Sunday, October 05, 2008

Joan says farewell...sort of

The Herald's Joan Fleischman has filed her last Talk of Our Town column. After 30 years at the paper - the last 16 writing her popular column - she's calling it quits and is among the current group of Herald staffers taking a buyout from the paper.

Joan started out as a cop reporter at the Herald and covered some this town's biggest stories - and its biggest scandal - in the bad old 80's when the term "cocaine cowboys" was a part of everyday conversation in Miami.

Joan was all over the Miami River cops case from day one, discovering that just about all of the rank and file officers on the Miami Police Department's midnight shift were supplementing their salaries by working as freelance drug dealers.

By the time it was over, some 100 Miami cops had been implicated, fired or suspended and at least 16 of those went to jail.

However in July of 1985, when Joan started covering the River Cops story, the full impact and scope of the case had yet to be realized. One of Joan's first stories was relegated to the inside of the Local section. It wouldn't stay that way for long.

Miami Herald, The (FL) - July 31, 1985
Author: JOAN FLEISCHMAN Herald Staff Writer
Copyright © 1985 The Miami Herald
Edition: FINAL
Section: LOCAL
Page: 2B

Three men whose bodies were found floating in the Miami River died from drowning, but they may have been the victims of a cocaine rip-off, robbed by a gang of men masquerading as police, Metro-Dade detectives said Tuesday.

"We don't know exactly what caused them to drown, whether they fell into the water or they were pushed in or purposely jumped in," said Homicide Detective Alex Alvarez.

The three were identified as Pedro Martinez, 40, of 6800 SW 14th St.; Adolfo Lopez-Yanes, 37, of 5271 NW Second Ter.; and Juan A. Garcia, address unknown.

Garcia owned a restaurant, Lopez was a self-employed painter and Martinez was a handyman who did ceiling work, police said.

They were dressed in sports clothes when their bodies were fished out of the water Monday afternoon by employees of a salvage firm. Each of the victims had between $800 and $1,000 in large bills in their pockets, and still wore jewelry. Garcia and Martinez also carried pistols in their waistbands, police said. Only Garcia had an arrest record, but the charges were misdemeanors, police said.

Police said Garcia and Lopez did not know how to swim.

Alvarez, a member of a special squad that specializes in
drug-related killings, said investigators are trying to verify a tip that the three were involved in a $9 million cocaine deal and were ambushed by seven to 12 men, some in blue uniforms, who posed as police.

The victims allegedly met at Jones Boat Yard, 3399 NW South River Dr., at 2 a.m. Sunday to unload 300 kilograms of cocaine that was arriving by boat, the tipster told police.

"We received information that there were two other persons who survived," Alvarez said. "We have an idea who they are. We're trying to look for the survivors and attempt to get a firsthand account of what happened."

Cleve Jones, owner of the boat yard, said his security guard told him a group of men identifying themselves as police came to his business early Sunday morning.

"He let them in," Jones said. "The only reason he opened the door is because they hammered on it so hard, he was afraid they were going to break it. They told him it was a drug bust. They just pushed their way in and said, 'We're on a raid.' "

The guard told Jones that two of the men were wearing uniforms and caps; the rest -- at least three others -- were in street clothes.

"This was nothing unusual because we have in the past had police and plainclothesmen come here looking for boats going up and down the river that might be suspected of hauling drugs," Jones said.

The guard said the group asked for directions to a 40-foot boat docked at the yard since Saturday. The owner of the boat was there working with some other men, the guard said.

"They were supposedly unloading some tools from the boat into a van they had in the yard," Jones said.

The guard said the men he believed were police officers spent 15 minutes in the boat yard before ordering him to open the gate and roaring off in a brown van.

A few minutes later, two men, soaking wet, approached the guard. They asked him to open the gate so they could drive a car into the yard and finish unloading tools. The guard obliged, and the men left.

Jones said the guard did not suspect anything was wrong. People often work on their boats at odd hours, and as long as they are sober, quiet and law abiding, no one interferes, he said.

"Nobody knew anything was amiss until they found the bodies," said Jones' wife, Caroline. "The river is a strange place. It's full of lots of strange animals."
In 1992 Joan started writing "Talk of Our Town," a frothy mélange of gossip and other juicy items about the rich and powerful and just plain folks in Miami. The stories that Joan dug up didn't quite fit in any other part of the paper, but in Joan's "Talk of Our Town" they found a home.

