"I'm not going to prison," Rusty Feder said to me as he sat in the North Broward Detention Center behind a thick pane of jailhouse glass. "I'll die before that happens."
His lawyer was working on a plea, but Feder said he'd have none of it. His hatred of jail was almost tangible -- I could feel it through the glass. He was simmering with discontent, and only when he began speaking of himself in the past tense, as if he were already dead, did he seem to find any peace at all.
"I had a good life, a great 35 years," he said. "I wouldn't take any of it back. I love my son, and my time with him was phenomenal. I loved every minute of it."
Feder delivered his self-eulogy while awaiting trial on a slew of felony charges including armed kidnapping, extortion, and aggravated battery. My story for the New Times on the demise of the Sharks -- a Feder-led group of bouncers suspected by police of being an organized crime syndicate -- was placed on the news racks on February 4.
Eighteen days later, during the early morning hours of February 22, Feder used his bed sheet to hang himself in his jail cell, bringing a long and ugly war between Feder and Broward County authorities to an abrupt, grotesque halt.
I'd followed Feder off and on since last summer, when I was doing a story on Mob connections in Broward County. Feder's group was suspected of being Mafia enforcers, and a Shark named Kevin Trotter had been charged in a Mob-related beating at the Theater nightclub. Feder told me convincingly that Trotter hadn't done it. I called Robert Getchell, who'd also been charged in the beating, and he admitted he was involved in it, but laughed when I mentioned Trotter. Trotter wasn't there, Getchell said. Getchell claimed he didn't like Feder and didn't associate with the Sharks.
It was a typical Sharks criminal case -- it oozed with doubt. The cops' evidence was almost always flimsy, and one case after another ended with dismissals or acquittals. Police suspected Feder and his Sharks of all kinds of crimes. The group worked in the sometimes seedy world of Broward nightclubs and, with tales of vicious beatings by the Sharks floating around, the investigators seemed certain the group lived on the wrong side of the law. But no matter how hard various law enforcement agencies such as the Broward Sheriff's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried, they couldn't prove that the Circle of Sharks was a criminal organization.
Even as they were being hunted, the Sharks raised thousands of dollars for charities like Kids in Distress and the Special Olympics. Feder was always vocal about his desire to be a positive force in the community, to transform his motley group of muscled street fighters, most with prior criminal records, into a boon to the community. Feder was no ordinary suspected criminal kingpin. Most kingpins don't help unfortunate children, write screenplays, or persuasively and articulately defend themselves. Feder also wore his humanity on his sleeve.
"I came from a broken home," he once told me. "And so did just about everybody in this group. These are people from terrible backgrounds, and we came together to try to turn our lives around by helping other children from broken homes, and we have, and I'm proud of it."
The Sharks, however, certainly had some rough edges, and Feder was the first to say that they were no angels. They thrived on being physically intimidating, riding Harley-Davidsons, and wearing black vests that showed off the standardized "Attack in a Pack" tattoos on their big, ripped biceps. They also seemed to know a lot about crimes. It was the Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit task force that first began investigating the Sharks, after detectives suspected Feder of withholding crucial details about a 1995 triple homicide. Feder told me that he did, in fact, know some of the details of the killings and kept them from police.
"I'm no rat," he said. "So now they're going to get me, in particular, because I'm the so-called ringleader. My life is a mess. They've made me the biggest fish in the ocean."
Last year, a group of local, state, and federal agencies called the Multi-Agency Gang Task Force set its sights on Feder and made its initial attack last October. The best case the task force could find was more than three years old and founded on the testimony of two felons (one a former Shark) who were trying to stay out of jail. The alleged victims claimed that Feder and a handful of other Sharks kidnapped them after a cocaine deal gone bad, then robbed and beat them. Feder was charged in the case in October and, because armed kidnapping is a capital crime and a judge determined that the charges had merit, he was ordered held in jail without chance of bail until trial, which could have been months, even years, away.