Feeding Frenzy

Police have charged the gang known as the Sharks with everything from extortion to kidnapping. Only one charge, against leader Rusty Feder, has stuck.

Rusty Feder sits behind a steel-encased pane of soundproof glass, his deep blue eyes flashing. He says he hates living with 43 other guys on a piece of tiled floor about the size of a single-family home. Corn flakes and bologna are getting old. Feder used to have a strict diet that kept him in first-rate bodybuilding form; now, after 100 days in the North Broward Detention Center, he's lost 30 pounds. But his biceps, which bulge under the teal shirt of his jail uniform, are still the size of coconuts.

Police say he used those biceps for more than pumping iron. He also used them for intimidation, they say, and in the commission of crimes including armed kidnapping, extortion, burglary, and aggravated battery -- charges Feder denies.

Only when he talks about his life before incarceration does the agitation give way to something like tranquility. "I had a good life, a great 35 years," Feder says into the black telephone receiver behind the glass. "I wouldn't take any of it back. I love my son, and my time with him was phenomenal. I loved every minute of it."

No doubt Feder, who spoke with New Times after initial reluctance, has squeezed a lot of living into his 35 years. He's been a professional boxer, a stock trader, a screenwriter, and a bar owner. But the reason he's facing the devastating specter of more than a decade behind bars has to do with another occupation: president of the Circle of Sharks, a group of bouncers in Broward. Feder's membership is commemorated by the striking tattoo on his left bicep: a purple shark trolling through a green-and-pink sea. With the muscles rolling below, the predator sometimes seems to take on a life of its own. Above the shark is the inscription: "Attack in a pack."

A Canadian who made Fort Lauderdale his home in 1992, Feder created the Sharks roughly four years ago. Like him, many of the dozen or so members come from troubled backgrounds. All are avid bodybuilders and bouncers, like he. Feder says the impetus to form the Sharks was to perform good works, such as raising money for charities and providing positive role models for children.

The authorities see it differently. They portray Feder as the ringleader of a band of steroid-taking criminals who dealt drugs, extorted money, and provided muscle to the Mafia. The crackdown on Shark members was initiated by detectives with the Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit (MIU) four years ago. Subsequently, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation got into the act. It was this formidable law-enforcement team, working under the auspices of the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, that made the kidnapping case against Feder.

Investigators had to dig deep to build the case -- all the way back to 1995. And they needed the help of a couple of felons, one of them a former Shark named Rene Rodriguez. According to court reports, this is what happened:

Feder commissioned Rodriguez, who got full immunity in exchange for his testimony, to buy a kilo of cocaine for $11,000. Rodriguez went to a middleman named Dean Tiramani, who arranged a buy that occurred in June 1995. Feder, however, was unhappy with the coke and decided to get his money back. He and a number of other Sharks met Tiramani at Chili's restaurant in Boca Raton the next day, forced Tiramani into Feder's truck, took him to a Shark's home, and tortured him for several hours. While holding Tiramani, two Sharks broke in to his apartment and stole $7000. When Feder got the money, he let Tiramani, who was badly injured, go. Feder then forced Tiramani to pay him $400 a week over the next two years.

Prosecutors say they have corroborating evidence, including Tiramani's hospital records after the beating and an eyewitness to the kidnapping who wrote down the license tag of Feder's truck in the Chili's parking lot. Feder says people borrowed his truck all the time, and he denies that he had anything to do with the drug deal.

James Cobb, the state prosecutor handling Feder's case, says the case marks the end of "the Sharks' reign of terror." But if Feder is convicted, it will be the first major law-enforcement victory against the group, after numerous fizzled cases.

The Sharks themselves have never been hard to find. Members served as doormen at clubs all over town, from the Theater to Roxy's to strip clubs such as Pure Platinum and Solid Gold. Police began to take a sustained interest in the group when detectives with the MIU noticed Sharks working alongside Genovese crime soldiers Vinnie Romano and Johnny "Sideburns" Cerrella at an erotic-dance joint in Pompano Beach called the Crazy Horse Too.

Police, however, have never proven that Feder or any other Shark was in cahoots with the Mob. Feder knew Romano and Cerrella but denies ever committing crimes with them -- or anybody else, for that matter.

In 1995, while the MIU was investigating Romano and Cerrella, a former bouncer and close friend of Feder's named Vincent D'Angola was murdered, along with D'Angola's girlfriend and a close Romano associate named Mark Rizzuto. When police tried to talk to Feder about the murders, he refused to cooperate. Feder claims this engendered additional ill will within the law-enforcement community.

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