The Miccosukee Tribe Keeps Quiet About a Series of Traffic Deaths
Near dawn on Wednesday, January 21, Glades airboat captain Jesse Kennon was jolted awake by the whirring of helicopter blades over his roof. His first thought: That sounds like Rescue One.
The ruddy-skinned, pony-tailed patriarch of Coopertown had heard Miami-Dade Fire Rescue choppers many times before. He estimates he has seen 50 serious accidents directly outside his place on Tamiami Trail, where Miami drivers and a narrow, two-lane road form a lethal combination.
White-and-chocolate Miccosukee police cruisers were crowded haphazardly around the outline of an accident about 400 feet to the east, their sirens flashing but silent. He'd seen tribal cops and Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) work together at the scene of an accident before, Kennon says, "but this was the first time I'd seen only tribal cops working a crash."
A pair of three-ton vehicles were crumpled and strewn like spent soda cans on opposite sides of the road. A dark-blue Ford Expedition SUV was overturned on the guardrail in the eastbound lane; three of its wheels were in the air, and its fender was ground into the asphalt.
A wrecked gray Nissan Frontier pickup was in the opposite lane. The compacted engine was exposed by a torn-away hood, bearing a deep crater on its driver's side. The left front tire rested on a metal rim, and the right one was twisted perpendicular to the vehicle. The front window was shattered and sunken. The truck looked as if it had been balled up by a giant hand.
The Frontier belonged to Tatiana Furry, a 31-year-old Kendall yachtswoman who sometimes made trips to the Miccosukee Resort & Gaming casino, about four miles to the east, to play bingo and poker. For her family, a surreal nightmare was about to begin.
Her father, Jack, was finally informed 14 hours after the accident that his daughter had been killed in the collision. Her older brother, Will Furry, says that tribal detective Russell Barnes told the family that she had fallen asleep and been "internally decapitated," adding that he had personally checked her vitals as the first cop on the scene. Detectives said there were two people in the other vehicle but refused to give their names.
Four months later, Jack Furry and his family have received no further information from the cops — and have found that the sparse account they were given is riddled with inconsistencies and falsehoods.
Other law-enforcement agencies have been misled as well. An FHP sergeant who arrived at the scene an hour after the accident was turned away. "We relied on information from the Miccosukee Police Department," says Capt. Mark Welch. "It wasn't until later that we found out it was in fact not within their jurisdiction."
Though the Miccosukee police have refused to release reports or even an official statement concerning the accident, New Times has discovered that the four young Miccosukee men who survived the accident have amassed a combined 17 traffic infractions and nine criminal charges, including DUI, having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle, and cocaine possession. At the time of the accident, the Expedition's driver, a grandson of the Miccosukee tribal chairman, was battling a felony charge in court.
"Why did they lie to us about how many people were in the car?" Will demands as he stands in his comfortable Coconut Grove sunroom. "Why won't they give us any information at all on the other vehicle? Why did it take them 14 hours to contact us? I have no choice but to believe that they're hiding something."
The 500-plus members of the Miccosukee Tribe are descendants of unconquered warriors who, in centuries of fighting, have never retreated from an aggressor.
They came from the Carolinas to Florida in the 1700s as mercenaries recruited by the Spanish to guard against British invasion. In the 1830s, the Miccosukees and Seminoles refused to be herded along the Trail of Tears. They clung to state soil in the bloody seven-year Florida War.
The Miccosukee migrated into untamed Everglades wilderness and weathered another American invasion in 1860. They overmatched their opponent in the swamp. But the tribe was decimated by the fighting and disease. Numbers dwindled to roughly a hundred by the turn of the 20th Century. They established trade relations with the white man along the Miami River, but the Miccosukee always regarded themselves as a renegade nation, making their own rules and strategic allies.
The Miccosukees have never entered into a treaty with the United States. But from the federal government's perspective, they share the same shaky sovereign status as all other Native American nations — self-rule with numerous caveats. "Dependent sovereignty" allows them no jurisdiction over non-Indians and limited power over their own tribe. Tribal courts can neither hear serious charges like murder nor impose sentences more severe than one year in prison. And Congress can overrule any decision made in Indian court.
