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.

For Commissioner John Aurelius, the Sonny Irons saga is unfortunate in its longevity. "I have to believe that if there was a smoking gun, it would have risen up long ago," he notes, adding: "There was probably too much effort made to figure out who this unconventional person is. Was it a witch-hunt? I don't think so. I think it was a normal investigation that went on too long. Instead of throwing in the towel, they kept going. Sometimes in life you can't get to the final chapter."

Irons say he knows the feeling. More than a decade after he started construction, his house on Southwest Fifth Court still isn't finished. In the months following the raid, local police and Department of Revenue agents questioned several of the electronics distributors who once sold his radio tuners. Since then they've been loath to work with him, he says. Late last year Irons endured a five-month IRS audit directly inspired by the original police investigation. The upshot: The IRS concluded that it owed him several thousand dollars. He's also been questioned by the Federal Aviation Administration, he notes.

Most recently, an agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms named John McKean paid a visit to a former neighbor of Irons named Jamie Fivecoats. Fivecoats happens to be serving a six-year sentence in a federal prison in Miami-Dade County. The topic of conversation, according to two sources: Irons' gun collection.

One person who won't be testifying in the courtroom opera to come is former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Cary Keno, though he appeared on the witness list at one time. Keno, a politician once championed by Irons, was recently indicted amid accusations he wrote an anonymous and threatening letter to another commission candidate.

This past Monday, Irons was scheduled to be questioned by the Broward State Attorney's Office in the matter. The reason: Bruce Tyrrell, a long-time civic enemy of Irons, claims that Irons, not Keno, wrote the letter in question. For Irons the new wrinkle in the Keno prosecution is further proof of ongoing official harassment of him and his family. Casting a new shadow on his character just as the lawsuit goes to trial would serve his enemies well, he explains.

Tyrrell acknowledges he has nothing more than circumstantial evidence to back up his charges. The letter, he says, bears a resemblance to some he says Irons wrote years ago when Tyrell ran against Jack Latona. His motives are pure, he says, but: "If I had something that would hurt Sonny Irons' lawsuit, I'd be the first one knocking on the courthouse door. The man is slime."

Joe Donisi, who served as acting chief after McCarthy's departure, remains on the force at the rank of major, drawing $136,000 per year in total compensation. He says he'll undoubtedly have to testify in the Irons case but isn't worried. Meanwhile he's looking forward to retirement after 25 years on the force. (Reform of the police pension plan, as proposed by Irons and other members of the Budget Review Committee members, never took place.)

"Once this is over and done with, I'll be ready to roll," Donisi says. "My last day is February 29, 2000. That's a Tuesday. But hey, who's counting?"

On a recent evening, Irons and his sons worked late into the night fiberglassing a boat in order to pay off some debts incurred by the lawsuit. A few feet away, Judy Irons worked at a word processor, annotating and cross-indexing a portion of the massive case file. Irons says a courtroom victory would make him feel better but probably won't rekindle his passion for high-profile civic activism. His interests now are mainly familial, personal. At least once a day, he walks the perimeter of his riverfront property, checking to make sure the high chainlink fence is in excellent repair.

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