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Since opening in mid-1987, the sedate Savannah Moon restaurant, located on the second floor of a strip mall across South Dixie Highway from The Falls and decorated in soft pastels and earth tones, offered patrons an elegant, if pricey, respite from the hubbub of South Florida living. Between bites of roast duckling with peach sauce, biscuits, and apple-bread pudding with bourbon sauce, visitors luxuriated in the richly appointed surroundings, imagining themselves in a genteel world of moonlit verandas, magnolia blossoms, and mint juleps. Savannah Moon became so popular by early 1990 that the trade journal Restaurants & Institutions named it one of Dade's four busiest restaurants.
But when a group of plainclothes U.S. marshals made the trip to the top of Savannah Moon's spiral staircase on the night before Halloween, they came not to praise the eatery's Southern hospitality but to bury it.
The federal officers who came to shut down the restaurant were intimately acquainted with its checkered past. For years, Savannah Moon's clientele had enjoyed an idealized view of the Old South that masked the restaurant's financial involvement with the unpleasant criminal reality of the New South. In June 1990, the government seized the restaurant, citing federal statutes and contending Savannah Moon was originally acquired with illegal drug proceeds and was in fact owned by drug dealers who were members of an international cartel. On the order of U.S. District Judge Maurice Paul of the Northern District Court of Florida in Tallahassee, the U.S. Marshals Service assumed the operations of the restaurant. The ownership was primarily a financial issue - the marshals had little experience preparing sophisticated Southern cuisine, and most of the cooking was left to private management firms. But the restaurant remained open, owned and managed by the federal government.
But the events of June 1990 weren't a clear matter of the feds commandeering an operation from a known felon. The owner at the time of the seizure, Miami businessman Robert Sloate, professed to have no knowledge of the eatery's connections to the drug world. He had purchased the restaurant in August 1987, mere months after it opened, paying between $200,000 and $250,000 for the kitchen, dining room, and prior debts. The previous owner, accountant Mark Kerness, is currently serving a five-year sentence in federal prison for his involvement in the cartel's Savannah Moon money-laundering operation.
The federal government was not required to link Sloate with any cartel members; the mere existence of drug-tainted assets was sufficient to justify the seizure. The feds suspected, however, that Sloate's purchase of Savannah Moon may have been only a "straw transfer" and that the actual ownership remained with one of the cartel's main drug dealers, Christine Dickinson, who fled the jurisdiction of the Northern District Court after she was indicted. According to an affidavit filed in federal court in June 1990, Dickinson's ex-boyfriend, William Krekeler, told DEA Special Agent Michael Moon that he had worked as a contractor during construction of the establishment. In the interest of collecting the money owed him, Krekeler "acquired the help of Robert Sloate and had him purchase the restaurant." Krekeler, who stayed on to manage Savannah Moon after Sloate bought it, also insisted to the DEA agent that despite his relationship with Christine Dickinson, he was unaware that she had any financial ties to the restaurant. (Both Krekeler and Sloate refused to be interviewed for this story.)
Through his lawyer, however, Sloate maintains his innocence and challenges the fairness of the confiscation. "There is no allegation or proof that he had or took any part in the laundering of the money, or that he knew or should have known the money used was laundered money," says attorney Louis Stinson. "The U.S. government doesn't know how to run a restaurant and shouldn't be running one. They shouldn't take it from an innocent person."
Sloate's innocence notwithstanding, Savannah Moon has waned since U.S. Marshals took it over. Jim Tassone, deputy chief of the U.S. Marshals Service in Miami, says the restaurant continued to draw crowds, but that high overhead proved an insurmountable liability. The marshals office had expected Savannah Moon to turn a profit by December, but operating funds dried up last month, and department bosses in Washington, D.C., decided to pull the plug.
And there won't likely be any leftovers for Robert Sloate. Judge Paul, who has presided over the major drug case that stemmed from the breakup of the drug cartel, ruled this past Friday to permit the sale of Savannah Moon to a buyer, William Mourey. Sloate stands to lose much of his initial investment; before they pay out any profits from the sale, the marshals service will deduct its operating losses, which attorney Louis Stinson says could exceed $400,000.
"Savannah Moon isn't worth what it was before it was seized," Stinson says. "They have run it into the ground. They will take all the proceeds and leave the innocent victim out in the cold.