By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
"He took it in stride," says Gissendanner's brother Clarence. "He didn't like being there, but he never caused any trouble. He wasn't going to sit around and bellyache."
Adds Gissendanner: "Prison is just like you'd imagine it to be — no better and no worse. Nobody truly appreciates freedom until you lose it."
Upon his 1988 release, he and Frances made their Lake Placid vacation place a permanent home. Gissendanner wanted to move back to North Miami, but his wife burned with shame. "After the conviction," he says, "she didn't want to face her friends."
He would spend much of the next 20 years in Dade County anyway, commuting or sleeping there for work. He returned to veterinary medicine, opening 21 nonprofit spay-and-neuter clinics. To this day, he can emasculate a cat or dog in less than three minutes. It's an operation, oddly enough, that he still finds relaxing.
In 1992, Gissendanner took over as interim director of the Humane Society of Greater Miami, an unpaid position. He resigned after a year, when Florida's deputy attorney general called his directorship a conflict of interest — Gissendanner's spay-and-neuter firm, Compassion Inc., had a long-standing contract with the society.
Four years later, he had a heart attack and then open-heart surgery, which left a wire embedded in his chest. Looking to finally slow down, he bought two franchises of the U-Save Auto Rental chain, one in North Miami and one in Homestead.
He went into the enterprise hoping to see his nest egg grow. He walked away from it punished by another hard lesson. Gissendanner had unwittingly bought into one of the most cut-throat industries in existence. Hawk-eyed competitors soon drove him into the red. And the businesses were located in decaying neighborhoods, so cars were often crashed or stolen. Insurance companies don't cover stolen rental cars.
In 2000, he sold every car at a loss and jilted 13 hungry creditors by declaring bankruptcy. Gissendanner says the disastrous investment cost him $500,000.
If he'd had a clean record, this bankruptcy might have been viewed as just a minor misstep near the end of his road. Instead it seemed a confirmation of his O.J. Simpson-like slide — a brief addendum to the "fall" half of his life story.
Reporter Susan Neuman remembers a fretful Gissendanner asking about the depth of his ruined reputation. "He was worried that they would write about his crime in his obituary."
Neuman told him the truth: It would be in the first line.
A resort town past its prime, Lake Placid doesn't look like it has developed much in 50 years. In its center is an 80-foot observation tower that once might have inspired awe from eager tourists. Now its stairs are padlocked, too rickety to be climbed.
Located 80 miles west of Port St. Lucie, the town was chartered in the Twenties by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey decimal system and founder of the village of Lake Placid in New York. Dewey dreamed of using Northeastern cash to transform this dusty Florida town peppered with lakes and swamps into an upscale vacation hot spot.
When the Depression hit, Dewey and friends fled, leaving the place to the mostly indigent folks who predated them. One of those he left behind was Elton Sr., who had made Lake Placid the family's perennial vacation spot in the Thirties. "My brother was conceived right at this spot," declares Gissendanner now, standing in a parking lot that once was the location of a wooden hotel.
Like much of this area, Lake Placid ended up with a population split into three major voting groups: indigenous South Floridians, Midwestern retirees, and descendants of World War II vets who were stationed at a nearby Sebring Army base and decided to stay. That trio combined to make this place such a Republican stronghold that many Democratic candidates often switch parties to have a chance at election.
Gissendanner's Republican opponent, Denise Grimsley, a working nurse, has held the position for four years. She sings the right notes: She opposes the sugar buyout and brags of lowering taxes.
And she doesn't seem too worried about the competition. "I haven't had any contact with Elton," she says, adding that she's unfamiliar with his stances. "I don't really have any opinion of him."
She rarely stumps, usually begging off appearances, such as the one in the rainy village of Ortona, with the excuse of a 12-hour hospital shift. "She doesn't go because she doesn't have to," Gissendanner says. "She has the votes."
She also has the money. In the past campaign year, she has collected more than $125,000, much of it from the sugar and medical industries. "Lobbyists love her," derides Gissendanner. "She's so easy. She is the lowest-hanging fruit on the Florida legislative tree."
Gissendanner, meanwhile, refuses to accept contributions, instead funding his campaign with a $20,000 loan from his savings — money that his bankruptcy creditors might still salivate over. "No lobbyist has sent me a nickel," he says indignantly. "And I don't want it, and I wouldn't accept it."
Waging an uphill campaign in the dead of South Florida summer is not an attractive prospect, and the Democratic party was having trouble scaring up willing opponents. They were ready to let Grimsley simply keep the seat. But on June 20, 10 minutes before the filing deadline, Gissendanner officially volunteered.