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At 3:24 a.m. the Howler makes his presence known. Out of the early December morning darkness, a nasal and unintelligible sound rises in pitch to a vitriolic keening. The verbal outburst is mercifully short -- no more than 15 seconds. But it is followed closely by another nonsensical rant of similar duration. The Howler, as he has been christened by some neighbors, is then seen weaving down the street on a blue bicycle in the predawn light as the near silence of Sherman Street in Hollywood is restored.
The Howler will be back, though -- as he is pretty much every day on this block of modest homes and apartment complexes just west of Federal Highway that cater to snowbirds. His voice has become as certain a presence as the trains that rumble nightly down the nearby railroad tracks. Sometimes the man's outbursts persist for more than an hour, other times for mere seconds. Sometimes they consist of a multitude of profanities laced together, other times it takes the form of a domestic dispute in which the Howler plays both man and woman, protagonist and antagonist.
The Howler is Richard Delostia. He is a 46-year-old man who, according to neighbors, sleeps in the carport of his elderly parents' home, occasionally bathes naked in the front yard, and believes that he is constantly under siege by unspecified intruders. Some residents of Sherman Street say that Delostia is schizophrenic, but no one knows for certain.
Yves Beauchamp has been listening to the howling for nine years, ever since the Quebec native bought Merry Lou Apartments, a 16-unit complex across the street from the Delostias' house. Beauchamp, a burly French-Canadian with a mop of salt-and-pepper hair and a predilection for Export A cigarettes, says that the rants cycle in intensity but that they have gotten progressively worse over the years. The obscenity-laced outbursts, Beauchamp claims, are destroying his business. "I have people who don't want to come back this winter because he is there, waking them in the middle of the night," he says. Most of Beauchamp's customers are natives of the northeastern United States and Canada who come to South Florida to relax during the winter months. "I'm trying to get rid of him, but I don't know how," Beauchamp says.
Removing Delostia and the resulting disturbances from the neighborhood will not be easy. Under state law, in order to provide him with treatment against his will, complainants must demonstrate that he is a physical threat to himself or others. Barring this demonstration, the police have little recourse but to warn him to stop. Neighbors say that when the cops have shown up in the past, Delostia quiets down, making it difficult to arrest him for disturbing the peace.
Beauchamp estimates that he has called the police 25 times over the last nine years to complain about the Howler. "The police don't do shit," he grumbles. Hollywood police records show 21 visits to the Sherman Street residence in just the last three years. In January 1998, for example, two officers were dispatched to the residence at the request of Delostia's father, Vincent. The elder Delostia told police that his son was threatening to kill him and his wife. The responding officers observed Richard Delostia sleeping on a row of chairs in the carport, surrounded by a collection of Christmas trees, but did not arrest him. They advised Vincent Delostia to contact Henderson Mental Health Center. (The Hollywood Police Department declined to comment specifically on Delostia or the incidents at the Sherman Street residence.)
Frustrated by the inability of the police to silence the Howler, Beauchamp's latest tactic is to threaten legal action. Last month he had a lawyer fire off a letter to the Delostias on behalf of Merry Lou Apartments threatening a lawsuit if their son does not move or pipe down. Beauchamp says that, if necessary, he will sue the Delostias for financial damages done to his business. "I will jump on them by all means I have to get rid of him," Beauchamp says. "It's not that I want damages. I don't give a shit about that. My intention is to get rid of him." Beauchamp has no doubt what the suitable environment for Delostia is. "I don't want him in jail, that's not where he belongs," he says. "He has to go to the crazy house."
Henderson Mental Health Center is Broward County's largest provider of services to people with mental illnesses. Because of confidentiality laws, the nonprofit group cannot say whether it has ever treated Delostia. Steven Ronik, the nonprofit group's chief executive officer, says that there are several options for helping people like Delostia. Henderson Mental Health Center operates a mobile crisis-response team that could be dispatched to provide assistance to him. Ronik also notes that, because Delostia lives in the carport outside the house, the nonprofit group could provide services through its homeless-outreach program.
Both programs, however, are voluntary. Under the state's mental-health law, known as the Baker Act, in order to treat someone against his or her will, there must be evidence that the person will likely hurt others or themselves. Neighbors on Sherman Street disagree on whether Delostia is a physical -- or merely a psychological -- threat. Beauchamp and others maintain that he is truly dangerous, and Delostia's criminal record includes convictions in the last five years for armed robbery and stalking. "You never know, one night he might go off his rocker or something," worries one neighbor, who did not want his name used. "He's dangerous."
But Theresa Stinziani, owner of the Charm Hotel on Sherman Street, claims that Delostia is just an annoyance. Stinziani says that Delostia often bums cigarettes from her and that when he has smokes of his own he will offer her one. "I'm not afraid of him," she says. "I don't think he would hurt anyone."
As for Delostia himself, his answers add little to the controversy except evidence that he has a somewhat fragile grip on reality. The day after his brief early-morning outburst, he is roused from a midmorning slumber by a reporter. Sitting up in his makeshift bed in the carport, Delostia rubs his big brown eyes and pushes back his graying hair. Despite being awakened he is dressed in a black T-shirt, blue work pants, and a pair of shoes.
Delostia speaks softly and lucidly at first, but then the words that come out of his mouth make little sense. He does not deny screaming the previous night or on any other occasion. But he blames the outburst on intruders. The screams, he says, are merely to protect himself.
Specifically Delostia claims that Beauchamp has been sending people over to attack him in the middle of the night. "He's a scumbag, a troublemaker," Delostia says of his neighbor. He further claims that Beauchamp is dealing in drugs and stolen goods. (Beauchamp denies these charges.)
The Howler is then cautioned by his mother, Dottie, to mind his tongue. Dottie Delostia stands behind a screened window in the darkened house, invisible from the outside. When asked about her son's claims, she confirms that strange people have been showing up in the yard, making trouble for her son. She claims to have seen a large black man and two white girls just recently trying to steal stuff from their property. As for Beauchamp's and the other neighbors' complaints? "[Beauchamp]'s full of crap," she says.
The Howler then gets on his bicycle, as if he's going to ride away. Instead he warns the reporter not to mention him in the paper. As the reporter walks away, the Howler again begins to howl -- this time intelligibly: "It's bullshit," he screams. "Bullshit."
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org