Near dawn on Wednesday, January 21, Everglades airboat captain Jesse Kennon was jolted awake by the whirring of helicopter blades over his roof. His first thought: That sounds like Rescue One.
The ruddy-skinned, ponytailed patriarch of Coopertown had heard Miami-Dade Fire Rescue choppers many times before. He estimates he's seen 50 serious accidents directly outside his place on Tamiami Trail, where Miami drivers and a narrow two-lane road form a lethal combination.
White-and-chocolate Miccosukee Police cruisers were crowded haphazardly around the accident about 400 feet to the east, their lights flashing but sirens silent. Kennon had seen tribal cops and Florida Highway Patrol work together at the scene of an accident before, he says, "but this was the first time I'd seen only tribal cops working a crash."
A pair of three-ton vehicles lay crumpled and strewn like spent soda cans on opposite sides of the road. A dark blue Ford Expedition SUV was overturned on the guardrail in the eastbound lane; three of its wheels were in the air, and its fender was ground into the asphalt.
A wrecked silver four-door Nissan Frontier pickup was in the opposite lane. Its torn-away hood, bearing a deep crater on the driver side, exposed the compacted engine. The left front tire rested on a metal rim, and the right wheel was twisted perpendicular to the vehicle. The front window was shattered and sunken. The truck looked as if a giant hand had balled it up.
The Frontier belonged to Tatiana Furry, a 31-year-old Kendall yachtswoman who sometimes made trips to Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, about four miles to the east, to play bingo or poker. For her family, a surreal nightmare was about to begin.
Fourteen hours after the accident, her father Jack was finally informed his daughter had been killed in the collision. She had "fallen asleep" and been "internally decapitated," tribal Det. Russell Barnes told him, adding that, as the first cop on the scene, he had personally checked her vitals. There were "two people in the [other] vehicle," detectives told the Furrys, though they refused to give names.
Four months later, Jack Furry and his family have received no further information from the cops — and have found the account they were given is riddled with inconsistencies and falsehoods.
Other law enforcement agencies have been misled as well. An FHP sergeant who arrived at the scene an hour after the accident was turned away. "We relied on information from the Miccosukee Police Department," Capt. Mark Welch says. "It wasn't until later that we found out it was in fact not within their jurisdiction."
Though the police have refused to release reports or even an official statement concerning the accident, New Times has discovered that the four young Miccosukee men involved in the accident, who all survived, have amassed at least 17 traffic-infraction and nine criminal charges, including driving with an unlawful blood alcohol level, having an open container of alcohol in a vehicle, and possessing cocaine. At the time of the accident, the Expedition's driver, a grandson of the Miccosukee tribal chairman, was battling a felony charge in court.
"Why did they lie to us about how many people were in the car?" Tatiana's older brother Will demands as he stands in his comfortable Coconut Grove sunroom. "Why won't they give us any information at all on the other vehicle? Why did it take them 14 hours to contact us? I have no choice but to believe that they're hiding something."
The 500-plus members of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians are descendants of unconquered warriors who, in centuries of fighting, have never retreated from an aggressor.
Close brothers within the Creek Family to the Seminoles, but always defined by their own Mikasuki language, they came from the Carolinas to Florida in the 1700s as mercenaries recruited by the Spanish to guard against British invasion.
In the 1830s, Miccosukees and Seminoles refused to be herded along the Trail of Tears to desolate Midwestern plains. They clung to state soil in the seven-year Florida War, which was among the bloodiest and most expensive Indian battles in American history.
Miccosukees fled into the untamed Everglades wilderness and weathered another American invasion in 1860. They overmatched their opponent in the swamp. "It was a guerrilla warfare battle in the Everglades," says Paul George, historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, "and the American government lost its advantage."
But the fighting and disease decimated the tribe. Numbers dwindled to roughly a hundred by the turn of the 20th Century. They established trade relations with the white man along the Miami River, but Miccosukees always regarded themselves as a renegade nation, making their own rules and strategic allies. In 1959, a group of six high-ranking tribe members visited Fidel Castro, who recognized them as visiting diplomats and saluted their "perseverance and courage."
The Miccosukees have never entered into a treaty with the United States. But from the federal government's perspective, they share the same shaky sovereign status as all other Native American nations — self-rule with numerous caveats. "Dependent sovereignty" allows them no jurisdiction over non-Indians, and limited power over their own tribe.
Tribal courts can neither hear serious charges such as murder nor impose sentences more severe than one year in prison. And federal authorities can overrule any decision made in Indian court. "We are the citizens of three different governments: tribal, state, and federal," says David E. Wilkins, a Lumbee tribe member and professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota. "We are entangled by the web of intergovernmental relations."
South Florida's Seminoles have had their share of sovereignty-related squabbles, especially since building the massive Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. In 2007, an Air Force airman was arrested by tribal police in a fight at the casino and was denied the right to see evidence against him. When actress and former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith died there of a drug overdose around the same time, Broward prosecutors were limited to backing up Seminole cops. And the tribe has long simply ignored personal-injury suits filed by visitors to its casinos.
But perhaps no tribe has had such a contentious recent history involving sovereignty as the Miccosukee, which in the past decade has waged an escalating cold war with the American government.
In 1997, Kirk Douglas Billie, a 29-year-old Miccosukee man who had previously used his status as a member of the tribe to dodge county charges of domestic abuse, drove his ex-girlfriend's SUV into an Everglades canal as the couple's sons, ages 3 and 5, slept in the back seat. He jumped to safety before the car hit water, and the kids drowned. The tribal court absolved him. "The tribe members believe they have handled the issues, Indian to Indian," tribe chairman Billy Cypress explained at the time. "In accordance with the tribe's customary and traditional dispute resolution, [the clans] shook hands and determined that forgiveness was appropriate.''
Unfortunately for Billie, the canal was on state property, and the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office stuck him with two counts of first-degree murder. Miccosukee lawyers blocked prosecutors from tribal land and threatened to arrest armed agents. The tribe refused to furnish police reports, and Indian cops who cooperated with the state investigation were fired, prosecutors claimed. Nevertheless, in 2001, Billie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Miccosukee court is often accused of meting out lax or unbalanced justice. "It was not remotely like any legitimate justice system I've ever experienced," says Sandy Bohrer, a Miami attorney who once argued a case there involving casino gaming (and sometimes represents New Times in press matters). "Frankly, my experience was that the American government's guilt [over its historical mistreatment of Native Americans] had led to a travesty of justice."
"It's not exactly like our [system], no," counters Miccosukee tribe representative Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. "But is it fair? Unequivocally, yes. Is it rigorous? You better believe it. I think the tribal court is probably more concerned with rehabilitation and kind of a family-oriented, holistic resolution than our courts are."
Former tribal Officer Alonzo Moncur says abiding by the tribe's "lenient" sense of justice "contradicts the oath that you take for the State of Florida." The Miami Gardens native joined the 80-plus-officer Miccosukee Police Department — which includes no tribe members — in November 2004 at age 23. He soon learned of the department's "backward" policies — such as letting drunk-driving suspects cool their heels in a cell until, he says, "they're ready to blow a triple zero," and then letting them go.
Another former cop, who requests anonymity, corroborates Moncur's claim. Now employed by another local force, he was a 19-year-old police novice when he enlisted in August 2004. After arresting a tribe member suspected of driving drunk, he says, officers were supposed to call a tribal judge at home. They were invariably given "catch-and-release" instructions, he says.
"That's pure fantasy," responds attorney Lewis. "They have axes to grind. [The anonymous officer] was fired, dismissed as a result of performance issues."
Soon after the anonymous policeman joined the force, he says, he spotted Chairman Cypress's silver Mercedes swerving recklessly as it sped west on Tamiami Trail. When he flashed his cruiser's light and pulled him over, the chairman was unapologetic. "He said, 'You know who I am, right?'" the officer says. "Then he shut the door and fled."
Cypress led him on a high-speed chase, the officer says, before finally pulling over again. "Fuck off," was the chairman's blunt greeting, claims the cop.
Cypress, he adds, was never charged in any court for the night's driving crimes. (Attorney Lewis says the cop fabricated the account.)
On January 29, 2006, the chairman was heading west along the Trail in his red Lincoln Mark LT pickup, according to court documents. Just before 10 p.m., he smashed into a white Ford Econoline van carrying Maria and Rene Aguilar. The Miami couple was on the way home from Fort Myers. According to an insurance analysis later filed in state court, Cypress was traveling in the wrong lane.
A blood test pegged the chairman's blood alcohol content at .141 — well over the legal limit of .08. During Cypress's ensuing DUI case in tribal court, he insisted he had downed no more than two Bud Lights.
Cypress was acquitted in the tribal court. Lewis claims analysts bungled the alcohol test. "The records were fundamentally wrong," he says. The couple both claimed serious injuries. Their lawyer filed a civil suit in state court and then confidentially settled it.
Cypress, age 58, didn't respond to interview requests, but his stance on Miccosukee sovereignty is well known. "This is not the United States," he told New Times in a 1995 interview. "People don't understand that, and they never will."
Tatiana Furry was born in 1978 in Anaheim Hills, California, a placid hamlet packed with golf courses and athletes' mansions. She was the middle sister to two brothers and the daughter of Jack Furry and Helene Hamaty — he a self-made entrepreneur of Lebanese and Irish descent who owned exotic-import car dealerships and a commuter airline, she a Jamaican-born nurse.
Tatiana was always something of a tomboy and played soccer from age 6. Her genes clearly pulled mostly from her father's Irish heritage, and she developed a well-built frame as she hit her teenage years. She became the enforcer in cleats. "She was really a force on the soccer field, very physical," says Robin Schmidt, Tatiana's lifelong friend. "She was always the type of girl that just loved being outside, running around, with a smile on her face."
Tatiana got serious about basketball when she entered her hometown Canyon High School; she played as a point guard on the varsity squad all four years. "There was one game where I was in the stands, where her team was down by two with a couple of seconds left," says Helene, recounting a Furry legend with perhaps a bit of maternal embellishment. "She shot it from half-court right at the buzzer and got it right in the hoop. It was quite tremendous."
In 1996, just before his daughter's senior year, Jack took a new position in Miami as president of SureCredit USA Home Loans. Tatiana was initially upset to leave her lifelong friends, but after a year at Palmetto High, she attended Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville. Rooming with a couple of girls from the University of Florida, she became such a fervent Gators football fan that one might've guessed she'd been weaned in an orange-and-blue crib.
She quit college after two years and in 2003 bought a small condo on Kendall Drive for just under $130,000. She went to work first as a marketing director for her dad's mortgage company, then as a manager of her brother Will's Coconut Grove spa, and finally as a first mate on America One, the Furrys' charter yacht. In September 2008, she began doing side work aboard a University of Miami research boat. Mom predicts Tatiana would've spent her working life at sea.
She was nicknamed "Trouble" by her friends for her rambunctious air. One oft-told story had her housesitting for a neat-freak friend and switching all of the kitchen drawers, and the salt with the sugar. The only charge on her Miami-Dade criminal record is for sale of alcohol to a minor, when she was 23; it was dropped, and the file has been destroyed. She had one county speeding ticket: In late 2008, she was clocked going 61 in a 40 mph zone, for which she paid the $305 fine.
And she was fit. Even as an adult, she played soccer on an amateur team called Miami Storm in Kendall's Thompson Park. Tatiana was single and maternally attached to her peach-and-white beagle TJ. "That was her kid," says Lisette Arancibia, who worked with Tatiana at Jack's mortgage business. "She didn't want to go anywhere that she couldn't bring TJ along."
She would say, "'Oh God, I don't ever want to get married,'" Arancibia continues, "but I knew she was joking. She wanted kids one day, and she wanted boys."
In mid-January, members of Tatiana's extended family flew into Miami. They planned a joint celebration: Tatiana would turn 31 on January 17, and her grandmother, also named Tatiana, marked her 92nd birthday the next day.