Like the Miccosukees, the neighboring Seminole tribe has had its share of sovereignty-related squabbles, especially since building the massive Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. In 2007, an Air Force airman was arrested by tribal police in a fight at the casino and was denied the right to see evidence against him. When former Playboy model and actress Anna Nicole Smith died there of a drug overdose around the same time, Seminole cops led the investigation; Broward authorities' power was limited. And the tribe has long simply ignored personal-injury suits filed by visitors to its casinos.
But perhaps no tribe has had such a contentious recent history involving sovereignty as the Miccosukee, who in the past decade have waged an escalating cold war with the American government.
In 1997, Kirk Douglas Billie, a 29-year-old Miccosukee man who had previously used his status as a member of the tribe to dodge county charges of domestic abuse, drove his ex-girlfriend's SUV into an Everglades canal as the couple's sons, aged 3 and 5, slept in the back seat. He jumped to safety before the car hit water, and the kids drowned. The tribal court absolved him. ''The tribe members believe they have handled the issues, Indian to Indian," tribe chairman Billy Cypress explained at the time.
Unfortunately for Billie, the canal was on state property, and the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office stuck him with two counts of first-degree murder. Miccosukee lawyers blocked prosecutors from tribal land and threatened to arrest armed agents. The tribe refused to furnish police reports, and Indian cops who cooperated with the state investigation were fired, prosecutors claimed. Still, in 2001, Billie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Miccosukee court is often accused of meting out lax or unbalanced justice. "It was not remotely like any legitimate justice system I've ever experienced," says Sandy Bohrer, a Miami attorney who once argued a case there involving casino gaming (and sometimes represents New Times in press matters). "Frankly, my experience was that the American government's guilt [over its historical mistreatment of Native Americans] had led to a travesty of justice."
"It's not exactly like [the U.S. system], no," counters Miccosukee Tribe representative Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Florida. "But is it fair? Unequivocally, yes. Is it rigorous? You better believe it. I think the tribal court is probably more concerned with rehabilitation and kind of a family-oriented, holistic resolution than our courts are."
Former tribal police officer Alonzo Moncur says that abiding by the tribe's "lenient" sense of justice "contradicts the oath that you take for the State of Florida." The Miami Gardens native joined the 80-plus officers of the Miccosukee Police Department — which includes no tribe members — in November 2004 at age 23. He soon learned of the department's "backwards" policies — such as letting drunk-driving suspects cool their heels in a cell until, he says, "they're ready to blow a triple zero," then letting them go.
Another former cop, who requests anonymity, corroborates Moncur's claim. Now employed by another local force, he was a 19-year-old police novice when he enlisted in August 2004. After arresting a tribe member suspected of driving drunk, he says, officers were supposed to call a tribal judge at home. They were invariably given "catch and release" instructions, he says.
Soon after the anonymous policeman joined the force, he says he spotted Chairman Cypress' silver Mercedes swerving recklessly as it sped west on Tamiami Trail. When he flashed his cruiser's lights and pulled him over, the chairman was unapologetic. "He said, 'You know who I am, right?' " claims the former cop. "Then he shut the door and fled."
Cypress led him on a chase, the officer says, before finally pulling over again. "Fuck off" was the chairman's blunt greeting, claims the cop: "He was pretty much trashed."
Cypress, he adds, was never charged in any court for the night's driving crimes.
Attorney Lewis says the cop fabricated the account. "That's pure fantasy," Lewis said of the cop's claims. He says the anonymous officer was fired because of performance issues.
On January 29 of that same year, the chairman was heading west along the trail in his red Lincoln Mark LT pickup truck, according to court documents. Just before 10 p.m., he smashed into a white Ford Econoline van carrying Maria and Rene Aguilar. The Miami couple were on their way home from Fort Myers. According to an insurance analysis later filed in court, Cypress was traveling in the wrong lane.
A blood test pegged the chairman's blood-alcohol content at .141 — well over the .08 legal limit. During Cypress' ensuing DUI case in tribal court, he insisted he had downed no more than two Bud Lights. "I testified to what I saw: that to me, he appeared intoxicated," the anonymous officer says. "There was some talk that the officers involved were going to be fired, but I didn't care."
Cypress was acquitted. Lewis claims the alcohol test was bungled by analysts. "The records were fundamentally wrong," he says. The couple both claimed serious injuries. Their lawyer filed a civil suit, then settled it confidentially.
Cypress didn't respond to interview requests, but his stance on Miccosukee sovereignty is well-known. "This is not the United States," he told New Times in a 1995 interview. "People don't understand that, and they never will."
Tatiana Furry was born in 1978 in Anaheim Hills, California. She was the middle sister to two brothers and the daughter of Jack Furry and Helene Hamaty — he a self-made entrepreneur of Lebanese and Irish descent who owned exotic-imported-car dealerships and a commuter airline, she a Jamaican-born nurse.
Tatiana was always something of a tomboy and a soccer player from age 6. She developed a well-built frame as she hit her teenaged years and became the enforcer in cleats. "She was really a force on the soccer field, very physical," says Robin Schmidt, Tatiana's lifelong friend. "She was always the type of girl that just loved being outside, running around, with a smile on her face."
In 1996, just before his daughter's senior year, Jack took a new position in Miami as president of SureCredit USA Home Loans. After a year at Palmetto High School, Tatiana attended Santa Fe College in Gainesville. She quit college after two years and moved back to Miami. She found her passion in 2008 doing side work aboard a University of Miami research boat. Mom predicted Tatiana would've spent her working life at sea.
Even as an adult, she played soccer on an amateur team called Miami Storm in Kendall's Thompson Park. Tatiana was single and maternally attached to her peach-and-white beagle, TJ. "That was her kid," says Lisette Arancibia, who worked with Tatiana at Jack's mortgage business. "She didn't want to go anywhere that she couldn't bring TJ along."
Tatiana turned 31 on January 17, and three days later, she may have made a late-night trip to the casino.
She sometimes played bingo or slots with Arancibia. Or Tatiana worked the poker room, a no-frills, smoke-clogged den where hard-boiled, mostly male players might spend days on end. "I wouldn't have sat there by myself," says Arancibia, "but she was never intimidated by anything."
Will Furry says it's "not shocking" that his sister might've made an impulsive late-night trip to the casino, but why she would've been almost five miles west of it is a "complete mystery," he says.
"I don't know what happened, which makes it really tough to deal with," Arancibia says. "I don't understand the silence."
Arancibia will most likely never make another trip to the casino. She tries to avoid being reminded of Tatiana's absence. "I think of her like she's gone on a trip," she confides. "I let myself believe that she's gone to visit California, or maybe... doing something that made her happy."
In mid-March, nearly two months after Tatiana's death, an editor at the Miami Herald received an envelope without a return address, according to an account given to Will Furry by Herald reporter David Ovalle. Inside was what appeared to be a Miccosukee police report on the fatal accident, as well as six computer-printed photographs taken at the scene. Also included was a letter slamming the tribe's police department, apparently written by a disgruntled officer. Even though they weren't officially verified, the Herald published the report and the photos. The letter was withheld.
If genuine, the documents cast some light on the other people involved in the accident, all of them young Miccosukee men: 18-year-olds Clifton Huggins III and Travis Osceola; Jared Tiger, 23; and Billy Cypress' grandson, Kent Billie, 20.
The reports also contradict Miccosukee officer Russell Barnes' assertion to the Furrys that there were two people in the other car. Indeed, Miccosukee attorney Lewis confirms that the four men were "involved" in the accident.
Tribal Officer Abner Rodriguez arrived at the scene at 4:12 a.m., according to the report, and was immediately approached by Huggins and Osceola. "We were traveling east to go fuel up at Dade Corners," Osceola told the officer, referring to a gas station located cater-cornered from the Miccosukee casino at Krome Avenue. "And we saw this pickup truck heading straight at us." (Rodriguez didn't return a call seeking comment.)
Rodriguez noted a "strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from Clifton Huggins' breath."
The cop made his way to the overturned Expedition, where he found two people still inside. The apparent driver, Billie, was splayed in the center of the truck, "unresponsive" but alive. Tiger was crawling through a blown-out rear window. Rodriguez helped him out as two more tribal cops arrived.
