The Crimi-ny Ticket
Frank Crimi wheels himself through the buffet line at the Tropic Café, a tiki-themed cafeteria on the third floor of the Broward County Courthouse. He serves himself two fried chicken legs, some lasagna, mixed vegetables, and garlic bread, then grabs a bag of potato chips, two cans of V8 juice, and a Coke. Oh, and a Baby Ruth. That's for later.
"They just came out with a fresh tray of lasagna," says Crimi, who weighs more than 300 pounds. "My eyes popped out of my head."
He's smiling as he parks his wheelchair at one of the circular glass tables where his ex-wife and a reporter sit. Crimi, dressed in black slacks, a festive lime-green button-down, and a London Fog fedora, has loaded up with a sample of everything this Thursday morning. Once again, he's got something to celebrate, and his first thought is food.
About seven years ago, Fort Lauderdale Police Det. Paul Allen showed up at Crimi's Riverland Road home to investigate a code violation. Crimi had a history of run-ins with the code enforcement team. After fisticuffs broke out, there was a mad struggle for the officer's gun, apparently fueled by Crimi's paranoia but driven by both men's desperate, lunging instinct for self-preservation. Allen left the property on a stretcher, flesh torn from his forearms and a gushing bullet wound through his left hand.
When a citizen fights with a Florida law enforcement officer, seriously injuring him, he goes to jail, right? For a long time.
But this case is remarkable for Crimi's ability, in a steadfastly law-and-order state, to avoid imprisonment year after year after year.
After a mere thirty days in county lockup, Crimi was bailed out by his sister. This gabby, obstructive scalawag of a man who talks uninhibitedly about the most intimate aspects of his life has been free ever since.
Is he, as a panel of psychologists has repeatedly declared, a misguided simpleton who's "incompetent to stand trial"? Or is he, as prosecutors and cops contend, a genius at playing the criminal justice system?
Last Thursday, a judge once again declared Crimi incompetent to stand trial.
Crimi's account of the altercation with Allen disputed on every key point by the detective has the sound of a carefully concocted alibi, complete with the requisite aggressively angry black assailant. It goes like this:
He was running 40 minutes late for his paralegal class on August 2, 1999. Around 9:30 a.m., he hustled out of his cottage and around the side of his father's house in Fort Lauderdale only to find a large black man a six-foot-five, 250-pounder looking at his yard. The big man Det. Allen asked his name.
"My name is Frank. I'm in a hurry. I go to college, and I don't have time to talk."
Crimi slid into his blue Caddy and sped off. But he had to turn around; he had forgotten his jacket. When Crimi came back, he says, he found that the black man had ventured into his yard. He was looking at the cars, penning something on a notepad. Crimi's pet peeve is trespassing, he says, and he had the signage to prove it: one "Beware of Dog," although there is no dog, and one plain and simple "No Trespassing." Crimi says he figured the guy was there to steal. Crimi claims the officer never identified himself.
"There is no fucking trespassing," Crimi says he announced. "Can't you read the sign? Get the hell out of my yard."
The man threw down his notebook. "You white motherfucker, you think you're something," he said, according to Crimi. Then he came after Crimi, grabbed him, and started to pummel him. Crimi tried to flee to the back of the house, to get back to his cottage, with the man in pursuit, he says. He got Crimi in a double chokehold and threw him to the ground. Crimi who, of course, never touched the guy was just trying to run away, he says.
His face was in the dirt, Crimi says, but when he looked up, he noticed a shiny silver revolver about a foot from his head. Crimi's assailant went to grab the gun, and Crimi realized he was in a fight for his life.
Crimi got his hands over the man's hands on the gun. In a flash, the gun went off. No doubt about it the other guy pulled the trigger, Crimi insists. Crimi thought his hand was blown off. He was deafened and blinded by the shot.
It wasn't Crimi's hand that was shot but the other man's. There was blood everywhere. The next thing Crimi knew, he says, somebody was kicking him in the face.
That's the story that Crimi told Fort Lauderdale Police Det. John Curcio at Broward General Medical Center, where he and Paul Allen were treated for their injuries.
