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
Boos slice through the air as Dr. Red Roberts peacocks around the ring while snapping the straps of his red and white leotard. A comic-book-villain grin peeks out from a thick beard when he jabs his chin at the full house, each jut shaking his messy brushfire of red curls. An excited surf of noise reverberates from the risers, like schoolyard kids ganging up on a bully.
It's 1986, inside a drab Miami TV studio. The rowdy spectators are waiting for Roberts' matchup with a 230-pound slab named Ted Marshall. The fan favorite is clear.
"This Roberts is a very, very controversial competitor," says a TV announcer doing his best Brokaw into the mike. "I want to get a chance to talk to this man about some very controversial comments he made last week more or less calling everyone in the state of Florida a mental midget."
After the bell, the two pro wrestlers swap body blows and leg drops. Roberts plays dirty, jamming his finger into his opponent's eye and grating Marshall's face across his white boot laces. "Of course Red Roberts will use about any tactic he can to win a match," the announcer groans. A few minutes later, the redhead is disqualified.
It was that kind of performance — the smart-ass goon whom fans love to hate — that made Dr. Red Roberts a staple in pro-wrestling circuits from the late '70s and to the mid-'80s. But hunkering beneath this Mr. Hyde was an actual Dr. Jekyll: Roberts was the wrestling persona of Michael Brannon, who's now a Fort Lauderdale psychologist. While body-slamming his way around the world, Brannon earned his doctorate from Nova Southeastern University. By the '90s, he had swapped the ring for another theatrical battle zone — the courtroom.
There, he was a financial success, by the mid-'00s earning up to $600,000 a year on the state's dime as a forensic psychologist. His reputation grew as he testified in courthouses in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. But after Brannon banked more than $1.5 million, his largest source of income, Broward public defender Howard Finkelstein, cut him off. The fallout was as dirty as any WrestleMania matchup.
"I wanted a system that was more fair," Finkelstein says. "But when he decided to bring his personal anger and resentment into the courtroom before a jury with one of my clients on trial for his life, that's when I was on legal notice."
Brannon sued in a case that has been rumbling through the courts for the past three years and is currently on appeal. He calls the dispute "a real-life death match with Howard Finkelstein." But although Brannon's brawl is with the public defender, the case has put the whole legal system in a headlock — and taxpayers are feeling the hurt.
Fighting came early for Brannon. Born in Miami to a police officer and a waitress, he took up judo as a kid. By age 6, he had brought home statewide top honors in a martial arts competition. He wrestled in high school and later at Nova University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1978 and a master's in counseling psychology two years later.
Brannon began his wrestling career as Dr. Roberts in the late '70s while working as a residential counselor at the Starting Place, a Hollywood youth rehab facility. "All these kids were really big wrestling fans, so I thought, Wouldn't it be great to use an athletic background," he says. "So I created this character, Dr. Red Roberts, [as] the backdrop for a morality play."
For the next decade, Brannon took Roberts on the road. The outcomes were fixed, but real punches flew. He pulled cheap shots, such as whipping out brass knuckles, or hauling mouthy fans into the ring. He'd often leave the ring ducking a hail of trash, bottles, and even chairs. He was stabbed twice after matches.
"Doc was a genius," says Richard "Gonzo" Soligny, a former local pro wrestler who grew up watching Roberts in the ring. "He really worked the crowd. He used that doctor gimmick, the I'm-smarter-than-you, I'm-smarter-than-everybody-in-the-room."
Roberts says he made up to $1,000 for a 20-minute match while he kept his 50-hour-per-week job counseling kids and worked on his doctorate. Around 1987, Terry Bollea, the real-life identity of Hulk Hogan, invited Brannon to join the big leagues in New York.
He demurred and, from the '90s to mid-'00s, established himself as an expert witness at the Broward County Courthouse. High-profile court appearances helped his image, including key testimony against Lionel Tate, a 14-year-old boy convicted in 2001 of body-slamming a playmate to death. But Brannon's main pipeline for referrals came from the public defender. "I knew I was getting a lot of work," Brannon says. "I knew I was getting more than anybody else."
Indeed, the testimony was a bonanza. From 2005 to 2008, the psychologist's practice received $1.5 million from the pubic defender's office in billings. He garnered $608,757 in fiscal year 2006-07 alone.
The workload was impressive. Brannon would evaluate clients' competency to stand trial, which could pay up to a thousand dollars. He also picked up a lot of work on "downward departures" — testimony that could knock prison time off sentences by emphasizing factors such as substance issues or a history of abuse. It could pay $400 to $700 per case, according to the defender's office.
"For a long period, if you wanted to get a downward departure in Broward, you needed Dr. Brannon on your case," says Robert Wills, a chief assistant public defender.
The money began drying up in 2008 and dwindled to just $1,000 per month the following year after the office switched to a rotation of doctors. Brannon contends Finkelstein stopped using him after the doctor testified in a disciplinary hearing for the controversial judge Cheryl Alemán. Brannon was completely cut off from public defender work in 2010.
Finkelstein, who was generally cutting costs, calls that claim absurd. He says Brannon was booted from the rotation after making improper comments on the stand in a homicide case.
"I was alarmed that one person [Brannon] was making this much money," Finkelstein says. "Rather than letting all of our lawyers pick whomever they wanted — and remember, a lot of my lawyers have been lawyers less than 30 days — we decided we'd go to a rotation basis. That way it would bring more psychologists into the system; there wouldn't be any allegations of kickbacks or favoritism."
Hostilities flared a year later when state prosecutors hired Brannon for a homicide case. Finkelstein's office asked the judge to exclude the doctor, who responded with a federal lawsuit claiming his free speech had been violated after he testified against Alemán. Brannon claims he was facing retaliation for crossing one of Broward's most powerful public figures. "They purposely tried to sabotage my career," Brannon says.
Brannon wasn't the only one to see his blackballing as political. "I think he's a good doctor. He gave an honest opinion, and as a defense attorney, that's what I'm looking for," says Natalie Knight-Tai, a former attorney with the public defender's office. "The freeze-out, it was definitely political."
In terms of court time and public money, the Brannon issue has become a dumpster fire. Since the suit was filed, virtually every time the psychologist shows up, the defense puts time and resources toward fighting his appearance. The defender's office estimates it's happened in 50 to 60 cases already. And Finkelstein says the State Attorney's Office has continued to use the doctor despite the hassle.
Currently, the prosecution is pushing to use Brannon on the case of Alexandria Sladon-Marler, a drifter with a history of mental illness accused of dumping her newborn in a trash bin outside a Fort Lauderdale motel. "If you know the public defender has a conflict with Dr. Brannon," a frustrated Broward Judge Barbara McCarthy chastised the state at a hearing this past January, "then you're creating more time and litigation for her to sit in jail and go through the process while you litigate with the public defender's office."
Adds Finkelstein: "The behavior of the Broward County State Attorney's Office has been shameless. They have created this mess. It's not being done for the right reason."
In an email to New Times, Kim Fontana of the State Attorney's Office says Brannon is well respected and has worked for both sides for nearly two decades, adding that "the dispute with Dr. Brannon neither mandates nor justifies efforts to exclude as a witness."
Last November, a federal judge ruled against Brannon, stating the psychologist failed to link his drop-off in work to the Alemán testimony. Brannon admits many of his witnesses came down with "convenient amnesia," and he has appealed the decision. "I'm not going anywhere," he says, his voice carrying the faint rumble of an old alter ego. "They're going to have to deal with me."