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
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By Kyle Swenson
At first, Gissendanner thrived. One day he'd be in front of news cameras, warning of hepatitis in oysters. The next he would be on a beach posing for a "Save the Manatees" photo shoot with Jimmy Buffett.
But he began to aggravate the state cabinet, to whom he reported. Controversy dogged many of his decisions, such as his restrictions on commercial fishing that had lobbyists howling in protest. And when Graham moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1986, Gissendanner caused a major stir by granting a dredging permit to a developer without consulting the cabinet or new Gov. Bob Martinez — a move so underhanded that authorities investigated him for bribery.
Cabinet members were furious, and Gissendanner knew his hold on the position was gone. He resigned in June after eight years on the job, hanging on just long enough to qualify for an $8,000 annual pension.
Three weeks later, the hammer fell. Gissendanner was indicted in Miami federal court. The felony charges: extortion, tax evasion, and perjury.
"It's simple," Gissendanner says now as he grazes on grape-and-tuna salad in a Lake Placid diner. "But when I think about it, it's so stupid what I did."
A 27-year-old Daytona Beach Community College dropout and pot dealer named Patrick Bilton would be Gissendanner's undoing. In 1982, Bilton had been delivering boatloads of seedy schwag from Jamaica and other countries to South Florida's harbors for years.
On November 6 that year, suspicious Florida Marine Patrol agents cruising Port Everglades spotted his 36-foot cigarette boat and ordered him to dock it for a thorough search. "I certainly did not need them to find what was encased in the hull of the vessel I was on," Bilton would later ruminate in court, "which was 500 pounds of marijuana."
So he gunned the engine and led the patrol on a high-speed chase toward international waters. The Miami Vice moment ended when snipers on a chopper shot out the boat's engines.
After being convicted of smuggling, Bilton faced 15 years of hard time.
Then he heard about Elton Gissendanner.
Another convicted smuggler and longtime family friend of the DNR chief — Dennis McGuire — advised Bilton on how to cut his sentence. The plan was this: McGuire would contact Gissendanner, who would hook him up with Marine Patrol agents. They would use Bilton as a confidential informant. Then Gissendanner would pen a letter, on state stationery, to the sentencing judge, commending Bilton for his assistance.
Not surprisingly, Bilton jumped to action, and after Gissendanner cited his assistance, the judge gave him probation.
Bilton, though, had masterminded a sham. He had simply loaded up a boat with his own cocaine and told Marine Patrol agents where to find it.
The successful ruse seemed only to energize Bilton. Over the next four years, he would smuggle at least $50 million worth of pot into South Florida.
But in 1986, Bilton and McGuire were both arrested in an international sting run by the DEA, IRS, and Scotland Yard. Facing 25 years each, the smugglers served up a bigger fish: Gissendanner. They claimed to have delivered $80,000 in brown paper bags in exchange for the DNR chief's connections and his letter to the judge.
The trial began November 9 that year. Among the witnesses was a Tallahassee music venue owner who testified Gissendanner had invested $10,000 into the business — in $20 bills.
Bilton claimed he had paid McGuire between $125,000 and $140,000 for the letter to the sentencing judge. But the drug dealer couldn't say whether the DNR chief ever received the money.
McGuire acknowledged he had paid Gissendanner, but there were no witnesses to confirm it. Further undermining the prosecution, he added the DNR chief had volunteered to help "for free."
"The government's case totally fell apart," says Gissendanner's defense attorney, Mark Nuric, now a New York state prosecutor. "They no longer had any quid pro quo."
But prosecutors had a hole card: Gissendanner had written a similar letter to the sentencing judge in an unrelated case involving McGuire several years before. That missive was a plain fabrication: McGuire had never worked as an informant. On January 25, 1988, Gissendanner accepted a plea. He copped to obstruction of justice, a felony that carried only a fraction of the potential 48 years of the original charges.
During sentencing, Gissendanner took the stand. He apologized to DNR employees, thanked his family, broke down sobbing, and begged for leniency: "I'm 60 years old and I've wasted almost a year, and have very few left to waste."
He also vehemently denied ever taking a bribe. "In the plea agreement, I had them write that the government does not contend that I took money," he says now. "I wanted that in there, for my kids posterity. I would've never signed it if that hadn't been there."
The media declared his career dead. "The 24-year public life of Elton Gissendanner ... came to a rather dismal end Thursday," wrote one Herald scribe. "Slam the cell door shut," editorialized the same paper.
In fact, where Gissendanner went, there were no cell doors. He was sent to the federal facility at Eglin Air Force Base, a "country club" for nonviolent offenders. During his time there, he did veterinary work and learned to repair lawnmower engines.