That Saturday night, around 70 friends and relatives packed a ballroom in Coral Gables' Riviera Country Club. As her opera-trained grandmother played the piano and sang, Tatiana shimmied with a few of her youngest cousins. "Tati was dancing around the floor holding them," recalls Jamie Furry, Will's wife. "All the children loved her."
Adds uncle Robert Hamaty, who flew in from the Cayman Islands: "It's like everybody was brought together for one last time for a reason."
Tatiana received mostly cash in envelopes for her birthday — money that might have inspired her, three days later, to make a late-night trip to the casino. She sometimes played bingo or slots with Arancibia. Or Tatiana worked the poker room, a no-frills smoke-clogged den where hard-boiled, mostly male players might spend days on end. "I wouldn't have sat there by myself," Arancibia says, "but she was never intimidated by anything."
The last person who is known to have spoken with Tatiana is her friend Deri Hill, who phoned her to chat around 10:30 p.m. January 20. Tatiana said she was "just chilling," which usually meant she was curled up with TJ in front of the television. Hill heard no background noise — none of the ding-ding-ding ambiance of a casino.
Will Furry says it's "not shocking" that his sister might've made an impulsive late-night trip to the casino, but why she would've been almost five miles west of it is a "complete mystery," he says.
"I don't know what happened, which makes it really tough to deal with," Arancibia says. "I don't understand the silence."
Arancibia will most likely never make another trip to the casino. She tries to avoid being reminded of Tatiana's absence. "I think of her like she's gone on a trip," she confides. "I let myself believe that she's gone to visit California, or maybe she's out doing a charter — that she's doing something that made her happy."
In mid-March, nearly two months after Tatiana's death, an editor at the Miami Herald received an envelope with no return address, according to an account given Will Furry by reporter David Ovalle. Inside was what appeared to be a Miccosukee Police report on the fatal accident, as well as six computer printouts of photos taken at the scene. Also included was a letter slamming the tribe's police department, apparently written by a disgruntled officer. The Herald published the report and photos even though they weren't officially verified. The letter was withheld.
If genuine, the documents cast some light on the other people involved in the accident, all of them young Miccosukee men: Clifton Huggins III, age 17; Travis Osceola, 18; Jared Tiger, 24; and Billy Cypress's grandson, Kent Billie, 20.
The reports also contradict Det. Russell Barnes's assertion to the Furrys that there were two people in the other car. (Indeed, Miccosukee attorney Lewis confirms the four men were "involved" in the accident.)
Tribal Officer Abner Rodriguez arrived at the scene at 4:12 a.m., according to the report, and was immediately approached by Huggins and Osceola. "We were traveling east to go fuel up at Dade Corners," Osceola told the officer, referring to a gas station located kitty-corner from the Miccosukee casino at Krome Avenue. "And we saw this pickup truck heading straight at us." (Rodriguez didn't return a call seeking comment.)
Rodriguez noted a "strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from Clifton Huggins' breath."
The cop made his way to the overturned Ford Expedition, where he found two people still inside. The driver, Billie, was splayed in the center of the truck, "unresponsive" but alive, according to the police report. Tiger was crawling through a blown-out rear window. Rodriguez helped him out as two more tribal cops arrived.
Turning to the Nissan Frontier, Rodriguez found Tatiana lying on the "rear passenger side seated in a crouched position." There were no vital signs. When a Miami-Dade squad car arrived, Huggins was apparently perturbed. He remarked, "Ah, man, they're not going to handle this and fuck with us, are they?" according to the report.
While paramedics treated Huggins for a "minor laceration to his left arm," two Miami-Dade Fire Rescue choppers arrived and airlifted Billie and Tiger.
The Herald's coverage of the accident had at least one glaring inconsistency. The newspaper stated Miami-Dade Fire Rescue helicopters "transported two seriously injured men from the SUV — one 25, the other 35, to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami." Neither age matches that of Kent Billie or Jared Tiger, the men who were airlifted, according to the leaked report. (Contacted by New Times, Miami Dade Fire Rescue declined to release Air Rescue records.)
