By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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Just before midnight, the Pollo Tropical is empty, except for a couple of teenagers pointing toward the window and smirking. They've spotted a peculiar-looking 38-year-old who's crouching behind a bush outside in the darkness. He's clad in a Sesame Street T-shirt and a gold chain necklace, and his once-slicked-back hair is frazzled. He holds a Sony video camera the way a soldier grips a rifle.
A few minutes later, a cop car pulls up to the restaurant on North State Road 7 in Plantation. The mustached officer asks him to produce a permit for "whatever the heck you're doing out here." The bush prowler shoots back that he's "on public property" and "not doing anything illegal." Blinking, the policeman takes down his name and drives away.
As the cop leaves, the bush man adds rebelliously: "I'm with the Justice Junkies, and you'll be hearing a lot more from me!"
Meet Daniel "Diamond Dan" Kerness, a mouthy former TV news anchor with a disdain for authority and a voice that seems made to narrate furniture clearance sale commercials. Sure, he got fired for making a sex joke on live television, was booted from the Navy, and lacks a full-time job. But Dan dreams big. He fancies himself a "video vigilante" who is helping to rid South Florida of injustice. His concept: Confront wrongdoers on camera, air the footage, and shame them into fixing the problem. "In my head," he says, "this is already huge, man."
To Dan's credit, the idea has done some good in other places. A videographer in Oklahoma scares off hookers who have degraded his neighborhood. A crusader from Los Angeles confronts gang members. In New York, a musician-turned-activist named Jimmy Justice busts meter maids who bend the rules. (Jimmy tells New Times: "I'd love to see more copycats like Diamond Dan.")
So this past summer, Dan posted an ad in the South Florida section of Craigslist. "Victimized?!" he wrote. "Get the Justice Junkie's help for free!!" The ad continued, "Is someone trying to take advantage of you?! Are they succeeding, even though you've taken all the necessary steps to RIGHT this WRONG?! It can be... your employer, your neighbor, a company — anyone who's trying to pull a fast one."
Responses to the ad overwhelmed him. Within a few days, 12 people had called or emailed. Outside Pollo Tropical, for example, Dan was doing research for a pretty, young model who had been mugged in the dimly lit drive-through. Other victims include a mother whose home was taken over by squatters, and an actor who claims the Marlins stiffed him on a commercial. Dan is one part citizen journalist, one part wannabe lawyer, and one part accidental therapist. As newsrooms shrink, he fills a niche for folks who feel there's no better place to go.
Consider the case of Aimee Matz, a waitress from Fort Lauderdale. She claims her business partner-turned-slacker roommate won't get off the couch and pay his share of the rent. It's not worth a lawsuit, she says, and broadcast news stations aren't interested. But embarrassing him into paying up is an option. "He is a top-of-the-line douchebag, born with a silver spoon in his mouth," she explains. "I want Dan to ask him: 'Why don't you get your act together?'"
Other cases are weird, funny, and upsetting. Here are a few "victims" who have turned to Dan for help:
• When Eva Roycewicz arrived at her quiet Parkland home, the door was ajar. Inside, she says, four squatters had been living for months. She grabbed the arm of a woman with curly red hair and yelled, "Get out of my house!" according to a police report. Because the home was in foreclosure, cops charged her with trespassing and battery. Still seething, she adds, "I want that redhead to apologize."
• Grace Teran snagged a job preparing food for animals at the Palm Beach Zoo. The conditions in the kitchen were repulsive, she says, with moldy storage boxes and rodent droppings. "A rat bit me on the leg," she swears. "Justice Junkies needs to expose this." (Zoo spokesperson Brian Crowley contends she's nuts and staged the photos of the dirty kitchen.)
• Rich Rosenblum, a retired 64-year-old, worked as a commercial extra at LandShark Stadium for $100. He and hundreds of others were instructed to cheer like Marlins fans and wave signs for 11 hours. The problem: He never got paid. (Marlins spokesperson Matt Roebuck did not return New Times' calls seeking comment.)
• Contractors for the City of Hollywood meant to replace a water pump but caused deep cracks in the wall of Mary Bianco's house. The four-bedroom home began to mold and sprout small mushrooms, and she developed asthma. Eventually, her family was forced to move out and get a lawyer — but the legal process is slow. She declares, "I want to let them know I'm not going away."
After receiving the emails, Dan spent hours choosing the most credible and dramatic stories. The plan: Post them on YouTube and eventually create a pilot series for truTV.
Although he works independently and without pay, Dan is no superhero. He's been busted for crimes that are more embarrassing than serious, has trouble playing by the rules, and can't keep his mouth shut around authority figures. Says co-worker Riki Cheung: "His biggest obstacle is himself."
Dan grew up in Hollywood, the son of an interior designer mom and a medical executive father. When he was 11 years old, a "terrifying" cop chased him off a golf course. It frightened him so much he began to question people with power. He admits, "I'm predisposed to thinking they're all jerks."
After high school, he joined the Navy to earn money for college. He became a corpsman and traveled to Naples, Italy, where he was busted for stealing an AC adapter from a military exchange store. He was cuffed while in uniform, he says.
Months later, he got drunk, smashed a government fire extinguisher case, and was booted from the service. He received a general discharge under honorable conditions but got no financial help with school. "I was ashamed," he confesses.
Dejected, Dan returned home and majored in journalism at FIU. In 2001, he landed a job as a TV reporter at KBMT in Beaumont, Texas, one of the most polluted industrial towns in the nation. One day, during a Hawaiian-themed fundraiser at the station, Dan made a sex joke live on television. He gestured toward a lei around his neck and urged viewers: "Come on down to the station and get lei-ed." His conservative boss immediately canned him.
A year later, he scored an anchor position at the small lakeside town of Greenville, Mississippi. Back then, Kelly McCullen was a reporter at a competing station. In his Southern twang, McCullen recalls, "Dan was pretty darn intense. He'd always show up to the scene of a crime wearing a suit and tie, even on 100-degree days."
After a friend replaced him as anchor, Dan moved back home in 2004. In May, he pulled into a parking lot across from a baseball field in Pembroke Pines. An undercover police officer watched him take a hit of marijuana; then the cop searched him, finding one pain pill in his pocket. (He was charged with possession, pleaded guilty, and received six months' probation.)
Last December, a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy pulled him over for playing music too loudly in his car. According to the police report, the officer asked him to "keep his hands on the steering wheel... three times." Dan argued, "This is a free country," and was cited for disobeying a police officer. (The case was later dismissed.)
Outside the Pollo Tropical a week after the cop ambushed him near the shrubs, Dan is back with his high-definition camera. Amid the glow of fast-food signs, Tamara Stone — the model and robbery victim — is ready for her closeup. She wears high heels as she tells her story:
After she pulled into the drive-through a couple of months ago, a man wearing a bandanna over his face emerged from the bushes. "He jumps in my car and puts a gun to my head," she says, adding he snatched her purse. She filed a police report and now claims Pollo Tropical is partly responsible. The reason: Nearly all of the outside lights were burnt out, making the dark lot unsafe.
More than a month after posting the ad, Dan still hasn't found the "guilty party" to confront on camera. But he is pleased: Pollo Tropical management has since replaced the light bulbs. He suspects employees saw him zooming in on the lamps. "It's the power of the camera," he says, beaming. "Justice has been served... but we're not done yet."