Allen, on the other hand, testified that he was sent to Crimi's property as a last resort on behalf of the Fort Lauderdale Code Team. Crimi's yard cluttered with mannequins in hard hats, a canoe, a boat, a Tweety Bird sign, construction cones, a plastic swimming pool, and other heaps of junk was beginning to resemble a dump. Neighbors had complained, and those complaints had traveled up a chain of command that culminated with Allen's police investigation and a possible misdemeanor charge.
Allen said he identified himself as a police detective, loudly and clearly. He said Crimi threw a punch at him, somehow got hold of his gun, and tried to kill him.
That story rang true to a jury in 2003. Crimi was convicted on five counts, including battery on a law enforcement officer. But he was granted a new trial on a technicality: His lawyer wasn't given enough peremptory jury challenges. Crimi would get to start over. But then, psychologists found him incompetent to stand trial.
This has meant that for the past seven years while Allen has been out of work on disability Crimi has been basking in his freedom: feasting on junk food, running a political campaign, boning up on the law, and attending the soccer games of his two sons. If another year goes by without Crimi's competence being "restored," the statute of limitations kicks in and all the charges against him will be dropped.
The altercation with Allen was more than seven years and 100 pounds ago gained weight Crimi blames on his psychotropic medications. As for his mental state, even Crimi who has taken hundreds of hours of law classes will tell you he's perfectly competent to stand trial. But don't take Crimi's word for it. He's got a slippery history in his dealings with police officers and the law. His own father says he's been a smooth talker from day one.
In the past seven years, the front lawn of his house, in southwest Fort Lauderdale, has been cleaned up. But it still looks as if it would qualify as an alternate setting for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. A dilapidated wooden fence is splayed out on either side of the sugar sand driveway, but the "No Trespassing" signage on the fence still belies any sense of welcome. The lawn is overgrown, and dead leaves blanket the cracked sidewalk that was once sprinkled with Allen's blood.
The walkway to the back of the house runs past a line of willowy, miniature palm trees and an upturned red wheelbarrow as it traces the side of Crimi's father's home to the cottage at the back. Then the sidewalk turns to red brick leading up to Crimi's door, which displays yet another warning sign: "No trespassing, no knocking. Call for an appointment. Go to the front door for info."
"Is that the reporter?" comes a flustered voice. "Hold on one second. I'll be right there." A second turns into a minute, set to the cacophony of clanging dishes. Then it's five minutes, allowing ample time to survey the lawn.
In his small brick courtyard and the surrounding grass, Crimi has a barbecue grill, a stationary bike, a bench press, a Zebra-pattern rug draped over a NordicTrack, a female mannequin wearing a gorilla mask, and a headless male mannequin wearing a construction hat on its neck and wielding a British flag. Crimi got these mannequins a decade ago at a nearby Footlocker, in exchange for buying the staff a few pizzas. There's also an oversized shovel and rake, an old water dispenser, several empty water jugs, some shutters, a walker, and a couple of plastic tables, all covered in leaves.
Finally, Crimi calls, "You've got to come in blindfolded," sounding uncannily like Joe Pesci.
He throws open the door to reveal an extremely narrow kitchen that doubles as a foyer. Crimi's wheelchair barely fits. His gray straggly hair pokes out wildly from the sides of his head, and his Barney-purple T-shirt seems to be cutting off his circulation. The kitchen doesn't look much better than the yard. On the grimy counter are piles of dishes, a paper cup filled with menthol cigarette butts, and various dusty appliances, including a VCR with a metal African elephant perched on top. Crimi reaches over to the sink and pointlessly rinses a quick dish or two, then offers cranberry juice, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, or lemonade. How about some chocolate fudge ice cream? "It's good with Shredded Wheat," he says.
Getting back to the bedroom involves some heavy backward thrusts of the wheelchair, each one causing the refrigerator door to swing open and nearly toppling a nearby lamp. Crimi's had some electrical problems of late, he explains, pushing a white curtain out of the way to reveal a small, dark room crammed with piles of clothing, chess sets, anatomy posters, and miscellaneous dead appliances.
"I had a bad night," he says, pointing at a machine he straps to his head at night to combat his sleep apnea. Apparently the power shut off, which meant that Crimi couldn't breathe. That led to a seizure, which led to, well... "the sheets got wet," he says. "When you're near death, you lose your body functions and you release everything."
