Land Grab

We ask questions and a historic land battle is won

With a deafening drone the airboat sped north. The straight-line monotony of the Tamiami Trail had long since disappeared, and the lone watercraft was surrounded by a giant field of muddy brown sawgrass that stretched to the horizon.

The deeper into the Everglades it journeyed, the lower the blanket of battleship-gray clouds hung. Twelve miles from dry land, the temperature bordered on frigid, and a bitter chill whipped mercilessly through the early morning air.

Suddenly the vessel spun around 180 degrees and the engine cut. Nothing stirred. Then a deep-throated yell pierced the silence: "There it is, look!"

With his left hand on the controls, John Tigertail maneuvered the vessel toward a wall of vegetation growing a few feet away. Partially hidden from view behind the shrubbery was a small camp comprising two green, wooden, single-story dwellings. Glass panels and hurricane shutters adorned the windows. Thick silver nail heads stuck out of both doors, sending a foreboding message to intruders: "Stay away!"

During the last ten years, this one-acre campsite has been center stage for a battle rife with intrigue and bureaucratic incompetence. It's the latest episode in South Florida's century-old land-grabbing saga.

To the uninformed visitor this region — known as Conservation Area 3A — seems much like the 75,000-acre Everglades National Park located slightly further south, nothing more than an uninhabitable swamp. But people like Tigertail know better. His ancestors settled in western Dade County some 200 years ago, after U.S. Gen. Andrew Jackson chased the Seminole Indians into Florida from Georgia. Though most were killed, some survivors hid out in the 'Glades, where hammocks provided safe haven. They were later absorbed into the Miccosukee tribe. The Tigertail clan was among them.

"For years this is where we made our living by hunting and fishing," John laughed, hopping down onto the catwalklike dock that linked the sawgrass marsh to the secluded tree island commonly known as Duck Camp. "There's plenty of life out here."

Indeed at the beginning of the last century, crafty real estate barons made millions by selling land here to ignorant northerners. Gov. Napolean Bonaparte Broward, who served from 1905 to 1909, promised to drain the swamp and open hundreds of square miles to settlement. The drainage efforts and land speculation continued for decades after that.

The island, if you can call it that, visited by Tigertail and New Times was purchased in October 1954 by a Massachusetts-born mother of two, Golden Elizabeth Vaughan. She had relocated to Miami sometime after her 60th birthday and bought the 40-acre parcel of land that houses the hunting camp of the Miami Shipping Company, an early speculator. She paid $800.

Located slightly east of the Collier County border (about 40 miles west of Miami), the vast majority of the plot was submerged. But Vaughan thought she was getting a deal. Companies had been extracting oil from beneath the adjacent 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve for years.

"She had grown up very poor," notes Vaughan's granddaughter, Janis Keller Jones, who lives in Pembroke Pines. "Her first husband died in World War II. After moving to Miami she married again, to a former police officer. They thought there was oil under the land;that's why [they] bought it."

Like many owners of Florida swampland, Vaughan never put her investment to work, and by the time she died in 1984 it was still untouched. "She left it to me and my brother," says Jones, brandishing a copy of the original deed and her late grandmother's will. "We don't have an airboat so we never went out there. We had no reason."

Ten years later Janis's then-husband, James, who worked as a pilot, decided to visit. "He was curious, I guess, and he wanted to see what it looked like," she recalls, "so he got the coordinates and flew over it one day real low."

There was a surprise. "He saw two houses," Jones says.

Perplexed, the couple rented an airboat and toured the property. Around the perimeter they found a well-constructed wooden boardwalk that provided a path from the waterway to the slightly higher land on which the buildings stood. The interiors of these were well-kept and housed bunk beds, shelves, countertops, and a working shower. "I couldn't believe it. There was a generator with air conditioning, a fridge, everything," Jones scoffs.

The couple tracked down the resident, a Miami man named Hugh House. "I can't remember how, but we found his phone number and we called him," Jones recalls. "He told us to stay the hell off the land or there was a possibility we could be shot."

A few months later House sued, claiming he was "suffering irreparable harm because of her continued disruption of his quiet use and enjoyment of the camp."

Jones countersued and in October 1996 hired James Beadman, a licensed surveyor. He soon determined the dwellings were "clearly and completely within the confines of" Jones's property. In July 1997 a judge determined the land rightfully belonged to Jones and dismissed House's suit. It cost Jones almost $3000, which House was ordered to repay. He was also told to stay off the land. House's lawyer presented a written proposal asking Jones to sell the campground for $1000. She declined and never saw another penny.

Three messages New Times left at House's last known address in Naples, Florida were not returned. House's lawyer for the case, Helio De La Torre, said he had "no recollection" of either House or the suit. Public records indicate the founding member of De La Torre's law firm — Steven M. Siegfried — and House formed a company together in the early Seventies called House Realty Incorporated. Four additional corporations spanning four decades also link House, Siegfried, and De La Torre, including the Everglades Preservation Society, formed just months after House sued Jones.

Almost two years after being banished from Duck Camp, House and De La Torre formed another Florida for-profit corporation, ironically called Duck Camp Inc. The duo dissolved the company in September 2001. De La Torre declined comment.

Approximately four weeks ago, acting on a whim, Jones's new boyfriend, a stocky, sandy-haired man named William Farson, decided to check on the property. He was astonished to find evidence that someone was still using the dwellings: The beds were made, oyster shells blanketed the floor, the generator was up and running, and coolers lined the interior walls. Further investigation revealed that in 2003, the South Florida Water Management District had issued a lease to the Jones's property. The name on it was Hugh House. It stated for an annual rent of $1800, the land was his.

For the next twenty years.

"I was so mad," spits Jones. "Why are they leasing out land that doesn't belong to them?"

The answer lies with the director of land stewardship for the South Florida Water Management District, Fred Davis. "Since the mid-Forties people with airboats have gone out there and built camps without permits, without knowing whose land they were on," says Davis. "Over the years the State tried to find out a way to regulate them but nothing ever worked.

"There are about 80 camps out there with no addresses. About 40 percent are owned by the district, 40 percent by the state, and 20 percent by private parties." According to Davis, a 1999 law states any hunting camps the district owns can be leased out for twenty-year periods.

"It appears we misplaced a camp and identified it as being on district-owned land. Apparently it's on a parcel of land that Miss Jones owns," Davis says.

Damien Garramone, an environmental specialist from the Department of Environmental Protection, confirmed the error. "It seems the GPS tracking devices were off by about 1000 yards," he says, "which means the lease will be canceled."

But if Jones wants House off Duck Camp, she must file a civil lawsuit, Davis explains. Thus it seems she will have to pay for a lawyer, again, if she has any hope of removing the man whom a Miami judge once ordered to stay away: "I just want him to get the hell off my property."

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