Small-Town Suspicions

A combative civic activist dies mysteriously. Was it the fates or was it foul play?

Fred Thomas has a bad feeling about Dorothy Clark. He may never know what really happened a year ago when Clark died unexpectedly at the age of 69. No one has laid to rest Thomas's suspicions that foul play was involved in her demise. But this is the Village of El Portal, a tiny town always awash in big intrigue, petty politics, and vicious infighting. And since both Clark and Thomas have at times played major roles on El Portal's perilous political stage, it's easy to see how even Clark's death could acquire, in the minds of those so inclined, a sinister aura.

Clark's decades of volunteer work and (often abrasive) activism in her small community also prompt a question: Why was her April 5, 2001, passing never mentioned by the local news media that had dutifully recorded her frequently colorful reactions to the doings and undoings of El Portal's power elite? Suddenly the stout, graying retiree stopped showing up at the village council's monthly meetings. She no longer paid regular visits to the public-corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office. But no one seemed to notice.

No one, that is, except Fred Thomas, El Portal's police chief from the summer of 1996 until the village council voted to fire him in the spring of 1997. During his short tenure Thomas was frequently under attack by Clark, a well-known gadfly and perennially unsuccessful council candidate. But in the past few years, as sometimes happens in politics, Thomas and Clark had become allies. Both were determined to expose what they saw as corruption and malfeasance at the top levels of El Portal government. They and other activists were unrelenting in their allegations of official misconduct that ranged from complicated property-acquisition schemes to abuse of police power. The watchdogs managed a few victories, such as reprimands of council members for Sunshine Law violations in 1994 and 1997. But the only serious scandal that ever emerged during the Nineties was the waste of money caused by political infighting: El Portal paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by numerous fired employees (including Thomas) and victims of police misconduct. The excessive number of settlements was the main reason the Florida League of Cities canceled its insurance coverage of El Portal almost two years ago, according to a league spokesman.

Former El Portal police chief Fred Thomas suspects that activist Dorothy Clark (below) was persecuted to death
Top photo Steve Satterwhite
Former El Portal police chief Fred Thomas suspects that activist Dorothy Clark (below) was persecuted to death

But none of that brought any benefit or recognition to Dorothy Clark. Not only did she suffer rejection by the town's voters but toward the end of her life she had a number of run-ins with El Portal police, who arrested her three times. Fred Thomas, 62 years old, has no doubt the village's police and politicians had it in for Clark, a Korean War veteran who later worked for many years as an administrator at Jackson Memorial Hospital. "The whole thing really disturbs me," declares Thomas, pacing the black-carpeted floor of the small recording studio in Carol City where he has produced gospel records for more than a decade. "Dorothy Clark was the one always yelling about wrongdoing [by village officials]. I'm convinced, though I can't prove it, that they tried to get rid of her because she was on their case so greatly."

Even if Thomas no longer hopes to prove a plot against Clark, he wants his concerns to be on the record. Just so they'll be there. One day, he's convinced, the truth will be plain for all to see.

Dorothy Clark lived alone at the Little Farm Mobile Court on Biscayne Boulevard, one of the county's last remaining large mobile-home subdivisions. Her only known surviving relative, daughter Ginger Wyche, moved to New York several years ago and didn't return phone calls for this story. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties Clark was praised in letters to the editor of the Miami Herald and cited in "Neighbors" stories for her selfless volunteer work. "Mrs. Dorothy Clark is the founder, director, and guiding force behind the South Florida Food Recovery Program," reads a letter to the editor in July 1998. "She obtains food and other household items on a monthly basis and, with the help of volunteers, distributes them in El Portal and the surrounding communities.... Mrs. Dorothy Clark and all the volunteers are to be commended."

When Clark wasn't handing out food or other household necessities to her neighbors, she was keeping an eye on village council meetings or campaigning for a seat on the five-member body. Philippe Derose, former El Portal mayor, current council member, and onetime Clark antagonist, now speaks almost fondly of the woman against whom he once unsuccessfully sought a restraining order (he claimed Clark was pestering him to rehire Thomas as police chief). Recalls Derose: "She used to take a position to fight for people's rights in the trailer park, people who couldn't voice their own concerns."

Clark ran for the council five times, most recently in December 1998. She always lost. "It would play psychologically on her," Derose believes. "She felt like she'd been an activist in the village, always participating in things, and then to be rejected she would feel like the people don't appreciate her. I know it played on her because when she lost last time it was devastating to her. She put her hand on her heart like it hurt."

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