This Is Not the USA
Turning west off of Krome Avenue onto the Tamiami Trail, 32-year-old repo man William Negron began the eighteen-mile trek to the Miccosukee Indian reservation and what he hoped would be an easy automobile repossession. Riding with him in his customized tow truck was Dinavon Bythwood, a private investigator hired by Negron to help track down people who were delinquent in their car payments. On this Thursday morning, November 3, the two men were after a silver 1990 Infiniti whose owner, Teresa Osceola, was nearly four months behind in her payments to a Miami auto dealer. Their bounty if successful: $500.
Negron had been in the repo business for six years, and this was the third time he had ventured out to the reservation. On the first occasion, back in 1992, he had towed the car back to Miami before the owner even knew it was missing. During the second trip, a few months later, he was nearly halfway home, a Mustang in tow, when he was chased down by a Miccosukee tribal police officer and ordered to return the car to the reservation. Officer P.K. O'Neill told Negron that in the future, he must check in with the tribal police department before attempting a repossession.
The memory of that last visit was on Negron's mind as he pulled into the tribal police department's parking lot a little after 7:00 a.m. Inside he met his old friend Lieutenant O'Neill, who announced that Negron would be allowed to take the Infiniti only if Osceola agreed to relinquish it. The officer said he'd call her and ask.
Negron wasn't pleased to hear this. The idea of O'Neill getting in the middle of his business left him feeling uncomfortable. Over the years, he had dealt with police officers all across Dade and Broward counties, and typically their only concern was the possibility of a violent confrontation while a car was being repossessed. They didn't assume the role of judges, they didn't place restrictions on his ability to do his job, and they certainly didn't call cars' owners and warn them that the repo man was on his way.
O'Neill returned a few minutes later and informed Negron that Teresa Osceola didn't want to give them the car. According to Negron and Bythwood, O'Neill offered a compromise: Osceola had agreed to drive to the dealer that day and make a payment on the car. Negron and Bythwood could call her and make arrangements to follow her into town so they would get credit for their efforts. However, he warned the men not to try to take Osceola's car and not to set foot on her property.
Lieutenant O'Neill then followed Negron and Bythwood outside and again repeated his warning. They said they understood, climbed back into the tow truck, and drove a mile down the road to the Osceolas' house, where they could see the Infiniti parked nearby. Negron made a U-turn and parked across the street. From his truck Negron called the Osceolas on his cellular phone and told Teresa Osceola's husband, Sandy, that he was waiting outside. According to Negron, Sandy Osceola appeared at his front door and waved for Negron to drive up to the house, which sits about 25 feet from the roadway. But in deference to O'Neill's admonition, Negron declined and instead motioned for Sandy Osceola to walk to the truck. As Osceola approached, Negron made another U-turn and parked on the grassy swale between the road and the sidewalk in front of Osceola's house.
When he reached the truck, Osceola told Negron and Bythwood that his wife had already left for work and that he didn't know anything about arrangements she might be making to drive into the city, but he said he'd call her at work and find out. Osceola returned to his house, and Negron began feeling uneasy. None of this made sense. Lieutenant O'Neill had just spoken to Teresa, and her car was still at the house.
Negron picked up his cell phone, called the police station, and asked for O'Neill, but apparently the lieutenant was in a meeting and couldn't be disturbed. While Negron quietly fretted, Bythwood used the time to take a short nap, having been up since 3:00 a.m. tracking down a couple of cars in Homestead.
As Bythwood slept, Negron began reading a newspaper, but just a few minutes later he noticed a police car pulling up behind him, its emergency lights flashing. O'Neill was behind the wheel and Sgt. Woodward Brooks was accompanying him. The two officers stepped out of their car and Negron got out of his truck to talk with them. There wouldn't be much conversation, though.
"I said, 'Lieutenant, what's up?'" Negron recalls. "And he said, 'Your ass is under arrest.' And as he walked past me he told Brooks, 'Place him under arrest.'" While Brooks handcuffed Negron, O'Neill continued toward the truck. Bythwood, who by now was wide awake, recounts, "I kept thinking to myself that this whole thing was a setup."
