Wingin' It

Downtown Lake Worth is doing fine. East of Federal Highway near the beach, life is splendid. But walk down South N Street and things get a lot grittier. There's Adrianne, the neighborhood prostitute. And those gangbangers over there are getting ready to offer you crack cocaine.

Don't walk close to the railroad tracks. You may get mugged, particularly if you're an illegal immigrant (and if you're walking in Lake Worth, you probably are). In the predominantly Haitian neighborhood, in the southwestern corner of the city, it doesn't matter who you are. You're in danger, bro.

Over the past five years, Lake Worth has seen an alarming increase in incidents of gang violence, drug dealing, and prostitution. Lifetime residents, once laid-back Old Florida folks, have come to fear for their lives, as do the newest residents, freshly arrived from Mexico, Guatemala, or Haiti. When gunshots pierce the hot summer nights, people hit the floor. Sometimes, as a precaution, they just sleep right there.

It's bad for the people. It's bad for the city. It's bad for business.

That's why, three months ago, Tom Ramiccio, Lake Worth's former mayor and current president of its Chamber of Commerce, made a few phone calls. He talked to the mayor, Jeff Clemens. He talked to the police chief, William Smith. The three of them agreed it was time to take action, and they made a Gotham City-like decision. No, not the Bat Signal. They made a conference call to the Guardian Angels.

The Angels — a Bronx-born citizen patrol group known for their spiffy red berets — agreed in April to resurrect their Lake Worth unit, which has been shut down since the late '80s. The announcement has been met mostly with enthusiasm from police, residents, and city commissioners.

But would the Guardian Angels be able to swoop in like comic-book heroes and save the city? Would they have any effect at all?

On a recent, sweltering Sunday afternoon at the Havana Hideout in Lake Worth, Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa is hard to miss. He's the imposing man with the deep-set eyes and the unmistakable look of the fearless do-gooder. He's the guy giving an interview to an attractive female television news reporter. He's the head hero, no question about it.

"It's such an honor to meet you," says an unkempt man with a starstruck expression.

Sliwa is at ease in the spotlight, not complaining about the sauna-like conditions, though sweat has beaded in his hair just below his signature red beret. It's a militaristic cap, composed of red wool atop a black silk liner, with a drawstring threaded through black vinyl trim and two eyelets at the back.

The beret is identical to those worn by the 20 men from all around Florida who have flocked in to show solidarity at this fundraiser for the revived Lake Worth unit of the volunteer group.

The difference is in how Sliwa wears it. Some of the Angels' berets don't fit quite right, bulging awkwardly at either side or appearing too tight or loose on the forehead. Sliwa's is flawless. It slopes gently from the left and looks secure without being restricting.

Since Sliwa founded the Angels, he and this beret have seldom been spotted apart. It all started in 1979, when he was a night manager at a McDonald's restaurant in the Bronx. Sliwa had tired of subway derelicts and thieves and the lawless atmosphere in pre-Giuliani New York. He started a band of citizen crime fighters, the Magnificent 13, to thwart crime on the subway by intimidation and citizen's arrests.

The group, armed with only handcuffs and flashlights, got little attention until Sliwa made some clever, eye-catching changes. The red berets gave them a hint of military discipline. He renamed the group the Guardian Angels. He also began training his recruits at the McDonald's. Years later, he revealed that the training involved more than just crime-fighting techniques. Sliwa was also teaching how to use the media as a resource.

At first, it was sheer manipulation. In 1979 and 1980, Sliwa's "angels" invented at least six incidents, catapulting themselves into the public eye.

They rescued a purse containing $300 and belonging to "Miss Kelly," a church-going elderly woman. They fought off six would-be rapists, and Sliwa tackled one resembling a "6-foot-6 gorilla." They thwarted an assault on a subway platform and became victims of hate vandalism when racist graffiti appeared on the walls of their headquarters. All dutifully reported by journalists, all fabricated by Sliwa.

For the capstone finale, Sliwa said he was kidnapped in 1980 by four Transit Authority police officers and threatened for four hours.

Never happened, he admitted 12 years later. This was right after he was kidnapped and shot five times — really — before jumping out of the window of a stolen taxi. Sliwa says the culprits were hired by John Gotti Jr. (whose father Sliwa had insulted on his radio show). Gotti Jr. was tried three times, each trial ending in a deadlocked jury; then the charges were dropped.

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell