By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
"He was disrupting my tours, and I said I didn't appreciate it, and how long was he going to stay there, and he got all smart-mouth," Kennon says, irritated by the memory. "The pipe? That's part of Gary's imagination. He almost got me put in jail for something I didn't do."
Miami-Dade police were called in, but no charges were filed against Kennon, who says witnesses disputed Matthews' account. One thing is clear: The incident permanently soured the relationship between the two men. "I have no reason to talk to him," Kennon says of Matthews.
Javier Morejon, who works for Airboat in Everglades, a 1-year-old private tour company that operates along the Trail, has another sort of complaint about Matthews from when Morejon worked for him. He, along with two other former Airboat USA employees, sued Matthews in April 2012. They claim Matthews stiffed them out of wages.
Matthews contends the lawsuit is a shakedown attempt designed to divert attention from Morejon's crime against him: the alleged theft of nearly $70,000 from Matthews between 2010 and 2011. "He tried to steal from every part of the company he could," Matthews says.
(New Times found no legal charges or lawsuits confirming this allegation.)
Like Kennon, Morejon says Matthews is fabricating events. "If that were true, I'd be incarcerated," says Morejon, who was arrested and convicted of armed robbery in 2008. "I never did anything illegal." Pressed about his relationship with Matthews, Morejon says, "I've got nothing to talk about that," and hangs up.
At Everglades Safari Park, about four miles down the road from Coopertown, owner Rick Farace has bigger matters on his mind than Matthews. Wearing a khaki uniform that makes him look like an overgrown Boy Scout, Farace is preoccupied with a tour involving the Kardashians — which ones, he doesn't know — that has been delayed nearly a week. He mills about the park's ticket booth while watching a TV production crew inspect the airboats. With his hair neatly combed back and graying at the temples, Farace brushes off concerns about Matthews and other competitors.
"We don't worry about other people," he says. "Our advantage is our reputation."
Most airboat owners play down talk of fights and bad blood, but Russ Larkin of the Airboat Association of Florida believes Matthews has contributed heavily to the tension. "When you do a business deal with Gary, you need to grab a jar of Vaseline, rub some on, and back up, because you're about to get screwed," he says. "Gary has no respect for nobody."
The NPS downplays the friction. "The National Park Service does respond to disputes between airboat companies and operators," Plumb writes. "They do not occur frequently, and our law enforcement rangers indicate most are unfounded or cannot be substantiated."
Indeed, Matthews claims he has tried to bury the hatchet with the others. "The more invisible we are to the Park Service, the less chance we'll be modified. A house divided will not stand."
But Kennon says Matthews has a habit of saying one thing and doing another. "He's like a mosquito that keeps buzzing around. He figures he can knock me out of here. He'll try anything. The rest doesn't interest me. I'm not interested in soap operas."