In the early-morning hours of Wednesday, October 2, Metro-Dade police responded to a call from a Miami alarm company. Something or someone had tripped the burglar alarm at a business owned by a man named Matthew Block. Located at 7780 NW 53rd Street, a warehouse district near Miami International Airport, Block's building is typical of others in the area: a nondescript, one-story, concrete box. In other ways, though, the building is unusual. There are no identifying markers anywhere - no signs carrying a business name, no graphic logos, nothing. Only the vaguest hint of the enterprise inside can be seen from without: animal cages stacked against a wall. Another thing: the chain-link fence surrounding the property is topped by barbed wire, and a surveillance camera points at the front gate. And another: entry is restricted by a series of electronically activated locks.
Computer records at Central Alarm Control show they received the electronic alert at 4:48 a.m., and within seconds company officials dialed 911 to report the incident. Metro-Dade dispatchers processed the call, and seven minutes later radioed for an officer to investigate. It took only about four minutes for the patrol cop to reach the scene. But he couldn't get close to the building - the outer gate was locked. While he waited for Matthew Block to arrive, he noticed nothing suspicious.
Police say that burglaries are not uncommon in the commercial districts bordering the airport. But this one was different. Although the alarm had been tripped, it was not apparent how or where the burglar broke in, or how he could have done his business and escaped undetected before police arrived a mere eleven minutes after receiving the 911 call. Inside, police discovered some damaged drop-ceiling tiles in the reception area, and they found that the intruder had rifled through file drawers and ransacked Matthew Block's office. On the floor they found three empty film canisters and a discarded video cassette box. Crime-scene specialists dusted the entire site, but turned up not one single fingerprint. And the only things taken, according to Block, were some confidential documents.
"This is mainly what I handle, commercial burglaries," says Metro-Dade police detective Jorge Carreno, who later investigated the break-in. "And this is one of the weirdest I've come across. The broken ceiling made it look like someone came through that way, and it looked like someone messed up the office and just threw papers all over the place." Carreno checked the roof to see if it might have provided access, and determined that was impossible. "There was no sign," he says, "like a hole or anything, like someone got in that way."
Another possibility was that someone entered during business hours and hid inside a small, elevated storage closet, waiting until the employees left before emerging through the ceiling tiles and rummaging through the file drawers. But Carreno says that theory presented other problems. "This place is like Fort Knox," he explains. "Just to get in you have to buzz at the gate, and from there they're watching you on the camera. Then you have to go to the steel door and be buzzed in there. It's not easy to get in, so how could someone just stay inside and hide?" Moreover, Block told the detective he had checked the warehouse at 8:00 p.m., after closing three hours earlier, and the place was fine. "Why would someone wait that long to do their thing if they were already inside?" the detective asks. "They could have just come out as soon as the place closed and be done way before eight o'clock."
Either the burglar was an especially skilled professional, Carreno offers, or something is amiss. "If this is a legitimate break-in, I would love to talk to the guy who did it just to find out how he got in and out," he says. "But something doesn't fit here. Something isn't kosher." Carreno, a detective without tangible clues, has been left to ponder the intangible. "A real question here," he muses, "would be the motive for stealing those files."
Matthew Block refuses to discuss the stolen files or why someone might have wanted to pilfer them. He hasn't even provided police with a description of their contents. In fact, he won't say much at all about last month's burglary, except to suggest that perhaps Detective Carreno doesn't have all his facts straight. These days Block does nearly all his talking through his attorneys, and attending to the business of their client's legal needs keeps them very busy.
Which is not surprising, given that Block is a captain in one of the most controversial industries on the planet: the buying and selling of primates. From his building near the airport, Block operates Worldwide Primates, among the largest animal-brokering businesses in the world, supplying customers around the globe, principally research laboratories. Within the United States, his company is responsible for roughly a quarter of all the monkeys brought into the country each year. His business contacts range from lowly animal traders to high government officials and respected medical scientists, from Miami to Africa to Malaysia. Block has achieved this distinctive brand of success at the young age of 29.