He's running late for his son's soccer game, but he has yet to groom or change. Crimi takes off his shirt, revealing a gargantuan belly and two man-breasts. He coats his underarms with deodorant and spritzes himself with Axe body spray, then reaches to the floor and comes up with a blue T-shirt that says "U.S.A." on the front. He squeezes it over his head.
"Is this too tight? It doesn't feel good," he says. "I thought I was losing weight too." That shirt, along with a striped blue button-down featuring a golden profile of Tupac, came as gifts from his sister, Joann, for Christmas. She lives in Fort Lauderdale and sells postal uniforms for a living. "She has really good taste," Crimi says.
He yanks off the shirt and settles for a shiny red-and-white button-down.
Crimi's law books are stacked on a shelf. These are his prized possessions, he says, because knowing the law is the most important thing. He used to take a class called "The Law in Simple Terms," a popular venue for gadflies and small-claims court regulars, and that's when he started to understand his rights as a "sovereign freeman." His property rights. His rights not to be harassed. His right to tape-record everything. "I've got like 10,000 tapes," he says, then remembers he lost many of them during Hurricane Wilma. He can talk about this for hours. But he's late.
He picks up a derby hat, moves a stapler from one shelf to another, and places a whistle on a string over his head. (Sometimes merely yelling doesn't get the job done.) On the way out, he picks up a two-by-four block of wood and takes it with him.
"Do you mind if I brush my hair in here?" Crimi asks once he settles into a reporter's car. Then he pulls down the mirror and gasps in horror. "I look like a Mafia boss. Five-day shadow and a hat." He brushes his long, greasy gray strands for most of the 15-minute ride to the soccer field. He also talks about his relationship with Ed Heeney, a candidate for state representative back in 2004.
Crimi met Heeney, like most of the other miscreants he's been involved with, in the law class, and Heeney asked him to be his campaign manager. Heeney achieved a moment of national notoriety on Comedy Central's The Daily Show stating that he was "homonausic" (meaning, apparently, that he was nauseated by gays and lesbians invading South Florida and pushing their "gay agenda").
Heeney's "a perfect politician," Crimi says. "He's a big ham. A bullshitter. He knows the whole damned town."
Heeney has big plans for 2010. "I intend to take Charlie [Crist] out, and it won't be on a date," Heeney says during a phone conversation. Fort Lauderdale is "amplified to perversion," he says. "You can't go to the damned bathroom without a faggot following you in. You can't find any restaurant in Fort Lauderdale that doesn't have a homosexual working there. These people are serving our food. That's something to think about."
Ironically, Crimi and Heeney used to hang at J's Bar, a lesbian bar on Davie Boulevard. Crimi used to fix the toilets there and also dance with the strippers, which made everybody else jealous, he says.
"Oh, they threw me out," Crimi says. "I'm a pretty good dancer."
Then there was the time the pair holed up in an apartment rented by Crimi in Pompano Beach. The landlord summoned authorities to evict them; a nine-hour standoff drew widespread media coverage, though it ended peacefully when a SWAT team flushed them out of the barricaded residence. Until he's competent, Crimi won't have to answer for that one either.
Pulling up to his son's soccer game at the Pine Island Park fields, the parking lot looks crowded, but when we find a good spot, Crimi's not surprised. He brings up how Oprah has been talking about The Secret, a documentary film that emphasizes the dramatic effect of positive thinking on real events. "I already knew that all my life," he says.
Frank Crimi was born in Queens, New York, but his parents sent him to South Florida when he was 18 months old to live with his Italian grandparents, who spoke no English. He's still not sure why his parents sent him.
He spent a year there, then got traded to his "Jewish grandmother" in Miami. Soon enough, Crimi's parents and younger sister came from New York, and the family moved together to Fort Lauderdale.
From his childhood, Crimi best remembers performing impromptu tap dance routines with his sister; by the time Crimi got to tenth grade at Fort Lauderdale High, he was setting his sights on a career in acting, singing, and dancing. He remembers taking a musical test in which he scored in the top 5 percent. But then in 11th grade, he got transferred to Dillard High School, which he calls "a substandard school where they had nothing but a chorus."
"I lost my career," he says.
