By Michael E. Miller
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
Asked what was at the root of the school's troubles, Duncombe literally spells it out: "C-R-O-O-K-S," he intones with a chuckle. "But I think you always get what you pay for." His freshman year, he says, tuition was only $1,600, almost half of what Florida International University was charging. (FMU still offers a bargain-basement rate for a private education — $12,254 per year — and 96 percent of its students receive financial aid.)
As Florida Memorial settled in, its surroundings, which would later become Miami Gardens, transformed from rural rabbit-hunting territory to a pleasant burb to today's barred-window environs. Longtime residents blame Section 8 housing development for importing poverty and crime from places such as Overtown and Liberty City, a controversial stance that Mayor Shirley Gibson echoed in 2007 when she banned further low-income housing in Miami Gardens.
A national study released this past November shows that Miami Gardens is the second most dangerous city in Florida, behind only Orlando. And a recent Miami Herald study casts Florida Memorial's 33054 Zip Code, which also includes parts of Opa-locka, as the most dangerous in the county for teenagers. Nearby Carol City Senior High School has grappled with a Fallujah-like body count, losing at least six students from one recent graduating class to murder.
In 2002, Florida Memorial was rocked by the revelation of a grade-fixing scheme that implicated a large fraction of its student population. Two registrar employees and three students with access to digital transcripts were charged with racketeering after it was revealed they had improved the grades of 122 students in return for cash. Three years later, the scandal continued to haunt the institution when reports indicated that at least four of those tainted students had gone on to teach in Miami-Dade public schools.
As in those early days, instability still reigns in FMU's front office. In August 2009, the school's president, Karl S. Wright, was abruptly removed from the position after two years. No explanation has been given for Wright's ouster, and the former president did not return a message left at his Weston home. Interim President Thompson says she has "no idea" when a permanent president might be appointed.
Today, the school has shrunk. It now has a little more than 1,800 students, down from 2,300 when the grade-fixing scandal took place. Only 38 percent of students graduate within six years, 15 percent less than the national average. And the university's admission requirements — a 2.4 minimum high school GPA is "flexible" — have given it a lax reputation that its top administrators are well aware of. Says Thompson: "We do look at nontraditional students. But this idea that we just let anybody in who applies is not true."
Despite the turmoil, there have been bright spots. FMU proudly touts its aeronautics/aviation/aerospace science and technology program, which boasts its most prestigious modern alum: Barrington Irving, who, in 2007 as a senior at the school, became the youngest and the first black pilot to fly solo around the world. "It's a shame what has transpired at Florida Memorial," Irving says about the Emory Mitchell incident, insisting, "When I was on campus, I never had one problem with crime."
Irving, however, "wasn't your average college student," he says. He spent less than two full semesters in Miami Gardens. For many students who have studied full-time at FMU, campus life has been far from idyllic.
STAT 312: Crime Statistics
Theodus Theon Times isn't the type of student you'd expect to sneak a gun into school. The reedy 24-year-old from Deerfield Beach packs only 170 pounds on his six-foot-one-inch frame. He always neatly tucks in his collared shirts and gets his hair trimmed with a near-obsessive frequency. Admits his mother, Thais: "When you see him, the first thing you think is that he looks like a nerd."
Theodus Times wants to be an embalmer. So in 2006, after receiving an associate's degree in funeral science from FIU, he enrolled at Florida Memorial. He was working toward earning a funeral director and embalmer's license, which in Florida requires a specialized bachelor's degree.
But Times — who did not return messages requesting interviews left with his mother and on his cell phone — ran into trouble on campus. He was at a party when some "gangbangers" picked a fight with him and flashed waistbanded handguns, threatening his life, Mom says. They weren't students: "They were just friends with some people who actually went to Florida Memorial, and security always let them come onto campus."
His personal history did not allow him to take the threats lightly. When Times was 6, his father, Theodus Sr., was killed by a gunshot to the back of the head while drinking at a dive bar in Fort Lauderdale. The elder Theodus, who had cocaine possession and resisting arrest on his record, "liked to hang out in the wrong places with the wrong people," his widower says without going into more detail. "He had a disagreement with somebody who wanted him dead, and that was it. I think that had a lot to do with Theodus [Jr.'s] doing what he did. He thought, I'm not going out like that."
From a closet in his home, the kid unearthed his dad's dusty .22-caliber Savage Stevens — a rifle commonly used for hunting small birds.