In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: The names that made South Florida’s year — for good or ill

They brought us glory, shame, tragedy, scandal, indignation, pride, horror.

LeBron James, George Zimmerman, Deisy Cabrera, Jorge Perez, Nevin Shapiro, Billy Cypress, Ana Alliegro, Richie Incognito, Pedro Alberto Vargas, Carmen Gonzalez, Geralyn Graham, Antwan Hope, Anthony Bosch, Derek Medina, "Little Tony" Ferrari, Alex Saleh, Anthawn Ragan Jr., Manuel Maroño are names that might seem utterly incompatible. Except for geography and calendar. Except that their deeds in 2013 left an imprint on this place.

LeBron James continued his reign as South Florida’s greatest athlete. That he was just named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year was about as surprising around here as heavy traffic on the MacArthur. Yet the single most exhilarating moment in local sports belonged to his aged teammate Ray Allen, game six of the NBA finals, 5.2 second on the clock, with the heroic shot that saved a championship.

Deisy Cabrera, not quite such a superhero, had labored in relative obscurity, little known outside Hialeah’s cabal of shady political operatives until she was busted for absentee ballot fraud. Think of Cabrera as a just a symptom in the epidemic afflicting Miami-Dade elections. She was given probation.

Miami congressman Joe Garcia's former chief of staff, Jeffrey Garcia (no relation) was given a 90-day jail sentence in another absentee-ballot scandal.

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez dropped out of the mayoral race after two of his aides were arrested for illegally collecting absentee ballots.

Last month, investigators raided the office of North Miami Mayor Lucie Tondreau in yet another investigation of unlawful absentee-ballot requests.

Earlier this month, a Miami-Dade grand jury, investigating the outbreak of election fraud, demanded tighter controls over absentee ballot distribution, “Can the public have confidence in the election results of those close races? We are not certain they can.” Perhaps we should ask Deisy Cabrera.

Antwan Hope, only four years old, died in 2013, another young victim amid what the Herald’s Carol Marbin Miller described as a “systemic failure to protect children in dangerously dysfunctional households” by the Florida Department of Children & Families. In June, DCF inexplicably returned Antwan to his Coral Springs home and the mother who had twice attempted to smother the child. He was dead within a few hours.

It was yet another tragic failure in DCF oversight. Leading to yet another scathing report, this one ordered up by the state Legislature (after Carol had recounted a series of deaths of children overseen by DCF this year.) The Casey Families Program concluded the obvious: “The overall thoroughness of the investigations leading up to the child's death is highly questionable.”

We’ve heard this before. So many times that news of foster-kid deaths has become nearly numbing. Antwan died just four months after foster mother Geralyn Graham was convicted of abusing and kidnapping little Rilya Wilson, another notable DCF failure. Investigators suspect that Graham had murdered the four-year-old in 2000, though the child’s disappearance went unremarked by DCF for 15 months as her caseworker faked visit reports.

Graham, 68, was sentenced to 55 years in prison. In the public mind, a negligent state agency shares more than a little culpability for Rilya’s death. “To this day, neither the state of Florida, this court, the jury of the community — we do not know where this child is,” prosecutor Sally Weintraub told the court.

Still, Miami and Miami Beach had Art Basel to celebrate. Basel happened to coincide this year with the opening of the spectacular Jorge Perez Art Museum Miami, named for the benefactor who contributed $40 million in cash and art. The $220 million building in the newly christened Museum Park seems so grand it led to inevitable questions about whether the artwork inside was worthy of the architecture.

The Herald’s Andres Viglucci described “wrap-around verandas cooled by lush gardens and a monumental overhanging roof, 360-degree views of bay and city from within and without, and an adjacent new plaza, park and baywalk,” and added: “the unusually porous museum could also become something else, backers say: a spectacular new front porch for the people of Miami.”

Two names dominated local sports, at least football, for unhappy reasons. After Richie Incognito was accused of crude and bullying behavior toward a teammate, opinion mongering in the national media about the Miami Dolphins locker room, about pro football ethics and even about Incognito himself may have outstripped the known facts of the case. And then there was the very scummy convicted fraudster Nevin Shapiro, the rogue booster and the NCAA’s star witness in its ethically suspect investigation of University of Miami athletics. The three-year investigation finally ended with the NCAA reaping about as much disgrace as UM.

Major League Baseball seemed just as underhanded in its zeal to nail Yankee superstar Alex Rodriguez, providing money and legal assistance to Anthony Bosch, the phony doc who was running Biogenesis of America, the so-called anti-aging clinic in Coral Gables that was dispensing illegal concoctions of performance-enhancing drugs to jocks, including high school kids.