Born and reared in Miami, Block began his career when he was only thirteen years old by selling some tropical birds - macaws - for a friend. By the time he was in high school (the private Mesivta-Louis Merwitzer Senior High School on Alton Road in Miami Beach), his interest in brokering the sale of animals overcame his interest in academics, and he dropped out. But his subsequent success was as prodigious as he was precocious. Today he lives in comfort, and relative anonymity, in a walled South Dade home.
That matter of anonymity, however, has been as big a challenge to maintain as has survival and success in a business notorious for its ruthless competition. Besides having drawn the occasional attention of media worldwide, Block has been the target of partners and clients who have sued him in court; of conservationists, animal-rights activists, and government agencies who have accused him of mistreating the animals he deals with. He currently faces misdemeanor charges in Dade County Court for allegedly keeping 53 monkeys in unsanitary conditions at an unlicensed site. And thanks to a woman named Shirley McGreal, he is now embroiled in two controversies that could end forever the anonymity he says he desires.
McGreal is the chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League, a 13,000-member organization devoted to the conservation and protection of man's closest cousins in the animal kingdom. Among advocates for the rights of animals, McGreal is widely respected as a vigilant and fearless protagonist. Among people in Matthew Block's business, she is a pariah.
Block, in fact, is suing McGreal in Miami's federal court, charging that she has interfered with and damaged his efforts to conduct business. But of much greater concern and consternation to Block is McGreal's role in pushing the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate allegations that he was deeply involved in a complex - and illegal - animal-smuggling conspiracy that has since become an international cause celebre among animal protectionists.
In February of last year, three wooden crates arrived at the Bangkok airport from Singapore. According to shipping papers, they were bound for Yugoslavia, and from there to Moscow. Though the crates were stamped with the label "birds," inspectors heard unusual crying sounds coming from within. Thai authorities removed the crates from the cargo area where they had been sitting unattended, X-rayed them, and pried them open. Instead of birds, officials found six baby orangutans and two siamang gibbons. The animals were in horrible physical condition, some of them having been stored upside down, all of them deprived of food and water.
Orangutans, an endangered species found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, are highly intelligent and easily trainable apes. When young, they are especially affectionate and attractive, with large eyes and orange-brown fur that stands up as if charged with static electricity. Because of these appealing characteristics, and because of their rarity (only 20,000 are estimated to remain in the wild), orangutans are prized by collectors of all sorts - zoos and menageries, wealthy individuals who want them as exotic pets, and entertainment enterprises such as circuses and carnivals. In Taiwan, where the animals have gained extraordinary popularity and where, until recently, regulation has been lax, orangutans can even be seen in restaurants, nightclubs, and discos, on display for the amusement of patrons. (In the United States, where restrictions are enforced and legitimate demand is high, the price of a single orangutan can be as high as $50,000.)
Because they are an endangered species, orangutans are protected by provisions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a regulatory protocol signed by 111 nations (including the United States) that prohibits their export unless they have been born in captivity. Such worldwide concern for the primates' welfare, however, hasn't stopped the smugglers. They employ a variety of methods - ranging from fake papers to false labeling to secret compartments - in order to ship the animals, which usually are captured as babies in the jungle after their mothers have been killed.
The deplorable fate of the infant orangutans discovered at the Bangkok airport (three of them eventually died) ignited the fury of animal protectionists around the world. In response, Thai authorities confiscated the young apes. An intensive investigation was begun. Within a short time, Shirley McGreal and her International Primate Protection League (IPPL) were receiving detailed information about the results of that investigation.
An official of the German wildlife department provided McGreal with copies of shipping bills, faxed letters between alleged conspirators, and other documents, as well as an account of the smuggling operation that came to be known as the "Bangkok Six." (McGreal says she was offered the information because German officials respected the work of IPPL.) According to the account, the baby apes were captured in the jungles of Borneo and smuggled out of the country to Singapore, where they were picked up by a German citizen named Kurt Schafer, who then transported them to Bangkok. Schafer was then to ship the animals to Belgrade, Yugoslavia. From there they would be flown to Moscow, supposedly destined for a zoo. The two gibbons were meant as a reward to the Yugoslavian contacts for their help in the operation.
