The Avenging Angel of North Bay Village
Depending on your point of view, Fane Lozman, during the scant thirteen months he's lived in North Bay Village, has either wreaked havoc on the town or single-handedly saved it from its worst demons.
First was Lozman's confrontation with Adolph "Al" Coletta, one of the city's most prominent and influential businessmen. That was a very public battle involving alleged death threats, acts of intimidation, and a barrage of lawsuits. The conflict with Coletta led Lozman to Bob Dugger, a city commissioner whose ties to the businessman looked suspicious. Lozman is a wealthy, 42-year-old computer software entrepreneur, hardly the type to be mistaken for a private detective. But after his wide-ranging investigation of Dugger, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office indicted the commissioner on one felony and seven misdemeanor charges. (Dugger's trial begins in June.) Now the North Bay Village police chief is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for possible official misconduct -- and yes, Fane Lozman is deeply involved.
The police chief, Irving Heller, is suspected of drawing and circulating a series of crude, pornographic cartoons in which Lozman is variously depicted as a rapist, a political extortionist, and a "faggot cross-dressing piece of shit." Last week North Bay Village City Manager James Vardalis informed Heller he was about to be placed on administrative leave until completion of the FDLE investigation, which Vardalis had requested. The chief, who is 71 years old, vehemently denied being the pornographic illustrator and preempted his boss by taking an emergency family medical leave to care for his ailing wife.
If Lozman harbors misgivings about precipitating civic turmoil in this island town of 6700 residents, he's not letting on. "We need to abolish the local government and become part of Miami or Miami Beach," he declares. "It's that or tell Gov. Jeb Bush to send in the National Guard."
The salacious-cartoon scandal began the morning of January 24. Lozman says he was sifting through his mail when he came across an envelope with no return address. He tore it open and unfolded a single sheet of paper. What he beheld was the sort of raunch more commonly found on the wall of a public restroom. A male figure on hands and knees appears to be performing fellatio on another man. The kneeling figure is identified this way: "I am a flaming faggot Fane cocksucker." The man being serviced is supposed to be Horace "Tony" Fonseca, a local resident and friend of Al Coletta and Bob Dugger. The anonymous artist crammed onto the page lots of dialogue, all of it written in chunky capital letters. In potty-mouth language, the two figures discuss Lozman's alleged rape of a female celebrity four years ago in Las Vegas. The Lozman character begs to have sealed police records kept secret.
The real Lozman says he returned the drawing to its envelope and took it to the North Bay Village police headquarters, where he filled out an incident report charging that "either Fonseca is responsible or someone else is trying to make it look like Fonseca did it."
Relations between Lozman and Fonseca, never friendly, deteriorated following Dugger's November arrest. Lozman accused Fonseca of distributing defamatory material alleging that he'd raped one of the Barbi twins, sisters who gained notoriety posing together for Playboy magazine in the Nineties. Then Lozman was arrested after Fonseca claimed he'd assaulted him. The State Attorney's Office dropped the charge when witnesses for the prosecution, including Fonseca, failed to appear in court.
About a week after receiving the first cartoon, Lozman discovered in his mail another envelope with no return address. This time he donned latex gloves before carefully opening it. Inside was another crude cartoon, this one showing Lozman raping one of the Barbis. (Shane and Sia Barbi, through their attorney, deny the allegations.) Lozman says he placed the letter and envelope in a Ziploc bag for "forensic preservation" and delivered it to city manager Vardalis.
By this time, Lozman says, his trust in the police department had eroded. A month after being arrested at the behest of Fonseca, Lozman was again busted by NBV cops -- for supposedly fleeing a police officer, a charge Lozman dismisses as ridiculous. (The case is pending.) Further, he claims Lt. Joe McCready, the officer assigned to investigate the first cartoon, did nothing to solve the mystery.
Not surprisingly, Lozman initiated his own investigation of the cartoons. He conducted an informal survey of several city employees and asked if they recognized the handwriting. The response left him dumbfounded: "They all said it looked like Chief Heller's. Why would Heller come after me?" he asks, then answers his own question: "Well, I've set my scope on his pal, Mayor Alan Dorne."
Lozman, who refers to Dorne as a "dictator," is currently on a mission to oust the mayor before his term expires this November. If Heller did create the cartoons, Lozman theorizes, it might have been the chief's warped way of showing solidarity with Dorne. (The two men, veterans of the Miami-Dade Police Department, have been friends for more than 30 years.)
Motives aside, the thought that the elderly Heller would resort to such puerile tactics was baffling. But the handwriting similarities were obvious even to the untrained eye. Handwritten city memos from Heller display a strong resemblance to the text of the two cartoons Lozman received and to a third received by Tony Fonseca. "At first we thought it was Lozman doing this," Fonseca recalls. "Now people are saying it was the chief of police. But I can't believe someone like Heller would have such a Machiavellian mind."
Meanwhile City Manager James Vardalis was developing his own suspicions. He won't discuss in detail what actions he took after Lozman brought him cartoon number two, but does acknowledge he consulted with the city attorney and subsequently decided to request that FDLE investigate and to place Heller on administrative leave.
Lozman says he wanted compelling evidence before publicly accusing the chief of being the culprit. As if in response, Lozman on February 12 received an e-mail from NBVPD@aol.com, the police department's general-information e-mail address. The message: "Heller printed both letters, and sent them to you."
The next day, Lozman claims, he received a call from assistant police chief Lonnie Cantor. "He had something to tell me," Lozman recounts, "but he wanted to do it in person." According to Lozman, Cantor met him in an unmarked police car on East Drive, near the marina where Lozman lives on a houseboat. He opened the passenger door and got in the car. Cantor, Lozman says, had with him a copy of the first cartoon and a brusque message: "I want you to know that Heller did do it." (Cantor declines to comment until the FDLE investigation is completed.)
Heller himself is indignant. "I don't care how closely it looks like my handwriting," he fumes. "I had nothing to do with those filthy drawings. Anyone who knows me knows I have more class than that. I really feel like I'm being set up here by someone."
He points to his 43 years of distinguished service with the Miami-Dade Police Department, where he rose through the ranks to finish his career in 2001 as an assistant director. Shortly thereafter Heller took the post in North Bay Village and has since received credit for turning around a department that for the past two decades has been wracked by scandal. Last year the county's largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, named Heller "Best Police Chief of the Year."
Despite his passionate denials, Heller says he is not conducting his own investigation to determine whether Cantor or anyone else under his command may be responsible for the cartoons. (Regarding Cantor, the chief is blunt: "He wants my job.") Heller explains that he is preoccupied with his wife's illness (she recently suffered a stroke) and has neither spoken to FDLE investigators nor confronted Cantor. He has, however, hired criminal defense attorney Steve Chaykin. And he's done something else -- he's attempted to contact Fane Lozman, with whom he once enjoyed cordial relations. "I've left messages on his cell phone but he never returns my calls," Heller laments. "I like Fane. He's done so much for the city, and I don't want to see the guy get hurt."
Back on his houseboat, Lozman dismisses Heller's denials and remains incensed. "When you have the police chief passing these letters around, who knows what could happen to me," he says. "I guess I'm a marked man in this town. But this ain't Chicago in the Twenties. This is sick behavior and I'm not going to tolerate it."
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