At 25, Crimi met the woman who would become his wife, Nahil McFelia, at a country music lounge near State Road 84. She was attracted to his humor and his passion, he to her Colombian good looks and sense of fun. In the same year, 1980, they were married, and Crimi took over his father's landscaping business. He was also taking horticulture and landscape technology classes at Broward Community College, trying to prove to his father that he was good for something.
Frank Crimi Sr. had always been suspicious of his son's work ethic. Crimi Sr. gave his son the landscape business in hopes that he would finally mature. "In my eyes, he has to learn to accept more responsibility. Be more of a man," he says. The elder Crimi worries that his son is always trying to get something for nothing, but he believes that his son, deep down, is actually a good guy. Still, he says, "don't believe every little word Frank tells you. I love him, but he's a smooth talker."
One of the neighbors used to say that Crimi had split personality disorder, his father recalled. When Crimi was around people who knew him, he was a perfect gentleman. It was what he did among strangers that always seemed to get him in trouble. He's got a "macho man" routine when it comes to the law, his father says. "I just don't buy it. I'm his father, and I just don't buy it."
Crimi's parents divorced when he was 5, and he lived with his mother until he was 17. Then she asked his father to take him. Crimi never felt close to either parent, so when he had two children of his own, Frankie and Giovanni, he made every effort to show them they were loved.
"I hug and squeeze my children a lot," he says. "My father says, 'What are you trying to do? You're all over the kids.' I say, 'Dad, I'm trying to share my love with my kids. You weren't like that with me, which I so wanted when I was a kid. I just wanted to hug you and hold your hand or something. '"
In addition to the landscaping company, Crimi wound up owning two septic-tank companies, which he ran with his wife and a business partner. In the early and mid-'90s, he became increasingly preoccupied with work, his ex-wife says. And then he got involved in the law class. Crimi was never home, and he started becoming obsessed with his rights. Nahil McFelia got restless.
One afternoon in 1996, Crimi says, he and his father entered their home to find his business partner and his wife going at it on his son's bed. To this day, Crimi says, he believes that his business partner was drugging his ex-wife. His ex-wife and business partner have now been married for nearly a decade. When Frank Crimi doesn't like reality, he invents a new one. If people accuse him of lying, for example, it simply means there's a conspiracy against him.
Paul Allen's version of what happened on August 2, 1999, as described in court and police documents, is like a photo negative of Crimi's version. Crimi's property had been trashed for so long, it had become a misdemeanor violation, and Allen was assigned to confront the property owner. Instead, he encountered Crimi.
"Good morning, sir. I'm Det. Allen from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. Do you live here?"
"I'm here in reference to a code violation."
"Ah, fuck the police. Don't fuck with me."
Crimi drove off but came back to find that Allen was still there, standing on a swale in front of the house, writing down VIN numbers. Crimi got out of his car, crossed the street, and took a swing at Allen, who ducked. The officer then punched Crimi in the face, knocking him to the ground. Allen told Crimi he was under arrest. Crimi got up and tried to get to the house, but Allen worried that he might be going for a weapon. Allen took Crimi to the ground, put his arm around Crimi's neck, and said, "You're under arrest. Give it up."
Allen looked down to see his gun missing from its holster on his ankle. Then he saw that Crimi had the revolver in his hand and that the gun was cocked, pointing up at him. Allen grabbed at the gun over Crimi's hands. That's when Crimi started tearing the flesh from Allen's forearms with his teeth.
Allen tried to pry Crimi's fingers off the gun, but then Crimi pulled the trigger, Allen says. Allen got control of the gun, stood up to see another officer running in, then saw the blood. The bullet had gone straight through his left palm.
Doctors initially thought Allen's middle finger could be salvaged but ultimately amputated it. When recalling the story on the stand, Allen broke into tears.
"He's a big pansy," Crimi says, knowing full well the comment will make him even less popular with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
Det. Estelle Williams, who had her own run-in with Crimi, still remembers him with disgust.
"He's a piece of garbage, alright," she says.
Williams had gone to Crimi's rented Pompano Beach property to issue a code violation in 1997, and when she arrived, Crimi began accusing her of trespassing and ran to his car. Frightened, she drew her weapon, and Crimi began tape-recording her and taking pictures of her. Williams drove the same car Allen did with the city's logo on the side and the state attorney used Williams' testimony in an effort to show that Crimi knew Allen was a police officer. To this day, Crimi refuses to accept that Allen and Williams are police officers, not just "city employees."
