Catch Me a Catch

After a six-month investigation, Boca Raton police last week arrested matchmaker Helena Amram on charges of defrauding 54 clients who had paid as much as $50,000 to find the perfect mate.

The cops seized Amram's records this February and contacted some of the 650 or so people who had engaged her services. Tracy (not her real name), a 54-year-old businesswoman in Palm Beach County, gave Amram -- who was profiled in our May 23 issue -- $20,000 to find a husband early last year. She received a letter from investigators a few months ago asking whether she had any complaints. She never responded.

"I just didn't particularly want to be involved," she tells New Times with a giggle. "I want to be out of it." She's in a serious relationship with the first man Amram selected for her. "He did not meet my expectations at first, but he was persistent enough to pursue me. Although it wasn't in the way I expected, I guess I've gotten what I paid for."

Her impression of the most recent publicity: "If it was truly a scam, I think it's very sad that someone would prey on others' needs and emotions that way. What she was selling is such a very basic human desire -- to be loved and connected to another person. It would be pretty low." As for the 600 clients who didn't join the complaint, she says, "The balance may choose, like me, not to have their name connected with it. Maybe they don't want to get involved and have learned a lesson in life and are moving on."

Authorities celebrated last week when Jupiter homeowner Anthony Squadrito pleaded guilty to felony criminal mischief for cutting down a 300-foot alley of mangroves to get a view of the Loxahatchee River. Squadrito agreed to spend 18 months on probation and has paid $125,000 in fines.

But for investigators, the case illustrates the difficulties of nailing those who violate environmental laws. It was the first felony conviction stemming from a 17-year-old state law that requires a permit to cut down mangroves, those tangles of trees that keep Florida's coastline from ending up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. "Courts and lawyers don't always know the environmental laws and how far they can take them," says Willie Puz, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in West Palm Beach.

In fact, the guy who actually did the cutting behind Squadrito's place got off easier. Scott Pociluyko, a landscaper whom Squadrito hired to do his dirty work, pleaded only to misdemeanor charges last week. The court gave him one year of probation.

No one, including the Department of Environmental Protection, keeps track of how many mangrove cases have gone through the courts. DEP investigator Krista Christian says the agency prosecutes only a few a year; none before Squadrito's had ended in a felony conviction because the law requires evidence that the mangroves were cut maliciously. Proving malicious intent wasn't hard with Squadrito; he paid Pociluyko to slash the trees after the DEP denied him a permit to cut them legally.

The court gave Squadrito five years to return his waterfront view to its former tropical state.

Fort Lauderdale's Rave Task Force sure didn't have to look far to finger Lumonics, the light-and-sound extravaganza in north Fort Lauderdale. The in-and-out traffic and busy parking lot on weekends left little doubt about what made the raving warehouse such a fun, all-ages place to be.

Sometimes, Lumonics's founder, the white-haired, wrinkled Dorothy Tanner, would flit about like a nervous frat-house mom preventing patrons from spilling drinks and burning things with their cigarettes. Other times, the rampant drug use was more apparent: One attendee recalls seeing Tanner hovering over a teen on the floor, apparently talking him through a bad time.

Those troubles, however, seemed to be isolated incidents, and for a few golden months during late 2001 and early 2002, the good times rolled -- and so did the kids. But when the weekend parties swelled to as many as 400 kids, it had to end. On May 25, before the all-night party had peaked, cops and code enforcement officers shut down the place. They confiscated $8000 in drugs and arrested five people.

Tanner says one officer, "a very ugly man," stuck a fat finger in her face and questioned her naiveté. "You're telling me people come here just to look at the pretty lights?" he challenged.

"This place attracted dealers," she says with a sigh. "You chase 'em as much as you can. They can't deal inside, so they dealt outside. I was aware I was walking a fine line with it, but initially I didn't know any better. When we started this, we were not particularly focused on that age group, and we weren't sufficiently experienced with the whole dance scene.... We were looking to keep it as cool as possible -- I'm not stupid."

Maybe not, but Lumonics -- which has functioned as a work space and art gallery since 1988 -- is now out of business. "In many respects, the dance party was really great," Tanner says, "but I was starting to think it's sort of like baby-sitting."

New Times Broward-Palm Beach did pretty darn well in its weight class (the over-15,000 circulation division) in the Florida Press Association's 2001 Better Weekly Newspaper Contest. Art Director Michael Shavalier's work earned the paper first place in Overall Graphic Design. Staff writer Ashley Fantz won first place in the News Story category for her profile of former gubernatorial candidate Lois Frankel. Staff writer Bob Norman won first place in two categories: In-Depth News Reporting, for his story about telemarketing scam artist Mel Ruth; and September 11th News Coverage, for his series on the INS's many failures leading up to the terrorist attacks. Norman also took second place in the Sports Story and Investigative Reporting categories and third place in the Feature Story category. Editor Chuck Strouse took third place in the Humorous Column category.

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Eric Alan Barton
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