Longform

Ave Maria University: A Catholic project gone wrong

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There are other signs that Ave Maria is leeching resources away from the county. On October 12, 2008, the town suffered its first truly violent crime. At 2:30 in the afternoon, two masked men, guns drawn, burst into Beckner Jewelry on the piazza. They quickly duct-taped owner Alan Beckner's feet, wrists, and mouth before stealing as much as $100,000 in jewelry.

But Ave Maria has no government of its own and no police force. It took county sheriffs at least 15 minutes to cover the 14 miles from Naples to the crime scene. By then, the thieves were long gone. Beckner was in shock.

"They had been casing the place for months," says one county employee who asked to remain anonymous. "The whole town was never set up for crime prevention. When we tried to give crime prevention classes, everything was pooh-poohed. They don't want to get bad news... What they are really looking for is to fleece the county taxpayers. They want us to baby-sit that place without any cost accruing to themselves."

But Monaghan hasn't escaped all of his bills. After a jury ruled in Katherine Ernsting's favor in May, the onetime pizza king settled with his ex-employee for more than $418,000. Two years ago, he paid out at least that much to Stephen Safranek.

Tony Turkovic, meanwhile, never fully rebounded from his two-week nightmare in Ave Maria. He transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas College near New York City, but managed only five games and zero field goals.

At least he escaped Ave Maria. Marielena Stuart says she is stuck there — her house is worth a fraction of what she paid for it. She hasn't appeared in public in the town since December, when she attended a town hall meeting about the Jackson Laboratory deal. "They threatened to remove me if I didn't write my questions down on a slip of paper," she fumes. "Well, I won't ask my questions anonymously."

Bizarrely, Stuart is now running for Florida's Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Even though she has never held office and is best known for her blog, she insists her campaign isn't about Ave Maria.

"I have nothing in common with this town," she says bitterly. "My house is here. It's on a lot. But my family and I have no connection to this town or the university." Stuart doesn't campaign in Ave Maria, and most of her neighbors aren't even aware she's running.

Yet she can't leave.

"It's a vicious town," Stuart says. "Once in, there is no way out."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.