Hal Kreitman is having a staring contest with an eight-foot bull gator. It's a Monday morning, and fast-moving cloud cover yanks shadows across a shallow pond nestled along an empty stretch of Loop Road in the Everglades. Kreitman -- 51 years old, salt-and-pepper hair, circle medallion glinting off his gym-ripped chest -- is knee-deep in water the color of whiskey. Staccato ticking noises sound from the back of his throat.
Only a few feet in front of him is the alligator, a scarred-up male, boss of the pond. A long, deep snort bellows menacingly from his parted jaws. Five other alligators appear and weave through the water. Eye-to-eye with the old male, Kreitman fails to see one sneaking up on his right, its snout just breaking the surface like a cresting submarine. Suddenly, both gators blast toward Kreitman. But instead of running, he stomps forward, flinging water in both directions.
The gators curl away.
Kreitman heaves a deep sigh. "That was the closest ever," he says, walking deeper into the water. "I was watching one and didn't see that other one." His face, usually a hard, sun-beaten slab, dents with a giddy smile. Then the grin snaps off. "Is there a car coming?" he asks abruptly, leaning toward the road. "It's not a cop, is it?"
Kreitman's backstory is certified only-in-South Florida. He's a bodybuilder who was once crowned Mr. Miami, a sometime Z-movie actor, a sex fetish party habitué, an ex-Lincoln Road chiropractor, and, most recent, a felon facing eight years in federal prison for his part in an insurance fraud scheme. (He's appealing.) Now he has a new role: alligator whisperer.
What Cesar Millan is to yappy Pekingese, Hal Kreitman is to gators. A muscle-bound Doctor Dolittle with a preternatural ability to tune into a gator's mental frequency, he's been swimming with the creatures for the past six months. The evidence is there in the videos and photos he posts online: Kreitman gently petting gators, swimming up close, even planting kisses on their snouts. His reptile touch has won over grizzled Gladesmen, and he recently began offering tourists an experience unlike any other. "I was brainwashed like everybody else that they were vicious animals that will rip you to shreds," he explains. "That's not true."
Kreitman's tough-guy, well-tanned shell hides a softy with a lifelong love of animals. When he was growing up in Long Beach, New York, he was the kid on the block always playing with praying mantises, cicadas, and other creepy-crawlies hanging around the Long Island waterfront. He loved fishing, bird-watching, just being outside.
At the State University of New York College at Cortland, when everyone else was at happy hour, he would stomp through the snow looking for owls. Kreitman eventually earned his undergraduate degree in biology. "I'm an explorer," he says. "When I'm outside, I never want to be on the trail; I would always go off it. You don't see anything on the trail because everybody walks it."
But communing with nature doesn't pay the bills. Instead, Kreitman hopped around doing various sales jobs like hawking vacuums. Then, in the mid-'90s, he was involved in a car accident. A subsequent trip to a chiropractor intrigued him, and he went back to school to study the practice. In 1994, he moved to Miami, where he did his internship with a doctor who worked on local film sets. He parlayed the experience into bit parts in films such as Bad Boys II and The Versace Murder.
Kreitman also began swelling up in the gym and entering bodybuilding competitions. Between the late '90s and mid-'00s, he notched 17 events, eventually bagging a Mr. Miami title. Between his acting gigs, bodybuilding, and medical practice, Kreitman found time for regular Everglades trips to photograph the flora and fauna.
But then a legal shitstorm made the natural world his safety net.
Operation Sledgehammer dropped in 2013, a massive, four-year federal probe into insurance fraud at 21 chiropractic clinics controlled by mostly Cuban-American families sprinkled throughout Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. According to investigators, clinic owners tapped healthy individuals to seek treatment from complicit chiropractors for "injuries" from car accidents that never happened. Doctors and patients would then file false claims, collecting personal injury payments from insurance companies. Scammers billed around $20 million in false claims. Investigators netted 93 participants.
Kreitman was among them. He was charged with conspiracy to commit mail fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, 21 counts of mail fraud, and two counts of money laundering.
