This is the city. Miami. We work here. It was Thursday, December 6. A morning like most mornings. Muggy. Had just wrapped up a feature story, a tale of strong-arm tactics at Miami-Dade Community College (MDCC). The arm, according to faculty and staff, belonged to MDCC president Eduardo Padron. The article, "Fear and Loathing in la Escuela," had hit the streets the day before.
9:30 a.m. New Times office. Rapid reader reaction to the story. First e-mail arrived 6:36 a.m. Author an MDCC professor. Liked the article. Then he tossed out a riddle. "All copies of the New Times," he wrote, "mysteriously disappeared from the North Campus newsstands overnight." Copies of the paper had been delivered to all six MDCC campuses the previous afternoon. North. Wolfson. Kendall. InterAmerican. Medical. Homestead. Prof had a point. Thursday 6:00 a.m. was too early to run out of copies. On any campus. Way too early.
But we don't get paid to jump to conclusions.
Contacted New Times circulation director Julian Suardi, who checked his numbers. He'd sent 600 copies to MDCC North Campus on Wednesday afternoon. Normally, Suardi added, he sends twice that many. Why the change in MO? "Last time New Times did an MDCC story," he said, "we got phone calls from people on the campus concerned about our paper disappearing." Pause. "So I only sent out half as many as usual. I'll send another 600 to North Campus today."
Smart. But questions remained. Did he think we could run through 600 papers at North Campus in one afternoon? "When we deliver 1200, we're usually stocked for the whole week." Translation: Not likely.
Cause for concern. Papers had been snatched in the past by parties unhappy with our coverage. And yes, readers had previously complained about oddly empty news racks at MDCC campuses, particularly when the issue featured a story on Padron's tumultuous tenure: "Schoolyard Bully," May 7, 1998. "Power Play," January 4, 2001. "We Appreciate Your Concern, and Now You're Fired," April 26, 2001.
But we don't get paid to jump to conclusions.
12:10 p.m. A second e-mail. From a prof at downtown Wolfson Campus. "You might be interested in knowing," it began, "that all copies of [this week's] issue of the New Times were removed from the Wolfson Campus and from the New Times boxes on the streets surrounding the campus before 7:30 a.m. this morning." Then he dropped a lead: "I have it on good authority the security staff was directed to remove them." Called the source.
"I get in early, about 7:15," he explained. "The huge New Times rack on campus [where he normally grabs the paper] was empty. I then went out to the boxes on NE Second Avenue, just across the street from the college. And they were empty, except for a few copies at the bottom of each box."
What made him think Wolfson security staffers had anything to do with near-empty boxes? "There was a rumor going around that they had taken the papers," said the prof. "A friend of mine, who's friendly with the security chief, went up to him and asked him if he had anything to do with the disappearance of the newspapers, and according to my friend, the chief said, Yes.'"Maybe the chief was joking, the prof conceded.
Back to Suardi in circulation. As with North Campus, he had delivered half the usual number of copies. In this case 220 issues to seven locations on the Wolfson Campus. The boxes immediately surrounding the campus, however, had received the standard allotment. More than 1000 copies. That's a lot of papers gone by 7:30 a.m. Thursday. Usually, Suardi reported, a few copies are left over in each box -- at the end of a full week.
Contacted Wolfson security chief William Bastain. Asked about missing newspapers. His reply: "I haven't heard anything about any papers since I got in this morning."
Afternoon dragged on. Took a call from another North Campus prof about missing copies of New Times. What did she know? Nothing, she replied, except the fact they're gone. Seen anything suspicious? "No, but I wouldn't put it past the administration."
A few more calls from Wolfson and North, people complaining about shortage of papers. More were on the way, Suardi assured.
3:22 p.m. Big break. "I'm calling about the confiscation of your newspaper," confided the raspy voice on the other end of the line. Call from North Campus. Ted Robbins. Seventy-two years old. Claimed to be a onetime community-newspaper journalist. Currently enrolled in journalism course at the college. Said he was calling from the office of the Falcon Times, the campus newspaper. Seemed like a guy with a soft spot in his heart for the First Amendment.
Robbins's story: Minutes earlier he had been in the campus's 7000 Building talking to a faculty member. Robbins needed to get over to the 4000 Building, where the Falcon Times office is located. Suffers from a bad back. Hopped a ride with a campus security officer driving a standard-issue white pickup truck.
The men arrived at the 4000 Building. Robbins witnessed the officer walk over to New Times rack located on the ground floor, just outside the campus bookstore, and scoop up the pile of papers. Robbins asked the officer what he was doing. Officer, according to Robbins, appeared embarrassed. Answered: "I know this is wrong, but this is what Dr. Padron ordered."
Robbins asked the officer for a copy of the paper. Officer complied. Robbins didn't know officer's name but provided detailed description. Story rang true.
Another phone call. A Miami Herald reporter. Female. Asked what we knew about copies of New Times vanishing from MDCC campuses. Only what we'd heard. Short time passed. Another call. Different Herald reporter. Same question. Suspected Robbins of tipping them off. Checked with Robbins. Affirmative.
5:00 p.m. A string of concerned citizens. A talkative eyewitness. A couple of Herald snoops sniffing around. Somebody at MDCC was bound to get wise.
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5:35 p.m. Checked again with Suardi. Fresh bundles successfully redelivered to all campuses. Just in case. Waited to see what Friday would bring.
12:30 p.m. Friday, December 7. Sent reporter to Wolfson and North to see if previous day's restock had survived the morning. Yes. Phone calls to other MDCC campuses confirmed copies of the paper still in their racks. (Kendall faculty members reported thanking campus president for not removing New Times.) Security personnel at Wolfson and North weren't talking. Subsequent calls to Wolfson Campus president Wasim Shomar and North Campus president Castell Bryant not returned. Message left with Padron's assistant. No response from the MDCC president. No one but Robbins claimed to see anything.
The trail had gone cold. Disappeared into thin air. Faster than a stack of New Times from an MDCC campus anytime the subject is Eduardo Padron.
But we don't get paid to jump to conclusions. So we'll keep digging.