Schafer, who was subsequently fined $1200 by the Singapore government for his role, says he is a bird dealer who normally does not deal with primates. He told the Singapore court and others that a "friend," a "former partner" had persuaded him to assist in facilitating the illegal deal.
Those involved in the affair, including Schafer, often communicated with each other by fax machine, sending letters around the world electronically. One of those faxed letters, transmitted to Schafer in Singapore, has since become the center of heated debate as to its significance. Dated November 24, 1989, it
PLS MAKE SURE YOU PHONE ME JUST B E F O R E SENDING SHIPMENT FROM SINGAPORE TO MY HOUSE. THE PHONE (305) ___-____ - SUGGEST YOU PHONE ABOUT 2-3 PM SIN TIME JUST IN CASE I RCV ANY LAST MINUTE NEWS FROM MOS. PLS BE CAREFUL ABT CARRYING DOCUMENTS WITH MY NAME, COPIES OF TLX ETC ON YR PERSON OR BAGS - JUST IN CASE YOU HV ANY PROBLEMS - AS WE WILL HV MORE SHIT THEN YOU - HOPEFULLY ALL GOES OK - BUT PLS BE CAREFUL ABT DOCUMENTS N ALSO THE PHONES.
PS DONT SEND TOO MANY BIRDS - FEWEST POSS.
The message was signed this way: M. The phone number, deleted from this article, rings a Bell South Mobility number that is out of service. When reporters from the British Broadcasting Corporation dialed the number earlier this year, however, they reached Block's South Dade home. McGreal says a member of her group also called and verified that the number belonged to Block. (When a Bell South customer disconnects service or asks for a new number, the old number is recycled within 90 days, company service representatives say.)
Block would not respond to questions from New Times regarding the meaning of that letter. However, in an interview last year with the Miami Herald, he admitted he had sent that fax (along with others) to Schafer, but that they referred to a half-dozen hornbill birds the Soviets wanted to buy legally.
Another fax obtained by McGreal, dated four days after the one to Schafer and also signed M, provided instructions to a Singapore animal trader. It read:
IMPORTANT THAT CONTRACT NUMBER MUST APPEAR ON EACH CRATE (IN ONE CORNER) AND ALSO ON AIRBILL.
CONTRACT NUMBER IS 589/1859730/94-122
According to McGreal and BBC journalists who later investigated the Bangkok Six incident, Thai authorities found that contract number stenciled on the crates containing the baby orangutans and gibbons.
McGreal also received a copy of a faxed letter, allegedly from a Soviet animal-importing agency to Schafer in Thailand, that read, "PLS URGENTLY ADVISE WHEN EXACTLY CAN 3/3 ORANGS BE EXPECTED."
McGreal, convinced of the documents' authenticity and alert to their potentially damning implications, shipped off copies in May of last year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In the coming months, she would provide law enforcement officials with more information, including a summary of a telephone conversation she had with Kurt Schafer on July 12, 1990. McGreal, in a sworn affidavit, wrote that Schafer had called her from Thailand, "extremely anxious to meet me in person to discuss the `Bangkok Six' orangutan deal.... Mr. Schafer asked if I knew who gave the papers relating to the shipment to the German wildlife department. I said I did not, and he said that he had provided the papers.
"Schafer stated that he had been asked to carry the orangutans," McGreal continued in her affidavit, "by Mr. Matthew Block and that he would explain the exact circumstances when he met me.... He said he was `shocked' on learning about how orangutans were caught and how these particular animals had been shipped."
McGreal's letters, documents, and entreaties finally gained an audience with U.S. officials, though apparently the ensuing investigation was slow to gain momentum. It wasn't until recently that the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami officially contacted Kurt Schafer to express interest in questioning him. In a letter dated August 14, 1991, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lauren Priegues wrote to Schafer in Germany: "The United States Department of Justice and a federal grand jury are investigating violations of federal criminal law arising out of the sale and transportation of six live orangutans in foreign commerce." Priegues's letter went on to explain that Schafer was not considered a target of the investigation and that investigators wanted to speak with him only as a witness. While Matthew Block is not identified as the target, his name is mentioned. "I have spoken with Michael Metzger, Esq.," Priegues wrote, "who informed me that he is not representing you due to a potential conflict of interest arising from his prior representation of Matthew Block."
