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The internal affairs bureau of the Miami Police Department is no comedy club. It is a cramped office decorated with faded travel posters, harsh fluorescent lights, and ancient metal desks. Amid piles of paperwork somber detectives slog their way through the hundreds of citizen complaints filed every year. These are deadly serious investigations of possible police brutality, theft, corruption, and other crimes. Most allegations are hard to prove. Some complaints are groundless misunderstandings while others are crude attempts to smear an honest officer. The workload is punishing, yet the detectives are not without a sense of humor. If you want to make them laugh, you can: Just mention the name David Van Buren.
Van Buren filed an internal affairs (IA) complaint in 1996, alleging that two Miami police officers arrested him without cause, beat him up, and then stole two Florida Panthers hockey tickets from him, most likely for their personal use or resale. As part of his complaint Van Buren submitted a videotape of interviews with friends who witnessed the arrest. "Check out how this guy appears to be reading from a script," instructs the commander of internal affairs, Maj. Paul Shepard, as the first eyewitness stumbles through his account. When the parade progresses to other shaky testimonials, Shepard leans back in a chair and allows a smile to stretch across his face.
"Can you hear his voice in the background?" he asks with a snicker. "He has all these guys refer to him in the third person even though he's the one operating the camera."
Not surprisingly, Van Buren's complaint went nowhere. IA detectives identified him as a ticket broker with three arrests for a minor strain of scalping known as "vending without a license." They noted in their report his refusal to hand over key evidence to support his claims. There were no visible injuries from the alleged beating. And with barely suppressed guffaws they determined that the two $65 Panthers tickets Van Buren says were stolen from him were actually four cheap Florida Marlins tickets he was probably trying to pawn off on unsuspecting hockey fans.
The officers, Thomas Laura and Jeffrey Locke, were cleared of misconduct. Locke has since been promoted to sergeant. The internal affairs bureau was headed at the time by Maj. William O'Brien, who has also climbed in rank -- to chief of police. Speaking from a conference room in his office, O'Brien initially remembers the case only vaguely. "From what I recall," he says with a quiet chuckle, "what we had there was a scam artist trying to, well, pull a scam. I don't know if [Van Buren] was getting screwed himself or if he was about to screw someone else."
The laughter infuriates David Van Buren, a 38-year-old resident of Coconut Grove probably best known, if known at all, as the Alligator Guy. Five years ago Van Buren's eight-foot-long alligator Gwendolyn escaped from a pen in his garden. Trappers found the domesticated pet in a neighbor's back yard and turned him (Gwendolyn is actually a he) over to Florida wildlife officials. As punishment state prosecutors sought to lock Van Buren in a pen of his own for 60 days. Gwendolyn, it was announced, would be executed.
Van Buren beat the rap. A judge dismissed charges after learning that none of Van Buren's neighbors were worried about the gator, who is so housebroken he sometimes sleeps in Van Buren's bed. Gwendolyn received clemency. Under a welcome banner and accompanied by champagne toasts from dozens of supporters, the alligator returned to a new outdoor pool ringed by an eight-foot-high concrete fence. A steady sardine diet has helped him grow another two feet.
In Gwendolyn's honor, Van Buren named his business Alligator Sports. For a fee he packages hotel rooms with tickets to major concerts and sporting events nationwide. Last month Van Buren hit Boston to work baseball's all-star game. Already he's taking orders for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Even though some people refer to him as a ticket scalper, he's not ashamed of his profession, and points out that the simple resale of tickets is not a crime.
What about the three arrests for vending without a license? As did Gwendolyn, Van Buren beat the rap every time. He's never been convicted of anything.
Is his success in the courtroom clouding his judgment? Maybe. This past June Van Buren filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Miami, charging that the confiscation of his hockey tickets violated his privacy rights as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Other allegations contained in the lawsuit include common-law battery and false imprisonment. In response a bemused assistant city attorney has asked that six of the seven charges be dismissed and that the remaining minor charge be clarified.
"He doesn't like to turn and walk away," says Shawn Van Buren, explaining why her husband continues to offer up his reputation for further battering. "If he's wronged in any way he will stand up for himself. He will not just roll over and let these guys do whatever they want."
Van Buren concurs: "When I feel something is right, I don't back off. And I know I'm not wrong about this. I know I am right. I am absolutely positive."