Widow Speak

Stephanie Teele asks a court to overturn the felony conviction of Miami's most famous suicide

Stephanie Teele is an ethereally beautiful woman. She has ocean blue, almost translucent eyes; gentle features; and a kind, modest face etched deeply with sorrow. As she looks north from a Brickell Avenue skyscraper across the city where her husband — long Miami's most prominent African-American politician — committed the most gruesome and spectacular suicide in Florida history, she sobs.

"Arthur always protected me," she says with a Bahamian lilt, tears glistening. "He took care of me, respected me as he respected all women.... Then they took everything from us."

Miami Commissioner Arthur Earle Teele Jr., of course, shot himself in the head with a Sig Sauer pistol in the Miami Herald lobby July 27. Though his last words were "Tell my wife that I love her," Stephanie has never before spoken publicly about the death, which drew attention in newspapers and on television from Beijing to Buenos Aires and caused a media earthquake that even shook New Times.

Stephanie Teele deserves her day in court
COURTESY of Stephanie Teele
Stephanie Teele deserves her day in court

The reason she came forward: In October the Third District Court of Appeal signaled it might — without even a hearing — toss out an appeal of Art Teele's March 2 conviction for threatening an undercover detective who had been following Stephanie.

If confirmed, the decision would steal the widow's right to her husband's City of Miami pension — though the commissioner was just three weeks short of qualifying for $26,066 per year. It would also pilfer the possibility of vindication for a woman who, I believe, has suffered enough. Art's felony conviction, the never-proven charges of corruption that followed, and unsubstantiated allegations of drugs-and-sex parties with a transvestite have dogged the Teele family for months.

"I don't give interviews, and I don't get into the public eye," she weeps. "But the judges need to know this is a matter of public importance. To Art, it means nothing now — he's gone — but to us, his family, it would mean a lot to get that conviction overturned."

Indeed, Stephanie contends, the claims of malfeasance and perversion drove Art to put the gun to his temple. The onetime combat hero, top Reagan administration official, and Miami-Dade County commission chairman was particularly concerned about the effect of it all on his child from a first marriage, Arthur; his 93-year-old mom, Florazelle; and Stephanie.

More than a dozen diary entries, a lengthy letter penned in black ink, and multiple tape recordings prove that media trumpeting (including this newspaper) of salacious claims by a transvestite prostitute and jail inmate named Frederick Davis became a fatal obsession of Art's. "It was the main issue because of his son, because of his mother, and because of me, of course," Stephanie says. "It kept grinding at him. He explained everything on the tape."

Stephanie met Art twenty years ago in the Freeport International Airport, where she worked for Eastern Airlines. He saw her from afar and asked for her number. They dated for almost five years — sometimes commuting between the Bahamas and Miami. "For him it was love at first sight, " she explains. "For me it was months after."

They married in 1990, the same year he was elected to the county commission, at the Church of the Incarnation in Liberty City and then honeymooned in Rome and Milan. Though the couple had no children, Art often took Stephanie's nephews, Redwin and Ashley, to baseball and football games and once to see Gov. Lawton Chiles in Tallahassee. (An eleven-year-old niece, Dior, upon hearing of Art's death, Stephanie recalls, said, "My best friend is gone.")

Stephanie asserts her husband was always present for her, almost always perfect — despite claims of infidelity from at least one woman — and that prosecutors and the media typically exaggerated and twisted information. Indeed, she says, he often treated her with orchids and jewelry — their favorite was pearls — left under her pillow. "For our anniversary he'd go and buy me five outfits I didn't need," she recalls — though on this day, she wears no jewelry and only black clothing.

Stephanie rarely appeared at political events, but every Sunday, she says, the couple would attend several predominantly African-American churches. "With him it was always the churches, not just at election time," she says. "But he always protected me and my wishes. He was the politician, and I was the private person."

Art's protectiveness of his wife was the critical factor in his felony conviction and the appeal now before the Third District. Stephanie says she believes police followed her at least twice, a fact that was later borne out at trial.

On the day of the commissioner's encounter with police officers — August 24, 2004 — Stephanie told Art she was being followed, and he responded by downplaying the threat. "He said, 'Don't be paranoid, Steffi,'" she recalls. "I didn't feel good about that.... I saw the person following me."

Stephanie left the Teele home after that conversation, and Art, feeling bad about disregarding his wife's concerns, took off after her. It was during the pursuit that he spotted a sport utility vehicle shadowing her, followed it, and then cut off the offending driver — who turned out to be an undercover police officer — on an I-95 shoulder.

During the conversation that ensued, which was taped over Art's cell phone by a 911 operator, Teele confronted the cop, and several others who had joined him, about following his wife. Two of the officers refused to show police identification, which Art demanded. He blew up. "I am armed," he said. "The next time anybody follows my wife ... they better be prepared to start shooting.... I'm not making a threat ... I'm simply saying the next time this officer or whomever follows my wife ... and doesn't show me his badge.... I don't know if he's a cop or not."

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