From the "What The Hell Do I Know" file, the Herald story about the FDLE chief's e-mails in the Bay County boot camp death case caused the special prosecutor to take the FDLE off the case. You may recall that I derided the story as overplayed and overstated, saying the e-mails, while newsworthy, were relatively harmless.
Still feel that way -- and still feel that the fact that FDLE honcho Guy Tunnell was a former Bay County sheriff who founded the boot camp was troubling enough from the get-go. That alone should have made the governor's office cut him loose from the case.
The proof, however, is in the pudding. What the e-mails did was illustrate Tunnell's conflict of interest, not so much in their content but tone. Though not damning, they made it understandable and tangible. And that is the latest reason why Herald reporter Carol Marbin Miller deserves all the Pulp's accolades.
But the impact may be negligible. The result is that Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee will step in to take FDLE's place. I don't know much at all about Gee, but I've covered Florida crime long enough to know that these sheriffs stick together like bad sushi. But hey, I could be wrong.
Moving On I'm tired of newspapers today. It's Friday, time to kick back a little. Thought I'd share with you a tale from the past. And it ties neatly into current events, namely this month's release of a mass market paperback Florida crime book.
It begins one night a decade ago. I was standing there at the bonfire after midnight in the middle of nowhere. Other than the orange-glowing fire light, it was pitch black night. I felt as if I were on another planet really, standing there in that deeply isolated maze of woods and sand and mud. I was also fairly intoxicated and surrounded by a slew of dangerous rednecks who were out of both their trucks and their minds. But I was getting along well.
And then I hear the sound of some guy talking into the back of my head.
"This one here is a fuckin' reporter," he said with hatred in his voice. "He's a piece of shit. I should kick his ass right now. Fucking pussy. Piece of shit reporter ... "
He kept talking like that until my face started burning with a particularly virulent hybrid of rage and fear. He was right about one thing — I was a reporter, working at the time for the great and venerable Gannett corporation, specifically the New-Press in Fort Myers. If the top editors would have known what I was doing, I would have likely been fired in a USA Today minute. But my colleague and friend Jim Greenhill, who was also there "working" that night, and I were beyond worrying about something like that. We were chasing a great story and, in this particular instance, the consumption of large quantities of alcoholic beverages was pretty much required.
It helped us blend into the woodwork and build trust. To hell with the rules of some pathetic newspaper corporation. We had a job to do, after all.
The place was called Timber Trails, a godforsaken maze of woods and sand and mud where these proud redneck kids bonded with the most important thing in their lives: their trucks. They stayed out there all night long, warping their little-used brains with all manner of booze and drugs. Sometimes bad things happened, like the unsolved rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl named Rachel Nail, which involved some backwoods form of Satanism.
We were there because a little group of white high school kids living in a redneck part of Lee County had declared war on Lee County, burned down a few local landmarks, shot-gunned their band director dead at his home, and planned a murder spree at Disney World. They called themselves the Lords of Chaos, and the comic-book name was no accident. The LOC was made up of a few nerds who followed a charismatic punk named Kevin Foster into the "vortex of bloodlust and arson," as John McDougall, the somewhat messianic and all-out weird sheriff of Lee County at the time, put it. All the kids had nicknames. Foster was "God."
The story got the attention of Dick Clark's film production company, which bought the rights to our work. The American Bandstander was trying to branch out from TV to feature films. Clark's boys paid Jim and me $7500 for an option, which seemed like big money at the time. The $3000-some-odd I got after the agent's cut was the first decent chunk of change I ever saw. And Gannett, bless it, let us have it all. Had the schmoozing producers in Hollywood made the movie, well, that would have been some real dough.
Anyway, we tracked these kids and their friends to Timber Trails. A friend of Kevin Foster's named Travis was our guide. He was a short 17-year-old with a mustache and struck me as a little smoother than should have been possible. He lived in a double-wide and had a pet monkey. Travis sort of reminded me of Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused.
We get out there and we're drinking and smoking and everybody's whooping it up around this bonfire. You have to understand: Our goal was to get into the intestines of this beast. We had to see what these lost youths did in the dead of night in their dark little kingdom of Timber Trails. It all had to do with the boredom and pathos of east Lee County and we thought it might help to explain the drastic actions of the Chaos bunch.
But it wasn't all youths. There were guys out there in their 30s, older than me. It was going okay, but you could feel the distrust. We told them straight-up that we were reporters. There was a kind of dance going on around that bear of an issue. Violence always seemed to be lurking in the shadows, but I was having a decent time. There were some funny characters and some decent roughnecks out there, it turned out.
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Then this guy starts talking into the back my head.
He's daring me to turn around so he could beat my ass all over the Trails. And while this guy is calling me a pussy, the people I'm talking to start to smile knowingly as if to say, "I bet this guy is a giant pussy." And I'm starting to think that if the tide turned in that direction, I would soon feel some boots upside my head.
There was no choice. After telling myself that pain was only a state of mind, I turned around to face the bastard. It was time to call him out, come what may.
(I have to continue this in an afternoon post. I swear it's not pointless.)