The Herald took the leak one controversial step further, submitting the materials to local accident-analysis expert William J. Fogarty, who determined "Furry's Nissan Frontier crossed over the median and into the Ford," causing the wreck. But one of Fogarty's colleagues, Miles Moss, notes that far more rigorous testimony would be required in court. He calls the conclusion "speculation."
Attorney Lewis says the theory that Tatiana was at fault is "in line with my own findings." He claims to have "hard, concrete evidence" Tatiana had spent the night drinking heavily at the casino and had become "unruly... She was out at the hotel for several hours, gambling and drinking throughout. Unfortunately, she had been asked to leave, but she got in her car despite the fact that security tried to call her a taxi."
Lewis does not elaborate on the source of his findings. As per county policy, Tatiana's blood was drawn at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office, but those results have not been made public.
The lawyer attempts to win sympathy for his clients. "They're four young boys, two of whom have suffered serious injuries, one of which was life-threatening," Lewis laments. "These are kids who were out playing computer games and videogames before this accident occurred."
The morning of Monday, April 6, an orderly in blue scrubs rolls a wheelchair-bound Kent Billie into the Broward County Courthouse, just south of downtown Fort Lauderdale. Billie's crumpled outfit consists of a blue striped button-down shirt tucked into pajama pants and puffy socks under rubber sandals. His left pant leg is rolled up to accommodate a heavy brace screwed into his gauzed shin. His hair sticks up wildly, and the goatee he sported in an old mug shot has been shaven. He's accompanied by two older female relatives wearing bright dresses. Even with tattoos peeking out from the edges of his clothing, the 145-pound, five-foot-five-inch 20-year-old looks like a sickly pediatric patient.
But try to maneuver through his entourage and his petite attorney, Kathryn Meyers, steps in like a blocking linebacker. "Would you just allow him to speak to his lawyer?" she demands.
All four young men involved in the accident with Tatiana Furry have been charged with crimes or driving offenses, none of them related to the January 21 incident. Until now, their rap sheets have gone unreported. The record of the chairman's grandson and alleged driver, Kent Billie, includes the most serious charges.
Around 9 p.m. Saturday, November 8, 2008, less than three months before the fatal accident, Billie was doing 71 mph in a 50 mph zone on Route 27. Travis Osceola was in the passenger seat. When Pembroke Pines Police Officer Scott Kushi pulled over the 2008 gray Ford SUV, he smelled marijuana, and Billie handed over a "five-gram" bag of "suspect cannabis," according to a police report. Kushi also turned up "one gram of suspect cocaine" in Billie's right pants pocket. "Billie advised," continues the report, "that he had purchased the cannabis for $100 and the cocaine for $50."
During Billie's arrest, the cop also discovered an open bottle of Jack Daniel's in the vehicle. Officer Kushi cuffed Osceola too, for "five grams of suspect cannabis" he found on him.
According to a plea deal reached in April, Billie's charges will be dropped if he completes a two-year program including abstinence from alcohol and drugs. Osceola's pot possession charge will be similarly forgiven.
Then there's Clifton Huggins, who in October 2007 was clocked by a Broward Sheriff's Office deputy in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea zooming through a 40 mph zone at 70 mph in his silver 2006 Jeep SUV without a driver's license. He was then 16 years old. Less than a month later, his driving privileges were suspended for six months after he was pulled over in Hillsborough County for driving recklessly; his blood alcohol level was over the limit, according to court records. In May 2008, a judge revoked his license indefinitely after he failed to appear in Miami-Dade court for allegedly making an improper U-turn and "knowingly" driving without a license.
In June 2008, Jared Tiger, driving a black 2008 Ford Explorer, was busted doing 61 mph in a 45 mph zone as he traveled east on Tamiami Trail a few miles past the casino. The Miami-Dade Police officer detected a "strong smell of marijuana" and saw a joint on the console, according to a police report. When ordered to step out of the SUV, Tiger "became aggressive, clos[ing] his fist" and yelling, "'What? What you say?'" He was cuffed and charged with possession of cannabis and resisting an officer, but the charges were dropped after Tiger completed a pretrial intervention program in February 2009.
