It was still dark when Patrick Neptune arrived at Fort Lauderdale Beach, just before 5 a.m. on Friday, February 22. Neptune, who had come from his home in Plantation, steered his black minivan onto A1A, parked along the sidewalk, and got out. He peered at the night sky, where the sun would soon trace the horizon. Then, he hoped, he'd have his money shot.
For Neptune, a freelance photographer, these vigils could turn into calendar shots. He'd sold a few; he hoped to shoot and sell some more. Dressed in shorts, tennis shoes, and a short-sleeved shirt, he leaned against his van, minding his own business.
A half-mile south of where Neptune waited, Sebastian Street meets the beach. The area around that intersection, Sebastian Beach, is a popular hangout for gay men. That bugs Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle. The mayor made national headlines last summer when he praised a plan to install a high-tech, $250,000 public toilet there because he thought it would prevent gay men from having sex in the bathroom.
Neptune says he'd heard about that controversy, but it was far from his mind that morning as he waited for the sunrise. For one thing, he's straight. And it's not like he was at the epicenter of cruising culture: His was the only car parked on that whole stretch of A1A.
A few minutes after Neptune parked, a black sports car pulled into the spot right behind him. That was strange. Every other parking spot was free. What did this guy want? And why did he have his brights on?
Neptune couldn't see the driver. He was getting tense. Suddenly, the sports car pulled out, made a U-turn, and disappeared.
Neptune relaxed. He watched the horizon.
And then the sports car came back. Its driver pulled into the same spot, behind Neptune's minivan. This was definitely getting weird.
Again, the sports car pulled out and took off.
Hell with the sunrise — Neptune got in his van and headed for home. He'd traveled a block, maybe two, when he saw the black sports car again, stopped at the light near the fire station at Sunrise Boulevard. Near the light at Federal Highway, Neptune pulled even with the sports car and peered at the driver: a white guy in his late 20s or early 30s, Neptune guessed, with a beard, wearing a bandana: shady, he thought.
When the light changed, the driver of the black sports car got behind him. "He's switching lanes when I'm switching lanes."
Neptune was being followed.
He had no idea what this was about, he said. He figured the best thing was to just pull over somewhere public, a place with security cameras. He pulled into the BP station at Northeast 7th Avenue and parked by the attendant's booth. The black sports car pulled in, too. Neptune says he was reaching for his cell phone to call police when the bearded dude jumped out of the car and pointed a pistol at him. The bearded man was the police. It said so on his black T-shirt. He told Neptune to put his hands up. Neptune did. But this was all so strange that Neptune couldn't help but wonder whether this guy was impersonating a cop. Neptune asked to see the man's police ID, he said, and the man refused.
A moment later, two marked Fort Lauderdale Police cars arrived at the BP station. A uniformed officer opened Neptune's driver's-side door, he said, grabbed him roughly by the arm and led him to a spot on the pavement, where the officer told him to sit. As that officer held him at gunpoint, he said, others searched his van.
"I told them 'This is an illegal stop,'" Neptune said. "One of the officers said, 'Oh, we all heard you give your permission.'"
Neptune said he had not consented to the search. He accused the cops of violating his civil rights, to which he said they responded, "What civil rights?"
Neptune, who is black, said he initially thought he was the victim of some kind of racial profiling. But then, when the cops finished searching his van (there was nothing to find, he says), the bearded, undercover officer gave him back his driver's license and asked him if he'd been out "cruising for cock."
A moment later, Neptune says, he listened as the undercover cop told a uniformed cop that he was working a sting to bust gay men who solicited for sex.
Neptune had been shaken up. Now he grew angry. Later that same day he went to police headquarters to file a complaint. Since Neptune wasn't arrested, the officers didn't have to file a report, said Fort Lauderdale Police spokesman Sgt. Frank Sousa.
There's a police call log that may have reflected the nature of police suspicions about Neptune, but Sousa declined to let New Times examine it. There is an Internal Affairs file about Neptune's complaint, Sousa said, but it's an open case, so the file is classified.
Despite Mayor Naugle's provocative public statements about gays, he has not initiated any police program that targets gays in beach areas, said spokesman Matt Little. At New Times' request, Little contacted police, he said, and was told that the department had not launched such a program, either.
Neptune is skeptical. "The police aren't doing it on their own," he said recently.
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Naugle has said he became exercised about gays at the beach after reading of a report in the gay travel guide Damron that said Sebastian Beach was a good place to cruise for gay sex. That's why he supported the high-tech bathroom that was supposed to be impervious to coupling, he said, not because of any arrests for public indecency. But what Naugle and Damron share, along with the non-existent sting that netted Neptune, seems to be a big local blind spot.
There may always be a contingent that prefers sex in illicit places, just as some married politicians will go to high-priced whores. But Broward County actually has a superabundance of legal, private places such as dance clubs and bathhouses, in Fort Lauderdale and Wilton Manors, where the high concentration of gay men can pursue casual sex if they're so inclined.
That's why there aren't a lot of arrests for cruising in Broward, says Anthony Niedwiecki, a gay activist and Naugle critic who is running for mayor of Oakland Park. Gays in Broward, he said, "live in a city that's a welcoming, open environment."
At least, it is in many ways for gays. But photographers who follow the sunrise apparently are pushing their luck.