Williams says Crimi is competent to stand trial but says he's "sly as a fox."
"The only solution would be to investigate him," she says. "Follow him around and video him in his everyday life. Bowling, shopping, doing other things competent people do."
Wayne Strawn, who worked in building codes for the City of Fort Lauderdale at the time of the incident, says that Crimi has more going on upstairs than he lets on.
"He's using the system," Strawn says. "I think he's sane. He's also not right." Strawn says he hopes the court has psychologists who are professional enough "to sort out the fakers from the real people who are loony."
Strawn and Williams were friends of Paul Allen's, but neither has talked to him since he retired last year. He was on medical leave until retirement, receiving disability checks and, according to friends, still dealing with the emotional scars from the incident.
Allen's files reveal an officer who excelled in interpersonal relations, safety, judgment, adaptability, and job knowledge. Although two people he arrested filed complaints with the department, citing unnecessary force, neither complaint was sustained. Allen was reprimanded once in 1991 for running a stop sign and hitting another vehicle, which in turn struck a bicyclist. Aside from that, Allen's 18-year career was blemish-free.
Crimi's record, on the other hand, is a mess.
There are two restraining orders on him by two women one claimed Crimi stole her car; the other said he became obsessive and started following her around and showing up unannounced. Police have investigated numerous domestic disputes between Crimi and his ex-wife, who once accused him of molesting their children.
In September 1997, Hollywood police arrested him for tampering with evidence and resisting without violence. The incident took place outside of the Holiday Inn on Sheridan Street, where Crimi had been at his law class. One of his classmates, Milo Winters, hit a truck backing out of the parking lot. When the hotel guards and police tried to get Winters to accept responsibility, he put up a fight. The guards got the attention of a police officer, at which point Winters began tape-recording.
He refused to hand over his license and registration, asking why he was being "harassed." Police confiscated the recorder. Winters then pretended they had broken his arm and instructed Crimi, who had begun videotaping, to steal back the tape recorder. Crimi did this, hiding the recorder in his pocket. The officers asked for it back. "Is this a criminal or a civil matter?" he asked the officer. Short answer criminal. Crimi tried to call his bluff and pretended he didn't know what tape recorder the officer was talking about. As the officer handcuffed him, Crimi said, "Well, if you're going to arrest me, I'll give you back the tape."
When asked about the incident, Crimi says he wasn't there during the part about the broken arm. He saw Winters' head get slammed on the cop car, and then he saw his legs kicked out from under him.
But on a tape filed as evidence in the State Attorney's Office, his voice is clear. "You broke his arm," Crimi yells at the officer. "This man needs an ambulance." According to two guards from the hotel, who witnessed the whole thing, Crimi had just watched his friend throw himself on the ground and pretend to break his arm.
Crimi says those guys were lying. Why would they do that? "They were pro-police," he says.
In the case involving Det. Allen, a jury convicted Crimi in 2003 of, among other charges, felony causing bodily injury, aggravated battery on an officer, and depriving an officer of a weapon, all of which added up to a potential life sentence for Crimi. Ellis Rubin, one of Crimi's lawyers, had relentlessly attacked Allen and Williams on the stand, at one point calling Williams a 20-year embarrassment to the Police Department. But the jury didn't buy it. Essentially, it was Crimi's eccentric and weasely personality on trial, and he lost.
From the start of the trial, though, Crimi's attorneys knew they had a wildcard. They had been allowed to dismiss only six jurors at the onset, though a defendant facing a possible life sentence must, under state law, be allowed ten jury strikes.
Crimi was granted a new trial, though he could no longer afford his big-time attorneys. He demanded to represent himself, but the judge turned him down. Crimi was assigned to public defender Barbara Brush, who noticed that Crimi behaved in a bizarre way, talked excessively, and often veered off on strange tangents. She had his competency evaluated, and four out of five psychologists agreed, after testing him for about 45 minutes each, that Crimi was incompetent. But he was not a danger to himself or anybody else, the psychologists determined. A judge decided that Crimi should be allowed to live at home, go on medication, and attend the Henderson Mental Health Center once a week for competency restoration classes.
