobs; and finally, the idea that police officers' pension plan was in bad need of reform and costing the city upward of $12 million per year more than it should have, partly because retired officers were living longer than expected.

If the political atmosphere was volatile going into the '94 elections, it was poisonous after the police candidates lost to Naugle and Latona.

The conspiracy theory, the basis of today's lawsuit: City cops, led by the department's top management, went after Irons in revenge for the lost election in what Latona has called "an attempted coup targeting the elected officials of this city."

Close-up Irons is a coherent but complex amalgam -- lapsed Jehovah's Witness, successful inventor of electronic components, conservative family man, former Caribbean adventurer and salvage expert, grassroots political kingmaker, neighborhood superactivist, thrifty tax hawk.

From afar Irons and his wife tend to raise eyebrows for doing without TV, for home-schooling their kids, and for spending years building a house instead of financing the construction through a bank. For five years in the late '70s and early '80s they lived with their children in the Turks and Caicos Islands south of the Bahamas archipelago. According to Irons the family barely escaped with their lives after drug dealers began to covet a landing strip near their isolated homestead.

The island interlude, combined with Irons' expertise with boats and airplanes, gave rise to rumors that Irons himself was or is a smuggler. Irons says he has earned a living in the past as a boat builder and marine salvage specialist. In the late '80s, he invented a radio tuning device, MaxCom, which he claims sold well enough to pay off the debt on his $200,000 riverfront property in just three months. At the time of the raid, Irons was successfully marketing a new version of his invention.

The guns, another eyebrow-raiser: 12-gauge single-shot and 10-gauge semiautomatic shotguns, two AR-15 rifles, several handguns, including matching pairs of .44 magnum and .38 snub-nosed revolvers. Irons says he's received numerous politically based death threats over the years and believes in self-reliance.

"Most of them are long guns we use in hunting," he says of the arsenal. "So are two of the pistols -- they're for hog hunting. The rest have to do with the state of the neighborhood when we first moved in. We purchased some of them on the advice of a Fort Lauderdale police detective."

Richard Winer, a neighbor of Irons: "Most of us have three kinds of people -- those who care about us, those who might dislike us, and those who have little opinion or feeling one way or another. He only has two -- those that hate his guts and those that love him. So he packs a rod everywhere he goes, even to the post office." (Winer, a neighborhood activist in Sailboat Bend, doesn't necessarily think Irons' gun-toting is inappropriate. In the early '80s Winer himself had his leg blown off by a car bomb after trying to roust a biker gang from his neighborhood.)

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