The lieutenant began searching the cab of the truck and found Negron's .357 magnum pistol. According to Bythwood, O'Neill then asked, "Didn't I tell you not to come down here?"
"You told us not to go on their property and we didn't; we're on the roadway," Bythwood responded as he got out of the truck. O'Neill simply continued to search the truck, and found a shotgun under the seat. (Negron is licensed to carry the firearms, which he does for his safety.) Brooks handcuffed Bythwood and placed him in the back seat of the patrol car next to Negron. Bythwood then asked why he was being arrested. "You're going to have to ask the lieutenant," Brooks reportedly replied, "because this is his show."
Negron says O'Neill told him Sandy Osceola had called the police to say the two men had indeed driven onto his property. Negron protested that they had never left his truck and had never driven onto Osceola's land. "Well, I guess he set you up then," O'Neill replied, according to Negron.
The two were driven to police headquarters and locked in separate holding cells. Both men say they were never told exactly why they were arrested, were not read their Miranda rights, or allowed to make a phone call.
Sitting in their respective cells, Negron and Bythwood grew angrier and angrier. "This is bullshit," Negron kept saying. "This is bullshit!" At one point Police Chief Anthony Zecca walked by. Negron had met him before, and he called out to the chief, begging him to intervene. Zecca said he would check into the matter, but he never came back.
After about five hours, they were loaded back into a squad car and driven by Brooks to the county's Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center at 7000 NW 41st Street. Negron recalls the drive into town as the most harrowing part of the ordeal. Brooks, he says, "was driving about 80 miles per hour."
With the tow truck left behind on the reservation, Negron and Bythwood were each booked on charges of armed trespassing (a felony) and carrying a gun during a repossession (a misdemeanor). Bail for Negron was set at $6000. Bythwood, who faced the additional charge of carrying a concealed weapon without a license, had his bail set at $10,500. Negron managed to post both bonds and they were released that evening.
The next morning Negron went to see a friend, criminal defense attorney Kenneth Weisman, who summoned his own investigator, Richard Mueller, a retired Metro-Dade homicide detective who had been a private investigator for thirteen years. While Negron recounted the events of the previous day, Mueller couldn't help being skeptical. As a former cop he knew it was common for people who are arrested to cry harassment or to level charges of mistreatment by police. Most of the time such complaints were baseless. Recalls Mueller: "I kept thinking to myself, 'Why would the cops bother to hassle a repo man? Why would they care?'" Weisman and Mueller decided the investigator should head out to the reservation that evening to interview the Osceolas and maybe visit a couple of neighbors to determine if they saw anything.
Mueller knocked on the front door of the Osceolas' house and glanced at his watch to mark the time. It was exactly 8:00 p.m. Teresa Osceola opened the door, and after Mueller told her what he was doing, she asked him to wait for a moment while she made a phone call. When she returned, she notified him that she had just called the tribal police and they were on the way. Mueller was incredulous. If Osceola didn't want to speak with him, he told her, all she had to do was say so; she didn't have to call the police. Mueller then handed her his business card and asked her to call him if she changed her mind.
Fearing that he was about to be caught in the same trap that had ensnared Negron the day before, Mueller decided to leave the reservation without talking to anyone else. Just as he reached Krome Avenue he received a message on his cellular phone from his answering service: A Lieutenant O'Neill had just called and wanted to talk to him. O'Neill had apparently gotten his phone number from the business card he left with Osceola. Without stopping his car, Mueller called O'Neill, who was on patrol and carrying his own cell phone. "I understand you were out here beating on doors," O'Neill said, according to Mueller.
"I don't know about beating on doors," Mueller responded, "but I did try to talk to some people."
"Well, what did you want to talk to them about?" O'Neill demanded. "I want to know exactly what it is you want to ask them."