The psychologists disagreed on what was wrong with Crimi. Schizoid affective disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, mood disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and paranoid personality were all floated as possible diagnoses. The psychologists also differed on their legal reasoning for why Crimi was incompetent. Some thought he lacked the ability to provide pertinent information to his attorney. One thought he wouldn't be able to testify relevantly. Another thought he lacked a rational understanding of the charges and the legal system. Any one of these three is enough for a determination of incompetence.
One word that didn't come up was malingerer, a fancy term for faker. None of the psychologists saw Crimi's bizarre tirades as obfuscations. None thought he was hamming it up, putting his acting skills to use. They considered him a sick man, and all recommended psychotropic drugs and psychiatric care.
Most defendants regain their competency to stand trial after a few months. Even those who are forced into state mental health facilities the other option when someone is deemed incompetent usually wind up on trial within six months. But Crimi attended the experimental treatment course for nearly four years. He stopped last November, after he fell down, slipped a few discs, and had to go to the hospital for a month. Crimi says after that, he had to use a wheelchair, which meant that he couldn't attend his class, because the Henderson Mental Health Clinic's elevator could not accommodate his wheelchair. (The clinic did not respond to numerous inquiries from New Times.)
In recent weeks, Crimi was evaluated by Dr. Nicole Friedman and Dr. Michael Brannan; they both found him incompetent to stand trial. Brannan suggested that Crimi be institutionalized so he would be forced to take his medications; in the end, the judge didn't order it. She decided Crimi should be seen by a psychiatrist and come back for another hearing April 11, to show he's been taking his meds.
Crimi's new lawyer, Clement Dean, says he has no doubt that Crimi is incompetent to proceed. He believes the best thing for his client would be to resume his classes and his medications without being institutionalized.
"Frank Crimi is a very complicated person," Dean contends. "He's a nice guy who probably suffers from a major mental disorder. I don't have any question about that. I'd say he's high functioning, but just because you can do things, it doesn't mean you're competent to stand trial."
Dean concedes that incompetence may be in Crimi's best interest. "If he becomes competent, he's going to face charges. He could wind up in Florida State Prison."
As he inches toward the soccer fields with his walker, Crimi discloses the purpose of his two-by-four.
"I sit on it," he says. The wood can be propped on his walker to create a makeshift bench; if he feels like sitting on the bleachers, he can balance his piece of wood near the top of his walker and lean his elbows on it. He does this as he settles in to watch the game. The sun is high overhead, glowing through a thin layer of clouds onto the bright-green, tree-lined fields.
Crimi's completely at ease in the opponent's bleachers. He makes small talk with friends and family from the other team, and they seem to regard him as an entertaining if slightly demented uncle. They laugh at him, and he eats up the attention. He screams out whatever he feels like screaming; if somebody gives him a dirty look, he jokes, "Are you going to red-card me?"
Crimi's 15-year-old son, Frankie, does not often get the ball. Crimi points out that his son prances rather than runs "like a show horse." Today, he's more satisfied with his son's performance. That may be because almost anytime Frankie kicks the ball, his shoe which is loosely laced goes flying.
"Great kick, Frank," Crimi screams. "All right! Throw your shoes at 'em. If you can't win, hit 'em in the head."
At the end of the game, Crimi maneuvers his walker across the field to congratulate his son, whose team has narrowly won the game. On the way, which takes quite a while, he talks about the games being the best thing in his life.
He knows he may someday end up in prison, he says, but he tries to keep it out of his mind. "Most people don't think about what the consequences of their actions are," he says, gasping for breath. "If I ponder on it, I'll have bad thoughts. I'll get sick again. So I try not to think about it."
When he gets to the spot on the field where players are cooling down, he congratulates them on a good game.
"One of the best," he says to the group of 15-year-olds. "You were kicking their ass. Kicking those number-one professionals right up."
To get back to the parking lot a quarter of a mile away, Crimi flags down a utility vehicle and catches a ride, which its amused driver is happy to provide. Crimi flies across the field, laughing into the wind. Finally, he blows his whistle, scaring the crap out of a few unsuspecting bystanders.
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