By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
On a crisp December afternoon in 1994, a month shy of his retirement as a U.S. probation officer, Michael Pizzi, Jr. made one last call to an ex-con on federal parole. Pizzi was still assigned to the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force (HIDTA), a consortium of federal, state, and local law agencies working together on high-profile drug, money laundering, and violent crime investigations. Pizzi's last deal was to check in with Manny Gardin, a man who'd served fed time for narc trafficking and who couldn't account for his sources of income.
When Pizzi and his partner, Stan Branch, arrived at Gardin's Northwest Miami-Dade apartment, the convicted felon's girlfriend informed them that he wasn't home. Pizzi blinked like a lizard: "Listen sweetie, you don't want me to lock you up for bullshitting a federal officer," Pizzi, now a criminal defense lawyer, recalls hissing at her. "I know he's in there. I can smell him. Tell his fat ass to come out here." As he talks, a Joker-sized grin wrinkles Pizzi's face. "At that point Gardin, a 6'4" 300-plus-pound gorilla, comes running at me and Stan. He's yelling: 'You sons of bitches! Lee me the hell alone!'"
Pizzi sinks back in his chair, describing Gardin's immense gut crushing him against the railing of the apartment. "Stan grabs him from behind and Gardin slimes off," Pizzi says. "He thought Stan was carrying a piece. We didn't have enough to get him for assault on a federal officer that day, but we were gonna get him."
Pizzi had accrued enough sick leave to take his last month on the job off. For once, he told his long-suffering wife Maria, he would just relax, enjoy time with his family, and prepare for his new career as a private attorney. The Gardin encounter altered that. "I canceled sick leave," Pizzi says. "I wasn't leaving until we put that fucking asshole back in [prison]." So Mike spent his last days investigating Gardin, discovering that he'd forged the signatures of unsuspecting homeowners on a number of quit-claim deeds to himself. Gardin would then use the phony quit-claims to obtain fraudulent second mortgage loans on his victims' properties.
On his last day as a "probie," Pizzi and Branch returned to Gardin's place. This time, they brought an arrest warrant for parole violation and fifteen U.S. Marshals. "They broke down the door and shoved shotguns in his face," Pizzi gloats. "When we put the cuffs on him, I said, 'Remember me, asshole?' Two years later, I testified against him. Gardin ended up serving two years in federal for mortgage fraud."
Up close, Pizzi seems obsessed. During his days as a federal officer, he was drunk with the thrill of putting bad guys in jail. Today the 40-year-old has allowed his obsessions to metamorphose into crusades against overdevelopment, environmental pollution, public corruption, and the special interests that dominate local government in Miami-Dade. He's become the People's Champ. "He's a person who looks for and enjoys a challenge," offers Pizzi's wife, Maria, a spunky 40-year-old Cuban American, over a cafecito at their Miami Lakes home. "He doesn't back down from a fight when he believes he's right. Once Michael gets a phone call from a person in need, he takes it upon himself that he has to do something."
In 1999 Pizzi formed Citizens Against Blasting, a group trying to hold the rock mining industry accountable for the damage their dynamite work has caused hundreds of homes in Northwest Miami-Dade. He filed a class-action lawsuit against miners on behalf of a thousand homeowners. The suit is still pending. However, the miners and Pizzi appear to have reached a compromise. The Florida legislature is contemplating a new law that creates a statewide independent claims process for homeowners who feel their property is being damaged by rock mining. Maria Pizzi says that her husband took up the issue after getting a call from an affected neighbor. "We never even noticed the cracks [in the walls of the Pizzis' home] until we got that call," Maria remembers. "Five years later, Michael is still fighting the miners."
Pizzi led the successful fight, in the same year, against the expansion of the Peerless Dade landfill in Miami Lakes from 12 feet to 90 feet in height. Residents feared the expanded landfill would contaminate the groundwater and create a health hazard. (Recently Pizzi filed a lawsuit blocking the Miami-Dade County Commission's decision to allow Peerless to expand its landfill from 12 feet to 23 feet.) In a related matter, he also led a recall effort against former County Commissioner Miriam Alonso in 1999. Last year, the state attorney indicted Alonso on various corruption charges, including the accusation that she and her husband, Leonel Alonso, illegally collected money to fight the recall, but kept that money for their own use.
Earlier this year, Pizzi mounted a new battle against his long-time nemesis, real estate baron Lowell Dunn. Mike wants the developer to remove dozens of towering 25-foot dirt mounds Dunn is storing on a vacant parcel surrounded by single-family homes in Miami Lakes. Residents have complained that winds blow the dirt into their back yards, pools, and driveways. At Pizzi's urging, the Miami Lakes Town Council filed a civil lawsuit to force Dunn to remove the piles. "Here's a guy who just doesn't give a shit about people's quality of life," Pizzi growls.