Mueller, who was taken aback by O'Neill's attitude, told the lieutenant he didn't think it was appropriate for him to clear his questions through the police department. But O'Neill wasn't finished. Clearly angry that a private investigator might be asking questions about him, he told Mueller he was now and forever barred from the reservation. "You are on notice," O'Neill reportedly told Mueller. "Don't come out here again." The officer then added that if Mueller disobeyed the command, he would find himself in serious trouble. Mueller couldn't believe what he was hearing. Growing angry himself, he asked O'Neill what he meant by trouble. "You come out here and I'll show you what I mean," O'Neill hissed. "Just come on out here and I'll show you."
The investigator took Lieutenant O'Neill's words to be a threat. "I have no intention of ever going back out there and risk getting caught in his little world," Mueller says. "There was simply no reason for him to come after me the way he did." Following that encounter, Mueller says he had no doubt Negron was telling the truth. Attorney Kenneth Weisman was furious when he learned that his investigator had been threatened in such a manner. "This P.K. O'Neill is one nasty, unethical sleazeball," he says. "And you can quote me on that."
(O'Neill, like all sixteen members of the tribal police force, is not an Indian. This past December he was promoted to captain and is now second-in-command. He refuses to discuss the Mueller incident or Negron's case generally. The Osceolas also refused to comment.)
The next day, Saturday, November 5, Negron called the Miccosukee Police Department to arrange a time when he could retrieve his tow truck, which is his means to a livelihood; without it he has no business and no income. (Custom-built to his specifications, the truck is designed so the special rear hooking device can be operated from inside the cab. Negron can back up, snag a car, and drive off with it in less than 30 seconds A all without having to step outside. In the sometimes dangerous world of repossessions, such equipment is essential.) In addition to the truck, the tribal police had confiscated other items necessary for his work. Besides his two weapons, his truck had carried his house keys and driver's license, a set of walkie-talkies, his cell phone, his repossessor's license, and a box of paperwork on more than a dozen pending jobs. Without that paperwork or his repossessor's license, he couldn't work even if he rented another tow truck. (Police also refused to return Bythwood's property: keys to his car and house.)
When he called the tribal police, Negron was transferred to O'Neill, who apparently was still fuming over his encounter with Mueller the night before. "You're not getting the truck back," O'Neill stated, "not after you sent that bonehead Mueller out here. We're filing forfeiture on it."
The Miccosukees have adopted Florida's forfeiture laws, which allow police agencies to seize property such as cars, boats, airplanes, and houses if they believe the property was used in the commission of a felony. Forfeiture proceedings take place independent of criminal trials, and a defendant doesn't have to be convicted of a crime before his property can be confiscated. In fact, a person can be found innocent of the felony that prompted the forfeiture case and still lose his property. The laws originally were designed to be used in drug cases, but in this instance, tribal police officials claimed that Negron had committed the felony of armed trespassing and that as a result the truck was now rightfully the property of the Miccosukee Indians.
Even before Negron could fully comprehend the catastrophic financial effect of losing his tow truck and its contents, Lieutenant O'Neill had an offer for him: The tribe would be willing to sell him his truck for $5000. "You want me to give you $5000 for my own truck?" Negron repeated in disbelief. O'Neill responded by saying that if he couldn't come up with $5000, he should make a counteroffer. Says Negron: "That's when I realized what this was all about A money."
In the four months since the arrest of Bythwood and Negron, the case has drawn the attention of politicians and high-profile attorneys; it has pitted the Miccosukees' assertions of sovereignty against Miami businessmen who have little recourse in recovering property from the reservation, and it has stirred up a hot cauldron of emotions.
"We are all Americans and we are all supposed to be governed by the same laws," says Joseph Taylor, chairman of the state's advisory council on private investigators and recovery agents. "I try to make things real simple: If a guy signs a contract saying he is going to pay and he doesn't pay, then I should have the right to get that car back." Taylor says he has been aware of Negron's case for several months, but there has been little he could do to help. "It's a real tragic situation," he offers. "And I think Mr. Negron has suffered immeasurably and unjustifiably just for trying to do his job. The very most they should have done was escort him off the property and tell him not to come back. He's done nothing to deserve the treatment he's gotten."
