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Widow Speak

Stephanie Teele deserves her day in court
COURTESY of Stephanie Teele

Stephanie Teele is an ethereally beautiful woman. She has ocean blue, almost translucent eyes; gentle features; and a kind, modest face etched deeply with sorrow. As she looks north from a Brickell Avenue skyscraper across the city where her husband — long Miami's most prominent African-American politician — committed the most gruesome and spectacular suicide in Florida history, she sobs.

"Arthur always protected me," she says with a Bahamian lilt, tears glistening. "He took care of me, respected me as he respected all women.... Then they took everything from us."

Miami Commissioner Arthur Earle Teele Jr., of course, shot himself in the head with a Sig Sauer pistol in the Miami Herald lobby July 27. Though his last words were "Tell my wife that I love her," Stephanie has never before spoken publicly about the death, which drew attention in newspapers and on television from Beijing to Buenos Aires and caused a media earthquake that even shook New Times.

The reason she came forward: In October the Third District Court of Appeal signaled it might — without even a hearing — toss out an appeal of Art Teele's March 2 conviction for threatening an undercover detective who had been following Stephanie.

If confirmed, the decision would steal the widow's right to her husband's City of Miami pension — though the commissioner was just three weeks short of qualifying for $26,066 per year. It would also pilfer the possibility of vindication for a woman who, I believe, has suffered enough. Art's felony conviction, the never-proven charges of corruption that followed, and unsubstantiated allegations of drugs-and-sex parties with a transvestite have dogged the Teele family for months.

"I don't give interviews, and I don't get into the public eye," she weeps. "But the judges need to know this is a matter of public importance. To Art, it means nothing now — he's gone — but to us, his family, it would mean a lot to get that conviction overturned."

Indeed, Stephanie contends, the claims of malfeasance and perversion drove Art to put the gun to his temple. The onetime combat hero, top Reagan administration official, and Miami-Dade County commission chairman was particularly concerned about the effect of it all on his child from a first marriage, Arthur; his 93-year-old mom, Florazelle; and Stephanie.

More than a dozen diary entries, a lengthy letter penned in black ink, and multiple tape recordings prove that media trumpeting (including this newspaper) of salacious claims by a transvestite prostitute and jail inmate named Frederick Davis became a fatal obsession of Art's. "It was the main issue because of his son, because of his mother, and because of me, of course," Stephanie says. "It kept grinding at him. He explained everything on the tape."

Stephanie met Art twenty years ago in the Freeport International Airport, where she worked for Eastern Airlines. He saw her from afar and asked for her number. They dated for almost five years — sometimes commuting between the Bahamas and Miami. "For him it was love at first sight, " she explains. "For me it was months after."

They married in 1990, the same year he was elected to the county commission, at the Church of the Incarnation in Liberty City and then honeymooned in Rome and Milan. Though the couple had no children, Art often took Stephanie's nephews, Redwin and Ashley, to baseball and football games and once to see Gov. Lawton Chiles in Tallahassee. (An eleven-year-old niece, Dior, upon hearing of Art's death, Stephanie recalls, said, "My best friend is gone.")

Stephanie asserts her husband was always present for her, almost always perfect — despite claims of infidelity from at least one woman — and that prosecutors and the media typically exaggerated and twisted information. Indeed, she says, he often treated her with orchids and jewelry — their favorite was pearls — left under her pillow. "For our anniversary he'd go and buy me five outfits I didn't need," she recalls — though on this day, she wears no jewelry and only black clothing.

Stephanie rarely appeared at political events, but every Sunday, she says, the couple would attend several predominantly African-American churches. "With him it was always the churches, not just at election time," she says. "But he always protected me and my wishes. He was the politician, and I was the private person."

Art's protectiveness of his wife was the critical factor in his felony conviction and the appeal now before the Third District. Stephanie says she believes police followed her at least twice, a fact that was later borne out at trial.

On the day of the commissioner's encounter with police officers — August 24, 2004 — Stephanie told Art she was being followed, and he responded by downplaying the threat. "He said, 'Don't be paranoid, Steffi,'" she recalls. "I didn't feel good about that.... I saw the person following me."