The Herald's always had a column similar to "Talk of Our Town."

Other Herald writers who've penned a Talk-of-Our-Town-like column include Michael Putney, Jane Wooldridge and Fred Tasker. All of them put their own unique imprint on the column.

Putney, who's now with Channel 10, wrote the column in the early 80's before bolting for TV news.

He told me a few months ago: "Yes, I wrote for that space back in the Cenozoic era (or was it Paleozoic?) although I'd say it was quite different. My model was the legendary Herb Caen of the SF Chronicle, who was breezy but reportorial. Kind of what I do now, eh?"

And when Joan took over in 1992 she brought her own style to the column, which included meticulously verifying everything she wrote about.

I was once a big fan of her column. To this day I still consider it must reading.

But over the past few years I noticed a decline in the quality of items she printed and those complaints were noted here at Random Pixels. (Do we really need to document every lawsuit filed by every millionaire in Miami-Dade County?)

But you have to admire a woman who, in her last column, reveals her own age!

That was undoubtedly a zinger aimed at at those who have ended friendships with Joan because of her penchant for printing the ages of people she writes about. One of those she offended was a legendary former Herald reporter in this classic item from 2002:
The Miami Herald - August 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Miami Herald
Edition: Final
Section: Local
Page: 1B

Miami Beach handyman Luciano Carlos Luzi claims someone threatened to kill him - in a cat spat. He filed an assault report. The suspect? Novelist Edna Buchanan , a Pulitzer Prize-winning former police reporter for The Herald. She says Luzi is dangerous, stalking her and sending people's pets to their death.

The feline feud erupted on San Marino Island, where Luzi was fixing up a home. Luzi, 51, says he got ringworm from strays on the property. He says Animal Services told him to trap them, so he caught three and took them to the county-run facility. Turns out one - an untagged orange house cat named Oscar that got loose - belonged to San Marino resident Paula Munck. When Munck, 52, went to claim Oscar, she learned he'd been destroyed.

That, cops say, is what triggered the dispute. Luzi told police Buchanan "drove up to him, lowered the window and proceeded to verbally threaten him by saying, 'Next time you catch another cat, I'll shoot you dead,' followed by a hand gesture resembling a gun."

Buchanan, 64, swears she never threatened Luzi. "I know better."

She says Luzi knew the cats were not strays. "All of the neighbors told him these were family pets, to leave them alone. He stole a neighbor's cat. He stole it and had it killed. That's a crime - in anybody's book."

Officers Thamyris Cardelle, 43, and Christi Tanner, 36, described Buchanan as "hostile" and "winey" [sic]. Buchanan says the cops were out of control, retaliating for a previous run-in, questioning residents about her whereabouts and threatening her with arrest and jail.

"I had become America's Most Wanted," she says. "If they pursued Andrew Cunanan with this kind of zeal, Gianni Versace would be alive."

Buchanan , owner of four cats, two dogs and a rabbit, says it's a "pet-friendly neighborhood" where volunteers pay to spay, neuter, vaccinate and feed its "cat colony." Fellow islanders are furious with Luzi, she adds. Leonard Wolfson, 54, wrote Mayor David Dermer, 39, asking for protection from Luzi's "twisted form of terrorism." Dr. David Thornburgh, 74, asks Dermer to intervene in the "crisis."

Beach Police Chief Don De Lucca says Luzi was "within his right to have the cats removed" because they had no ID. De Lucca, 41, who says he's a cat lover, insists MBPD is "sensitive to animals" but was caught in the crossfire. "We can't win."
Joan dropped a little tidbit in this morning's final column when she revealed that she'll continue to contribute items for the Herald's people page. It would be a shame if she disappeared entirely from the Herald's pages.

One piece of advice Joan: Now that you have more time on your hands, why not start a blog that includes stuff you can't get in the paper? I have no doubt that a blog written by Joan Fleischman would quickly become one of the most popular and widely-read in South Florida. There are no deadlines here on the Internet - except the ones you set for yourself - and I think you'd like the fact that your stuff would be seen by thousands within seconds of writing it, rather than waiting for it to be printed in the paper....which is sooooo yesterday!

The South Florida blogosphere is a lively and interesting place. We'd love to have you!

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