Negron's case illustrates the peculiar situation in which non-Indians find themselves when they visit a reservation. Numerous courts throughout the nation have found that tribes like the Miccosukee, which have been recognized by Congress to be sovereign nations, enjoy nearly complete immunity from individuals seeking to file civil lawsuits in either state or federal court. (However, state and federal criminal statutes do apply on Indian reservations.) In Alaska, for instance, the state supreme court has ruled that an Indian tribe could not be sued by the family of a man who had been beaten to death by four tribal police officers. In Florida, the Fourth District Court of Appeals has ruled that the Seminole police department could not be sued in state court for wrongful arrest.
This form of protection extends to popular Indian attractions such as the bingo hall operated by the Miccosukee at the northwest corner of Krome Avenue and the Tamiami Trail. Some courts have found that tribes are immune from liability even if a bingo customer is injured due to clear negligence on the part of bingo operators.
"The Indians can do as they please," asserts Miami attorney Sanford Bohrer, who represents the bingo hall's former managers in a federal lawsuit they filed after being dismissed by the Miccosukee. (Bohrer also represents New Times in matters concerning defamation and the First Amendment.) "They invite unsuspecting non-Indians onto the reservation without telling them they have no rights on the reservation. The only rights you have are the rights they want to give you in your particular situation."
For the Miccosukee such distance from some aspects of American law hasn't been a luxury, or even a privilege; it has been a matter of survival, a right granted them because, simply put, they were here first.
Settlements of Miccosukee and Seminole Indians in the Tallahassee and Gainesville areas can be dated to the late 1700s, when they peacefully raised crops and cattle. However, skirmishes erupted as white settlers began crowding into the Southern states and encroaching on Indian land. The confrontations escalated, and in 1814 Gen. Andrew Jackson began a bloody campaign against the tribes, forcing them to retreat further down the Florida peninsula.
Tensions between whites and Indians continued as the tribes became sanctuaries for runaway slaves. The answer seemed obvious: Get the Indians out of Florida and remove the incentive for slaves who wanted to flee. In 1832 Jackson, who by then was president of the United States, tricked the Indians into signing a treaty under which they would be resettled to what is today Oklahoma. Thousands of them were carted off, but a large number of Seminoles and Miccosukees rebelled, prompting the Second Seminole War, from 1835 to 1842. Eventually the most stubborn bands of Seminoles and Miccosukees fled even further south and hid deep in the Everglades.
A small band of less than 100 Miccosukees were among those who escaped, and it is their descendants who now comprise the 400 members of the current tribe. In 1928 the opening of State Road 41 (the Tamiami Trail) once again brought Indians and whites into conflict over encroachment and pollution of the land. Thirty years later, another fight developed when Miccosukee leaders refused government pressure to join with the Seminole tribes. In an effort to draw attention to their demands for tribal recognition, a delegation of Miccosukees traveled to Cuba and met with Fidel Castro. Two years later the Miccosukees formally incorporated and were officially recognized by the government as a distinct tribe.
The portion of their reservation most familiar to tourists is a five-mile strip along the Tamiami Trail. It is 500 feet wide A 250 feet on either side of the Trail A and abuts Everglades National Park, nineteen miles west of Krome Avenue. A much larger tract of Miccosukee land stretches south from Alligator Alley (State Road 84) and adjoins the Seminole reservation.
But contemporary Miccosukee Indians don't need history books to understand the legacy of abuse perpetrated by the federal government. The degradation of their Everglades homelands A through canal drainage, commercial and residential development, road construction, and agricultural pollution A is a constant reminder of government-sanctioned intrusion, and it has served to foster a fierce sense of independence. "That's why we are different from the United States," says tribal chairman Billy Cypress. "This is not the United States. People don't understand that and they never will."
