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By Kyle Swenson
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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.
Charges filed during the past few years against members of the group have often been weak and hard to prove. A former Shark named Shawn Caravelli was charged with aggravated battery in 1997. The charge was never prosecuted. Another named Michael Destefano was twice charged with aggravated battery in 1996. Those charges were also dropped. Feder himself was arrested in 1995, on charges of cocaine possession and marijuana-dealing. He was acquitted.
Feder boasts that, despite dozens of felony charges filed against members of the group, none has produced a conviction. He says he made it policy to revoke the membership of any Shark who broke the law. For instance, Caravelli, who beat charges of violent crimes, was convicted on several felony fraud and drug charges. Feder says Caravelli was unanimously ousted from the group.
Cobb acknowledges that major successful cases against the Sharks have proven elusive. Many of the cases filed against Sharks hinged solely on photo identification by witnesses. A Shark named Kevin Trotter was charged last year in a beating that was allegedly ordered by the mobster Cerrella. That case is based on a witness photo-identification, with no physical evidence. Robert Getchell, a onetime Mob associate, was also charged in the beating. When contacted last summer by New Times while out on bond, Getchell admitted to his own participation but laughed when Trotter's name was mentioned. Trotter wasn't there, Getchell said.
On January 1, 1998, five Sharks, including Feder and Trotter, were charged in the vicious beating of off-duty Metro-Dade police officer Rick Edwards at the Chili Pepper nightclub in Fort Lauderdale, where Sharks routinely work security. Edwards picked out the Sharks from the MIU photo album. Charges against Trotter and another Shark have since been dropped because it was determined they weren't involved. Feder admits he was in the club, but adamantly denies he ever hit Edwards. The case has yet to go to trial.
Feder's attorney, Richard Geraci, refused to comment on the current kidnapping case. The Shark leader's former attorney, Gabe Grasso, who has also represented other members, has told New Times that he believes the cops have been on a witch-hunt all along, trumping up charges against the Sharks because of their intimidating appearances and the shady people they work around at nightclubs.
But Feder is worried about the armed kidnapping case, in which Caravelli and Trotter have also been charged.
"They did a good job," Feder says of the task force that jailed him. "It's gonna be hard to beat. They threw so much shit on the wall that some of it's bound to stick.... But I'm not guilty, and I believe I can win."
Feder has never been convicted of a felony in the United States, though he was convicted of carrying a concealed weapon in Canada several years ago. Feder says he's worried that Trotter, a fellow Shark who has never been convicted of a felony, might be about to turn state's witness against him to save himself from prison time.
If convicted, Feder faces from six to eleven years in prison, Cobb says.
From behind his pane of glass at the detention center, Feder says he'd rather die first.
He shows no pride when he looks at his Shark tattoo, just shakes his head. "That was a mistake," he says. Feder says the Sharks no longer have meetings. Even if he beats his kidnapping charges, he insists the group is defunct. "There's nothing good about being a Shark anymore," he says. "It's over."
But several Sharks still live and work at clubs in Broward County. And at a recent bond hearing for Feder, a handful of them came to support their old leader. When the FDLE's Tony Pineda, who was the lead agent in the case, went to the bathroom during the hearing, a few Sharks hovered behind him as he urinated, according to Cobb. As the musclebound bouncers walked out of the bathroom, one of them flicked out the lights. Cobb believes it was a message. "That is the way they operate -- by intimidation," the prosecutor says. "Their intimidation is over."
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: