Bad people come in all shapes, sizes, and sexes. They can be seemingly pious grandmothers. They can be smug, vindictive lawyers. They can be irresponsible rich jerks, gold-digging hookers, or corrupt cops on the beat. In any given strata of society, a few people are always willing — in some cases, desperate — to hurt others, all for money or power or sex or even sheer complacency. With all of its scandals, scams, sleazebags, and world-class debauchery, South Florida has more bad guys per capita than anywhere else in the country.
So it takes quite the villainous résumé to make the our annual Dirty Dozen list. We're talkin' the kind of bad that makes you sigh and shake your head and wonder about the fate of humanity. This year, we have plenty of your standard nightmare material: an accused child molester and rapist, a would-be femme fatale, and an expensive sports car covered in blood. Plus, where would we be without a healthy dose of politicians on the take? (Certainly not in South Florida.) And in this period of extended economic woe, we chronicle sordid tales of epic greed that made Ponzi scheme a household term.
For your convenience, we've rated the bad guys from one to ten on our special Dirt Meter, distinguishing mere malefactor from pure monster.
The most intriguing dirtbag of this year has definitely been Scott Rothstein, the fast-talking, flashy, high-powered attorney who is alleged to have funded his massive political contributions (more than $2 million), his employees' high salaries, and his ostentatious lifestyle with a colossal billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. At his peak, Rothstein mingled with athletes, celebrities, and the most powerful Republicans in the country (including President George W. Bush). His vast empire included restaurants, a law firm stacked with high-profile attorneys, his name on huge ads at Dolphin Stadium, enormous contributions to local Jewish charities, private jets, a yacht, and a fleet of exotic cars worth millions of dollars.
Even before the empire crumbled, though, Rothstein was a grade-A schmuck. He claimed to have "43 voices" in his head, and many of them bullied anyone he perceived as an enemy. Rothstein surrounded himself with corrupt political friends, at least one mistress, a team of armed bodyguards who were quick to violence, and a web of lies nobody will ever completely unravel. He worked hard to cultivate the image of a hard-charging man of the world who was not to be fooled with.
But in October, everything fell apart. Rothstein's coffers were empty, and the FBI was closing in. Rothstein sent an email to attorneys in his firm asking them which countries won't extradite criminal suspects to the United States and, upon receiving answers, subsequently wired $16 million and hopped a private jet to Morocco. He sent a self-indulgent mass text message that suggested he might be considering suicide. After Stuart Rosenfeldt, his law firm partner, urged him not to kill himself, Rothstein returned to the United States and surrendered to FBI agents. Like a hurricane of deception and licentiousness, Rothstein left an entire region of politicians, lawyers, judges, wealthy legal clients, and bilked investors with a lot of questions and a lot of empty bank accounts. Also, his eyes are too close together.
Dirt Meter: 10 (Hands-down dirtbag of the year.)
As far as slimy, horrible, nightmare-teacher stories go, Heath Miller's is among the worst. The 34-year-old middle-school band director in Palm Beach Gardens didn't just have sex with a student. He allegedly had sex with several, maybe dozens over a period of years. More than ten female students have told police that Miller had unprotected sex with them or touched them inappropriately. Many of the girls say they were hesitant to come forward because the charismatic teacher was so beloved at Watkins Middle School. Just two years ago, Miller was voted most popular teacher. Parents say he was very effective in the classroom, though it seems his best skills were as a predator.
In April, Miller's dark side was exposed after he removed one girl from her remedial reading glass and allegedly raped her. A few days later, as the student sat crying in a guidance counselor's office, Miller barged in and insisted the counselor leave the room. The counselor refused. After an investigation was launched, several female teachers at the school informed police that they too had sex with Miller. There were rumors of more than one teacher-filled ménage à trois. Some relationships involved sex in the band uniform room. Some were consensual. But at least one teacher says she was raped. Several students also say Miller has pressured them not to cooperate with police.
In a twist that still seems mysterious, Miller had first made headlines in February, two months before the sexual allegations emerged. He shot and killed a masked man who'd broken into his house one morning.
So to recap Mr. Miller's year: He allegedly molested children, raped both kids and adults, abused his position of power, tried to intimidate witnesses, turned a middle school into the set of a Skinemax movie, and killed a man.
Dirt Meter: 9 (One hell of a teacher of the year.)
Hollywood ophthalmologist Alan Mendelsohn was known for two things: expensive pinstripe suits and his work as one of the best political fundraisers in the state. His network of wealthy, conservative donors inspired loads of politicians from both sides of the aisle — including the former Senate president, Ken Pruitt, and Gov. Crist — to line up at his door for contributions. A master orchestrator of backroom, back-scratching deals, Mendelsohn had connections — and access to — the biggest power brokers in Tallahassee. He became one of the most powerful lobbyists in Florida (though he never registered as such), eventually building an influence-peddling operation that moved millions of dollars and involved more than 60 politicians. But this ophthalmologist couldn't see his way out of a federal investigation.
The FBI busted Mendelsohn in September, and he was charged with 32 counts that included mail and wire fraud and lying to federal agents. The indictment also alludes to a nasty network of money movers, a list of crooked politicians, special goodies and cash the good doctor skimmed from the whole operation, and — oh yeah — a well-funded paramour. Over one four-year span, prosecutors say, the married Mendelsohn sent more than $87,000 to one elected official alone. He used more than $600,000 from his complex fraud scheme to pay for, among other things, his children's tuition and his personal credit cards. Mendelsohn also used money from his sham corporation to buy a car for his mistress. And a house. And he paid to have the house painted. For good measure, he sent her an extra $60,000 per month.
Alas, the trappings of power would not last. The upside for Mendelsohn, who is awaiting trial, is that the state will soon be paying for his wardrobe. The downside is that he'll mostly be wearing bright orange jumpsuits for a while.
Dirt Meter: 7 (Not a bad deal if you're the mistress.)
Josephus Eggelletion, Beverly Gallagher, and Fitzroy Salesman
So many dirty politicians have been swept up this year that we've resorted to grouping three of them together. The federal investigation dubbed "Operation Flatscreen" was one of the biggest corruption scandals in Broward County history, with School Board member Beverly Gallagher, Broward County Commissioner Josephus "Joe" Eggelletion, and former Miramar City Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman all arrested on the same September day and charged with a mix of fraud, extortion, bribery, and money laundering.
At one point, Gallagher allegedly took home a restaurant doggy bag full of cash from an undercover agent to whom she promised to steer a $71 million construction contract. Salesman is accused of soliciting thousands of dollars in bribes from undercover FBI agents posing as businessmen looking for no-bid contracts. (Salesman had already been suspended from the commission in 2005 after a drunk driving arrest and again in 2007 after he whipped out a .45-caliber pistol in the check-out line at Winn-Dixie). Feds learned that Eggelletion, who has pleaded guilty, liked his bribe money slipped into his golf bag in the middle of the course. He also helped launder nearly $1 million through the Bahamas to an account in St. Croix and personally profited tens of thousands of dollars.
Dirt Meter: 8 (South Florida corruption in its grandest form.)
Simply put, Michael Bienes was Bernie Madoff's go-to guy in Florida. He was one of the key cogs in the largest financial crime in this country's history. For years, Bienes, a 72-year-old former accountant, drew more South Floridians into Madoff's Ponzi scheme from hell than anyone else. At the height of the scam, Bienes lived like a modern-day Gatsby, throwing lavish parties at his $7 million estate on the Intracoastal Waterway, traveling the globe, and setting himself up as one of this region's most benevolent philanthropists.
Bienes and his wife have their names on plaques across South Florida. The couple donated $1 million to the Broward County Library, where the downtown campus has the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book. Bienes gave $4 million to Holy Cross Hospital, which now features the Michael and Dianne Bienes Comprehensive Cancer Center. They poured $2.5 million into St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which then opened the Bienes Center for the Arts. The local archdiocese issued Bienes the Star of St. Gregory, making him a knight in the Catholic Church. When reporters later asked him if he ever thought his easily-amassed riches were too good to be true, he said, "God wanted us to have this. God gave us this."
But his wealth was built on a lie. A scam. A financial house of cards assembled by Madoff and stacked high with the naive friends and clients of Michael Bienes. Over two decades, Bienes brought at least $454 million of his investors' money to Madoff in what eventually proved to be a $50 billion rip-off. The only solace his victims might have is the fact that Bienes lost upward of $14 million of his own. These days, he's reportedly broke and possibly suicidal, passing the days in his empty opulent house — a symbol of the economic despair he helped propagate.
Dirt Meter: 5 (Hurt a lot of people, but did do a lot of good too.)
In the natural order of things, sports teams' fight songs are supposed to be a little hokey — somewhat awkward relics from an era gone by. Likewise, grizzled beachside troubadours are supposed to remain in their habitat, singing about drinking in paradise and screwing strangers (with no mention of venereal disease).
But since he took over the franchise from H. Wayne Huizenga, new Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross has made several peculiar, unnatural moves. He brought in Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, and Venus and Serena Williams as minority owners. He sold the naming rights to the stadium to LandShark beer — ignoring the fact that sharks like to eat marlins and dolphins. Worst of all, though, he had Jimmy Buffett — whose Margaritaville corporation owns LandShark — write a new team song, to be played before the game, after every Dolphins touchdown, and whenever victories are sealed. Buffett reworked "Fins" — one of his old tunes that has nothing to do with football — and included odd lyrics like: "We gotta shut off our cell phones/And get our arms up in the air/We are entering the 'FinZone' " and "In the warm South Florida sun/The tailgate's down so gather 'round/For some pre-game LandShark fun.
In addition to being a cringe-worthy anthem that might actually get the home crowd to root against the Dolphins, the song is also a sad testament to just how corporate-minded the King Parrothead has truly become. Sure, he's capitalized in the past — remember the books? The high-end brand of booze? The dreadful chain of restaurants (operated by Outback Steakhouse)? This new song trumps them all, because it is so weak and blatant — and dumb. Plus, he had the nerve to call the old song "awful."
Who doesn't love the classic Jimmy Buffett hits? What tightass couldn't smile with a beer in one hand and sing along as the jukebox blares, "Some people say that there's a woman to blame..."? But now Buffett has reduced himself to a not-so-thinly veiled shill for soulless corporate America. If Buffett could manufacture himself in China, he probably would. Dear Mr. Buffett — Why don't we get drunk and... stop writing terrible songs?!
Dirt Meter: 6 (Under his T-shirt and shorts is a hidden suit and tie.)
When Boynton Beach police officers brought Dalia Dippolito to a crime scene and informed her that her husband of six months had been murdered, she burst immediately into a crying, shrieking, convulsing ball of grief. Dalia had a secret, though: Her tears were phony. She'd actually contracted a hit man to murder her new husband, 42-year-old Michael Dippolito.
The police had a few secrets too, though: The man Dalia believed was a hit man was actually a police informant, the entire crime scene had been staged and caught on video, and her husband was still alive.
After her arrest, details of Mrs. Dippolito's murderous plot became clearer. Police released transcripts and tapes of conversations in which Dalia negotiated a payment plan, explained the alarm system in the house, and said she was "5,000 percent sure I want this done." The dark-eyed brunet with toned olive skin and surgically enhanced breasts was a real-life, would-be femme fatale.
Soon it became clear that Michael, her husband, was no saint either. He has served two years in prison for organized fraud and grand theft, is rumored to have ties to organized crime, and skipped out on a paternity suit for nearly 12 years. As a matter of fact, Michael first met his lovebird Dalia when he was already married; Dalia had been an escort he invited over when his wife was out of town. Soon after divorcing, he married Dalia and transferred a $250,000 house to her name. Even after the wedding, however, Dalia continued seeing a number of other men.
For her alleged crimes, Dalia will go to trial sometime next year in what will surely prove to be an entertaining circus. Justice aside, Dalia guaranteed herself a spot on this list the second that footage of those horrendous crocodile tears hit the airwaves.
Dirt Meter: 8 (This story has no sympathetic characters at all.)
Derek Cook and Ryan Levin
At 2:45 a.m. February 13, two British businessmen, Craig Elford, 39, and Kenneth Watkinson, 48, were walking along A1A just south of Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. Seemingly out of nowhere, a white Porsche 911 Turbo came speeding right at them, killing both men before continuing down the road without stopping. The randomness and cruelty of the crime shocked South Florida. As the disturbing facts of the case trickled out, they brought only more questions.
Police records indicate that Ryan Levin (a 34-year-old heir to a costume jewelry empire in Chicago) and Derek Cook (a 37-year-old from Tamarac with several felony arrests) both drove Levin's Porsche that night.
Levin claims that he and Cook partied at the Solid Gold strip club and then at Blue Martini — where he says they switched cars. Eventually they headed south, toward Levin's oceanfront condo. Because there's simply no better way to end a nice night out with friends than endangering the public, somewhere along A1A the two men got into a drag race. As they passed Las Olas heading south, the Porsche struck and killed the two Britons. Both cars sped off.
Not long afterward, an officer saw the two men — driving each other's cars — and stopped Levin in Cook's BMW. Police later found the Porsche, with smeared blood and a smashed windshield, abandoned near Interstate 595. But it's unclear whether Levin is telling the truth or whether he switched cars after the accident. Levin was recently released from jail in Chicago, where he did time for a police chase that also involved cocaine. Police have been tight-lipped about the investigation and whether they've spoken to Cook, but no arrest has been made in the case.
Dirt Meter: 7 (Spoiled, decadent behavior turns lethal.)
Mayor Stacy Ritter and Her Father
Stacy Ritter, mayor of Broward County, has had her share of problems.
But to her father, Ed Portner, a former Tamarac commissioner, Ritter's most egregious crime was not supporting him in his bid to become the city's mayor. In the November election, Ritter endorsed Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco, her father's opponent. The 84-year-old Portner said her move destroyed the family.
On October 6, he showed up at Ritter's front door. When she answered it, he lifted his shirt and showed her the pistol he had in his waistband. He forced her into the house with the gun pointed at her head. Father and daughter had a brief physical altercation. Eventually Ritter told her father she needed a bottle of water and escaped through the garage. She ran three blocks to the house of Mike Moskowitz, a lobbyist and lawyer. Her father was arrested that night at his home in Tamarac.
Dirt Meter: 5 (Hard to tell who is the more disturbed human being.)
The "Mickey Mouse" Hollywood Cops
Few things threaten a peaceful society more than corrupt cops. When officers of the law turn on the men and women they've sworn to protect, people lose the security that enables freedom, commerce, and the ability to sleep at night knowing nobody will pluck you off the street and frame you the next day. A civil society cannot live in fear of its own police force. That's what makes the deeds of certain Hollywood cops so appalling.
In February, Officer Joel Francisco rear-ended a car driven by a 23-year-old woman who had been drinking. The lead officer who responded to the crash scene, Dewey Pressley, offered to lie on the police report and frame the confused woman. "I don't want to make things up ever, because it's wrong," Pressley told another officer — as evidenced by video from one of the cruisers' dashboard cameras. "But if I need to bend it a little bit to protect a cop, I'm gonna."
Officers were caught joking about how inebriated the woman was and how they were going to "hang her out to dry." They knew nobody would believe her story over theirs. They arrested her and charged her with DUI. Pressley laughed as he filled out the falsified report — which blamed the accident on a cat. He was caught on tape calling his fictional account "a little Walt Disney." The DUI charge was eventually dropped. The officers remain on paid leave.
Dirt Meter: 7 (Shudder to think what might have happened had the conversation not been caught on tape.)
For 18 years, Mary McCarty was a Palm Beach County commissioner, an influential and well-respected Republican. As it turns out, as far back as 2000, the now-54-year-old McCarty was receiving all sorts of under-the-table gifts from companies doing business with the county. She also personally profited to the tune of $300,000 from bond deals she supported that happened to benefit the company run by her husband, Kevin.
Among other treats, the McCartys received $10,000 worth of free hotel stays from at least one company that later received contracts with the county — thanks in part to Mary's votes. The couple enjoyed free stays at the beautiful Sunset Key Guest Cottages in Key West and several other hotels owned by Ocean Properties; later, that company landed a deal to develop a convention center hotel in West Palm Beach.
At her sentencing, through a stream of tears, McCarty told the court: "I never thought of myself as a criminal, but I am one." For her violation of the public trust, she got three and a half years in prison (less than the other county commissioners convicted of the same crimes a year before) and was forced to pay a $100,000 fine. She is another example of the so-called "Honest Services" fraudsters — disgraced local politicians — who have been filling up prisons these past few years. It wasn't so many years ago that Palm Beach County was a dense swamp full of slithering predators. Things change slowly.
Dirt Meter: 6 (Would be higher if there weren't so many others just like her.)
Hockey player Keith Ballard might be the only person on this list you could maybe, possibly feel sorry for. It was November 30, in the Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta. The score was tied 1-1 with about 11 minutes left in the first period when Ilya Kovalchuk of the Thrashers slipped the puck past Florida Panther goalie Tomas Vokoun for the go-ahead goal. That's when the Panther defenseman did something extraordinary. Extraordinarily stupid.
As he skated near the scored-upon goal, in a display of frustration, Ballard tried to break the head of his stick off on the top of the goal. Ballard whipped his stick toward the top right corner. But he missed. Instead, he accidentally slashed his own goalie in the head. Vokoun was down, blood gushing from the side of his head.
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The game came to a halt. Trainers rushed on to the ice to tend to Vokoun. They secured him to a stretcher, tried to curb the bleeding, and put him in an ambulance. The entire incident was reminiscent of Richard Zednick's near-fatal throat slash a few years ago. With all the commotion on the ice, Ballard, in some sort of shock, skated casually to the bench and stared blankly into space.
Vokoun turned out to be fine, and Ballard was not suspended and apologized to his teammate. Had he sliced up an opponent and not his own goalie, Ballard would probably have missed most of the season and possibly faced jail time. Even classified as a stupid mistake, the incident will go down as one of the most bizarre hockey moments of all time.
Dirt Meter: 3 (Everyone makes stupid, sometimes bloody, mistakes.)