Theo Karantsalis had a nice little passport-photo business in downtown Hialeah, about a block from city hall. Since Karantsalis is an outgoing guy, given to philosophical discourse, he welcomed many interesting and eccentric people who also liked to shoot the breeze and who eventually got over the fact that Karantsalis was not Cuban or even Hispanic or even from Florida (Greek, grew up in the San Francisco area, does speak Spanish). Karantsalis's shop, Miami Passport Photo, was one of the urban gathering places featured in Ray Oldenburg's book of essays Celebrating the Third Place.
Since Miami Passport was in a part of Hialeah that is home to many assisted living facilities, and halfway houses, and abandoned buildings, Karantsalis also became familiar with visitors from the street, not all of whom were worth knowing. This past May 1 a young machete-wielding man got into an altercation with one of Karantsalis's customers. Karantsalis called 911 and proudly recalls he then "effected a citizen's arrest" of the twenty-year-old intruder, holding him at bay with a BB gun that looked like a genuine firearm.
But to Hialeah Police Ofcr. Cedric Philpot it looked like Karantsalis was attacking the addled kid, who has a long record of arrests for assault and battery, among other felonies (and who had allegedly tossed the machete outside to a friend to hide in a nearby vacant lot). Philpot, with the help of several other officers, arrested both men, who spent the night in the same jail cell.
And that's how Karantsalis's passport-photo business closed down and his hialeahsucks.com Website started up, and why the City of Hialeah is facing a lawsuit in small-claims court, and partly what prompted Karantsalis to write a book called Theo's Miami Guide to Sealing and Expunging Your Criminal Record (due out this November).
"I have to give the people what they want and what they need, and that's what most folks need down here," declares Karantsalis, not joking. He promptly saw to it that the felony charge against him was dropped and erased from the Miami-Dade County criminal database. Now 40 years old, tall with an angular jaw and close-cropped curly hair, Karantsalis (pronounced care-ant-sall-is) looks like the no-nonsense United States Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector he once was, but he speaks in a soft, inquiring voice and has a distinctly unbureaucratic manner.
Karantsalis has just finished another book, this one titled Theo's Guide to Kicking Ass in Small-Claims Court. He says it will be released any day now by the vanity press 1stBooks Library. Kicking Ass is the product of a decade of trial and error. Karantsalis has sued everyone from Janet Reno to Miami Parking Systems -- all in small-claims court, where procedural rules are simpler and winning doesn't require a high-priced lawyer. (Karantsalis's 1994 suit against Reno, an outgrowth of his INS job, was an anomaly. Transferred to federal court in San Francisco, it resulted in a settlement that Karantsalis says "paid for graduate school.")
His most recent targets have included several Hialeah cops, though so far he hasn't kicked much police ass in small-claims court. Karantsalis sued Ofcr. Peter Davila in 2000 because the officer's $400 check, partial payment for a used patrol car, bounced. (Karantsalis buys merchandise at police auctions and resells it.) "I got a little of the money back because [Davila] had to go to that school for bad-check writers the State Attorney's Office offers," Karantsalis remembers. "But when I tried to get the rest, I was told to wait in line." Davila no doubt had weightier matters on his mind, such as the federal drug-money laundering charge that eventually landed him in prison.
Another small-claims case took an unexpected turn. In 2000 Hialeah Ofcr. Glenn Rice, on a disturbance call to Karantsalis's shop, referred to him as a "fucking fruitcake." Karantsalis, alleging Rice "called me every name in the book," sought damages from the veteran officer in small-claims court.
"Theo shouldn't have sued [Rice] personally," reasons assistant Hialeah city attorney Rafael Granado. "If it's a civil matter, the statute says if the incident was during the course of employment, you must sue the government entity, not the individual officer. In the [Rice] case I went and talked to Theo and asked him: 'What will make you feel better?' I said we didn't do anything wrong, so he's not getting an apology."
Karantsalis, who earned his master's degree at the University of Miami in liberal studies and kept copies of Norton's Anthology of English Literature at his shop, figured it was really a lack of education that caused cops to insult and mistreat citizens. "So I asked the city to purchase books for the [Hialeah] police officers," Karantsalis explains, "and I was going to reach into my own pocket and match their contribution and provide the officers with the great classics of literature. But the city attorney said don't do that; they won't read them. So we donated $400 worth of books to the Hialeah library. I also wanted [HPD officers] to read a poem at roll call."
Every day for a week Rice stood up at roll call and read with a straight face: "I shall pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."
Rice, like any red-blooded Hialeah cop, appreciates the poem's sentiments but does not appreciate Karantsalis's motivation. The officer struggles with an appropriately respectful statement when contacted for his reaction. "If our powerful, fearless city attorneys caved in to this guy over this stupid matter," he finally concludes, "I have no comment."
Neither does Ofcr. Cedric Philpot have anything to say about Karantsalis's allegations he lied when reporting the May 1 altercation and arrests at Miami Passport Photo. At a July 23 pretrial hearing at the downtown courthouse on Flagler Street, Philpot sat in the back row watching absentmindedly as assistant city attorney Granado explained to county Judge Catherine Pooler why Karantsalis's suit should be dismissed. On the far side of the courtroom a clerk slumped disturbingly motionless over her computer keyboard; near the door one overweight attorney bit off chunks of a chocolate bar as another picked his nose while checking cell-phone messages. A wispy-haired grandmother in the audience wrung her hands. Pooler told Granado to put his argument in writing and come back in a few weeks. Outside the room, Karantsalis looked earnest while a lawyer he didn't know told him he couldn't win his case without an attorney. Obviously the man had not read Kicking Ass in Small-Claims Court. Chapter 8 is titled "What Most Lawyers Are Good For." The rest of the page is blank.
Karantsalis believes his pursuit of Officer Davila was the beginning of the end for his passport-photo shop and his peace of mind in Hialeah. Not only did he sue Davila in small-claims court but he pestered the police chief and Davila's supervisors, to no effect other than an unintended one. The police, who protect their own, got back at him in small ways, he alleges. There was the Rice incident, and occasions in which police were slow to respond to his calls. After his arrest Karantsalis never reopened the shop. Instead he put up www.hialeahsucks.com. "It's a protest site, because I can't protest in a conventional manner in that Third World city," he complains. "I wanted to carry a sign in front of city hall but was told if I did that, I would wear my sign."
Hialeahsucks.com comes down hard on much-maligned Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños, who has "nothing to say about it," according to department spokesman Frank Hernandez. "It's not true and it's stupid," Hernandez adds, perhaps referring to the site's detailed warning about the dangers of computer viruses, including the "rapidly mutating and spreading Chiefy B virus." Also featured is a poll in which readers were asked to vote on whether to "throw the chief out." The "audited" results (by "CD Andersen") show an overwhelming 5923-to-3 vote to fire Bolaños.
But some information is true and not stupid, such as a copy of the police report and an audio link to the 911 call following a July 3 fender-bender on Okeechobee Road. A pregnant woman in a Lexus was rear-ended by an elderly man in a Continental. The man drove away but the woman followed. Finally he pulled over and the woman called 911. She was later taken to Palmetto Hospital. The reason Karantsalis posted the incident on his Website is that the man was Nicolas Mahy, a top aide to Mayor Raul Martinez, who was actually driving the mayor's car.
Instead of classifying the incident as a hit-and-run, the police report called it a simple collision. "A few days later somebody else was involved in a hit-and-run," Karantsalis relates, "and he was taken to jail. He didn't have any connections. The police are sworn to protect and serve everyone, not just themselves and people in high places."
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Hialeahsucks.com is loaded with interesting items, including links to other sites created by Karantsalis. Avid clickers will find out a lot about Theo Karantsalis, but not everything. They may not learn, for example, about the 50 or so domain names he owns, formerly including doralryderopen.com, which he bought for $70 and then sold to the Doral-Ryder Open golf tournament for $10,000. (That made him feel so opportunistic, he says, he ended up donating the money to a golf program for underprivileged children.) Karantsalis, a Miami Springs resident, also acquired MiamiSpringsPolice.com before the department had a chance to register the name. But to the department's relief, Karantsalis offered to transfer the name for $35. "Springs police going on the Web," trumpeted the River Cities Gazette in June 2001.
About that time Karantsalis was conducting his first political campaign for Miami Springs City Council. He didn't do too well, but before the election was over, he did manage to confuse scores of people for no apparent reason. The Miami Herald coverage of the situation gives perhaps the best snapshot of the April Fools' Day prank:
April 1, 2001: "A Miami Springs City Council candidate identified as the alleged purchaser of four other candidates' Websites is now pointing the finger at a sheik in Yemen as the culprit. Theo Karantsalis, 39, who is running in Tuesday's city council election, said he was on the lookout for Sheik Yurbooty, who he said purchased the Websites bearing the names of other candidates.... But a company official at register.com said that it was Karantsalis who bought the Websites.... Register.com's Web page showed that Yiannis Stookis bought the domain names for Websites bearing the names of candidates Leah Orr, Helen Gannon, Jim Caudle, and Richard Wheeler for $35 each. Stookis had created an automatic link from those pages to Karantsalis' Web page. The link would later lead to obscure Web pages about toilets, Alzheimer's disease, and panhandlers, and then back to register.com." Next to a photo of Karantsalis was a mug shot identified as that of Sheik Yurbooty, whom the Herald helpfully pointed out "bears a striking resemblance to Karantsalis."
On April 24, 2001, Karantsalis sued register.com in small-claims court, seeking damages because the company released confidential information to the public. Later, register.com wrote to Karantsalis stating the company could not find any register.com employee who had spoken to the Herald. The small-claims suit was settled for the amount of Karantsalis's campaign expenses, "a few thousand dollars."