For two years now, Tailpipe has been hearing rumors about an alleged miscarriage of justice in the arrest of Lionel Tate for the armed robbery of a pizza delivery man in 2005. Tailpipe has heard the rumors and, until now, dismissed them. You remember Tate, that walking train wreck of a youth who made headlines around the world in 1999 when he was 12, killing a 6-year-old girl while demonstrating some wrestling moves on her. That led to his dubious distinction as the youngest person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence.

He evaded hard time with an appeal (in a subsequent plea deal, he got a year's house arrest followed by ten years' probation), but the teenager couldn't seem to stay out of trouble. In September 2004, police took him into custody after finding him away from home at 2 a.m. carrying an eight-inch knife. The result: another five years of probation. Nine months later, Tate was busted for the pizza stickup.

According to Tate's arrest report, Walter Gallardo was delivering pizzas to unit 208 at 3871 SW 52nd Ave. in Pembroke Park on May 23, 2005. There was no answer at the second-floor apartment, and Gallardo turned around to leave down the flight of stairs when he heard someone yell "Hey!" He walked back up and saw unit 208's door ajar. He walked in. Behind the door, Gallardo told BSO detectives, was a black man with a black handkerchief or bandanna covering his mouth and pointing an "old handgun" at the pizza deliverer. Gallardo fled, screaming for help. Later that evening, while sitting in the back seat of a squad car, Gallardo identified Tate.

A bum rap? Yeah, yeah. The perpetrator had a partially covered face, so how could the victim be so sure it was Tate? And a black handkerchief allegedly used in the crime showed traces of DNA from the prime witness against Tate. But the kid has seemed so determined to turn his life into a lethal smashup that it's hard to believe anything good about him. If convicted of the armed robbery and armed burglary charges, the now-20-year-old inmate, who's being held at the Everglades Correctional Institute, could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Private investigator Joe Carrillo is a tall, energetic, 51-year-old, Miami-based private eye whose sleuthing skills helped the Miami Police Department nab rapist Reynaldo Rapalo in 2004. Carrillo and former FBI agent Bob Whiting have been on Tate's side since his last arrest. Carrillo and Whiting say the Broward Sheriff's Office and Assistant State Attorney Charles Morton conducted an overzealous, sloppy investigation.

"They wanted the headlines," Whiting says, "because when Lionel Tate robs the pizza man, it becomes an international story. The prosecutor and the detectives working this case did not conduct themselves professionally. They took the easy way out."

Maybe so, but what about the evidence? Didn't Tate admit to calling Domino's Pizza to place the order Gallardo was delivering? And didn't the cops retrieve a text message that Tate sent to an associate to ask about robbing someone that same day? ("U still want to bust that lick after school?" Tate allegedly messaged Willie Corouthers, meaning: Did the other youth want to participate in a robbery?)

But Carrillo and Whiting say there's strong evidence now to implicate Corouthers, who lived next door to the building where the holdup took place. Corouthers' account of the robbery (he was standing at the bottom of the stairs, he says, as Gallardo fled) doesn't jibe with the victim's account, they say. And Corouthers' DNA showed up on the handkerchief, they claim. They've also turned up two new defense witnesses: a 12-year-old boy, who initially fingered Tate but then alleged that it was Corouthers who committed the robbery, and a man who says he saw Corouthers in possession of a pair of maroon shorts on the night of the robbery. The shorts were eventually identified as having been worn by the perpetrator.

When Carrillo and Whiting informed Morton, the prosecutor, of the new evidence, he did nothing, Whiting says. "He doesn't want to hear anything that would exonerate Lionel and put the onus on Willie," he says.

In Tailpipe's view, the new evidence doesn't exactly give Tate the slam dunk he needs. Law enforcement officials have responded with icy skepticism. For the record, Morton couldn't be reached for comment, but Broward Sheriff's spokesman Eliott Cohen briskly dismissed the two private eyes' charges. "I'd expect nothing less from two people who are working for the person they are trying to exonerate," Cohen said. "The court record is extensive and pretty clear" that Tate mugged the pizza man.

