By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Duran's policing philosophy would soon put him on a collision course with Robert Love.
The irony of Duran and Love is that they grew up together decades ago in a Pahokee that was vibrant, even idyllic. Even then, though, a chasm existed between them because of their four-year age difference; Duran says he knew of Love only by reputation, while Love professes no recollection of the future chief.
With the approach of the new millennium, both swore they wanted to do their part to rebuild the town, to give back to the place of their childhood. The paths that led them to those proclamations of beneficence, however, couldn't be more different.
Sitting on a love seat at his girlfriend's apartment, which is filled with a bunch of framed portraits and is heavy on the zebra-stripe motif, Love talks about his life and the town he loves. In truth, Love doesn't actually talk; his voice is usually in the decibel range between a fundamentalist preacher in the pulpit and a Marine drill sergeant. He jumps up often to punctuate points and peppers his storytelling with frequent inquiries of, "You know what I'm sayin'? Know what I'm talkin' about?"
He's six feet tall, around 250 pounds, and although he has a bit of a paunch, his athletic build keeps him from looking heavy. (His son, Robert Jr., is a championship quarterback at the high school and enters his senior year this fall.) He's wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Got sum tail at Grumpy Gator" -- referring to the lakeside eatery where he earns $400 a week as a cook.
He comes from a family of farmworkers who harvested fruit and vegetables on the East Coast and returned home to Pahokee in between. Love gave up the fruit-picking life in 1976 at age 20 and moved to a much more lucrative line of work: selling drugs. He did well at the trade, helped by all the travel and connections he'd made.
"A lot of the children around here now be breaking into homes and going to jail," he says of modern-day Pahokee. "They're crack babies. I know because I sold crack to their mommas. It ain't like I went across country and didn't know what I was doing. I was the one who started crack cocaine here because back in '79, I was one of those young geniuses who knew how to cook up cocaine.
"When I was selling drugs, I thought I was doing something positive. I thought, 'Somebody's gotta do something for them peoples who need it. Somebody gotta stay here to keep the town. '"
He pounds on the glass-topped coffee table to emphasize his account, which is an odd mixture of confession, boast, and regret. "I know where I come from. It not like a damned rap star who write about what he ain't done."
By his mid-30s, he had been charged with everything from gambling to attempted first-degree murder before he was sent to federal prison in 1990 for trafficking drugs. "Did four years, two months, seven days, eight hours, and 37 minutes in federal prison," he sums up. "I promised the Lord and all his angels that I'd do more for my community after I got out than I did when I was selling drugs."
Love was a bit of a lost man when he was released, looking for direction. After police Maced a man during an overzealous effort to clear a Rardin street corner in 1996, Love says, he and other residents went to a City Commission meeting to complain. "There was a black mayor, but they didn't give a damn what was going on up here," he recalls. "The mayor can't even read the damned agenda!" Then the city barricaded a busy street block in Rardin, apparently in an attempt to stop loitering and traffic congestion.
Thoroughly irked, Love rounded up a couple of hundred signatures from residents saying they wanted the road reopened. "They said, 'Well, we could get more names than that saying it should stay closed,'" Love recalls. "It stayed blocked four months. I worked with the police and got a proposal to turn it into a one-way street, no parking. Since then, there hasn't been a problem."
After that, Love started asking questions about how the city was being run, and he became a regular at commission meetings. "We had $113,000 in unpaid water bills!" he shouts. "Every day, I was checking this, checking that."
It was during those meetings that Love met J.P. Sasser, the current mayor, who back then was just a lifelong resident pissed off about his hometown.
"We both thought the city was dying," Sasser says. On the cusp of 50, Sasser is tanned and trim with a mostly gray crewcut. His heavy drawl is the kind no longer common to Floridians living south of Orlando. His parents moved to Pahokee in the 1930s and opened a tire shop, then a number of Shell gas stations, and, finally, auto parts stores. Sasser and his sisters took them over eventually, then sold the businesses in the 1990s. He still owns rental properties in Pahokee and helps a friend run an auto body store in Belle Glade. He's fond of telling people that he's well off enough now to live anywhere he wants, and he does: Pahokee.