A grouper zinc is a lump of metal shaped like a fish. Boaters attach them to propeller shafts and other underwater fittings so that corrosion will eat the zinc instead of the boat components. A grouper zinc can also be used to fracture someone's skull.
That may or may not be what happened in the parking lot of Boater's World in Pompano Beach two days before Christmas, when Mike Halprin and Dave Earp bumped into each other inside the store, began a heated argument, and walked outside. "There's some question," one Pompano Beach police detective says, "about who was the aggressor." Another detective notes that the weapon of the moment may have been the grouper zinc, brass knuckles, a metal pipe, or merely a fisherman's fist.
What police and dive-industry observers are certain of is that a six-month-old waterfront feud involving death threats and economic sabotage has finally boiled over into outright violence. Halprin, who suffered a broken cheekbone in the Boater's World brawl and underwent three hours of surgery on January 7, claims that Earp and a hard-drinking coterie of Broward dive-boat operators began harassing and threatening him and his wife this summer and conspired to kill his scuba business.
Halprin owns and runs the Seahorse, a 38-foot dive boat that carries up to 22 scuba divers to reefs off Broward County. His competitors include several "six-pack" dive boats -- smaller and comparatively unregulated vessels licensed to carry half a dozen customers. The men share a world of fierce competition for dive customers who often bypass Broward in favor of the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and other destinations.
Halprin's competitors say the feud began when Halprin took exception to their use of ribald language on the marine-band radio airwaves and then started reporting them to authorities for minor violations of city codes and licensing regulations. "The guy short-circuited one day, and by now he's totally out of his mind," says boat captain Mark Burns. "He's got some private detective following us around. That's why everyone's carrying guns. It's gotten fuckin' nuts around here."
Burns, like captains Conrad Nix, Brent Tubbergen, and Randy Whitneck, denies leaving Halprin phone messages like this one: "Hey, Captain Bozo! I know who's killin' all the fuckin' fish -- it's you! Dumpin' all that shit out of your head! Yeah, we're gonna nail you! You're an asshole! Fuck you!"
Or another one, received by Halprin's wife, Barbara. Barbara Halprin says she was walking into Home Depot in June when her cell phone rang. After she demanded the identity of the anonymous caller, the caller threatened to rape, sodomize, and beat her to death, noting that he knew where she lives.
Both calls preceded a September 13 incident in which Halprin, returning to dock with twenty scuba diving passengers, was pulled over and boarded by two Marine Patrol officers and fined $250 for discharging sewage into the water -- one of only two boats in 1997 to receive such a citation in Broward. The charge related to the fact that a valve designed to keep sewage in a holding tank was turned to the wrong position.
Halprin says he suspects Whitneck, an ex-employee, of sneaking on board his boat and setting him up for the embarrassing fine -- a charge Whitneck calls "complete and utter crap." Halprin also believes that the Marine Patrol officers might have been in league with his enemies. He complained to the agency's internal affairs division.
On September 29, Lt. Dennis Tate, an internal affairs investigator with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, flew to South Florida from Tallahassee and interviewed Halprin at his home after placing him under oath.
Halprin says that two weeks before the Marine Patrol citation he had bumped into a friend named Pico Cassada who warned him that he was about to be set up by his competitors. Cassada says the information came from an acquaintance who attended a party with local dive-boat operators.
Tate also called a Halprin associate named Dave Kersey. In his report Tate recalled the October 27 interview: "After Halprin received his citation and the incident was reported in the Fort Lauderdale newspaper, Kersey went diving with Randy Whitneck. During the trip he mentioned the [citation] incident to Whitneck.
"Whitneck replied that Halprin was 'trying to take our business, and we had to do something.' Kersey said he was surprised at Whitneck's statement and dropped the conversation. Kersey said he has known Halprin for many years, and he knows Halprin follows the sanitation laws."
Whitneck calls Kersey a liar and denies any involvement in a plot against Halprin. "Mike needs to be checked out. He has mental problems, and you can quote me on that," Whitneck says. "He can say whatever he wants, but the only conspiracy is the one in his own head."
Three days later Tate grilled Marine Patrol officers Dave Bingham and Kevin McClure at Port Everglades. On November 7 the Office of Internal Investigations officially closed its inquiry into Bingham's and McClure's actions, concluding that "[T]here has been no testimonial or physical evidence provided to indicate either Bingham or McClure conspired with anyone to fraudulently cite Halprin for a marine violation."
Tate added: "Whether or not someone actually boarded Halprin's vessel and moved the valve into the open position is a question which cannot be answered inside the scope of this investigation."
