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
Steppe has also picked public fights with the City of Miami. Inspectors have repeatedly whacked him for code violations at his Gifford Lane home, which he's adorned with colorful mosaics made from cracked, glazed tiles in driftwood frames. After he failed to pay fines or remove the mosaics, things got so heated at a code enforcement board hearing in September 2008 that cops escorted an enraged Steppe out of the building. In protest, he parked his truck with a sign reading "Miami City Hall Nazi Party" on Pan American Drive.
Given that colorful history, it's perhaps no surprise that Steppe told a New Times writer after that incident: "Part of my brains were blown out [in Vietnam]. I don't remember it, but that's what they tell me."
Steppe's latest eye-opening venture began about two months ago, when a family friend's mother passed away but she didn't have enough money for a funeral. Steppe began researching the law when he had a realization: Why not bury her at sea?
So he and his friend (whom he declined to name) picked up her mom's remains, placed the cadaver in a body bag, put it on his boat, and dropped her in the Atlantic more than three miles offshore. "I just weighed it down with barbells and tipped it over," Steppe says. "That's all there is to it."
He realized he could provide a public service to folks who didn't have thousands of dollars to bury their loved ones. So he made the sign and strapped it to the top of his van. Since then, he's been fielding at least two dozen calls a day inquiring about his services, he says.
Manny Garcia, a 68-year-old Cuban who saw Steppe's van in the parking lot of the Home Depot in the Grove, says he's partnering with Steppe to bring him Spanish-speaking customers. "This is something the community needs," Garcia says. "I don't have a problem with it."
Steppe claims he's buried two more bodies at sea, but he refused to put New Times in touch with the customers. He also admits he's run into some trouble. When he went to the morgue at Jackson Memorial Hospital to pick up the third body, officials didn't want to release it and eventually called the cops. He was not arrested, though, and Larry Cameron, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Department, says there's no record of any incident involving Steppe.
"I made the mistake of not having the next of kin with me," Steppe explains. "She had to be present to pick up the body."
But White, at least, says Steppe isn't following the rules. He claims Steppe has repeatedly called to harass him and made false claims about having an agreement with the Miami Police Department to get first crack at the families of recently deceased residents, which led the captain to file official complaints with state officials.
"He has an extremist ax to grind with the funeral industry," White says. "He's not truthful, and we do not want to be associated with him."
Nina Ashley, a spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Funeral, Cemetery, and Consumer Services, says she can't comment on White's complaint. "In general, we don't confirm or deny an investigation unless action has been taken," she says.
Gary Collins, the EPA's burial-at-sea coordinator for the Southeast region, confirms "getting a call from a competitor" about Steppe. But Collins also says he doubts Steppe is breaking any federal laws because burials at sea are "one of the few things where there is not that much red tape."
Steppe, meanwhile, refused to wade into the conflict. After initially talking enthusiastically to New Times about his burial business — and even offering to let a reporter tag along and help toss a body into the Atlantic — he abruptly changed his mind a week later.
"If I give you names, addresses, phone numbers, and dates, and the opportunity to take pictures of actual burials at sea, it could be used against me," Steppe said vaguely before failing to respond to subsequent messages from New Times.
Though Steppe was adamant he's done nothing wrong, he was equally convinced that a conspiracy of funeral homes and competitors such as White would soon try to destroy him over his low prices.
"When I began this endeavor, I knew folks from the funeral homes and their national, state, and local associations would do what they could to harm my efforts, legally or otherwise," he said.
Complaints aside, last he spoke to New Times, Steppe said he'd keep driving his van — and he'd still drop any body into the ocean for $500, drawing a contrast to expensive, traditional burials.
"With me," Steppe said, "it's a clean and easy transition from their home to the sea."
It would not be a surprise if it turns out that this guy is a cannibal and he is taking the bodies out to sea and filleting them and then selling the meat back to the local Haitian restaurants.