Priegues and Terry English, an agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whose name is included in the letter, would neither confirm nor deny that an investigation is underway, much less whether Block is its target. And although Block's lawyers deny he is guilty of any wrongdoing, they leave little doubt he is at the center of an onging probe. "Mr. Block's company is in compliance with all the laws," says Miami attorney Jon A. Sale. "Our view is that the entire U.S. Attorney's investigation is being pressured and pushed by Shirley McGreal and her people, and they have their own motives. Any information given to the U.S. Attorney's Office by her group we think is false."
Kurt Schafer, speaking by telephone from Germany, acknowledges that he has communicated by phone with Assistant U.S. Attorney Priegues and that he has met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents in Germany, but says he will not be coming to Miami to testify. The Bangkok Six case, though, opened his eyes to some of the brutal realities of the international ape trade. "I am a bird dealer and I never had any dealings with primates," he explains. "When I saw how they had packed these animals, I was very disturbed. It made me think I don't want to have anything to do with that business."
His revulsion led him to cooperate with the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office, the International Primate Protection League, and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which earlier this year aired an investigative report about primate smuggling generally and the Bangkok Six case in particular. In that program, Schafer openly admitted to his role in the illegal scheme but refused to name the "friend" who had asked him to help transport the orangutans, nor would he provide the identity of the person known only as M. (The BBC journalists were also unsuccessful in their attempts to interview Matthew Block at his Worldwide Primates office near the airport. Metro-Dade police were summoned to have them removed from Block's property.) In his recent telephone interview, Schafer again declined to name his co-conspirators.
Although he confirms he provided some information to Shirley McGreal and IPPL, Schafer has since developed a distaste for her. He says she is "spreading a bunch of lies," and he blames her for delays and problems with the federal investigation. "This whole thing would be finished if she had not played everyone against each other," he says. "She's calling around, faxing around, making up stories, telling people things. She calls an agent in the United States and pushes and pushes him, then she calls his boss and says the agent isn't doing anything. That's her way. Playing everyone against everyone. And for her everybody is crooked. The United States government is crooked. The German government is crooked."
McGreal's position as a key player in the volatile world of animal advocacy was as late arriving in her life as Matthew Block's career was early in his. Originally from Chesire, England, McGreal moved to Thailand in 1971 after completing a doctorate in the history of education. She had barely arrived in Bangkok with her husband, who was working for UNICEF, when a latent interest in animal welfare was catalyzed. "Unfortunately Thailand really is a country where you see a lot of exotic animals around you in the animal trade and the animal markets," she says. "Right at the freight area at the airport we could see the monkeys leaving. It was actually something quite dreadful."
McGreal soon began writing letters to experts around the world, describing what she was witnessing and attempting to solicit interest in forming some kind of group to protect primates. "Of course, this was strange because I had no relevant background in this," she recalls, "but the response was overwhelming." Return letters offered assistance and enthusiastic support for her idea, and in 1973 she formed the International Primate Protection League, dedicated to the conservation of species in the wild, to the well-being of individual animals, and to the improvement of regulations governing the primate trade. As one of its first projects IPPL organized Thai university students to monitor primate shipments departing from the Bangkok airport.
In late 1975, McGreal and her husband left Thailand and later settled in South Carolina. But her great distance from the native homes of some of the world's most endangered primates did nothing to dampen her interest. She continued in her unpaid position as chairwoman of IPPL from the town of Summerville, near Charleston, and devoted all her time to developing an international network of activists whose techniques ranged from writing letters and promoting petition campaigns to dangerous undercover operations in which IPPL members would impersonate animal smugglers in order to gather evidence of illegal activity. Among the successes, McGreal and her group are credited with persuading India and Bangladesh to ban the exportation of rhesus monkeys, with shutting down illegal wildlife-smuggling routes out of Singapore, and with exposing an animal-laundering network in Poland.
