Forbidden Fruit

Maybe you know somebody like Danny Donovan. A nice guy, an overgrown kid, really, with an ingratiating personality and an unfortunate tendency to run with the wrong crowd. Somebody who always seems to get into trouble, somebody who has a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Somebody unlucky.

For the most part, 30-year-old Danny Donovan's worst luck consisted of busts for thefts and drug possessions. But all that changed this past May, on, of all days, Memorial Day, when bad luck and bad judgment nearly got him killed. Along with his buddy Mike Lemus, Donovan was hauling ass away from the scene of another small-time crime when he happened to turn around in the passenger's seat of Lemus's pickup, just in time for a pellet from a twelve-gauge shotgun to pass through his right eye, miss bone, and lodge deep in his brain, sending him into a coma that persists to this day.

By the time Lemus finally pulled his truck over to the side of Krome Avenue near SW 160th Street, more than half a dozen pickups had joined the chase along the flat straight-aways of southwest Dade. Five months after the shooting, investigators from the Metro-Dade Police Department and the Dade State Attorney's Office haven't been able to sort out the events of that afternoon enough to file charges. Not many people are willing to talk about who put a hole in Danny Donovan's head. Donovan himself is in no condition to say anything. The statement Lemus made to police on the scene was vastly different from the one he provided days later, after he'd consulted an attorney. Three of the pursuers - one of whom may well have pulled the trigger - refused to talk at all.

"I said, `Danny, I think they're shooting at us. What should we do?'" Lemus says, recalling the chase. Then he noticed the blood. "I say, `Danny, Danny, what's wrong with you?' and he grabs his eye and says, `Oh, I got shot.' He was looking back through the window and he got shot through the eye. I couldn't believe it. There's blood everywhere and he's still talking to me, and he says to keep going. I said I wasn't going to keep going, 'cause these guys was shooting at us, and I told him I was going to pull over."

When he stopped alongside an unplanted field, Lemus found himself staring into the barrel of a shotgun. "Why'd you have to shoot for a few crates of mangoes?" a terrified Lemus blurted as his friend lay bleeding. "You got millions of them."

Past the sprawl of Miami and Kendall, where Krome Avenue crawls into old Florida, is the farm country of the Redlands, a wide and dusty plain of fields and groves crisscrossed by hedgerows of Brazilian pepper and punctuated by utilitarian buildings. Here, despite the encroachment of the occasional residential subdivision, with upscale homes incongruously set down along dirt roads, agriculture is still king. There is the drone of tractors belching plumes of diesel smoke and of crop-dusting planes flying low overhead, the hiss of high-powered sprinklers. The wet-earth smell of soil and fertilizer. At harvest time, busloads of workers come to pick limes and avocados, winter vegetables and mangoes.

Of course South Dade's 80,000-plus acres of farmland aren't immune to the influences of the metropolis to the east. They provide ideal cover for the stripping of stolen cars, the dumping of everything from cocaine payloads to unwanted municipal waste to murdered corpses. Likewise, the rich land attracts thieves who steal fruits and vegetables and unload the heisted goods in roadside stands and small markets from Homestead to Little Havana, where merchants snap up bargain-basement boxes of goods, no questions asked.

In 1987 and earlier this year, several store owners and roadside-stand vendors were charged with trafficking in stolen property, following reverse sting operations by Metro-Dade cops. Undercover officers approached the owners and offered to sell them bushels of avocados and papayas, claiming they were stolen. "Not only did these people snap them up, they often haggled over the price," recalls Sgt. Mickey Brelsford, head of Metro's agricultural patrol unit. "They even put in orders for more fruit before we arrested them."

In no way are they the area's biggest agricultural asset, but mangoes, native to Southeast Asia and first successfully cultivated on the east coast of Florida in the 1860s, mean money in South Dade. The county's 2700 acres of mango groves now account for more than 90 percent of the nation's domestic supply of the fruit.

More than half of Dade's mango acreage was planted since 1978, and increased availability has made the fruit a favorite among produce poachers. "It's gotten to where fruit theft is a real business in this county," says Colleen Griffin, president of the 200-member Mango Forum and an independent mango grower whose ten-acre grove was hit hard by thieves this year. "It can be just devastating to a grower. You stay up at night during the freezes, you spray, fertilize, you mow weeds, put a lot of money into getting the harvest ready, and then they climb your fence, or cut your fence, and take everything they want. You can't be everywhere at once, so it happens to almost everyone. That's our income and this is a way of life for us, so it really hurts when this happens."

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William Labbee