Counters Negron: "I don't remember getting my passport stamped, or passing a sign saying I was leaving my civil rights behind when I entered the reservation." The incident that led to his problems, he says, has nothing to do with historical animosities or cultural misconceptions. Negron believes he is merely the victim of a tribal police force zealously interested in pleasing its Miccosukee bosses by chasing off pesky repo men.
If the Miccosukee police force is loyal and responsive to a fault, the tribe's principal lawyer shares its sense of dogged independence. Dexter Lehtinen, the pugnacious former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, has represented the tribe's legal interests for the past three years. In tribal chairman Billy Cypress Lehtinen has found a kindred spirit whose distrust of the federal government runs deep. (Lehtinen refused comment for this story.) "I think [Lehtinen] likes representing Billy Cypress because there aren't any rules except Billy's," says attorney Sanford Bohrer. "As long as he can get along with Billy, he's doing fine."
Adds attorney Kenneth Weisman: "Dexter Lehtinen, Billy Cypress, and the Miccosukee police force are operating their own fiefdom out there. It is their own kingdom, and they believe they are above the law."
But the law -- at least as applied by tribal police officers -- was exactly what William Negron and Dinavon Bythwood were forced to contend with. Following their arrest, the two men were formally charged by the State Attorney's Office, which prosecutes criminal cases originating on the reservation. After reviewing the various charges brought by tribal police, prosecutors dropped all but armed trespassing, a third-degree felony.
For Bythwood in particular the charge was a supreme affront. At age 27 he had never been in trouble with the law. Growing up in Palm Beach County's Belle Glade, he had played piano for the church choir and joined the army when he was eighteen to later receive the financial assistance to attend college. Bythwood spent his five years in the service as a military police officer stationed in Germany and then Washington, D.C., where he rose to the equivalent rank of plainclothes detective, responsible for investigating felonies committed by soldiers. After the army, he attended the University of Miami, where as a walk-on, he made the Hurricane football team and was part of 1991's national championship squad.
At six foot, three inches, and weighing 240 pounds, Bythwood has not given up hope of playing professional football. In fact, he has been invited to try out this summer with both the Cleveland Browns and the Jacksonville Jaguars. He and his girlfriend are expecting their first child in a few weeks, and the one thing he didn't want hanging over his head was a felony charge.
Reluctantly, Bythwood recalls, he contacted his father about a week after his arrest. "When my son called and told me what happened, I believed him," says Dan Bythwood, who is a Belle Glade city commissioner. "Dinavon has never been in trouble before. He was a military police officer, he knows right from wrong. When he told me the way he had been treated, I was very upset and I jumped on it quick."
In fact, Bythwood decided to make a federal case out of his son's predicament -- literally. He called his congressman. As fate would have it, that congressman is Alcee Hastings, whose tenure as a federal judge ended in impeachment and disgrace, but who was politically reborn in 1992 when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dan Bythwood says he is "very good friends" with Hastings, and that the congressman immediately agreed to help. Hastings called Dinavon the next day, and as a result of their conversation, the congressman asked the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the incident.
Hastings's interest in the case grew appreciably when Dinavon informed him that the Miccosukees are represented by Dexter Lehtinen. "I know they knew each other and that there is some bad blood between them," Bythwood says. "I got the impression that that might have given Alcee some motivation in this case."
Bythwood may be understating it when he says there is some bad blood between Hastings and Lehtinen. The two men have been adversaries for several years. Following his impeachment from the bench, but prior to his run for Congress, Hastings represented religious cult leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh after Lehtinen's office indicted him on charges of murder conspiracy, extortion, arson, and racketeering. Hastings also defended Circuit Court Judge Phillip Davis in the notorious Court Broom corruption scandal prosecuted by the Lehtinen's office. Hastings lost the Yahweh case, but he won an acquittal for Davis.
Coming to the aid of Bythwood, however, didn't even require Hastings to spend a single day in court. "I don't know who he talked to," Bythwood says. "I don't know what happened. But somebody got some heat from somewhere and my charges were significantly reduced." Rather than face a felony, Bythwood's charges were changed to misdemeanor trespassing. Because he had never been arrested, prosecutors agreed in January to place him in a diversion program involving 35 hours of community service, after which the charge would be removed from his record. (Hastings could not be reached for comment.)