 

Stephanie left the Teele home after that conversation, and Art, feeling bad about disregarding his wife's concerns, took off after her. It was during the pursuit that he spotted a sport utility vehicle shadowing her, followed it, and then cut off the offending driver — who turned out to be an undercover police officer — on an I-95 shoulder.

During the conversation that ensued, which was taped over Art's cell phone by a 911 operator, Teele confronted the cop, and several others who had joined him, about following his wife. Two of the officers refused to show police identification, which Art demanded. He blew up. "I am armed," he said. "The next time anybody follows my wife ... they better be prepared to start shooting.... I'm not making a threat ... I'm simply saying the next time this officer or whomever follows my wife ... and doesn't show me his badge.... I don't know if he's a cop or not."

In March 2005 the state tried Art for assault on a police officer — trying to hit a cop with his car — and "corruption by threat against a public servant," an odd charge that is difficult to prove and often reversed on appeal. From the beginning, the state seemed to hold all the cards. Judge Dennis Murphy excluded several key points from evidence. Among them:

A description of a 1993 incident in which Art had chased down three thieves, who had stolen a purse from a female Venezuelan tourist in a gas station, and then called police, who arrested the men. Stephanie contends the prior case shows that during the August 24 confrontation with police, Art did the same thing he had done before — protect a woman by trailing a bad guy.

An incriminating incident involving the police whom Art allegedly threatened. Just a few minutes after the confrontation, one of them — either Steve White or Greg Benjamin — referred to the area near Miami Beach as "Jew Heaven" and then made a derisive reference to gays.

In the end, the six-person jury acquitted Art of aggravated assault but convicted him of the lesser charge. The penalty: two years of probation. Stephanie appealed the decision, but on October 20 the appeals court signaled it might reject the case because "the appellant is deceased."

That's wrong. "Give Art and Stephanie Teele their day in court," says Teele's attorney, David Garvin. "That's all we're asking."

There are, of course, substantial and important charges outstanding against Art Teele. In December 2004 state prosecutors indicted him for taking $135,000 from a businessman whose construction company won contracts to fix up poor neighborhoods. And this past July 14, less than two weeks before the suicide, federal prosecutors accused the former commissioner of taking $69,000 in kickbacks from an electrical contractor.

But those charges were never adjudicated. Who knows if Art Teele was really corrupt? We are sure that as an army officer, he was shot down twice and won numerous medals, including the Ribbon of Gallantry. We also are aware that he served both the city and county for more than a decade before any of the indictments — and despite a hot temper that once caused him to punch a lobbyist — he served taxpayers — some of the nation's poorest — well.

In the end, it's about Stephanie Teele. Prosecutors clearly had it out for Art Teele — at least one indictment regarding $85,000 from the Port of Miami to his personal account was discussed and never filed — and they drew Stephanie into their web. She recalls interviews in which assistant state attorney Richard Scruggs implied that her husband was unfaithful to her — citing hotel room payments she knew were not for paramours, but clients of Bahamasair, where she is director of operations in Florida.

"[Prosecutors] never checked into any of the allegations," she says. "They just tried to manipulate me because they wanted to smear [Art's] name."

Adds Garvin: "They were just causing grief with his wife for no reason."

Stephanie has had other problems. Media including WSVN-TV (Channel 7) and New Times publicized the most provocative elements of the Art Teele investigative file without response from Art or his attorney. "The press played a big role in this by printing what they did without having the real facts," Stephanie says, again crying. "Art didn't know his life was going to be all over the nightly news and the front pages."

Does she bear a grudge against New Times or any other media? "No," she says.

Then there was an unrelated personal tragedy. On June 1 Stephanie's sister Renay was gunned down in Wellington by her husband, Jamie Lee Daniel Jr., police believe. Daniel, an ex-cop, is awaiting trial.

 

In any case, Art Teele's financial situation was famously bad — "abysmal" is the way Garvin describes it. He owned a company that declared bankruptcy in the Eighties, lived large, and his 2004 financial disclosure showed $1.7 million in debt — about half owed to the Internal Revenue Service. Also, he left no life insurance.

For all that the Teele family has suffered, and for all its members contributed to this city, a hearing in court — or in the city commission chambers if that fails — is merited. "For me it's not a matter of money," Stephanie sums up. "It's a matter of honor."


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