Moscow to T. Over."
Larry Turnbow, leader of the Miami chapter of the Guardian Angels, pulls a black walkie-talkie to his goateed lips. "T. Over."
"Yeah, you don't have an extra beret in your car, do you? Over."
"No, my friend, I do not. Over."
"Okay. I forgot where I put my beret. Over."
Turnbow shakes his red-bereted head, a white plastic toothpick dancing on his tongue. His resemblance to a certain 1980s television star has earned him the nickname Mr. T, or as he prefers, simply T. At 40 years of age, he's twice as old as the average Guardian Angel; at more than 200 pounds, his substantial belly stretches his white T-shirt to the limit. Mirrored sunglasses covering his eyes reflect the glowing neon of Ocean Drive, site of tonight's patrol.
T squawks out his location at News Cafe, saying that the three-man crew will wait for Moscow, the assistant chapter leader. It's 7:30 on a Tuesday evening.
"Hey!" calls out a tourist wearing shorts and a Grand Canyon T-shirt. "Where is Collins Avenue?" T points one block west.
"Excuse me," queries another with a distinct Texas twang. "Do we have to do anything more than put change in the meters?" T appears puzzled. The Texan points to his car, parked across from the cafe. "I can't believe we got such a good spot!" he exults. "Do we have to do anything else?" T explains that he only has to feed the meter until midnight, then wishes the man a pleasant evening.
The Guardian Angels first took wing in 1979 in the Bronx, after founder Curtis Sliwa grew upset with poor security on New York's subways. Sliwa quickly signed up approximately 5000 volunteers worldwide, taught them how to perform CPR and make a citizen's arrest, and became something of an urban hero. His reputation took a nasty hit in 1992 when he admitted fabricating many of his early Angels exploits, and enthusiasm for his vigilantes has since waned in several cities as critics have questioned the group's effectiveness. Now a radio talk-show host in New York, Sliwa still presides over his nonprofit creation.
"I spoke to Curtis this afternoon," T says. "He wants us to raise our visibility in Miami. He wants us to show we're out there, to show that we're not going away."
Moscow scurries over to the group, minus his beret. The soft-spoken Russian immigrant, who has lived in New York City for most of his 26 years, has been with the Angels for 5. "I always had the dream I wanted to help people," he explains in a heavy accent. "Actually, myself I never thought of being a Guardian Angel out on the street breaking up fights. To help somebody was my motivation. It was like a mitzvah [good deed] for me, you know?"
Fittingly, Moscow (a.k.a. Dmitry Egorov) tried to establish a Moscow chapter of the Angels two years ago. He abandoned his mission after failing to tame an unwieldy Russian bureaucracy. When he moved to Aventura a year ago (to sell used cars), he began trying to reawaken the Angels' dormant Miami chapter. "Miami has always been the place to be," he says, "because it's number one in the U.S. in crime by statistics. It's needed here."
The Angels have attempted to land in Miami twice before, in 1981 and in 1992. The former effort began promisingly with 140 members (including then-Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud), but collapsed from apathy within three years. Sliwa flew down to resuscitate the chapter in 1992, and his efforts bore some fruit -- chapters in Hialeah, Little Havana, and Kendall -- but momentum again waned.
"In 1992 I thought we had a pretty good group," recalls T as he heads north on Ocean Drive, slaloming among restaurant tables and parking meters. "I think they didn't prepare a leadership succession, though. When their leader went into the army, they went into limbo."
A film crew drives by, cameramen perched on the hood of a pink Cadillac.Two young models behind the wheel vamp for the lens. "Now we're taking it slow," T continues, "being as visible as possible."
Marching two in the front, two in the rear, T leads his troops west to Washington Avenue, his beret sweeping left to right as he scours for crime. There's not much at this early hour. There wasn't much the previous Friday either, when they patrolled until one in the morning. The only trouble that night was some broken glass on Collins Avenue. "We're sticking to South Beach this week," chimes in Moscow. "You know, because of the incident with Gianni Versace. People have concerns that maybe the killer remains in South Florida."
Two Miami Beach cops ride by on mountain bikes, saying nothing. The police have given the Angels generally positive feedback this time, Moscow asserts. In 1992, however, the police chiefs of Hialeah and Miami declined to endorse the Angels' presence, citing safety concerns. Current Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw remains wary. "The police have always looked for citizen help," he notes. "And we don't want to discourage anybody from coming into a city. But there are dangers when groups that are not trained and not prepared to deal with confrontation attempt to make citizen's arrests. If citizens try to go further than calling the police, they run into the potential to get hurt."
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T crosses Espanola Way, his black sweatpants swishing with each step. "This is where it was Friday night," he says as he stands beneath the marquee of the Cameo Theater. "All the kids that have nothing to do were doing it here." He looks beyond the theater -- closed on Tuesday -- to the rather empty sidewalks leading to Lincoln Road and decides to double back to Ocean Drive.
In New York and Chicago, the Angels tend to stay on the subways, protecting passengers on lonely late-night commutes. The suburban sprawl of South Florida, however, challenges Moscow's and T's ability to adapt their group to the environment. "If someone needs assistance on the road, if a car gets stuck, we could relay calls to 911," offers Moscow, relaying his idea for an auto patrol. "We're working on some vehicles right now. We're repainting them and getting some Angel logos."
The foursome tromps past the Versace memorial photo op without encountering serial killer Andrew Cunanan. (His body would be found a day later.) T hands a gray business card to a CNN reporter, then walks down the row of hotels and restaurants whose tables are just starting to fill up. "We're kind of winding it down," he says. It's not quite 9:00 p.m. "Moscow has to go to synagogue in Bal Harbour."
The Angels plan to patrol South Beach and Coconut Grove until they recruit more members, T explains. Then they can expand into Overtown, Hialeah, and other places where help is needed. Moscow, running off, promises to announce their official return to Miami "sometime in the next few weeks.