Along the way, she has also created enemies. "We really have become a threat to some of those people with vested interests in exploiting primates," McGreal says with apparent pride. "There is this real feeling that to get rid of the group or to get rid of me would be getting rid of a real thorn in the side."
Few people have felt the irritation of that thorn as sharply as Matthew Block. More than a year before she helped to instigate the current federal investigation into his alleged involvement in the Bangkok Six scandal, Shirley McGreal was hot on Block's trail. In January 1989, she sent a letter to Peter Gerone, head of the Delta Regional Primate Research Center, a facility located in Covington, Louisiana, and associated with Tulane University. The letter explained that McGreal's group had learned the laboratory planned to contract Block to import for leprosy experiments 150 African monkeys known as sooty mangabeys. "[Block's] firm has received very damning criticisms from the Department of Agriculture inspectors and has tried to undermine inspectors' authority by going over their heads," McGreal wrote. (With her letter, McGreal included several critical USDA inspection reports of Block's facility dating to the mid-Eighties that verified her statements.)
In the letter, McGreal asked lab director Gerone to provide a variety of details regarding the proposed transaction, including whether the monkeys would be imported, the exact number to be used, the country where they would be caught, and the price for each. McGreal concluded her letter with this pointed question to Gerone: "These endangered primates would be far better off living in the wild than in your institution, wouldn't you agree if you were a nonhuman primate?" Gerone did not respond.
Eighteen months later, in June 1990, McGreal followed up her first letter with a one-sentence note to Gerone. "Should Delta patronize the company Worldwide Primates, we invite you to peruse this animal dealer's notice from the Centers For Disease Control suspending his license to import primates."
The CDC had revoked Block's federally required registration as an animal importer after citing him for 46 quarantine violations in March 1990. (The revocation was part of a nationwide emergency inspection prompted by a devastating viral outbreak at a Virginia primate facility. Hundreds of monkeys died and humans were thought to be endangered.) At Block's warehouse CDC inspectors found that monkeys in one level of cages were defecating on monkeys below them. They discovered that employees were preparing lunch in the quarantine area, and were regularly taking their clothes home to be laundered rather than washing them in the building. They also found waste on the floor and more waste draining from a commercial dumpster outside. (Block has since cleared up the problems and CDC has restored his importation registration.)
In August of last year, Block's company filed a federal lawsuit against McGreal, claiming she had "intentionally, maliciously, and unjustifiably" interfered in his business relationship with the research facility by sending the letters, in hopes the lab would cease dealing with Worldwide Primates. McGreal's actions, Block alleged, caused him to lose credibility and orders with the Delta Regional Primate Research Center. He is seeking more than $5000 in compensatory damages and more than $500,000 in punitive damages.
When he began looking into the report of a burglary last month at Worldwide Primates, Metro-Dade Det. Jorge Carreno knew nothing of the acrimonious relationship between Block and McGreal, or that Block might be the target of a federal criminal investigation. The break-in itself remained a physical mystery, though the more he learned about Block's business and those who oppose it, the more emphasis he placed on motive. But he still has not received a description of the contents of files Block says were stolen, and thus he's been unable to speculate about who might have had an interest in the material.
Attorneys defending Shirley McGreal against Block's lawsuit certainly have an interest in his company's files, but they, too, have been left to wonder about what might have been removed from the office. McGreal's lawyers have been jousting with Block's attorneys during the pretrial process known as discovery, in which representatives from each side request information and documents from the other. McGreal has asked for comprehensive information regarding Worldwide Primates, including financial data dating back to 1981; records regarding business dealings with Delta Regional Primate Research Center in Louisiana; all documents related to Shirley McGreal, IPPL, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; as well as all paperwork dealing with any illegal wildlife transactions he may have been involved in, and the actions of governmental authorities and U.S. embassies in countries where primates live. After more than a year of legal battling, Block has refused to turn over a single document.
