A Key Battle

The Conch Coalition and Taras Lyssenko claimed environmentalists were out to destroy the culture and economy of the Keys. Voters listened.

*Images captured on videotape: Sanctuary officials leave a public hearing at the Buccaneer Resort Hotel in Marathon. A gauntlet of rowdies armed with conch-shell cudgels boos them loudly. Someone hurls a coconut at County Commissioner Alison Fahrer, Monroe's first "green" politician and a staunch sanctuary supporter. The coconut misses, but not by much. Meanwhile, anti-sanctuary activists string up a pair of dummies representing NOAA's two principal managers.

*An exchange: In the Marathon Visitors Center, in the heart of opposition country, a traveler asks for directions to the marine sanctuary office. The response, offered with a straight face: "You're not going to blow 'em up, are you?"

"There has been more of a level of this sort of thing than in any public debate I've ever seen," says J. Allison DeFoor, a former Monroe County sheriff and state attorney. "From the beginning the Conch Coalition was stirring things up. Even when I was prosecuting drug smugglers down here, we had an understanding with the dopers that violence was unacceptable. This is a place without a history of political violence, so any level of it represents something new."

The sanctuary's resident superintendent acknowledges having increased security precautions in the Keys during the current imbroglio: "There were times when things were said, particularly after the Oklahoma City bombing, and we were required to be more cautious," says Causey. "People started becoming more and more aware that the Conch Coalition had further linkages. Following the Oklahoma bombing, it would have been remiss of any federal manager to allow people to come into the sanctuary office and say things like 'This could blow up in your face,' or 'This thing is a powder keg.' I simply told our staff that they needed to be more alert, be aware of whether they were being followed, that sort of thing."

Back-country fishing guide Mike Collins, who serves as chairman of the sanctuary's citizens advisory council, weighs in: "This has been an extremely divisive issue. It's done a tremendous amount of damage to this community, and the damage has been based on a massive amount of disinformation. The disenfranchised -- trailer park dwellers, commercial fishermen on the edge -- people like that are being used as cannon fodder."

Like other sanctuary proponents, Collins stops short of naming Lyssenko or individual Conch Coalition members as guilty of political thuggery. Evidence is lacking, and some of the most talked-about incidents lose their drama on closer inspection. For example:

*Did Karl Lessard fall prey to political saboteurs? The recipient of several telephone death threats and the hunting knife note, Lessard says someone burgled and damaged 4000 of his lobster traps in 1995 while he served on the sanctuary advisory council. But because the culprit wasn't caught, it's not entirely clear whether the motive was political. Ditto with an incident involving John Ogden, an oceanographer who walked out of an advisory council meeting one night to find all four of his car tires flattened.

*Did Conch Coalition president Danny Yeider threaten the life of a U.S. congressman? Yeider rose to address Rep. Peter Deutsch at a public meeting in 1995. Misquoting a Civil War-era speech, he pointed out that there are three boxes that good citizens use to effect political change. "I'm using one right now, the soap box," a witness recalls Yeider saying. "We will also use the ballot box, and I hope we never get to the point where we use a box of bullets." The congressman became alarmed. But after the FBI questioned Yeider, he went his way sans handcuffs. Today even foes of the Conch Coalition feel that Deutsch perceived a threat where none existed, and that Yeider's comments were well within First Amendment boundaries.

*Did Taras Lyssenko promise to squash a fellow treasure hunter when he tried to rent a building to sanctuary officials? No, the sheriff's department concluded, after reviewing a tape from Joe Kimbell's telephone answering machine. At the time, Kimbell was representing a group of Keys treasure salvagers in negotiations with the sanctuary. Lyssenko saw Kimbell's real estate transaction as an act of betrayal. "Every treasure hunter was pissed off to the hilt," Lyssenko notes. "But they're Southern gentlemen. They might say, 'Joe, that was totally unacceptable.' What I said on the tape was 'Joe! You're a fucking asshole!' I have a tendency to be vulgar at times." (Lyssenko also mentioned on the tape that Kimbell's roadside treasure museum was so ugly it ought to be bulldozed.) The incident didn't quite end there, however. In a bizarre twist, another audio cassette turned up. Those who have heard it say the second tape is a recording of Kimbell speaking on the phone with sanctuary superintendent Causey, playing the original tape of Lyssenko and complaining that his life was in peril. The second tape was mailed to the Conch Coalition anonymously, leaving unanswered the question of who recorded it in the first place in apparent violation of state and federal wiretapping laws.

*Did Dave Holtz, chairman of Monroe County's Democratic Party and director of the Center for Marine Conservation, offer to smash Lyssenko's face? Or vice versa? The two men had been on cordial terms up until a public meeting a few weeks ago. "Everyone sat around and gave their views," Holtz recalls. "After it was over, I was walking out of the room with a friend of mine and Taras suggested I come outside and we settle this mano a mano. When we got outside, I told him to get out of my face. One of the sheriff's deputies came and broke it up."

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