Turning to the Nissan, Rodriguez found Tatiana Furry in the "rear passenger side seated in a crouched position." There were no vital signs. When a Miami-Dade squad car arrived, Huggins was apparently perturbed. He remarked, "Ah man, they're not going to handle this and fuck with us are they?" according to the report.
As Huggins was treated by paramedics for a "minor laceration to his left arm," two Miami-Dade Fire Rescue choppers arrived and airlifted Billie and Tiger.
The Herald took the leak one controversial step further, submitting the materials to local accident-analysis expert William J. Fogarty, who determined that "Furry's Nissan Frontier crossed over the median and into the Ford," causing the wreck. But one of Fogarty's colleagues, Miles Moss, notes that far more rigorous testimony would be required in court. He calls the conclusion "speculation."
Attorney Lewis says the theory that Furry was at fault is "in line with my own findings." He claims to have "hard, concrete evidence" that Furry had spent the night drinking heavily at the casino and had become "unruly... She was out at the hotel for several hours, gambling and drinking throughout. Unfortunately, she had been asked to leave, but she got in her car despite the fact that security tried to call her a taxi."
Lewis does not elaborate on the source of his findings. As per county policy, Tatiana's blood was drawn at the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office, but those results have not been made public.
The lawyer attempts to win sympathy for his clients. "They're four young boys, two of whom have suffered serious injuries, one of which was life-threatening," Lewis laments. "These are kids who were out playing computer games and videogames before this accident occurred."
On the morning of Monday, April 6, an orderly in blue scrubs rolls a wheelchair-bound Kent Billie into the Broward County Courthouse just south of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Billie's crumpled outfit consists of a blue-striped, buttoned-down shirt tucked into pajama pants and puffy socks under rubber sandals. His left pants leg is rolled up to accommodate a heavy brace screwed into his gauzed shin. His hair sticks up wildly, and the goatee he sported in an old mug shot has been shaven. He's accompanied by two older female relatives wearing bright dresses. Even with tattoos peeking out from the edges of his clothing, the 145-pound, five-foot-five, 20-year-old looks like a sickly pediatric patient.
His attorney, Kathryn Meyers, steps in like a blocking linebacker to shield her client from questions. "Would you just allow him to speak to his lawyer?" she demands.
All four young men involved in the accident with Tatiana Furry have been charged with crimes while driving, none of them related to the January 21 incident.
Near 9 p.m. Saturday, November 8, 2008, just over two months before the fatal accident, Billie was driving 71 mph in a 50-mph zone on Route 27, according to a police report. Travis Osceola was in the passenger seat. When Pembroke Pines police officer Scott Kushi pulled over the gray, 2008 Ford SUV, he smelled marijuana, and Billie handed over a five-gram bag of "suspect cannabis," according to the report. Kushi also turned up "one gram of suspect cocaine" in Billie's right pants pocket. "Billie advised," continues the report, "that he had purchased the cannabis for $100 and the cocaine for $50." The cop also discovered an open bottle of Jack Daniels in the vehicle. And Osceola was arrested too, for "5 grams of suspect cannabis," Officer Kushi found on him.
According to a plea deal reached in April, Billie's charges will be dropped if he completes a two-year program including abstinence from alcohol and drugs. Osceola's pot-possession charge will be similarly forgiven.
Then there's Clifton Huggins, who in October 2007 was clocked by a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea zooming through a 40-mph zone at 70 in his silver 2006 Jeep SUV without a driver's license, according to police documents. He was then 16 years old. Less than a month later, his driving privileges were suspended for six months after he was pulled over in Hillsborough County on a charge of driving recklessly with a blood-alcohol content over the limit, according to court records. In May 2008, a judge revoked his license indefinitely after he failed to appear in Miami-Dade court for allegedly making an improper U-turn and "knowingly" driving without a license.
In June 2008, Jared Tiger, driving a black 2008 Ford Explorer, was pulled over by a Miami-Dade officer who claimed Tiger was driving 61 mph in a 45-mph zone as he traveled east on Tamiami Trail a few miles past the casino. The cop detected a "strong smell of marijuana" and saw a joint on the console, according to a police report. When ordered to step out of the SUV, Tiger "became aggressive... clos[ing] his first" and yelling " 'What? What you say?' " He was cuffed and charged with possession of cannabis and resisting an officer, but the charges were dropped after Tiger completed a pretrial intervention program in February of this year.