"Nothing of substance has been accomplished since this thing was filed," says Bart Billbrough, the Miami attorney representing McGreal. "It has always been my concern that this case was filed not because somebody thought they were wronged but because somebody thought that they could either a) get the jump on the criminal investigation, b) harass and otherwise make life miserable for someone interested only in public good, or c) some other hidden agenda totally unrelated. Worldwide apparently thinks that Dr. McGreal is the instigator of a presently ongoing criminal investigation, and if she provided some assistance to government authorities investigating Worldwide or other related parties, it would behoove them to find out what information she has. I think their discovery requests and entire litigation may entirely be directed to that goal."
Billbrough's speculation about a link between Block's civil lawsuit and the U.S. Attorney's criminal investigation is lent credence by a couple of things. Block has attempted to take a sworn deposition from Christopher Terrill, who has no known connection to the Louisiana lab, but who was the producer of the highly critical BBC investigative report that detailed the Bangkok Six smuggling operation and Block's possible involvement. And Block has also requested all information McGreal has on file pertaining to Worldwide Primates, presumably including anything she might have turned over to law enforcement officials. In addition, Block, in refusing to answer written questions from McGreal's attorney, has taken the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination more than 40 times, a highly unusual tactic in civil litigation.
Coral Gables attorney Paul Bass, who is pressing Block's lawsuit against McGreal, says simply, "I wouldn't file anything that I didn't think was legitimate." McGreal's discovery requests, Bass claims, are largely irrelevant. "A lot of the things she has asked for just have nothing to do with the lawsuit," he says. "She is just looking for Mr. Block to provide documents she can use to continue her witchhunt and cause as many problems for his business as she can." Bass also pointedly notes that McGreal, like Block, has refused to turn over a single document.
That may change soon. In August, U.S. Magistrate William Turnoff ordered McGreal to produce everything Block has requested. And last month a new court order further damaged her defense. McGreal's attorneys have filed motions asking for a reconsideration, and specifically mentioned Block's suspected efforts to gather wide-ranging information that might pertain to the U.S. Attorney's criminal investigation.
McGreal is indignant. "What's happening here is our little hero sues me but he doesn't have to turn over anything that I need to defend myself in court," she complains. "Then I'm supposed to open all my files so he can just have a good time with them? There's something wrong with that, especially when this is just part of the effort to silence the people who are trying to protect these animals. You know, document production goes with the turf, so if you don't want your documents to be public, you don't file a lawsuit. It's as simple as that."
McGreal may see the simplicity in theory, and she may eventually prevail in her courtroom efforts to force Block's cooperation in producing material. But because of the burglary, she may be frustrated yet again. No one knows what documents were stolen from Worldwide Primates' files. Block himself says he probably won't know until an employee needs a record for some reason and finds it missing.
Det. Jorge Carreno gets a headache just thinking about that sort of inconclusive limbo. As a cop with a specialty in burglary, he needs solid answers to do his job. "I don't know much about it, but maybe the animal-rights people needed something from inside there to help out their case in court," he ventures. That might explain the video cassette wrapper and the film canisters, he says, left there after photographs and video of the inside of the facility were taken. But then he rejects the theory as too obvious. "It points too much to the animal-rights people," Carreno says. "It makes them look too much like the bad guy. Maybe during the trial they'll show up with film or something and it will prove they were in there. But somehow I doubt it, because then I could prove they were in there illegally."
McGreal vehemently denies that any of her allies were involved in a break-in of Block's headquarters, and notes that there was nothing in her letters to the Louisiana lab (source of the lawsuit against her) that needed proof from inside Block's office. Documentation for her statements was provided along with the letter.
"The whole thing just doesn't make sense," Carreno says in exasperation. "It does seem `convenient' during this lawsuit that this would happen. This burglary is extremely, extremely weird.
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.
- Facebook Killer Derek Medina Found Guilty
- St. Louis Rams Player Stedman Bailey Expected to Survive After Drive-By Shooting in...
- With Beckham's Little Havana Stadium Just About Dead, Overtown Could Be Next