Monkey Feature

In the early-morning hours of Wednesday, October 2, Metro-Dade police responded to a call from a Miami alarm company. Something or someone had tripped the burglar alarm at a business owned by a man named Matthew Block. Located at 7780 NW 53rd Street, a warehouse district near Miami International Airport, Block's building is typical of others in the area: a nondescript, one-story, concrete box. In other ways, though, the building is unusual. There are no identifying markers anywhere - no signs carrying a business name, no graphic logos, nothing. Only the vaguest hint of the enterprise inside can be seen from without: animal cages stacked against a wall. Another thing: the chain-link fence surrounding the property is topped by barbed wire, and a surveillance camera points at the front gate. And another: entry is restricted by a series of electronically activated locks.

Computer records at Central Alarm Control show they received the electronic alert at 4:48 a.m., and within seconds company officials dialed 911 to report the incident. Metro-Dade dispatchers processed the call, and seven minutes later radioed for an officer to investigate. It took only about four minutes for the patrol cop to reach the scene. But he couldn't get close to the building - the outer gate was locked. While he waited for Matthew Block to arrive, he noticed nothing suspicious.

Police say that burglaries are not uncommon in the commercial districts bordering the airport. But this one was different. Although the alarm had been tripped, it was not apparent how or where the burglar broke in, or how he could have done his business and escaped undetected before police arrived a mere eleven minutes after receiving the 911 call. Inside, police discovered some damaged drop-ceiling tiles in the reception area, and they found that the intruder had rifled through file drawers and ransacked Matthew Block's office. On the floor they found three empty film canisters and a discarded video cassette box. Crime-scene specialists dusted the entire site, but turned up not one single fingerprint. And the only things taken, according to Block, were some confidential documents.

"This is mainly what I handle, commercial burglaries," says Metro-Dade police detective Jorge Carreno, who later investigated the break-in. "And this is one of the weirdest I've come across. The broken ceiling made it look like someone came through that way, and it looked like someone messed up the office and just threw papers all over the place." Carreno checked the roof to see if it might have provided access, and determined that was impossible. "There was no sign," he says, "like a hole or anything, like someone got in that way."

Another possibility was that someone entered during business hours and hid inside a small, elevated storage closet, waiting until the employees left before emerging through the ceiling tiles and rummaging through the file drawers. But Carreno says that theory presented other problems. "This place is like Fort Knox," he explains. "Just to get in you have to buzz at the gate, and from there they're watching you on the camera. Then you have to go to the steel door and be buzzed in there. It's not easy to get in, so how could someone just stay inside and hide?" Moreover, Block told the detective he had checked the warehouse at 8:00 p.m., after closing three hours earlier, and the place was fine. "Why would someone wait that long to do their thing if they were already inside?" the detective asks. "They could have just come out as soon as the place closed and be done way before eight o'clock."

Either the burglar was an especially skilled professional, Carreno offers, or something is amiss. "If this is a legitimate break-in, I would love to talk to the guy who did it just to find out how he got in and out," he says. "But something doesn't fit here. Something isn't kosher." Carreno, a detective without tangible clues, has been left to ponder the intangible. "A real question here," he muses, "would be the motive for stealing those files."

Matthew Block refuses to discuss the stolen files or why someone might have wanted to pilfer them. He hasn't even provided police with a description of their contents. In fact, he won't say much at all about last month's burglary, except to suggest that perhaps Detective Carreno doesn't have all his facts straight. These days Block does nearly all his talking through his attorneys, and attending to the business of their client's legal needs keeps them very busy.

Which is not surprising, given that Block is a captain in one of the most controversial industries on the planet: the buying and selling of primates. From his building near the airport, Block operates Worldwide Primates, among the largest animal-brokering businesses in the world, supplying customers around the globe, principally research laboratories. Within the United States, his company is responsible for roughly a quarter of all the monkeys brought into the country each year. His business contacts range from lowly animal traders to high government officials and respected medical scientists, from Miami to Africa to Malaysia. Block has achieved this distinctive brand of success at the young age of 29.

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William Labbee