Three skulls lay in the dust beneath silvery buttonwood leaves. Two were covered in rotting flesh. One had been severed by a hacksaw.
That was December. A month prior, a truck driver had swerved off the road to eviscerate an endangered key deer, spreading her organs over 30 yards of gravelly Florida Keys soil.
And just two weeks ago, someone used a spear gun to skewer a young doe.
A sanctuary for one of the world's rarest creatures has become a killing ground. It's the first rash of butchery in memory at the 50-year-old National Key Deer Refuge, just up the road from Key West. The whodunit has galvanized the tiny resort area. And it has produced both rancor among mellow islanders as well as threats of more slaughter.
"Nauseating," grunts Kate Meyer, a 53-year-old jail nurse who lives in the area where all five killings took place. "Bizarre."
No one knows how key deer came to dwell in the continental United States' southernmost spit of land. The dog-size animals, which weigh less than 90 pounds, might have been chased here by the spread of glaciers. They were first described by a shipwrecked Spanish explorer in the 1550s.
After oversettlement of the Keys and other pressures trimmed the population to only 50 in 1939, Florida banned their hunting. The 8,400-acre refuge was created in 1957. It was overseen by an insanely cool ranger named Jack Watson who shot holes in poachers' gas tanks. Ten years later, after Congress placed the tiny deer on the endangered species list, the herd's numbers began swelling.
Now these relatives of the Virginia white-tailed deer are among the top ecological success stories of all time. They live on Big Pine, No Name, and several other nearby keys, and number almost 1,000. They're affectionate and will walk up to you and eat from your hand.
And that might be the, um, key to solving the recent spate of killings.
Some locals are upset the state spent $6 million in 2003 to build two overpasses and fences so the deer could pass more safely between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Others are annoyed by proposals to limit development and help the deer, which might cost folks who build homes almost $50,000 each.
"Big Pine people can't use their land," protests Richard Beal, owner of Skeeter's Marine on Overseas Highway. He notes others have threatened to kill key deer in the past. "There are too many deer here for the island's size."
Cars mistakenly steamroll dozens of key deer every year, and back in 2001, 21-year-old Steven McClelland (nicknamed "Boner") was busted for veering his 15-year-old Caddy into an oncoming lane to nail one. He dragged her 100 feet.
Before the recent run, the most gruesome animal crime on Big Pine Key was the 2006 killing of a female alligator named Cola. Four young men shot her eyes out with a pellet gun, beat her to death with a baseball bat, ate her at a barbecue, and posted photos on MySpace. Two were sentenced this past September to six months in prison.
Cola was killed in Blue Hole, a flooded rock quarry about a mile down the road from the Port Pine Heights neighborhood, a tranquil stretch where $400,000-plus homes stand mostly on concrete stilts to avoid storm surge. It's part of the refuge; publicly owned lots and private property mix like spaces on a checkerboard.
This past November 9, a Port Pine resident phoned authorities to report a dark truck had slammed into a deer on Park Avenue. When Steven Berger, a muscular cop with a salt-and-pepper crewcut, arrived on the scene, he immediately suspected foul play. For one, there were marks where the driver had turned suddenly off the asphalt toward the doe. Then there was the gory scene.
"The neck was torn in half, the deer was dragged for 30 yards, and as she came apart, there was a lot of blood on the ground," reports Berger, the only full-time wildlife officer between Key Largo and the Marquesas. "Organs were exposed and lying there."
No sooner had that scene been cleaned up than a far more mysterious case took shape. On December 16, a half-mile away in an empty lot on Landers Street, behind a stand of acacia, milkweed, and sea grape, a neighbor discovered the three skulls. They were in a circle, about seven feet apart.
Splotches of putrid skin hung from two of the skulls, one of which bore hacksaw marks on the neck. Berger believes the pair was killed sometime this past summer. The third one was bleached white from the sun, so that deer likely died earlier. All were male; one had an impressive 18- to 20-inch rack of antlers.
This case has been even tougher to solve, Berger says. It's possible someone was killing the deer and collecting their skulls. It's even feasible — though unlikely — they aren't key deer. Berger has sniffed out some leads but found nothing conclusive. (A team from Georgia will be in town this week to perform necropsies, which might provide clues.)
"The skulls were all very close," Berger says. "You couldn't see them from the road, so no one just threw them out the window."
Finally, on January 16, a third neighbor was driving at night near the corner of Coconut Palm Street and Kyle Boulevard, about 250 feet from the nearest home, when she spotted a fallen deer. The animal had been hit by a car and "looked sad when the headlights shined on it."
Police called ecologist Jason Schmidt, who headed to the scene. "The sheriff's deputy said it was routine roadkill, but when I got there, it was anything but routine," he says. Schmidt found a long and distinctive spear — of the sort shot from a spearfishing gun — had pierced the right side of the deer's neck.
Soon Schmidt determined the animal wouldn't recover. His wife Page, also a refuge biologist, euthanized it with a .22. "It's the most humane method," she says. "It's quick."
The spear could be the best clue yet. Berger asked that it not be described in this story because it could, he hopes, "lead to the killer.... If I find the gun it came from, I'll have a strong case.
"Who would do this to an animal?" he continues, displaying a picture of the wounded animal. "This is why we get torqued."
Three days after that killing, on January 19, at 8:48 a.m., a threatening e-mail from someone named "Jason Martin" or "Fat Bingo" arrived in the refuge's general e-mail inbox. It referred to a plan to charge homeowners $47,000 in mitigation costs if they wanted to build a home on Big Pine Key. (That plan was partially rejected by commissioners, but some locals believe it's still under consideration.)
"It's time to euthanize the deer, in my opinion," the e-mail reads. "You arrogant shits, for $47,000 we could get rid of all the pain-in-the-ass deer."
So far Berger hasn't tracked down the e-mail's author, and no one has been charged in the killings. As for motive, Berger won't say much, and Big Piners have mixed opinions. "I think it's a twisted person or maybe some kids putting on a buzz," says Dave, a 48-year-old Port Pine Heights resident who declined to give his last name. "But these deer can be annoying. I'm putting up a fence to keep them out because they eat every bit of vegetation."
Refuge manager Anne Morkill points out the possibility of a more nefarious cause. "There's a love-hate relationship with key deer," says the pink-cheeked, sandal-wearing ranger. "There are folks who love them and feed them in their back yards, but there's also a level of frustration because of county rules related to them."
Beal of Skeeter's Marine is one of the island's most frustrated property owners. The 64-year-old bought the land in 1988. But county rules — in part related to the deer — have made it virtually impossible to either sell or develop the $4- to $5-million, 2.6-acre site on Overseas Highway.
While Beal doesn't support killing the deer, he sympathizes with the perpetrators. "The [government] has gone overboard in protecting the deer," he says. "The more you get people upset about development, the more this is going to happen."
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