By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
Ralph Bellman remembers the day he ran into Florida's future: September 15, 1969. In a way, it was the day he ran into his own future. Bellman is 57 years old now, with a thick horse's mane of gray-streaked black hair that reaches his shoulders in the back. OK, it's a mullet, thinning a little on top. Usually he wears a hat of some kind to cover the retreating hairline. But the guy's got a fat wallet. For years, he's owned a very successful business. He's also bursting with the energy of five normal people, has a booming ego, and stands just five feet, five inches tall. Back in '69, when he was 23, friends called him "Sawed Off."
That September day, Bellman cruised west along the Tamiami Trail toward Everglades City in his brand-new, ocean-spray-green, four-speed Ford pickup. It was a sweet truck. He'd come home from his honeymoon (second marriage) for a weekend visit to a ramshackle hunting camp he and his buddies had thrown together in a thick cypress swamp in southwest Florida.
Bellman turned north onto State Road 29 and three miles later made a left at a former logging road called W.J. Janes Scenic Drive. He bumped around the hairpin turn at the community of Lee Cypress, a small enclave settled in separate sections by black and white loggers back in the 1940s, and eased onto the stretch of Scenic Drive that cut through the thick cypress of the Fakahatchee Strand. From Janes Scenic Drive, the trees formed a wall of green.
Then Bellman hit the brakes. A huge metal fence stretched across his path, across his trajectory, across his destiny. A Collier County sheriff's deputy and several private security guards stood watch at the gate.
In the past, Bellman had routinely shown his hunting license and often shot the bull with U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers on his way into the camp. Stopping was nothing. The sawed-off kid from Hialeah kind of liked the respect the older guys gave him out there. But a fence? A sheriff's deputy?
Who did these men think they were -- putting up a fence so he couldn't get to his soul place? The Fakahatchee enthralled Bellman, got deep into his gut. It had been that way since he first visited the swamp as a teenager. Actually, to hear him recount the personal mythology of Ralph Noah Bellman, his general fascination with hunting animals preceded the swamp experience. That bestial obsession struck him as a 14-year-old, the first time he saw an airboat in Cooperstown with a buck deer strapped to it, hanging upside down, a hunter's quarry. "I couldn't sleep that night," he recollects.
When Bellman was about 16 years old, cousins of the Cowart boys down the street in Hialeah took him out hunting in the Fakahatchee. He was gone then, ape-shit for the place. His mother, Mary, was fine with it, even though hunting wasn't in her blood. Some scary stuff was going on with her Ralphie and the Cuban influx into Dade County in the early 1960s -- something to do with guns, Bellman says. Gun running? He nods his head weakly, yes, and then avoids talking about it in any but the most general terms. Mentions his kids and his responsibility to be a role model.
In the Fakahatchee, Mary thought, Ralphie would learn responsible firearm use -- that's the way we phrase it now, right? She also hoped it would tame the wildness that seemed to be hurling her boy straight to trouble, the capital T kind of trouble. A hunter has to be focused to stalk and kill wildlife -- can't be wild-ass his own self. Mary even bought Ralphie his first weapon, a bolt-action shotgun, even took him out along the Tamiami Trail to try a little shooting.
But the Cowart boys made it real for Ralph there in the Fakahatchee, and he was permanently hooked. Just to make sure he didn't get any crazy ideas, though, his mother kept the bolt in her purse for safekeeping when he wasn't in the woods, Bellman says, shaking his head with a laugh. "She had me then," he remarks. Yard work. Grades. Staying on the straight and narrow, with a few marginal detours. Mary had her Ralphie right where she wanted him.
Still, through his rebel years and beyond, Bellman developed a healthy distrust of authority. And so, on that autumn day 34 years ago, when Bellman saw the gate, the uniforms, the security detail, he jumped out of the pickup and approached. Says he remembers the exchange plain as day.
"Hi, how ya doin'?" security guy says, all officious and proprietary. "You deer huntin' in here?"
"Yes, sir," Bellman answered, using that servile form of address Florida boys employed back then to show deference to their elders. Bellman instinctively understood that the protocol could also be used to throw authority figures off-guard.
The guard's reply was a shocker: "No, you're not."
"What happened?" Bellman stammered, suddenly reduced to mush. "I-I-I got a camp." Rudy Lutz was on his way from Hialeah. The home fries planned to spend the weekend stalking deer, prepping for the hunting season.