"If I had been able to afford an attorney, I would have fought the trespassing charge," Bythwood now says. "But I shouldn't complain. I basically came out of this unscathed compared to William."
The fortuitous involvement of Hastings had no effect on Negron's case, and the charges against him spelled trouble, particularly because of his now-precarious financial situation. Without his truck, his files, and his repossessor's license, Negron was forced to lay off Dinavon, as well as his secretary. He had recently leased a storefront office, but had to abandon that, as well. Long-standing clients began hiring other repossessors. "I lost a lot of business," Negron recalls. "I worked hard to build this up and in one day all my hard work was nearly destroyed."
To make matters worse, his lack of income prevented him from hiring two attorneys A one to defend against the criminal charges and another to challenge the forfeiture action. So he decided to act as his own attorney in the battle over the truck.
On December 2, as part of his criminal case, Negron persuaded a Dade circuit court judge to sign an order demanding that the Miccosukee police release his truck and personal property. Fearing the possible consequences of returning to the reservation, Negron requested and received the escort services of two Metro-Dade police officers to deliver the court order. That same Friday afternoon Negron watched as the officers served the order on Officer P.K. O'Neill.
O'Neill explained that an order from a state circuit judge had no effect on the reservation. The truck was staying put. However, O'Neill did agree to return Bythwood's personal property, but not Negron's.
Five days later Negron was notified by tribal authorities that he could pick up his personal property A but not the truck or his firearms A from the police department. Again accompanied by two Metro-Dade officers, and more than a month after being arrested, Negron finally recovered his house keys, licenses, cellular phone, walkie-talkies, and business files. The tribe then sent one of its attorneys, Juan Vargas (a partner in Lehtinen's law firm), to court in an effort to quash the order demanding return of the truck. Vargas argued that the tribal court system should be allowed to sort out the dispute, and Judge Thomas Wilson agreed.
In addition, tribal chairman Cypress ordered police chief Zecca to write to Metro-Dade police officials regarding the restrictions placed on state and local law enforcement officers. "The Miccosukee Tribal Council was adamant that this matter be addressed so there will not be a reoccurrence," Zecca wrote in his December 28 letter to Commander George Aylesworth, head of Metro's legal affairs unit. "I respectfully request that you take the necessary steps to initiate whatever means you deem appropriate to ensure that members of the Metro-Dade Police Department become aware of the unique and exclusive federal jurisdiction that exists in Miccosukee Indian Country...."
Negron now had no other recourse but to engage the Miccosukee in their own court. A hearing was set for Friday, January 20; Negron would be debating attorney Juan Vargas, who must have assumed he could deal with Negron in tribal court as handily as he had in state court. "I know Juan Vargas looked at me and thought I was some sort of tow-truck jockey who didn't know anything about the law and who he could railroad through this hearing," Negron says. (Vargas refused to be interviewed for this article.)
If Vargas appeared to be confident, he was probably entitled. After all, he was a former federal prosecutor with nine years experience practicing law in Florida. An assistant U.S. attorney under Lehtinen, Vargas left the prosecutor's office when Lehtinen resigned in 1992, and eventually joined him as a partner in the Miami law firm of Lehtinen O'Donnell Cortinas Vargas & Reiner. The firm's biggest and most high-profile client: the Miccosukees.
Without much to do in the way of repossession work, Negron threw himself into the case. "Vargas thought he was going after someone who was naive," he says. "He didn't realize that I would go to the law library and research the cases and be prepared." What Negron lacked in experience and formal training he compensated for in diligence. He spent hours at the University of Miami law library, reading widely and filling numerous notepads with citations and precedents from other states. He scoured the police reports for inconsistencies, prepared a witness list, and meticulously recorded every question he wanted to ask so he wouldn't forget any. Finally he wrote his legal briefs on his home computer.
