Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sept. 22, 1988: Just another day on the job

Sept. 22, 1988. It's a hot day in Miami and I'm at home doing not much of anything.

Suddenly, my pager goes off.

It's the Associated Press photo editor's number. Looks like I'm going to work today.

I call him. He says, "Get down to federal court and see Milt."

By "Milt," he means Milt Sosin, the legendary retired Miami News reporter who is the courthouse reporter for Associated Press.

Officially Milt's title is freelance reporter, or "stringer." Unofficially, he's the A.P.'s courthouse "fixer."

Judges who send convicted criminals to prison for decades without so much as batting an eye, smile when Milt walks into their chambers, unannounced.

Milt once convinced the U.S. Marshals to walk notorious drug dealer Benjamin Barry Kramer out an unused side door just so I could get some shots of him.

Anyway, the photo editor tells me that Milt has "arranged" for me to get some shots of a witness in a trial.

He says the trial isn't that big of a deal, but this witness was causing quite a commotion in the courtroom and had to be taken out. "On top of that, he's dressed in garish colors," says the photo editor.

Well, if that's the case I ask, why don't I just wait outside and get a shot when leaves? Sounds like he's easy to spot, I say.

"That's not possible," says the photo editor. "The witness is now in custody and behind bars."

"Just get down there and see Milt," the photo editor says for the fourth time.

I rush down to the courthouse and meet Milt inside. He takes me to a small room. He opens the door gingerly and we walk in.

That's when I get my first glimpse of the "witness."

He's definitely behind bars.

He takes one look at me and my cameras and starts squawking up a storm. I'm guessing that like most jailbirds, he's camera shy.

But it won't do him any good to complain. I'm going to get what I came here for.

Scroll down to see his photo and the story that ran in newspapers the next day.


September 23, 1988
Associated Press

Five people accused of illegally importing endangered parrots and other species worth about $250,000 from Cuba went on trial Thursday as six caged birds fluttered and made noises in the courtroom.

One huge scarlet macaw occasionally made a low sound that its caretaker said was agua, Spanish for water, while an Amazon parrot in a foyer outside the courtroom periodically made wolf whistles.

The colorful exhibits were part of the scene in and around the courtroom of Chief U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, presiding in the trial of four men and one woman charged with smuggling the exotic birds earlier this year aboard a boat found in the Florida Keys.

The birds also included 193 finches, 48 Amazon parrots and a mustached parakeet. The parrots can be bought cheaply abroad and sold for $1,500 to $3,000 each in the United States.

The defendants, Carlos Fernandez, 27, Jose Flores, 24, Felix Valdes, 39, Nancy Lopez, 50, and Rigoberto Cherta Garcia, 42, are Cuban nationals who live in Miami with legal alien status.

''The government will show that these birds are endangered species, that the defendants knew,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Gelber. ''These birds are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars -- a figure approaching a quarter of a million dollars.''

Defense attorney Ellis Rubin believes the government's case is really ''for the birds.''

Rubin told the jury of seven women and five men that the government would seek to prove ''solely by circumstantial evidence'' that the birds came from Cuba. The attorney said the defendants are breeders who were moving the birds from Miami to Marathon in the Florida Keys when they were arrested.

The U.S. Coast Guard received a distress signal from a boat in the Florida Straits on April 3, which led to the discovery of a boat at Matecumbe Key with the birds aboard.

U.S. Customs Service agents said correspondence on the ship, including a letter from a woman asking to buy ''a girdle, size medium, that I need very much to go out,'' showed the boat had been in Cuba. They also found Cuban coins, a bill from a hotel and souvenirs of Cuba.

Each defendant is charged with three felony counts, one of conspiracy to violate the Lacy Act and two counts each of violating the act. If convicted, they face a maximum five-year prison term and a $250,000 fine.

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