Life Sentences

Forget Hiaasen, Balmaseda, and Steinback -- the Herald's weird, wacky "Police Report" is the prose by the pros

Not only is Miami a sanctuary for con artists, mobsters, and hit men, it is a well-documented haven for such ne'er-do-wells. For years nonfiction chroniclers like John Rothchild and T.D. Allman, along with innumerable novelists, have vividly detailed the hazards of life on the edge of the Everglades. Miami, as author Edna Buchanan tells us, is murder.

But it is also carjacking, criminal mischief, and extortion. And in a community where people turn up -- with phenomenal frequency -- dismembered in corrugated cardboard boxes, these less-glamorous iniquities often escape the attention of the writers, not to mention the TV news crews.

Thank heaven for the Miami Herald.
More specifically, thank heaven for "Police Report," the liveliest regular feature of Florida's foremost daily newspaper, as the Herald likes to call itself. With its single-paragraph parables of crime, served up unleavened and with deliberate understatement, "Police Report" provides a gauge of our community's sociological health. Grittier than any flamingo-and-palm-tree-embossed novel, these bite-size morsels portray day-to-day life in Miami -- the sexual obsessions, the drugs, the awkward assimilation of cultures ...

A man was robbed at knifepoint as he spoke on a public phone at the Amoco gas station in Coral Gables. The victim, 43, said the robber approached him from behind and demanded his property. The victim could not understand exactly what he said because he only speaks Spanish, and the robber only spoke English. Instead, the victim dropped a $5 plastic gas tank with $3 of gasoline and ran through the parking lot, away from the robber, who picked up the property and left the area.

They also provide the novelists a lesson in good writing. Herald reporters scour paperwork at police stations across Dade County, then mold the just-the-facts data into compellingly simple paragraphs suitable for publication. (Victims' names, for instance, are always excised.) Active words energize descriptive first sentences. Setting, conflict, climax, and denouement typically unfold in 30 words or less. All in a format wonderfully free of context or conclusions. What happened: A man stole his friend's car while the friend was suffering an epileptic seizure. Why it happened: Good luck guessing.

The only downside is that the reports appear in the twice-weekly Neighbors section, a seven-headed serpent that chooses its news with a pronounced bias toward the region in which the section is distributed. In other words, the exploits of Homestead's "cigarette bandit" aren't likely to waft up to Surfside, and transgressions related to Miami Beach's famed parking problem seldom get towed into Sweetwater.

More's the pity.
In an effort to unite our disparate communities, New Times undertook the heroic task of reading, for eight months in a row, the "Police Report" columns from all seven Neighbors editions. From this pile of papers we have culled the following one-paragraph portraits of Miami (only lightly edited by us for continuity). Aside from its cumulative literary revelation, the exercise confirmed the conventional wisdom: For assault, robbery, and all-around mayhem that (quietly) pushes lawlessness into groundbreaking new territory, there really is no place like home.

Candid Criminals
A woman spending the night in a Surfside hotel woke up one morning to find a burglar at the foot of her bed sorting through her purse. When she asked what he was doing, he said, "Nothin'. Nothin'." Nothing was taken.

A man smashed the passenger's side window and entered a 1985 Mercedes 300D parked at an office building in Coral Gables, stealing a $350 radio. A witness said he saw the thief "tugging on something" inside the car and asked him, "Hey, what are you doing?" The thief responded: "What does it look like?" The man got into a 1982 Camaro and sped off.

A police officer witnessed two vandals spray-painting graffiti outside the Baymar Ocean Resort in Miami Beach. It was shortly before 4:00 a.m. when the vandals spotted the patrol car heading their way, and the man tried to hide the spray can. The couple then got into a car parked nearby and the man put a can of black spray paint into the back seat as the patrol car pulled up behind them. When the couple got out of the car at the officer's request, the man said, "I don't want trouble, man. We painted that wall." Alexander Valdez, 21 of Hialeah, and Barbara Reyes, 22, of Miami were charged with criminal mischief.

It's Just That Easy
A robber pointed a gun at a man who was walking along NW 79th Street and said, "Give me your money." The victim turned over his wallet, which contained $20 and identification.

A man who had asked to use the restroom at American Honda Finance Corporation in Miami instead went inside the key room and took the keys to a 1994 dark green Acura Legend valued at $25,000 and drove off.

A man entered a 7-Eleven store in North Miami Beach. He went to the counter and pulled the $500 cash register off the counter and walked out. The thief took $30.

Ineffective Security Measures
A man left his Jack Russell terrier to watch over his Huffy bicycle while he went into Miami Shores Jazzercise. When he came out, the dog and the bike were gone.

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