He claims the trouble was wrong-place, wrong-time. In 2011, he says, he was placed at a Palm Beach clinic for 11 months by a temp agency and then felt like something was off. "I said... get me out of here -- there's something going on I don't like," Kreitman says, adding he reported the possible fraud to the FBI but never heard back.
He was tried last April with a pair of doctors. The jury came back guilty on all counts.
A few weeks later, prison time weighing on his mind, he went out alone to the Everglades to snap gator photos. He was depressed. Then an idea pushed into his head. He'd gotten into the water with the big animals before; every time, once the beasts began torpedoing his way, he ran back to dry land. This time he didn't care what happened. Didn't care if they ripped him up. "I saw I had nothing left, basically," he says.
Suicide-by-alligator didn't work. Kreitman remembered some tips about alligators he'd heard from a Miccosukee pal: The animals have a blind spot, so they can't really see you if you stay in front of them. So he approached head-on and got close enough to touch the scaly snout. He walked out of the pond in one piece.
"I'm too big to be food. I'm not threatening them," he says. "I definitely think they can sense I'm not going to harass them."
Kreitman began taking three or four trips a week. Whenever the gators charged, he charged back, learning to scare them off. Instead of running away when the animals circled, he learned to gently caress their passing tails and heads. "I'm relaxed, I'm not nervous, I'm not creating ripples of stress."
Soon he was taking out a snorkel and splashing underwater with seven- and eight-footers. He even filmed the encounters with his Samsung Galaxy 5. "I never seen anybody handle them the way he does," says Raul Santovenia, an airboat captain. "Some people actually have a gift."
A typical Hal Kreitman joint displays a no-fear filming approach. The camera pulls in close to a gator floating in the current. Kreitman is inches from the open jaws. Then the animal stomps toward the camera like a Queen Mary-sized sea beast headed for a Japanese city. "They look closer and bigger underwater," Kreitman says.
Another classic Kreitman video captures a close call: The Galaxy pans in tight on a gator with jaws open. Suddenly, the audio roars and the picture cuts. Kreitman says the gator chomped down on his phone. He had to pick it out of the monster's teeth. Luckily, it was in a waterproof case. "I've been trying to get hold of Samsung," Kreitman says. "I want to tell them: 'Hey, your phone survived an alligator attack.' "
On this overcast Monday, Kreitman is in the Everglades clucking his tongue from the open window of his Suzuki Kizashi. It's a weird day. Not 72 hours ago, he was sentenced in federal court: eight years plus $1.63 million in restitution. In January 2015, Hal Kreitman is court-ordered to show up at a yet-to-be-determined federal institution to serve his sentence. But an appeal could take up to two years.
There's an upside, though. "This all helped me return to what I really love," he says. "It took something really bad to happen for me to rediscover my passion for nature."
So for now, he's all in on alligators. In early October, he put up a Facebook page -- Alligator Experience -- documenting his photos and videos. A handful of German tourists, he says, have paid to go out and swim with the gators. His going rate is $195, which includes transportation and lunch. He has ideas for a logo -- an old picture from his bodybuilding days with a cartoon gator head grafted on top. And he has a business name: Haligator. A reality TV producer has been calling him about a program. "He said, 'I want to film you meeting a girl at a fetish party at night and then taking her to swim with alligators the next morning,' " Kreitman explains.
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He's even written a children's book. "I hate kids," he confides as he cranes his head out the car window, looking for gators along Loop Road. "That's why I have dogs." But the book, he explains, is called The Alligator and His Pond.
"It's about an alligator that's just born. He doesn't really know the ins and outs of the pond, who's going to eat him, what he can eat," Kreitman says. "So he befriends a bullfrog that sits on his back. The alligator protects the bullfrog; the bullfrog educates the alligator."
Kreitman drives on. Now sheets of rain are crashing from above, but all the windows are still down. The Suzuki jams to a stop. He excitedly leans out the window. "Is that one?" he says to no one in particular. "This is like orgasms to me."