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Murder Most Fowl

Fred Harper

The plastering contractor, the telecommunications consultant, and the retired couple all remember that balmy evening in early March when fireworks punctured the quiet night air of their quaint Victoria Park neighborhood. Robert Barcia was walking his 10-year-old Pekinese, "Tiny Dancer," when he heard them. Startled by the sound, the dog turned toward home.

Barcia's wife, Lenora, noted the sound while she crocheted in the couple's upstairs bedroom.

Retirees Lou and Dianne Weiss were smoking a couple of cigarettes, lolling on lounge chairs beside the kidney-shaped swimming pool in their apartment complex, which borders the Barcias' to the south.

James Cinnamon, a consultant for a large telecommunications firm, was cracking open beers for a group of friends from the neighborhood who had gathered on the back patio of his townhouse, located just west of the Barcias. Inside their home, his fiancee, Julia, fixed chicken marsala for the group.

They all heard the firecrackers. An annoyance, but nothing to get excited about. Even in a palmy, well-to-do community like Fort Lauderdale's Victoria Park, kids will be kids.

But at 8:30 on that March 3rd evening, there was a different noise. A sudden pop-pop, followed by an eerie, high-pitched, and anguished squawk.

Robert Barcia, a 50-year-old construction subcontractor, had just walked in the front door, when the phone rang. Lou Weiss was on the other end of the line. Lou and Robert hadn't spoken for almost two years -- something about a parking space. But a crisis has a way of sweeping away petty differences.

"I think your bird's been shot," Lou said.

Barcia cringed. Not Big Bird. Not his beloved peacock, the magnificent creature that strutted around his tiny backyard like a pharaoh.

Lenora, his wife, was already outside aiming a flashlight into the big black olive tree where Big Bird liked to perch, looking for the peacock's distinctive outline, for the five-foot plume of tail feathers that usually hung luxuriantly from the branch. She didn't see him. Robert finally spotted the bird, high up in the 70-foot-tall tree's massive canopy.

The Weisses were out there, too, talking breathlessly over the fence. Dianne Weiss had actually witnessed the crime -- at least, she thought she had. When she heard the shots, she had seen two men in Cinnamon's yard, illuminated by backyard spotlights. They were leaning over the fence that separates the Cinnamons' property from the Barcias'. One of the men held his arm out as if he was holding a pistol, she said. But she didn't actually see a gun.

It wasn't until two days later that the Barcias discovered how bad it had really been. That was when Big Bird plopped into a neighbor's yard like a dead branch falling from a tree. The right side of his body was covered in blood. Maggots had eaten at his flesh. Barcia could see where a bullet had entered Big Bird's body on the inside of the wing and exited through the shoulder area. A big hole, says Barcia, a former hunter. Probably shot from a 9mm handgun.

Big Bird was still alive, but barely. A few hours later, veterinarians from the Wildlife Care Center, who had tried to save the bird, euthanized him.

Robert Barcia still gets emotional about it. "I don't think I have ever been that mad about anything in my life," he said the other day. "Not friends dying, not family dying."

The official cause of death may have been a lethal injection humanely administered by a veterinarian. But Barcia knows the real cause: mob-style execution.

Peacocks are not for everybody. Big, clumsy birds, they can be noisy and obstreperous. Despite the beauty of the male's grandiose display, being around them during mating season is tough. The males summon the females all night with long, melancholy calls (variously described as sounding like honnnk, ahhhh or hellllp). They destroy prized flowers as they hunt for bugs. And they defecate a lot -- big, pasty gobs of the stuff.

Big Bird was one of a muster of peafowls descended from a pair brought to Victoria Park around 20 years ago by a local woman, Barcia says. The flock, now wild and numbering about half a dozen birds, roams the area roughly between Ninth and Tenth Avenues between Sixth and Second streets.

Not everybody is happy about that. Even before Big Bird's death, there were angry letters in the Victoria Park News. As the mating season approached earlier this year, tensions threatened to spill into the open.

Barcia didn't find Big Bird; Big Bird found him, about a year and a half ago. A couple of peahens jumped up onto his neighbor's garage and hopped into Barcia's lush backyard. They seemed to like what they found. The water fountain. The 70-foot-tall black olive tree. The ivy covering the ground. After a couple of days, the hens brought in Big Bird. "I think they brought him here to retire," Barcia speculates. "I think he was infertile." Big Bird would hang out in the yard during the day and roost on a branch of the black olive tree at night.  