Efforts to contact the young men through calls to their cell phones, visits to their homes, and messages to their online accounts have proven fruitless. They live just outside the Miccosukee Indian Village, in the rural town of Ochopee, where tribe members' houses are often gaudy affairs, expansive and columned. High-priced toys, such as brand-new SUVs and sports cars, airboats, and golf carts for inter-reservation travel, litter the lawns. Revenue from the Miccosukee casino has made the citizenry rich: The $75 million-plus the resort brings in annually is split among tribe members.
When a New Times reporter knocks on the front door of Jared Tiger's slate-gray home, the lanky, goateed young man, who stands five feet five inches tall and weighs only 130 pounds, answers. Tattoos on his neck bear his initials and the word shotgun in delicate script, and he winces against the sunlight as if it wounds him. "Yeah, I don't want to discuss anything," he tells a reporter.
Asked if he was injured in the accident, Tiger answers, "No, not much," and shuts the door.
Around 7 p.m. on the chilly, clear night of February 18, Thomas Cypress, Chairman Billy Cypress's 54-year-old brother, was driving west along Tamiami Trail when his silver 2000 Toyota Tundra slammed into a red Chevrolet coupe traveling the other way. The driver and passenger of the Chevy, Robert and Paulette Kirkpatrick, retired husband-and-wife schoolteachers from Maryland on their way home from an arts festival in Naples, were both dead before ambulances arrived. The accident was less than a month after Tatiana's, its location less than a mile west.
Cypress was in the wrong lane as he attempted to pass another car, according to a police report. He had a case of Budweiser beside him, and his blood alcohol content was .249, cops say, more than three times the legal limit. He had been convicted of three previous DUIs and was driving with a suspended license.
After the accident, Will Furry was uncharacteristically irate. "They're killing people; they're killing people," he declared incredulously. "In one month, they've killed three people!"
Law enforcement officials' handling of the Thomas Cypress accident, however, was markedly different from that of Tatiana Furry. Florida Highway Patrol was first on the scene and never relinquished control. "We've had discussions with the tribe," says FHP spokesman Lt. Pat Santangelo, "and the directive that we have... instructs us to handle any type of a traffic fatality that happens on that stretch of road."
Cypress was charged with two counts of DUI manslaughter by Miami-Dade prosecutors. On March 24, a judge rejected his request to be released to an alcohol-abuse center "sensitive" to Native Americans, and he remains in jail. His trial will begin in late June.
In Tatiana's case, the Miccosukees have not cooperated with state prosecutors, who as of early April had interviewed the tribal policemen involved but hadn't received requested reports. An investigation into "the circumstances of the Furry accident and death" is "ongoing," says Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith. "The SAO simply seeks to obtain the reports and evidence that every other police force in Dade supplies to the prosecutor's office... Since this was not a tribal incident occurring on tribal land, we do not believe that tribal sovereignty issues apply."
Will Furry knows little more now than he did a week after the accident. His lawyers have warned him it might be years before the State Attorney's Office reveals any findings.
On a recent day, he sits near his pool with his wife Jamie and a hyperactive Chihuahua puppy named Spartacus, a new member of the family. The couple has just returned from a weeklong vacation with family friends in San Francisco: "I had to take a break from all of this," Will says.
After acting as spokesman for the family, Will has finally begun to relax a little. He can finally grieve for his sister. Today he mentions her funeral-at-sea. The ashes were scattered from the Furrys' yacht off Key Biscayne, one of her favorite spots to dock. As they left port in Coconut Grove, "every boat around us started blasting their horns," Will recalls, his cheeks suddenly damp with tears at the simple memory. "She's going to be so missed on those docks."
Tatiana's parents have also retreated from Miami, heading in early April to Jamaica. Helene has begun reading the Bible more often and tries to stay busy with household chores. "It doesn't make any difference, though," she says over the phone. "It goes with you everywhere you go. There's no closure. It's a mother's worst nightmare."
Helene prays every night that Kent Billie "will get better and that he will find God," she says. She is unconcerned with who was at fault. "I want the truth. I hope for truth and justice, one way or another."
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.