Johnny Winton Speaks
The story went this way: Stuck at MIA en route to Houston, flyweight Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton gulped down 16 drinks — wine, whiskey, amaretto, and beer. Then he got loud. Delays stink, he carped. The airlines are worthless.
A nervous gate attendant called the cops. When two very large officers cuffed the blue-eyed, five-foot-five-inch pol, Winton went wacko. He head-butted Ofcr. Chuck Greene and kicked decorated 28-year veteran Juan Murias in the balls, causing "disability, disfigurement ... and loss of the capacity for the enjoyment of life," according to a never-reported lawsuit filed last month in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
Greene and Murias subdued the 56-year-old father of three and hauled him to jail. He was charged with two felonies. The mug shot of Winton — dried blood covering his face, chin, and nose like rotting hamburger — appeared in newspapers across the nation the next day. And that effectively ended a controversial political career in America's most corrupt city.
That's the story anyway.
"All lies," Winton says. "I'm long-term pissed about their lies. The cops were nastier than shit."
Winton spoke about the May 2006 conflict for the first time publicly last week, convincingly describing — with a heavy dose of profanity — the implausibility of the police version of events. He also laid out a compelling theory that a cabal of local politicians blocked his return to office. And he described the toll it took on his family.
Winton sounds like a tough guy. Born in a working-class neighborhood in Albuquerque, he says he brawled lots as a kid, "100 or so times.... I was always the smallest guy in the class." Most of the fights were in high school, he adds, "but I don't remember anyone ever going to the hospital, and I don't remember ever kicking anyone in the balls."
Because of high blood pressure, which still plagues him, he missed the war in Vietnam. He's been married four times to three women — you do the math. He moved to Miami in 1980 and, after struggling a bit, made big money in the Eighties on office parks and downtown real estate. (Today he lives in a swanky million-dollar home in Coconut Grove.)
New Times profiled Winton when he first ran for office in 1998. The most telling moment in the story came when the candidate faced a critic at a cookout. After the guy made a flip comment, Winton screamed in response and then told our reporter: "That's the part of me my wife said will not allow me to be a politician. When I get shit, I get pissed off."
Yet he succeeded pretty well until the 2006 airport dustup. Before Winton was elected, he says, "downtown was a shithole where you could not make any money and there was nothing in the pipeline. But I met with, like, 30 developers early on. It became an avalanche." His real estate genius will someday make him known as a prime architect of the new downtown, he believes.
Of course, he was no choir boy. He joined Mayor Manny Diaz and City Manager Joe Arriola in flipping a Coconut Grove house for more than $5 million in 2005, even while he was voting on the mayor's salary. He later paid a $750 fine for that one. "Plain and simple, I screwed up," he says. "But it was in my disclosure forms — I didn't try to hide anything. I blew it."
When Winton begins to describe the airport confrontation, his face reddens and his voice quickens. His neck muscles flex like a rope tightening on a pulley. "The motherfuckers. The cocksuckers," he calls the two cops.
"It was a weather-delayed flight," he recalls. "The airplane was at the gate, but then there was some nasty-ass weather — a thunderstorm."
So he headed to a bar near the gate in Concourse A, where three travelers from Houston and a young guy bound for Finland had all been grounded. "The kid," he says, "was drinking shots and beers, having a ball, and I was paying." Winton says he downed only wine — four glasses in two hours. "I'm a drinker, so that was just a warmup for me." (He says he's since given up the sauce.)
One of the Houston travelers left the bar, learned the flight had been cancelled, and protested violently. The gate agent called police. "Classic crappy airline service where the customers get the shaft," Winton says. A few minutes later, Greene and Murias showed up at the bar. Winton told them he was a city commissioner; he'd keep it calm. The officers left.
After some time passed, he headed to the restroom and saw the plane was gone. "I started raising hell," Winton admits. The gate agent again called Greene and Murias, who returned "and were nasty as shit," Winton says. Though he pushed a button on his cell phone so his secretary could record the confrontation that followed, it didn't work. (Nor has he been able to obtain airport videotapes from that day.)
Much was made of the fact that Winton told cops he was a city commissioner. "Of all the stuff that was printed about this, that's what pissed me off the most," he says. "I would never do that." In fact he did it only during the first confrontation, before things got ugly.
On the arrest form, police claimed Winton was too drunk to ride the escalator. So they slapped on handcuffs and led him to an elevator. Here's how Winton — accurately — describes the rest of the report: "I'm suddenly Bruce Lee. My hands are cuffed behind my back but I jump up and butt [Greene] in the head, then wheel and kick the other guy in the balls, a surgical strike."
What really happened was more mundane. As Greene tried to turn Winton toward the elevator, the commissioner lost his balance and fell against the officer's chest. Enraged, Greene shoved him against a wall and pushed him to the floor. The rough wall scratched his face as he fell, which explains the blood in the mug shot.
There was no kick in the gonads, Winton says. "I was cuffed. If I would have done that, I would have fallen backwards." Greene's chipped tooth resulted from a confrontation with another person, he contends.
Winton was soon hit with two felony counts of battery on a police officer and released on bail. The next day, six TV news trucks parked in his yard. Gov. Jeb Bush suspended Winton from office. "My wife struggled with it the most," Winton says. "She was totally embarrassed and humiliated."
What followed gives even more credence to Winton's description of the incident. The following May, prosecutors reduced the charges to misdemeanors and allowed Winton to plead no contest. He only had to finish an anger management course, avoid drinking during two years of probation, and pay $2,289 in court costs.
The next month, new governor Charlie Crist cited "behavior unbecoming of an elected official" and barred his return to office. Winton cites a conflict. He notes the head of the local police union, John Rivera, was a leader in Crist's campaign. Rivera is an enemy of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle — a close friend of Winton's — and had advocated for Winton's banishment.
Greene has retired, Winton says. Before suing Winton last month, a lawyer for Murias requested $150,000 "just to keep this quiet," Winton adds. He refused to pay. In the four-page lawsuit filed April 14, Murias cited the kick in the groin as causing multiple problems including "loss of earning ability and aggravation of a preexisting condition." His attorney, Alex Alvarez, denied hush money was demanded, and pointed out Winton had admitted kicking the officer. "This is what happens when you drink and you get stupid," he says.
Since then, Winton says he has learned Murias waited three days before seeing a doctor — which raises questions about the damage done by the kick. Winton expects the whole matter to go away. He went into business with local real estate developer and friend Philip Blumberg last year. (Like Winton, Blumberg has had run-ins with the law that were at times exaggerated.) He'd like the past to be forgotten and says, "I'm done with political office. That is, unless I get hit by lightning."
Does he regret the whole affair? "I could have handled this differently. There were bad choices that I made, and I've had to live with that. But I didn't cheat or steal. I got in a fight while on business at the goddamn airport."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.