But the DNA evidence has been thought-provoking enough for Tate's current lawyer, Jim Lewis, to get a postponement of Tate's trial, which had been set for this past April. Judge Joel Lazarus agreed to push back the hearing until September. Maybe then the troubled young man will get past the lurid headlines and receive the fair trial he deserves.

Ferrets for All

Donna Michaels has given this presentation — let's call it "So you want to own a ferret?" — hundreds of times. She could do it in her sleep, the way flight attendants give the preflight safety speech. But it only seems like Michaels is going through the motions. In fact, she's watching her audience very carefully.

A would-be adoptive family is seated around Michaels' living room, in the ranch house she owns in Coconut Creek. Michaels talks about what to feed a ferret, how to "ferret-proof" one's house, and she patiently answers questions that might offend a more sensitive ferret owner. No, you don't have to worry about the ferret eating your baby. A ferret is not a dingo.

At the same time, Michaels is collecting visual clues as to this family's fitness for ferret ownership. In past instances where she's seen prospective owners yawning, fiddling, or staring at her with blank expressions, she's concluded the presentation by announcing to the adoptive parents that they ought to come back when they're serious about being responsible owners.

"I will never be so desperate where I give away a ferret to someone who doesn't deserve one," Michaels says. "You're a ferret person or you're not." On this day last week, she had exactly 45 ferrets living in her two-car garage, which is the brick and mortar composing Broward Ferret Rescue and Referral (http://www.browardferretrescue.org/).

Hers is the only ferret orphanage in South Florida. Ferrets aren't just cute little kitty substitutes. They're high-maintenance pets, prone to mischief and exotic illnesses. Often, they're let loose in residential neighborhoods or abandoned in vacated apartments.

As she guides a North Fort Lauderdale family of four to her ferret-filled garage, Michaels discovers a cage that hadn't been there when she left for work this morning.

"This is what happens," Michaels says with mock exasperation. "I come home and there are ferrets."

Two albino ferrets are inside, with a note attached to the cage. "The person who dropped them off said they were 'found,' " the note says.

Typical. Another ferret owner in over his head. Now, the abandoned pets are Michaels' problem. The note was probably written by the Humane Society of Broward County, which does not keep ferrets, she says. If it weren't for Michaels' refuge, the animals would be euthanized.

She plucks one of the new arrivals out of the cage by the scruff of his neck. He wriggles as she lifts his lip with her thumb. "This guy's a little older," she says, "because he has very yellow teeth and very bad plaque." Studying the gum decay, Michaels pronounces this ferret "about 3 years old."

They'll be hard to place in a home. Most adopting families prefer their ferrets less than a year old. (The pets' average lifespan is seven or eight years.)

A teenaged girl is cradling a brown ferret that claws at her arms and shoulder. "I like this one," she says. "It's just a little hyper. Do you have any calm ones?"

No, ferrets don't do calm. But Michaels introduces the girl to Otto. "He's such a love. He's such a sweetheart — and he's funny."

Then there's the indomitable Nora, the plucky survivor of a broken home. "Nora is very young, very healthy; but when she came to us, she was skin and bones. She was naked because she hadn't been fed right." Michaels scoops Nora out of her pen and lets her climb on her neck and shoulder. "But now look: She has a luxurious new coat."

The family leaves without a ferret but with a promise to return in a few days to take a pair. Michaels is pleased. This family, she has decided, can be trusted with ferrets.


Message to Mayor Naugle: A quarter of a million dollars? That's a manure-load to pay for a toilet stall that foils gay mashers. Tailpipe, always happy to use his ingenuity for civic-minded causes, offers instead: The Affordable DIY Men's Room Gay-Buster (with apologies to the late Rube Goldberg). Here's how it works:

Sounds of guys kissing start playful puppy (A) running on treadmill, which turns fan (B), propelling sailboat (C), whose needle nose pops balloon (D), dropping weight onto the switch of a hot plate (E) and frightening chicken (F), who lays an egg (G). Burning egg triggers fire sprinklers (H), dousing Naugle's own hand-knitted thong (I), whose increased weight activates pulleys and propels mallet (J). That'll teach 'em.

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Edmund Newton