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."

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.

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.)

Following the autopsy, Fred Thomas seemed to be the only person who still had doubts about the cause of Dorothy Clark's death, even after he spoke at length with the forensic pathologist on the case, Dr. Emma Lew. The autopsy report concluded Clark had died of a ruptured abdominal artery. The hardening of many of Clark's major arteries, Lew explains, had caused some to become weak and dilated "until at some point they can rupture." In Clark's case it was the largest artery in the body, the aorta, that burst in the abdominal area. The trigger? Almost certainly an elevation in blood pressure, which can be brought on by a stressful movement or event. "If the rupture is big enough," Lew adds, "you bleed out and the body goes into shock." That was apparently what happened to Clark.

Maybe the deeper cause of Clark's demise was the heartache and frustration that stemmed from her vigilance and activism within the ultimately unsympathetic world of El Portal. She just couldn't make others care as much as she did. "Dorothy was a very good lady, and whatever bad things you heard about her are not true," proclaims Vilma Dervali, wife of ex-councilman Frank Dervali. The couple worked for years with Clark in her food-distribution program, though Frank Dervali, as a local politician, didn't escape Clark's occasional attacks. The Dervalis don't care for Fred Thomas or his conspiracy theories, but they do agree Clark died unappreciated. "They didn't treat her right," Vilma adds, leaving they unidentified. "They caused her a lot of problems."

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