A tape recording of Marine Patrol dispatch traffic confirms that the agency was tipped off by an anonymous caller. Tate describes in his report how "Halprin said his wife called the Florida Marine Patrol office in Miami and inquired as to how news of the citation made the Sun-Sentinel. She was told the newspaper called on the afternoon the citation was issued and asked about it. She then called the newspaper office and asked how they found out. She was told several messages had been left with the editor, but they would not disclose who called."
Hours after the story rolled off the presses, Halprin's customers' cars were leafleted with fliers bearing a photocopy of the news report and the slogan "Polluting Pompano's Reef Systems Should Not Be Supported by Anyone." Later in the day, yet another round of fliers appeared advertising three of Halprin's competitors -- the Miss Conduct, Under Pressure, and Total X-Es.
Five weeks earlier Barbara Halprin had written to Pompano Beach code enforcement officials complaining that the same three boats were parked on waterways behind private homes not owned by the commercial operators themselves and that the boats were picking up their customers at a public boat ramp near the Fourteenth Street Causeway.
"These three people mentioned -- along with several others -- have been physically threatening and harassing us over the past six weeks," Barbara Halprin wrote. "I believe that the city is enabling these 'thugs' by providing them the ability to virtually operate expense free."
The Halprins also wrote to the Federal Communications Commission and complained that a "gang" of half a dozen six-pack operators were hogging airtime on marine-band radio channel 18, normally reserved for commercial shipping dialogue.
"Their conversations rarely concern business and mainly address their past, present, and future alcohol and/or sexual binges," the letter claimed. "[W]e have attempted on numerous occasions to request their conversation move from channel 18 to a noncommercial channel. The result has been a series of both life and property damage threats...."
A review of several hours of tape-recorded radio traffic confirms the tenor of the conversations. Burns, the operator of the Diversity, acknowledges as much but downplays the significance. Captains have a lot of time to kill while their divers are in the water, he says.
"Stupid jokes, talking about blondes; it's talking shit, I admit," Burns notes. "Talking about, well, nothing. But Halprin started hearing references to himself in everything. The next thing I know, I get the tapes in the mail. Other things, too. After the Dolphins-Bills game, I got arrested for not paying a taxi driver. Big deal. But then somebody starts faxing the arrest report to all the dive shops."
When Joseph Fitzpatrick, a Pompano Beach police sergeant, suggested the Halprins install a tracing device on their home telephone, they did. They provided him a phone number from which an obscene call had been made, and Fitzpatrick says it led back to Randy Whitneck's cell phone.
"I called back and got him on the phone and talked to him about it," Fitzpatrick says. "He said he couldn't account for his cell phone at all times. How convenient.
"He said it got passed around at the Buccaneer Lounge one night, and some of the dive-boat captains might have used it. All the players were there. I tried to reach out to these guys and talk to them, because I thought we could handle it that way. Obviously it hasn't worked, and it's continued to escalate from there.
"As for Mike Halprin, he feels like he's being backed into a corner," Fitzpatrick adds. "When someone calls your wife and makes obscene comments, you can lose your objectivity. But you don't settle this like it's the O.K. Corral."
Halprin partisan and veteran diver Pico Cassada chalks up the feud to differing environmental philosophies -- and Halprin's stubborn temperament. "Most of these guys are just in it to make a living. Mike's in it to make a living, no question, but he has a totally different approach to the environment. And it's so far out from what most of these guys think -- primarily Randy Whitneck and Dave Earp. They just want to kill as many fish and lobsters as they can. Mike thinks they're raping the environment."
Dave Kersey adds: "Mike is what you might call a superenvironmentalist. He's against spearfishing and lobster catching, and that's contrary to what most of the other captains think. They take people out to the reefs explicitly to do that."
Says Halprin: "My wife wants to sell the house, sell the business, and move away from here -- a place where we've both grown up. She doesn't want to live here any more. I'm not sure how I feel right now. I can't feel the left side of my face. When I breathe in, my eyeball wobbles."
Dave Earp, owner of the Sea Kill, was unavailable for comment. Whitneck, his friend, says the Boater's World confrontation is getting blown out of proportion. "Mike came after Dave, and Dave defended himself," he says. "Mike's a hothead, and everybody in town knows it." Pompano Beach police and the state attorney's office will decide whether to press charges pending a photo lineup this week.
One local dive-shop operator says he's fed up with the feud. "These guys are acting like a bunch of whining crybabies. Meanwhile they're giving the local dive business a bad name. It's exactly what we don't need. Divers are hearing about this and asking, 'What the hell is going on in Pompano?'
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