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.
801 SOUTH BAYSHORE DRIVE
Easing his ice-blue Mercedes to a stop in a no-parking zone on December 2, 1992, County Commissioner Joe Gersten strolled into the lobby of this luxury hotel. When he noticed that a parking attendant was attempting to move his car, which was blocking traffic, Gersten returned to the Mercedes, took a handgun from the back seat, and announced to the attendant: "If you touch my car, I'll shoot you."
DADE COUNTY MEDICAL EXAMINER'S OFFICE
ONE BOB HOPE ROAD
In this bunkerlike facility's sterile confines, twenty hairs were tweezed from the head, underarms, and pubic region of County Commissioner Joe Gersten on June 5, 1992. The samples were sent to the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C., as part of an investigation into whether Gersten had spent a drug-stoked evening in a Miami crack den. When tests failed to show any trace of cocaine, Gersten commented, "I'm happy the truth finally came out."
TURNER GUILFORD KNIGHT CORRECTIONAL CENTER
7000 NW 41ST STREET
County Commissioner Joe Gersten was confined here after Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean found him guilty of contempt on March 18, 1993, for refusing to answer prosecutors' questions regarding the theft of his Mercedes. When Judge Dean learned that Gersten was making outrageous demands of his jailers, such as insisting that his his cell be furnished with a private phone, a desk, and a lamp, she doubled his sentence. Declared a defiant Gersten: "I will die in this jail."
MOUNT SINAI MEDICAL CENTER
4300 ALTON ROAD
Unhappy in the confines of the cell where he'd been jailed for contempt, Joe Gersten refused to take his blood pressure medication and was brought here on March 24, 1993, to be treated by his personal physician, Dr. Itzhak Retter. Though Gersten also spent some of his jail time at Jackson Memorial Hospital, it was here that friends say he felt most at home -- ordering nurses around, demanding special treatment, and generally being a nuisance.
1017 HARDEE ROAD
Behind this iron gate lies the modest former home of County Commissioner Joe Gersten. Located in Coral Gables's historic French Village, the four-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath estate is where Gersten took refuge from the demands of public life -- before he became a fugitive and fled to Australia. It was from this very driveway that Gersten claimed his Mercedes was stolen, contradicting other sources, including the confessed thieves themselves, who said the car was swiped from outside a crack den.
1. Key West: In addition to placing a plaque at Gersten's Key West retreat, La Junglita, GRAFT is also hoping to institute Gersten Days next year, as a substitute for the recently nixed Hemingway Days fest. Events would include a Gersten look-alike contest, as well as seminars on how to be arrogant and obnoxious.
2. County Hall: The 29-story building at 111 NW First St. in downtown Miami was the seat of Gersten's power while he served on the commission. In recognition, the county has agreed to place plaques at various sites throughout the building, including Gersten's old office, the back of the chair in which he sat on the dais, and in the private bathroom where he is said to have done his best thinking.
3. Nice, France: After his alleged crackhouse romp, Gersten and fiancee Rosario Kennedy jetted off to the Cannes Film Festival for a vacation with liquor tycoon Jay Weiss and his wife Renee. This historic excursion has been commemorated with a series of plaques, including one in the $2000-a-night Negresco Hotel suite occupied by Gersten and his travelling companions.
4. Los Angeles International Airport: Thanks to a donation from American Airlines, a plaque is being posted at the ticket counter where Gersten once reduced a ticket agent to tears for failing to bump him to first class.
8. Sydney, Australia: Gersten's new home.
SEND FOR YOUR FREE FULL-COLOR GERSTENALIA CATALOGUE TODAY!
These and more collectors' items are available for you to treasure for years to come:
*T-shirt featuring a reproduction of the recently completed Gersten bust in a high-quality polyester/cotton blend. Sizes L, XL, XXL, XXXL
*Official Joe Gersten "The Fugitive Tour" satin jacket
*Official Joe Gersten beret. Just like the one Gersten wore on the French Riviera. Available in red, black, and indigo.
*Official Joe Gersten commemorative medallion
*Joe Gersten's memoirs. Genuine Naugahyde binding!
*Replica of the tweezers used to pluck Gersten's hair for the drug tests -- 100% surgical steel. Engraved with your initials at no extra charge.
*Limited-edition videotape of the airport press conference Gersten held upon his return from Nice, France, in June 1992
*Official GRAFT map to worldwide Gersten historic sites
SEND A STAMPED, SELF-ADDRESSED ENVELOPE TO:
Gersten Remembered: A Fitting Tribute
P.O. Box 011591