Efforts to contact the young men on their cell phones, via visits to their homes, or through online correspondence have proven fruitless. They live just outside Miccosukee Village in the rural town of Ochopee, where the tribe members' houses are often gaudy affairs, expansive and columned. High-priced toys like new SUVs and sports cars, airboats, and golf carts for inter-reservation travel litter the lawns. Shared casino revenue from the Miccosukee Resort has made the citizenry rich: The $75 million-plus it brings in annually is split among tribe members.
When a New Times reporter knocked on the front door of Jared Tiger's slate-gray home, the lanky goateed young man, who stands five-foot-five and weighs 130 pounds, answered. Tattoos on his neck bear his initials and the word Shotgun in delicate script. He winced against the sunlight. "Yeah, I don't want to discuss anything," he said.
Asked if he was injured in the accident, Tiger answered "No, not much" before he shut the door.
About 7 p.m. on the chilly, clear night of February 18, Thomas Cypress, Chairman Billy Cypress' 54-year-old brother, was driving west along Tamiami Trail when his silver 2000 Toyota Tundra slammed into a red Chevrolet coupe traveling the other way. The driver and passenger of the Chevy, Robert and Paulette Kirkpatrick, retired husband-and-wife schoolteachers from Maryland on their way home from an arts festival in Naples, were both dead before ambulances arrived. The accident was less than a month after Furry's, its location less than a mile west.
Cypress was in the wrong lane as he tried to pass another car, according to a police report. He had a case of Budweiser beside him, and his blood-alcohol content was .249, cops say, more than three times the legal limit. He had been convicted of three previous DUIs and was driving with a suspended license.
After the accident, Will Furry was uncharacteristically irate. "They're killing people; they're killing people," he declared incredulously. "In one month, they've killed three people!"
Law enforcement's handling of the Thomas Cypress accident, however, was markedly different from Tatiana Furry's. The Florida Highway Patrol was first on the scene and never relinquished control. "We've had discussions with the tribe," says FHP spokesman Lt. Pat Santangelo, "and the directive that we have... instructs us to handle any type of a traffic fatality that happens on that stretch of road."
Cypress was charged with two counts of DUI manslaughter by Miami-Dade prosecutors. On March 24, a judge rejected his request to be released to an alcohol-abuse center "sensitive" to Native Americans, and he remains in jail. His trial will begin in late June.
In Furry's case, the Miccosukees have not cooperated with state prosecutors, who as of early April had interviewed the tribal policemen involved but hadn't received requested reports. An investigation into "the circumstances of the Furry accident and death" is "ongoing," says Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith. "The SAO simply seeks to obtain the reports and evidence that every other police force in Dade supplies to the prosecutor's office... Since this was not a tribal incident occurring on tribal land, we do not believe that tribal sovereignty issues apply."
Will Furry knows little more now than he did a week after the accident. His lawyers have warned him that it may be years before the State's Attorney's Office reveals any findings.
He sat near his pool with his wife, Jamie, and a hyperactive Chihuahua puppy named Spartacus, a new entry to the family. The couple had recently returned from a weeklong vacation with family friends in San Francisco: "I had to take a break from all of this," says Will.
After acting as spokesman for the family, Will has started to relax a little. He can finally grieve for his sister. Today, he brings up her funeral at sea. The ashes were scattered from the Furrys' yacht off Key Biscayne, one of her favorite spots to dock. As they left port in Coconut Grove, "every boat around us started blasting their horns," recalls Will, his cheeks suddenly damp with tears at the simple memory. "She's going to be so missed on those docks."
Tatiana's parents have also retreated from Miami, heading in early April to Jamaica. Helene has started reading the Bible more often, and she tries to stay busy with household chores. "It doesn't make any difference, though," she says over the phone. "It goes with you everywhere you go. There's no closure. It's a mother's worst nightmare."
Helene prays for Kent Billie every night, "that he will get better and that he will find God," she says. She's unconcerned with who was at fault: "I want the truth. I hope for truth and justice, one way or another."
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