As he walks across the lawn of Miami Beach's Bass Museum, Leprechaun, a stocky drifter with a shaved head, apologizes for trespassing. Then the 30-year-old chuckles, realizing that he's about to commit a more serious crime. "We're going to pop meters," he declares.
Leprechaun, who declined to give his real name, arrived on the Beach about three weeks ago. Two days later friends revealed the secret of the current cash cow for vagrants and rascals: breaking into parking meters by using the metal key that comes with canned corned beef.
On a recent afternoon Leprechaun allowed New Times to accompany him on a larcenous sojourn. He strolled down Convention Center Drive, stopped in front of a meter, and slipped the tiny key into the machine's lock. It popped open in about three seconds. Empty. He was happy anyway. This stretch of road is right down the street from the Miami Beach parking department. "Make sure you put that in your story," he says.
Meter theft is epidemic in the island city this summer. Lawbreakers like Leprechaun have pilfered thousands of coins since June despite attempts by cops and parking officials to curb the thefts. Police can't say how many meters have been hit, though they have recorded 63 incidents from North Beach to South Pointe Park in just the past few months. The cops have arrested 58 people for the crime. The city estimates thousands of dollars in damage and lost revenue.
Criminals have removed the keys from hundreds of meat cans in convenience stores along Collins Avenue. A clerk at the 23rd Supermarket recounts that thieves have stolen the tiny metal pieces from two cases of cans. "It's a major issue on the Beach," he says, requesting that his name not be used. At the Stage Door Supermarket a couple of blocks south, clerk Zoyla Vasquez explains she removes the keys before placing the cans on the shelf. She stores them in a cigar box under the cash register. Vasquez began the practice about two months ago. "If you buy the can, then we give you the can opener," she says.
Beach parking officials say they are slowly implementing a solution. The city is buying electronic locks to replace the mechanical ones, which can easily be picked. The problem, according to Jackie Gonzalez, director of the city's parking department, is the manufacturer, POM Incorporated in Russellville, Arkansas. The company does not have enough stock to replace the clasps on 9000 meters. Since this past January the city has been receiving the replacements at a rate of about 200 to 300 per week.
Soon after the first parking meters were produced in Oklahoma in 1935, people began adopting the coin-laden machines as their personal ATMs. Need cash for beer, a bite to eat, or a movie? A few good whacks on the metal head and coins would come pouring out. But no one in South Florida can remember a crime spree as widespread as the one that has hit the Beach.
Although governments and meter manufacturers try to stay ahead of crooks, bad guys sometimes catch up. In February, Beach police arrested a city employee, Eby Loveland, for stealing from the meters he was supposed to be emptying. Then in June thieves discovered the corned beef-can-key method. "I would have to suppose someone experimented recently and the word spread," says Maj. Steve Robbins of the Miami Beach Police Department.
Parking director Gonzalez is concerned. "All of a sudden it is an epidemic," she admits. "We never had this type of a problem before."
In recent months undercover detectives, uniformed patrols, and parking-enforcement officers have all tried to track down the burglars. "It is being addressed," Robbins says.
But this crime wave does not come courtesy of the usual complement of losers. Included among the arrestees were a man driving a van with New York State tags and, in a separate incident, an elementary schooler. "I realized we had a problem when I interviewed an eleven-year-old and he said, 'It is really easy,'" Robbins says.
Since the bounty ranges from $20 to $60, police generally charge meter thieves with a misdemeanor; that usually translates to one night in the county jail.
Gonzalez is convinced the new electronic locks will solve the problem. Between November 1998 and January 1999, the parking department replaced many of the meters' inner-workings with digital readouts, electronic clocks to keep time, and a slot to accept debit cards. But maintenance workers did not update the locks, which are fifteen to twenty years old.
"My guess is these are twenty-year-old locks that are worn down and any thin metal thing can open them," opines John Van Horn, editor of the trade magazine Parking Today. "But it is the first time I have heard about corned beef-can keys."
Parking officials are hurrying to update the locks. The new ones will not open unless a card with a magnetic strip is inserted into a slot. To date 2300 meters feature the electronic clasp, Gonzalez says. Total cost for the new system, including the slot for a debit card is $270 per meter. At the current pace of replacing 300 meters per week, lawbreakers like Leprechaun will enjoy about six more months of easy money.
In the meantime the city is putting hoods over vandalized meters and allowing drivers to park at them for two hours without being ticketed, Gonzalez says. "The new ones are holding up to the test," she adds.
The director does not blame the manufacturer for building a lock that can be compromised with a corned beef key. "That would be like saying Ford was responsible for a drunk driver," she comments. "These are old meters with old systems in them."
Miami and Coral Gables, two other cities with many meters, have not experienced the corned beef problem, the cities' parking directors say. Miami's meters have better locks than those on the Beach, explains Clark Cook of Miami's Off-Street Parking Authority. Walter Stewart, acting director of the Coral Gables parking department, makes the same claim.
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As Beach parking officials move slowly toward a solution, shopkeepers wonder when the morass will end. "It's crazy," remarks Ray German, from behind the counter of the Family Food Market at 22nd Street and Collins. A quick survey of his store shelves revealed that all five cans of the meat were missing keys.
"Ticket and Run," by Jose Luis Jiménez, September 2