Former Metro-Dade police officer Pat Yodice and her housemate Mary Butt had just finished dishing out slices of a birthday cake when some uninvited guests showed up at their Sunday afternoon backyard barbecue. A swarm of law enforcement types -- members of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's vice squad, agents from the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, and members of the city's code team -- vaulted the six-foot wooden fence surrounding the property, located in Coral Ridge, a quiet suburban neighborhood a mile or so north of downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Armed and clad in black SWAT-type gear, more than a dozen officers and agents put a quick halt to the festivities. According to spokesmen for the various agencies, the May 7 party wasn't your typical barbecue. It was a business venture run by lesbians without a license.
Carol Owsiany, a supervisor at the Division of Alcoholic Beverages, says the women began holding weekly pool parties about six weeks ago at the house Yodice owns, and charging admission of five dollars per person. When the Fort Lauderdale police caught wind of the gatherings, they approached state agents about joining them in a secret operation. "It meant going in there undercover on several occasions," Owsiany recalls. "They went in undercover and made alcohol buys from a premise that didn't have a [liquor] license."
During the raid 32-year-old Yodice and 47-year-old Butt were handed notices to appear in court and charged by police with operating an illegal business. Betsy Walker, a 36-year-old Metro-Dade police officer who dates Yodice and was present at the barbecue, was also charged. (Walker owns the mortgage on Yodice's home but does not live there.) The property was cited for eight violations of the building code, including a strand of Christmas lights stretched along the edge of a overhang near the pool in the back yard, the overhang itself, extension cords for the lights, as well as solar roof panels and a shed that came with the house when Yodice purchased it in December. The Division of Alcoholic Beverages is contemplating whether to charge Walker and Yodice with selling alcohol without a license and running a business without a liquor license, both of which are second-degree misdemeanors and carry possible fines of $500 or up to 60 days in jail.
A nine-year veteran who was fired from the Metro-Dade Police Department last October for what the department terms "multiple physical and mental problems," Yodice contends the incident is merely one of many illustrating Metro-Dade's hostility toward her lifestyle. (She has filed suit against her former employer; the case is set for trial next month.) She and Walker were guests on a January 12 segment of Geraldo, titled "Lesbian Cops Walking a Different Beat," during which they described how county employees made clandestine videotapes of them working together and followed them home when their shift ended. Someone also scrawled the word dyke on Yodice's locker and on her desk, the women said.
Two Sundays ago Walker had just finished a twelve-hour shift and was in the house taking a nap when the agents burst through the door at about 6:30 p.m. "I woke up to two women putting badges in my face," she says, adding that although she explained to the officers that she was only visiting Yodice before returning to her own home in Cooper City, they arrested her anyway.
Yodice, who is currently unemployed, says she began holding the parties in March so local lesbians who don't like gay bars would have a place to socialize. She estimates that 25 to 35 women have attended each party and admits she collects money to defray expenses: Guests are asked to contribute five dollars at the door in exchange for two beers or sodas and all the barbecue they can eat, she explains; women who want to drink more are encouraged to make additional donations. Yodice says leftover money is donated to gay organizations such as the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR) and local groups.
Yodice also acknowledges that the house has become known as "The Inn," owing to the parties as well as to the fact that she rents out one of its four one-bedroom apartments on an itinerant basis, charging anywhere from $40 per night to $600 per month, depending how long a guest is staying. The other three apartments that make up the fourplex (similar to many of the sprawling ranch houses in the neighborhood) are inhabited by herself, Butt, and another friend, a licensed massage therapist who contributes free massages and buys groceries in lieu of rent. "The idea was to provide a safe place for lesbians passing through town," Yodice says of the fourth apartment. "It's like a bed-and-breakfast type thing."
She adds that when she approached Fort Lauderdale's occupational license division about applying for a permit to rent an apartment, she was told she didn't need one. She claims she was also given the green light to throw her parties.
City employees confirm that they spoke to Yodice but say they did not realize Yodice wanted to rent apartments in a fourplex -- which would have required a license -- as opposed to simply renting out rooms in a four-bedroom house.
According to state authorities, agents confiscated $364.45 and more than 40 bottles of liquor. Yodice says she started the party with $175 in cash for change and that actual donations totaled only $185.45. She also accuses the law enforcement agents of of stealing an additional $6000 from a bureau drawer in her bedroom. She has since lodged a complaint with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's internal affairs division.
Spokesmen for the police and for the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages refuse to comment about Yodice's allegations of missing cash. Cheryl Donisi, a Fort Lauderdale police detective, says the investigation was triggered by dozens of calls from neighbors complaining about problems with parking and noise created by the parties, which usually lasted from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. According to Donisi, the neighbors also alerted Metro-Dade after they noticed Walker's squad car parked outside the residence.
State agents offer a slightly different explanation of the intercounty involvement. Beverage supervisor Owsiany says she briefed Metro-Dade after she learned one of that department's officers was likely to be arrested. "Metro-Dade has nothing to do with this, although they were contacted as a courtesy to let them know this was going on," she comments.
Sgt. Gary Sellers of Metro-Dade's internal affairs office was present at the raid and says his department normally sends someone to the scene if there is an incident involving one of its officers. According to Walker's supervisor, she will continue to fulfill her regular duties while the department investigates the incident.
Five different neighbors, all of whom refused to give their names, complained to police that the women had been creating a disturbance. None, however, had bothered to talk to Yodice and her housemates before calling the police. "They're not the sort of people you want to approach," says a man who lives next door to the women.
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The complaints about noise strike Yodice as disingenuous. "They don't like us because we're lesbians," she maintains, asserting that the tires on her car and those belonging to her housemates have been flattened at least four times within the past four months, that a flag sporting the rainbow colors of gay pride was stolen twice, that gay pride stickers have been scraped off her bumper, and that neighborhood kids have made a sport of ringing the doorbell and running off and of yelling "fucking dykes" at the occupants of the house. "The only place they get that from is their parents," Yodice says.
She and her friends have already started to correct the code violations. This past Friday they purchased a city occupational license. They say they'll invite county inspectors to see them, as well. "We're willing to overcompensate," says Yodice. "We don't have a problem with that."
But she is amazed at the amount of resources expended on the raid -- from the overtime wages paid to the personnel to the aerial surveillance photos of the property attached to the search warrant.
"The taxpayers of Fort Lauderdale should be very happy that they have spent their money to bust a pool party," she observes.