By Chris Joseph
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By Chuck Strouse
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By Kyle Swenson
The founder of the Circle of Sharks spoke of suicide.
"I'm not going to prison," Rusty Feder said to me as he sat in the North Broward Detention Center behind a thick pane of jailhouse glass. "I'll die before that happens."
His lawyer was working on a plea, but Feder said he'd have none of it. His hatred of jail was almost tangible -- I could feel it through the glass. He was simmering with discontent, and only when he began speaking of himself in the past tense, as if he were already dead, did he seem to find any peace at all.
"I had a good life, a great 35 years," he said. "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."
Feder delivered his self-eulogy while awaiting trial on a slew of felony charges including armed kidnapping, extortion, and aggravated battery. My story for the New Times on the demise of the Sharks -- a Feder-led group of bouncers suspected by police of being an organized crime syndicate -- was placed on the news racks on February 4.
Eighteen days later, during the early morning hours of February 22, Feder used his bed sheet to hang himself in his jail cell, bringing a long and ugly war between Feder and Broward County authorities to an abrupt, grotesque halt.
I'd followed Feder off and on since last summer, when I was doing a story on Mob connections in Broward County. Feder's group was suspected of being Mafia enforcers, and a Shark named Kevin Trotter had been charged in a Mob-related beating at the Theater nightclub. Feder told me convincingly that Trotter hadn't done it. I called Robert Getchell, who'd also been charged in the beating, and he admitted he was involved in it, but laughed when I mentioned Trotter. Trotter wasn't there, Getchell said. Getchell claimed he didn't like Feder and didn't associate with the Sharks.
It was a typical Sharks criminal case -- it oozed with doubt. The cops' evidence was almost always flimsy, and one case after another ended with dismissals or acquittals. Police suspected Feder and his Sharks of all kinds of crimes. The group worked in the sometimes seedy world of Broward nightclubs and, with tales of vicious beatings by the Sharks floating around, the investigators seemed certain the group lived on the wrong side of the law. But no matter how hard various law enforcement agencies such as the Broward Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried, they couldn't prove that the Circle of Sharks was a criminal organization.
Even as they were being hunted, the Sharks raised thousands of dollars for charities like Kids in Distress and the Special Olympics. Feder was always vocal about his desire to be a positive force in the community, to transform his motley group of muscled street fighters, most with prior criminal records, into a boon to the community. Feder was no ordinary suspected criminal kingpin. Most kingpins don't help unfortunate children, write screenplays, or persuasively and articulately defend themselves. Feder also wore his humanity on his sleeve.
"I came from a broken home," he once told me. "And so did just about everybody in this group. These are people from terrible backgrounds, and we came together to try to turn our lives around by helping other children from broken homes, and we have, and I'm proud of it."
The Sharks, however, certainly had some rough edges, and Feder was the first to say that they were no angels. They thrived on being physically intimidating, riding Harley-Davidsons, and wearing black vests that showed off the standardized "Attack in a Pack" tattoos on their big, ripped biceps. They also seemed to know a lot about crimes. It was the Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit task force that first began investigating the Sharks, after detectives suspected Feder of withholding crucial details about a 1995 triple homicide. Feder told me that he did, in fact, know some of the details of the killings and kept them from police.
"I'm no rat," he said. "So now they're going to get me, in particular, because I'm the so-called ringleader. My life is a mess. They've made me the biggest fish in the ocean."
Last year, a group of local, state, and federal agencies called the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force set its sights on Feder and made its initial attack last October. The best case the task force could find was more than three years old and founded on the testimony of two felons (one a former Shark) who were trying to stay out of jail. The alleged victims claimed that Feder and a handful of other Sharks kidnapped them after a cocaine deal gone bad, then robbed and beat them. Feder was charged in the case in October and, because armed kidnapping is a capital crime and a judge determined that the charges had merit, he was ordered held in jail without chance of bail until trial, which could have been months, even years, away.
Feder called from jail in late October and said he had a story to tell. It wasn't until late January that I made it to the detention center to talk with him -- and then he wasn't sure he still wanted to talk to a reporter.
"I shouldn't talk to you," he said with something approaching desperation, "because it'll end up fucking me."
Feder was always like that. He never wanted to talk but couldn't help himself. He was always balancing his desire to clear his name with the justified fear that pronouncing his innocence would only provoke the police further. Feder had been tormented by his felony charges and was broken financially, physically, and emotionally.
"They got me this time," he said. "They got me good. You're going to see this case, and you're going to think I'm the worst person in the world. There's some real bad shit in there."
But Feder claimed it was a setup and he wasn't involved. The most damning piece of evidence, Feder said, was that his truck was identified at the restaurant where the kidnapping took place. He said it had been borrowed. The questionable nature and motivation of the victims was also on Feder's mind. (He called it an "NHI case -- No Humans Involved.") The case was surely no gem, but there was corroborating evidence to bolster the victims' story, and Feder told me that deep down he knew they were finally going to send him to prison. Then he started talking about death and gave his self-eulogy. It was disturbing; Feder had always been a bastion of forceful denial. Now he was talking about surrendering in the worst way.
Ten minutes of the 90-minute interview were spent on his describing how lousy life in jail was -- how he'd lost 30 pounds because of the terrible food and had to sleep on the floor because of overcrowding in the detention center in Pompano Beach.
The last half of our discussion was dominated by his fears of what I might write. His frustration mounted, his face tightened, his eyes became slits, and I thought I might be witnessing a glimpse of the kind of animal vengeance of which the cops always said he was capable. But it didn't last long; he soon returned to his normal jailhouse expression of high tension and anxiety.
I never spoke to Feder again, didn't hear a thing until his suicide. A few hours after I found out, I got a voice mail from an anonymous woman who said: "Bob, I'd like to commend you for an article I guess was well written on Rusty Feder. The part where you quoted him, 'I'd rather die than go to prison' -- consequently, because of that, they considered him a flight risk and moved him to another facility with 24-hour lock-down, and within the first week he was there, he had hung himself Friday night. So, like I said, you should think about what you do."
Only one of Feder's friends had previously told me that I should "think about what I do," but when I called her at the strip club she manages, she denied leaving the message. Whoever she was, the person had implicated me in Feder's suicide. I needed to find out if the article really had caused jailers to transfer him, so I called the Broward Sheriff's Office and was told by the spokesperson, Cheryl Stopnick, that it indeed had. Jail officials read the article and became "concerned," she said. They gave him a psychological test -- which involved a question-and-answer session between Feder and trained deputies and medical staff -- to see if he was suicidal. The deputies came up with an obviously flawed conclusion; they determined that Feder wasn't going to kill himself. On February 9 they transferred him anyway to the main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale because guards thought he might try to escape. He was moved from a floor in the detention center, where he lived with 43 others, to the more regimented, maximum-security jail, where he shared a single, locked cell with another inmate.
Feder's refrain at the beginning of that last interview -- "This is gonna end up fucking me" -- echoed in my mind.
The next day, the Miami Herald, which had never before run a story on Feder, ran one on its front page, calling Feder's suicide a "mystery."
It's no mystery.
Feder was telling me the truth when he said prison was no option. As he said in the jailhouse, he knew, after years of battling with police, prosecutors, and judges, that he might actually lose, whether he were guilty or not. The cops and the prosecutors, in all their zeal, threw everything they had at Feder.
The street fighter just didn't have any fight left.
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com