By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Thanks to a tireless effort on the part of an anonymous local civic organization, the legacy of Joe Gersten will not soon be forgotten, New Times has learned. A group calling itself Gersten Remembered: A Fitting Tribute (GRAFT) has commissioned a bust, as well as a series of plaques that will commemorate the defining moments in the political career of the former Metro commissioner who fled the United States in August 1993 rather than answer state prosecutors' questions about the theft of his ice-blue Mercedes-Benz sedan the year before.
More than a dozen of the plaques were mounted last week at various significant Gersten landmarks around the world, including several in Dade County. The installations will be officially unveiled later this week and are timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the April 29, 1992, incident in which Gersten allegedly paid a prostitute for oral sex and crack cocaine in a small cottage off Biscayne Boulevard, only to have his car stolen by a pair of small-time crooks.
"Isn't it beautiful?" gushed a spokesman for GRAFT, as workers busily affixed a memorial outside the bungalow.
While his group is composed of local luminaries who are determined to work behind the scenes, the spokesman said, members voted to offer New Times an exclusive guided preview of the Dade County sites. "You guys have a front-row seat for the action," he noted, referring to the fact that this paper recently moved into new offices less than three blocks from where the historic house is located. "That cabby who drove Joey home that night after they ripped off his car picked him up right in front of you guys' building!"
GRAFT undertook this project without consent from Gersten, who is said to be living in Australia. "I don't personally know the man -- of course, I feel like I do by now -- but some of our members do. I wouldn't be surprised if he's gotten wind of this by now," the spokesman said.
The question remains: Why Gersten?
"What do you mean, 'Why Gersten?'" the spokesman asked incredulously. "Would you ask a Texan why we must remember the Alamo? Joe Gersten is our Alamo: He's part of Dade County history, and we must never forget him. Never!"
A Florida native and Coral Gables resident, Joseph "Joey" Gersten was a political dynamo. He served in the state legislature from 1974 until 1986 and on the Dade County Commission from 1988 until 1993. Friends cite his voracious appetite for life and for fine food and say he was never shy about ordering two, or sometimes even three entrees for himself at restaurants. He was equally passionate about spy novels and history books and was known to keep a copy of The Art of War on his bedroom nightstand. A classical music buff, he frequented the opera and often sang along to the arias -- to the dismay of those around him, though none ever dared complain.
To further the spirit of public edification, GRAFT is preparing a catalogue of Gerstenalia, which will be available via mail order. (For more information, see GRAFT's ad on page 45 of this issue.) The merchandise, which includes items such as stamps, commemorative medals, and replicas of the tweezers the Dade medical examiner used to extract hairs from Gersten's body to test for drugs, will be sold at cost. "We're not looking to make a profit off this. It's all for education, for posterity," the GRAFT spokesman said. His group is exploring the possibility of setting up a small boutique at Metro-Dade Government Center. "We'd also like to install the bust there. It's beautiful -- a real work of art. And very expensive."
Gersten, of course, could not be reached for comment for this story. "I'm really not sure where he is at this exact moment," admitted the GRAFT spokesman, whose group tries to keep tabs on the former commissioner. "He got his driver's license suspended earlier this year in that breathalyzer scuffle. And we've heard a few whispers since then. Nothing solid, though -- just something vague about getting drunk in the stands at an Australian-rules football game and threatening to castrate one team's mascot, a kangaroo."
471 NE 31ST STREET
In this humble property's rear cottage, on the evening of April 29, 1992, Metro-Dade Commissioner Joe Gersten is said to have paid hooker Tracy Sheehan for crack cocaine and oral gratification, only to be robbed of his Mercedes by a pair of ne'er-do-wells, Kenneth Elswick and Claudia Lira. Recalled Sheehan of that fateful night: "He was stark naked except for his shirt and socks. I don't know why he kept his shirt on."
BISCAYNE BOULEVARD AND NE 29TH STREET
Acting "fidgety," "spaced-out," and "uneasy," a man matching Joe Gersten's description climbed into this Diamond Cab at about 9:45 p.m. on April 29, 1992 -- a mere three blocks from a crackhouse in which Gersten had allegedly dropped trou hours earlier. "Anytime I pick up a well-dressed man in that neighborhood, they are jumpy," cabby Robert Cabanas would later say. "They know they shouldn't be there." He dropped off his rotund fare on Hardee Road in Coral Gables -- the street where Gersten lives.