Small-Town Suspicions

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

The changing demographics of El Portal, which lies west of Biscayne Boulevard just south of Miami Shores, probably had a lot to do with Clark's lack of electoral success. Like most of the older, tree-shaded residential communities northeast of downtown Miami, El Portal was originally all-white, non-Hispanic -- like old-timer Dorothy Clark. But by the Nineties about 55 percent of the town's population of almost 4000 was either African American or Haitian. El Portal, in fact, was the first municipality in the United States to elect a Haitian majority to its city council. Still in a small town like El Portal, where even bitter political enemies must interact and do business with each other, allegiances depend less on ethnicity than expediency, and they can be switched on a moment's notice. (For example Thomas, who is African American, was fired mainly because of his conflicts with El Portal Mayor Daisy Black, also African American; currently two of Thomas's strongest allies are Haitian ex-council members.)

Clark used to be one of Thomas's worst enemies and accused him and his half-dozen full- and part-time officers of harassing her. In early 1997, when the village council was debating whether to fire Thomas, the Miami Times (South Florida's leading black-oriented newspaper, which heavily covered El Portal during the Nineties and which sometimes portrayed Clark as anti-black) wrote, "Dorothy Clark, who once boasted to the Times that she has so much political power she could destroy anyone, stated, “We have the worst [police] chief we have ever had,' and strongly suggested that [Thomas] be replaced."

Even though Thomas was replaced, Clark's relations with the police didn't improve. By the time she died, Clark had a rap sheet that made her look like one violent old lady. She was arrested three times in 1998 and 1999 for assault, including felony aggravated assault. All charges stemmed from confrontations with neighborhood youngsters, whom Clark complained constantly tormented her with acts of vandalism and mischief. The felony charge and other misdemeanor charges were dropped; she was prosecuted in 1998 on two battery charges but acquitted.

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

Clark and Thomas, a former veteran Hialeah police officer, shared at least one belief: The police were used by El Portal politicians to intimidate annoying or critical residents. At the time of her death Clark was awaiting the outcome of internal-affairs investigations of the El Portal officers involved in her arrests, and had asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look into the incidents. Clark had also requested help from the American Civil Liberties Union in bringing a lawsuit against the police department for false arrest and civil-rights violations. None of these complaints led to any action.

Throughout the Nineties and into 2000 Clark trudged time after time into the public-corruption unit of the State Attorney's Office with allegations against El Portal public officials. "She was a legend," remembers public-corruption chief Joe Centorino. "There was a time when her name was on the tip of everyone's tongue over here. She'd come over and be absolutely certain somebody was so corrupt, but she rarely had enough information for us to go anywhere with it."

Fred Thomas believes politics is the only reason Centorino and other law-enforcement officials haven't acted on his or Clark's allegations. Several years ago, in fact, this prompted Thomas to report Centorino to the Florida Bar Association (which then reprimanded Thomas for filing a frivolous complaint). And he figures El Portal politicians wanted to hush up the circumstances surrounding Dorothy Clark's death. She died at North Shore Medical Center about five hours after collapsing at her trailer in the presence of El Portal Police Ofcr. David Adlet. When Thomas heard that, he was immediately suspicious. Clark and Adlet were not on friendly terms, according to both Thomas and current police Chief Eugene Morales, though it would be difficult to find any police officer Clark actually got along with.

Adlet, according to police reports, had stopped by Clark's trailer around 5:00 in the afternoon on Thursday, April 5, a few hours after Clark had been involved in a fender-bender a few blocks from her home. There was never any indication she had been injured in the accident. Adlet, who responded to the scene, reported he "sent [Clark] home to get her paperwork" and later showed up at her front door. A routine summary prepared by the Miami-Dade Police Department states, "The victim was sitting at the dining-room table with Officer Adlet when she started trembling ... then collapsed and fell forward, striking her nose on the edge of the table. Officer Adlet placed the victim onto the floor and summoned fire rescue.... The victim was pronounced dead that night at 10:30 p.m."

Thomas learned of Clark's passing the next morning. He called the hospital, he says, and was told Clark had died of a heart attack. But when he found out the death certificate had not yet been signed, Thomas began to question the cause of death. For two days Clark's body remained at North Shore, death certificate unsigned, while Thomas badgered reluctant Miami-Dade police detectives to investigate. He made so much noise that Clark's body was transported to the county medical examiner's office for an autopsy instead of to a funeral home. "I told the detective I'd have his license if he didn't get that body autopsied," Thomas recalls. Miami-Dade Det. Ray Hoadley ended up observing the autopsy. (Throughout the ordeal the whereabouts of Clark's daughter, who was supposedly making funeral arrangements, was unclear, and she never spoke with Thomas.)

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