LGBTQ South Florida

South Florida’s last big gay bar raids happened 25 years ago

Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro speaks to reporters in 1989.
Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro speaks to reporters in 1989. Miami Herald File

Exactly 25 years ago Tuesday, then-Broward Sheriff Nick Navarro led the last major gay bar raids in South Florida, when deputies stormed the old Copa on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale and Club 21 in Pembroke Park.

Navarro died at age 81 on Sept. 28, 2011, after suffering from colon cancer. His obituaries recounted how during eight years as sheriff he led BSO's obscenity crackdown of local rappers 2 Live Crew, put Broward deputies in the national spotlight on the TV showCops, and how GOP voters unexpectedly removed him from office in 1992.

Generally, no mentions were made of the infamous bar raids, in which dozens of gay men were rounded up, ordered to sit on the floor and humiliated on television news.

The publicity-seeking sheriff personally led the May 3, 1991, raid at the Copa. Not only did Navarro invite the media, he brought along his wife, Sharron, and a few visiting dignitaries to watch the show.

Here’s the story I co-wrote with then-Miami Herald reporter Ronnie Greene on May 7, 1991, when I covered Navarro and Broward Sheriff’s Office:

BY STEVE ROTHAUS and RONNIE GREENE

For three months, undercover officers investigating two Broward nightclubs say they made cocaine deals, saw sex on stage and witnessed an underground cigarette trade.

In a Friday night show of force, 100 armed officers masked drug agents and the U.S. Border Patrol raided the gay bars.

Sheriff Nick Navarro, his wife Sharron and a visiting Soviet military man showed up to watch.

Officers flashed pictures, recorded the scenes with a video camera, sought out illegal aliens, ran criminal checks on customers and asked people where they work.

The law enforcement team made six arrests -- and with its timing and tactics, infuriated members of South Florida's gay community.

"It's the most outrageous and unjustifiable exercise of police power that I've ever heard of, " said Greg Baldwin, chairman of the Dade Action PAC, a gay rights group.

Besides making the arrests, authorities suspended the liquor licenses of both establishments, Club 21 in Pembroke Park and Copa Cabaret near Port Everglades.

"They are not licensed to sell cocaine. And we did find cocaine all over the floor after we got in there, " said Maj. Ralph Page, a spokesman for the Broward Sheriff's Office. "What their sexual persuasion is does not enter into it. This to me is a bum rap."

Owners of the Copa declined comment Monday. Club 21's lawyer, Norman Kent, said the raid was "a made-for-TV bust. They're targeting a gay establishment for being too gay."

Responded Page: "This is not gay bashing. This is enforcement of narcotics laws."

The investigation began with a tip earlier this year to the sheriff's South Broward substation. Accompanied by confidential informants, a sheriff's detective and an investigator from the state Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco began frequenting the clubs in February.

They had no trouble finding drugs, state records show: Investigators made deals with disc jockeys, bartenders and patrons, handing over $20, $30 or $40 for bags of cocaine and $50 for marijuana. Detectives witnessed live sex acts between paid dancers and customers at Club 21, they wrote.

"The licencee has fostered, condoned and/or negligently overlooked specific acts of 'lewdness, ' 'sexual activity, ' 'exposure of sexual organs, ' 'deviate sexual intercourse' and 'sexual conduct, ' " reads the report on Club 21.

The state signed orders suspending liquor licenses at both clubs Wednesday. The next morning, a Broward judge signed search warrants.

At about 11 p.m. Friday -- as business began to peak -- the raid went into action. News reporters were invited to go along.

"We timed this so we could go in at a time when there was a likelihood the subjects would be there, but didn't want to be there so late there would be a large crowd and people intoxicated, " said Jim Leljedal, another sheriff's spokesman.

The border patrol found two illegal aliens, and took them in. As many as 20 other arrests are pending. The sheriff's office has not released the names of those arrested, nor what they have been charged with.

Both bars remain open, but cannot sell alcohol.

Byron Jones, 20, said he was at Club 21 for teen night when the officers arrived. He said they lined customers against the walls, then set up tables and started taking names and Social Security numbers. He said they asked youths for names and numbers of their parents, and adults for the names of bosses.

"A lot of people were terrified. They were covering their faces when the cameras came by to videotape them, " said Jones, president of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Group of South Florida. "I saw several people I knew while they were being interrogated. They were in tears."

South Florida Gay News editorial

South Florida Gay News publisher Norm Kent, an attorney who represented some of the gay men arrested in the 1991 bar raids, has written an editorial for his newspaper. Read it here.

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