The nation was transfixed — and polarized — by the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman and the peculiarities of Florida’s self-defense law. And like so much else in 2013, outside the courtroom the case became a kind of political Rorschach test, revealing one’s inclinations in America’s culture wars. Since his acquittal for shooting Miami teenager Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman has kept the debate over his character alive with two arrests on domestic abuse charges. (In both instances, the women later recanted the charges.)

It was a year, too, of utterly demented killings in South Florida. Derek Medina of South Miami has been charged with shooting his wife, Jennifer Alfonso, then posting a photo of her body on Facebook with the caption, “I'm going to prison or death sentence for killing my wife.”

A few terrible moments captured on surveillance video during the robbery of a North Miami nail salon led to the arrest of Anthawn Ragan, Jr. Police said that it was Ragan’s image on the video that showed one of the robbers turn and, for no apparent reason, fire two shots as he and an accomplice exited the salon. One bullet killed 10-year-old Aaron Vu. The other ripped into the shoulder of the child's father, Hai Nam Vu, 42.

There were many other killings in South Florida, of course, too many to recount without turning a remembrance of 2013 into a catalogue of violence. But nothing was quite so random and mad and deadly as July’s shooting spree by Pedro Alberto Vargas at his Hialeah apartment building, killing six of his neighbors before he shot himself.

Among our memorable rogues, Anthony “Little Tony” Ferrari was convicted of the 2001 murder of Gus Boulis, the gambling boat magnate and founder of the Miami Subs restaurant chain, in Fort Lauderdale. Little Tony distinguished himself during the trial by mouthing “rat” at a prosecution witness.

It was not a good year for ousted Republican U.S. Rep. David Rivera, whose campaign operation has been implicated in setting up and funding a patsy candidate back in the 2012 Democratic primary against Rivera’s main rival, and eventual winner, Joe Garcia. The patsy’s campaign manager turned out to be Ana Alliegro, a close personal friend of Rivera's and a self-described "conservative bad girl.” Alliegro, after slipping away to Nicaragua for a few months, reportedly came home to Miami in October and finally talked to investigators.

Nor was it a good year for local mayors. Homestead Mayor Steven C. Bateman was charged with taking undisclosed payments from a health-care company looking to wangle a nice deal from the city. Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was implicated in the same kickback sting that nabbed Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Maroño (who has pleaded guilty in federal court.)

In October the husband of Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor pleaded guilty to covering up more than $6,000 in illegal campaign contributions for his wife in 2010. This follows similar convictions for the mayor’s son and sister. The mayoral matriarch, so far, has avoided arrest.

This was the year an appeals court reinstated charges against Tamarac Mayor Mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco in a 2006 bribery scheme . And former Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina was busted on charges of tax evasion.

Meanwhile the Miccosukee Tribe, by a 23-vote margin, rejected the comeback bid by former free-spending, high-living chairman Billy Cypress, who had left the tribe a mess of tax problems and pending lawsuits. Not to mention the tribe’s suit against Cypress himself, accusing him of misspending $26 million on gambling junkets, shopping sprees, real-estate investments and luxury cars.

The Herald’s Jay Weaver described Carmen Gonzalez as only a minnow “in Miami's very deep sea of Medicare fraud.” But she was also typical of the special kind of scam artist who’ve made Miami the hands-down national capital of healthcare corruption.

Like some 150 other locals pursued for Medicare fraud, she headed south when investigators closed in, trying to disappear in Latin America. She spent five years hiding out in Cuba but was captured in Fort Myers in October after sneaking back into the country. Her lawyer told the judge, “She saw no future in Cuba and wanted to give her son a better life, so she returned to the United States.”

It was a year in which Sen. Marco Rubio, onetime but no longer champion of immigration reform, seemed to waffle himself into political irrelevance.

And a year when the Miami-Dade County Commission dodged the brutally tough budget decisions, happy to let Mayor Carlos Gimenez catch hell for fixing a $50 million shortfall.

Then there was Alex Saleh, the Miami Garden convenience store owner who tired of the constant police harassment of his employees and customers. Saleh set up a bank of surveillance cameras. What he captured on video was a dismal record of petty, mindless, repetitive hassles and arrests, leading to complaints from the NAACP and the resignation of Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd earlier this month.

All that and, of course, much more that might be cause for despair. But still, it was the year of the shot. Ray Allen saved a season. And it was the year that brought us the Jorge Perez Art Museum.

Maybe, in a year of so much ignominy, Ray and Jorge saved our collective sanity.

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