The hearing, which lasted a full day, was held at the Miccosukee courthouse A a tiny single-story building A before two Miccosukee judges, Minnie Bert and Andy Buster, neither of whom are attorneys. Under questioning by Negron and Vargas, Lieutenant O'Neill testified that he had ordered Bythwood and Negron to leave the reservation after their meeting at the tribal police station and that he had not given them permission to drive to Teresa Osceola's house. The officer also testified that as he drove up to the house he saw Negron backing his truck off Osceola's property.
Bythwood then testified, and contradicted O'Neill on all key points. Even Negron's wife took the witness stand. Speaking through tears, she described the hardship suffered by the family after losing the tow truck.
Surprisingly, neither Teresa nor Sandy Osceola made an appearance, a point Negron hammered home in his closing argument. "If the lieutenant has such a strong case that I was trespassing, why isn't the alleged victim here to testify against me?" Negron asked. "I followed Lieutenant O'Neill's orders to a T. If I had wanted to do something criminal, I would not have gone to the police station first. I would have gone directly to the Osceola house. The vehicle was there; I could have hooked it and been gone. I didn't come out here to rob or steal. I'm doing my job."
Three days later, on January 23, the court ruled there was insufficient evidence to believe that the truck had been used in the commission of a crime; the judges ordered that it be returned to Negron. Vargas promptly appealed the ruling, and the truck remained in police custody until the tribal appeals court could hear the matter.
"I think the court's ruling was wonderful," says attorney Barry Wax, who is defending Negron against the criminal charges in state court. "It demonstrates the power of the common man when he comes in with nothing more than justice on his side and is still able to beat some high-priced attorney. Their own court system looked at him and said William was getting screwed. How embarrassing it must have been for Juan Vargas. When you go into your home court and get beat like that A it must have been embarrassing for the whole firm, especially Dexter. I'm sure that's why they appealed."
Any journalistic inquiry into a case like Negron's would involve a number of routine procedures: reading the pertinent documents at the courthouse; inspection of the personnel files of the police officers involved; review of the police department's written policies to determine if they had been obeyed; listening to recordings of radio calls among police officers or from the public to the police department; and of course interviews with all relevant parties, especially public officials. On the Miccosukee reservation, however, none of that scrutiny is possible.
When New Times visited the Miccosukee courthouse and asked to see the file for case number 94-19A -- Negron's forfeiture -- the response was an incredulous stare. "We don't release anything to the public from here," said Bernie Roman, clerk of the tribal court. "Everything is released from the tribal office." Next door at the tribal office the response was similar: "Who told you about this case?" asked the receptionist. Only chairman Billy Cypress could authorize the release of court records, and according to Cypress's secretary, he was in no mood to share them with a reporter. "And if you want to know why," the secretary added, "he said because it's his prerogative."
On Cypress's instructions, police chief Zecca also refused to provide the personnel files of O'Neill and Sgt. Woodward Brooks, nor would he release any written policies regarding automobile repossession.
How many repossessions have the tribal police allowed in the past year? "I don't keep records on things like that," Zecca said.
Initially chairman Billy Cypress refused to discuss Negron's case or the court proceedings, but later he consented to a brief interview. Asked once more about authorizing access to tribal court records, he repeated his denial. "The Sunshine Law does not apply out here," he remarked, referring to the Florida law that makes most governmental records and meetings open to the public. "Florida law does not apply out here. It's one of the privileges of being a sovereign nation." (The Miccosukee Indian reservation may not be part of the United States, but tribal members certainly don't have an aversion to taking federal money. According to figures provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe this year will receive $3.5 million from Congress, including $150,000 earmarked for tribal government and $790,000 for the sixteen-member police department.)
Against a gray and threatening sky, the Miccosukee Court of Appeals met on March 9. Composed of the entire adult population of the tribe, the court is presided by chairman Billy Cypress. Notices had been posted throughout the reservation; any member wishing to hear the case could attend and vote on the outcome. Whether because of the rain clouds or a general lack of interest, the turnout was small A only about 30 people gathered at the Chickeechobee, a traditional thatched-roof, open-air meeting place along the banks of a canal just off the Tamiami Trail.
