Tow Head

Junkie, jailbird, cat burglar, widow, bride, entrepreneur Laurie Lichtman keeps on truckin'.

When Yem got out of prison she began working for Laurie at Midtown Towing. She's been there on and off for the last fourteen years. "I've seen her turn her life around. She don't have that devious side to her no more," Yem says of Laurie. She then pauses and cracks a wide smile. "Or, she does, but she uses it differently."

If anything, the thing about Laurie that makes Yem crazy is her bottomless, almost masochistic capacity for forgiveness. Yem says that over the years, she's been robbed blind by former employees, towing company rivals, and even friends. Yet Laurie is always willing to give a person one more chance. "She always tries to help the underdog. People take advantage of her for that. Sometimes, you just want to shake her and say, öLaurie, what are you doing?' She's been that way forever."

Yem continues: "She's always trying to give something back. She always felt she had to pay for what she'd done. I think only in the last year, she is starting to realize, maybe her debts are paid."

photos by Jonathan Postal
Outwardly fearless, Laurie was a tough broad with two vulnerabilities -- dope and the sense of entitlement she derived from her associations with the Miami underworld.
Outwardly fearless, Laurie was a tough broad with two vulnerabilities -- dope and the sense of entitlement she derived from her associations with the Miami underworld.

An unlikely love story Howie Lichtman was a junkie and a crook when Laurie met him. They were two of kind, each robbing the unwary to support their habits. He'd started out a shy, smart Jewish youth from New York who joined the Army and went to Vietnam. There he filled his lungs with Agent Orange and his bloodstream with heroin and cocaine. Back stateside, Howie quickly descended into the circular hell of dependence and crime.

After he met Laurie at the jail, Howie saw her again at a local dope house. Their shared interests fostered a quick relationship. "He was a daytime burglar, I was a nighttime burglar," Laurie says. "But he was the first man who ever came into my life to take care of me." The relationship was rocky, but compelling, as each of them was facing several years of prison time for their respective crimes.

Not long before Laurie went to prison for ten years, she and Howie were married by their bail bondsman. Laurie says she's thankful Judge Lenore Nesbitt gave her a harsh sentence, because it probably saved her life. "Otherwise I'd be dying from AIDS, or I'd be dead from something else," she acknowledges. "I wouldn't have nothing today."

Prison did Howie good, too. When he was released after four years, he got clean. He worked two jobs and squirreled away enough money after a couple of years to buy a truck, with which he started a modest towing business. Laurie still had six more years in prison (including work release), but he stuck by her, hoping she'd change. "He told me, öI love her, but I'm never going back,'" says Tufano, who was at the time telling people Laurie was away at college. "If she comes out and hasn't changed, that's it."

Laurie was a different woman coming out. But soon she found out Howie was sick. Laurie says Howie had damage from exposure to Agent Orange, confirmed by the VA hospital where he was treated, and that he had lupus. She also says that he refused ever to have sex with her after she left prison because he believed he was HIV-positive. "When he got me out of prison, he got me to have a blood test and it came back negative," she says at one point. "He cried like a baby. And he would never have sex with me."

"He was a great man," opines Lynn Yem. "They were in love. He stuck by her in prison and she stuck by him in illness. She was the apple of his eye. He did everything for her." Laurie resolved to help him with the business and to do anything she could to fulfill his desire to get back his civil rights. He wanted clemency, and the right to carry a gun and repossess vehicles, necessary in his growing business. So she jumped into the only Miami scene that rivaled her old one for sheer seediness -- politics. She started small, going to Miami city commission meetings, attending North Miami Chamber of Commerce events. At the latter, she soon met Elaine Gordon, then a state representative. In her inimitable style, Laurie walked right up to her and said what she says to pretty much everybody she meets for the first time: "Hi, I'm Laurie Lichtman. I got life in prison, I was a drug addict, and I changed my life."

Like many people, Gordon was struck by Laurie's unapologetic honesty, desire for legitimacy, and stage presence. Gordon passed away in 2000, but her former aide Bonnie Michaels (currently the sassy right hand of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Sally Heyman) recalls that Laurie proved herself over the years by always being there, ready to help anyone who needed it. "You need something for a charity or anything, she's got her checkbook out," she says. "It got to the point you'd say, öLaurie, you don't have to sponsor everything.'"

Gordon took Laurie under her wing politically and helped her make the contacts she needed to get civil rights back for herself and Howie eventually. The Lichtmans also became respected local business people, known in particular for their support of anything involving police, children, or people in prison. They also poured several thousand dollars a year into campaign coffers. "She was my inspiration," Laurie sniffles. "Elaine taught me the right way to do politics. She gave me a chance when no one else would, but she made me work for it."

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