The County Bully

Seven years ago, while working at a daily newspaper in Spokane, Washington, I met Damon Chapple. He stood only five feet nine inches tall but he weighed 200 pounds -- all of it muscle. Chapple was a fighting machine, as perfect a creature of destruction as either Heaven or Hell could produce. He had just been released from prison after serving a sentence for various violent offenses and had stopped off in Spokane, he said, to visit relatives on his way to Atlantic City, where he supposedly had a job waiting for him: sparring partner for heavyweight contender Michael Spinks.

But Chapple never made it to the Jersey shore. He and I crossed paths after he'd been arrested for strangling a 70-year-old woman, raping a second woman at knifepoint, and robbing and beating to death a local drug dealer. According to a witness, Chapple killed the drug dealer by squeezing him in a bear hug until he fell unconscious from lack of oxygen, then dropping him to the ground and kicking and stomping his head until it resembled an overripe eggplant.

I wrote several stories about Chapple, and interviewed him in jail. He wasn't thrilled with my coverage and promised that someday he would track me down and kill me. With time off for good behavior, his earliest possible release from prison would come sometime in the year 2072. He would be 112 years old. I would be a spry 110.

Chapple came to mind recently because he was the last person to physically threaten me owing to something I had written. The last person, that is, until Dade County Manager Armando Vidal vowed to beat the crap out of me if I ever again mentioned his wife in this newspaper.

The manager made this promise last week, during a recess in a county commission meeting. Vidal took advantage of a break in the commission's agenda to stroll over to the nearby press booth and schmooze with Miami Herald reporter Joseph Tanfani. When Vidal saw me sitting there as well, he uttered a couple of snide remarks. He seemed to be joking. I ignored them.

Turning his attention to Tanfani, Vidal launched into a critique of the reporter's recent county government stories, a practice he apparently engages in from time to time in an attempt to browbeat reporters into seeing things his way. I then told the manager about a story I had just finished, which was going to be published the following day. It concerned problems in the county's corrections department and the fact that the blame for the trouble ultimately rested not with department director Donald Manning, who many view as incompetent, but with Vidal, who had promoted Manning for political reasons.

Vidal was condescending in his response. He would expect that kind of story from me, he said. Then he added that he really didn't care what I wrote as long as I never mentioned his family again.

He was referring to a cover story I had written nearly two years ago, after he had been appointed county manager in a racially and ethnically charged selection process. As part of the story, titled "Dade Divided," I had leveled some criticism at the Herald's coverage and noted that neither the Herald nor El Nuevo Herald, in their respective profiles of Vidal, mentioned that his wife Maria worked for both newspapers, running a branch of their accounting departments. I contended it was appropriate for the papers to disclose that fact. Following publication of my story, I never mentioned the matter again.

Evidently Vidal had been upset by what I'd written, and he hadn't gotten over it in two years. When he brought it up last week, I told him I thought he was crazy to let it bother him still.

"If you ever mention my wife again, I'll kick your ass," he responded coldly.

I couldn't help but laugh.
"I'm serious," he said, glowering at me. Apparently he was annoyed at my cackling.

As I tried to protest that he was overreacting, he said he didn't want to discuss it any further, changed the subject, and then left.

Now, I know for a fact that I'm not universally loved in this town, and that there are a number of people who would like nothing better than to pummel me into fine German schnitzel. But I was amazed at Vidal's conduct. You simply don't expect the Metro-Dade county manager, the man responsible for 28,000 employees and a four-billion-dollar budget, to make such an ass of himself. After all, could Armando Vidal be so dimwitted as to think he could threaten a reporter -- especially one from New Times -- and not later see it in print?

What made the incident all the more remarkable was Vidal's timing. He didn't know it then, but I had already interviewed several people for a story about his management style.

Vidal is very popular among most commissioners. He is considered bright and articulate, and under his leadership the county has been able to trim its budget and slightly decrease property taxes while not severely affecting services. Criticism of the county manager often centers on his attitude and demeanor. Former county commission chairman Art Teele often found fault with Vidal for behaving more like a politician than an administrator. Indeed, quite a few people wonder if Vidal doesn't view himself as the fourteenth commissioner on the dais. Before he even set foot in the press booth last week, he had been described to me by a number of county employees as a strutting, arrogant bully who elicits obedience not through loyalty but by intimidation. They said he is vindictive and that he holds grudges against people he believes have slighted him, no matter how innocuous the infraction. He does not take criticism well, they contended, and can become irate over the most niggling of issues. "He's very abusive when things don't go his way," one employee confided.

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