Since winning his case before the tribal judges, Negron said he had received harassing phone calls warning him not to return to the reservation. Despite the alleged attempts at intimidation, Negron, accompanied by his father and carrying a box full of legal papers, strode across the wooden bridge leading to the Chickeechobee. Waiting on the other side were tribal attorneys Dexter Lehtinen and Juan Vargas. No outsiders were allowed to attend, and Miccosukee police were under instructions from Cypress to turn back any reporters.
Each side spoke for fifteen minutes. According to Negron, Vargas declared that people who come onto the reservation do so at their own risk, and that the tribe was well within its rights to seize the tow truck.
Negron explained to the group what he does for living, emphasizing that while people may not like repo men, they do have a place in society. And he told them he thought it was wrong for the tribe to hold his truck and make him pay to get it back. As Negron grew excited, his voice carried across the canal, where outsiders were allowed to wait. "That truck," he was heard to say, "is my livelihood. Why should I pay back money for what is rightfully mine? That's extortion, ladies and gentlemen."
When the presentations were concluded, members of the tribe voted by secret ballot. Some hours later Cypress announced the results. Twelve people voted to uphold the tribal court's decision and return Negron's truck. Eleven people voted against. "And if you believe that was actually the vote, I've got some property to sell you," says Barry Wax, Negron's current criminal defense attorney. Because the voting was conducted secretly, he suggests, the true tally may never be known. Although he has no proof, Wax suspects that Cypress announced the close vote favoring Negron in order to get rid of the case because it was beginning to attract too much notice A from the press, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and from Congressman Hastings's office. "This kind of attention is the last thing Billy Cypress wants," Wax contends, and by making the vote so close, he allowed Lehtinen and Vargas to save some face despite their defeat.
As part of the order returning the truck to Negron, the two tribal judges also ruled that Negron and anyone working for him were forever barred from entering the Miccosukee reservation. "That shows you what their real motivation is," Wax argues. "They no longer have to worry about William trying to repossess any of their cars out there ever again."
Two weeks ago Negron dispatched another tow truck to the reservation to pick up his rig because his banishment prohibited him from doing it himself. His vehicle, which requires regular maintenance, was a mess, but slowly, he says, he'll begin the process of rebuilding his business. However, Negron shouldn't expect much future work from one former client: VIP Auto Sales, the car dealer at 9704 NW 27th Avenue that originally hired him to pick up Osceola's silver Infiniti.
A few days after Negron had been arrested and released, Teresa Osceola voluntarily returned the car to VIP, and by coincidence, Negron happened to be at VIP's used car lot that day. But because Osceola returned the car on her own, the lot's owner, Al Vargas (no relation to the attorney), told Negron he wasn't entitled to the $500 repossession fee. "His ego was hurt," says Vargas, "and he was still angry at the way he was treated on the reservation, so he took it out on me."
What Negron actually took was the Infiniti. According to Vargas, when no one was looking, Negron swiped the keys to the car from the office, drove it off VIP's lot, and stashed it at another dealer's lot a few blocks away. "We didn't know who had the car," Vargas recalls. "We even called the police." But a short time later Negron informed Vargas that he had the car. "He wanted me to give him $16,000 for it," says Vargas. "He said that's how much he lost trying to get the car. That supposedly covered everything from the cost of his truck to the amount of money he spent on bail. It was crazy."
Negron, whose criminal case is scheduled to be resolved in early June, will only say this: "I did what I had to do. I got into all this trouble trying to repossess one of his cars and he wasn't going to help me out at all."
Eventually the two worked out their own deal. Negron A the man who had earlier protested to the Miccosukee that he was being extorted A demanded $2000. "It was unfair of him to charge me that kind of money," Vargas shrugs, "but what could I do, take him to court?
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.