Barcia began feeding the peacock -- phenomenal amounts. Five pounds of dog food per week, ten pounds of sunflower seeds, and ample helpings of Lenora's meatloaf. "He became my pet," Barcia says. "I never thought I would like anything like that, but I kind of fell in love with the guy."

Big Bird followed Barcia around the yard. He would stand at the Barcias' back door, watching television with the couple. Every so often he would open his tail feathers and display a dazzling nine-foot arc of feathers with at least 150 shimmering turquoise eyes as colorful as the inside of an abalone shell. The display was a mark of peacock preeminence, Barcia says. Peahens like a male with a lot of eyes in his spread.

Even some of the neighbors caught a little of Barcia's enthusiasm. Despite their differences with Barcia, the Weisses liked having a peacock next door. They put up with the honking and the squawking. And they understood why Big Bird might have chosen the Barcias' yard. "Peacocks are beautiful birds and they need a beautiful setting," Dianne explained.

Others were just turned off. Even for a peacock, Big Bird was none too sanitary. He pooped everywhere. "He was aggravating," Barcia concedes. "Same time of day during the mating season, he'd make one big honk every 10 to 20 minutes. He could honk like a goose, coo like a dove, and make a wild sound like a toucan."

When Big Bird honked, cats ran for cover. A toddler next door quaked in fear. Some neighbors talked about suffering from serious sleep deprivation.

With the mating season looming, someone posted a note -- "A Friendly Warning From Your Neighbors" -- on Lenora's car, dated January 30.

WE ARE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH YOUR PEACOCK AGAIN DURING THE UPCOMING MATING SEASON.

WE HAVE CALLED THE POLICE ABOUT THIS. THEY WILL COME EVERY NIGHT KNOCKING ON YOUR DOOR (IF THEY HAVE TO) ON THE LEGAL GROUND OF DISTURBING THE PEACE.

SO GET RID OF THIS BIRD BEFORE YOU GET IN TROUBLE.

THANK YOU.

Then another note was posted on Barcia's car. And a third was nailed to their fence.

Robert Barcia doesn't give in easily. He prides himself on his stubbornness and even on his inability to get along with others. He goes his own route. These notes made his bond with Big Bird even fiercer. "They [the peacocks] have been in our neighborhood for years, and it was no big deal," he says. "When he came here and he made this his home, I wasn't going to chase him away."

In February, a letter appeared in the Victoria Park News calling for neighborhood action against the peacocks. Some neighbors started a petition drive. This coincided with the beginning of the mating season, when the peacocks' screeching escalates dramatically.

That evening after the gunshots, Barcia, standing in the dark, peering up at his bird pal near the top of the tree, had a sinking feeling that one of his neighbors had taken matters into his own hands and decided to silence Big Bird for good.

The police took the case seriously. Shots were fired, an animal destroyed. Crimes had been committed, no question about it. In a March 5 report, Fort Lauderdale police Ofcr. Fred Ross confirmed that Big Bird suffered what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the right side of his body. Because of the entry and exit wounds, it appeared that the shot had come from a neighbor's yard, Ross said.

Fort Lauderdale police detective James Pott investigated the shooting, but he couldn't build much of a case. James Cinnamon acknowledged he owned a rifle and a 9mm pistol, but what did that prove? Besides, Cinnamon strenuously denied having anything to do with the avicide. He says he has had three visits from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. On the night of the shooting, an officer examined his pistol and reported it did not appear to have been fired recently. Later, Pott asked Cinnamon's neighbor, David Caven, who was at the Cinnamon house that night, to take a lie- detector test, but he declined.

"It has gotten ridiculous," Cinnamon says. "I am considering hiring an attorney. What charges, if any, are they going to charge me with? Either charge me or drop it." Cinnamon says he likes peacocks, for cryin' out loud. Honest. He points to a wind gauge in his backyard -- a peacock made of sailcloth whose tail feathers twirl in the breeze. "I mean, that's how I feel about peacocks," he says.  

Not that he and his fiancée had any excess of love for Big Bird. Asked if Big Bird kept them up at night, Julia (who asked that her last name not be used) was unequivocal. "Absolutely!" she said.

Last Tuesday, Detective Pott said he was closing the case. "I have no witness for a gun," he says. "The bird didn't fall out of the tree after it was allegedly shot. It stayed up there at least a day. Who's to say it didn't fly somewhere during the night and get shot and fly back home to roost?"

Yeah, sure. Didn't Gotti say something a lot like that after his boys gunned down Castellano?

It's eerily quiet around the Barcias' olive tree this spring. Quiet as a grave.


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