In Miami, the murder plots rival the movie plots

VERSACE DEATH SCENE: Police investigation in front of designer Gianni Versace’s Casa Casuarina mansion on Ocean Drive where the fashion mogul was murdered on the steps of his home on July 15, 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan.
VERSACE DEATH SCENE: Police investigation in front of designer Gianni Versace’s Casa Casuarina mansion on Ocean Drive where the fashion mogul was murdered on the steps of his home on July 15, 1997 by serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Herald Staff

Miami: Crime capital of the nation.

Not so fast. Like a prom date with a hotel key tucked away the morning after, the reputation can be deceiving. Miami can’t corner the market nationwide on garden variety mayhem. We’re bolder than that.

Sure, we had that distinction in 1984 when Miami-Dade indeed led the nation as the most murderous metropolis with 23.7 homicides per 100,000 population in the year Miami Vice premiered. A domestic violence victim became the 470th homicide of that year. We bumped East St. Louis/Belleville, Illinois, for that honor then. That city reclaimed the top spot in 2014 on Neighborhood Scout’s rankings. (Miami isn’t even in the Top 30.)

But history tells us when Miami airs its vice, it does so in spectacular fashion.

The Miami Zombie. The Facebook killer. Cocaine Cowboys. Miami River Cops.

Miami stands out. But why?

Local historian Paul George offers several theories.

“I think it’s a place for starting over again and a lot of people bring their troubles with them and might start over again and old stuff comes out,” George said. The Miami Dade College professor has led his popular Miami: Mystery, Mayhem and Vice tours for years.

“Another is it has long been a tourist resort and people cut loose when they are out of their own comfort zone and they think somebody doesn’t know them,” he said.

George offers another explanation: Location. Location. Location.

“We’re close to the Caribbean and Latin America and if you look at Prohibition, that was directly connected to the Bahamas and all that booze coming in. And if you look at drugs, those are coming primarily from Latin America,” he said.

“We’re an international city, so alive — for better and for worse.”

Here’s a bit of the worst. Call it Miami’s Greatest Hits.

Only in Miami

The Causeway Cannibal

Ronald Poppo made it to 65 despite living on the mean streets of Miami for more than half of his life.

Then on Saturday of Memorial Day weekend 2012, Poppo ventured onto the pedestrian path of the MacArthur Causeway to catch some sleep during the steamy afternoon.

Rudy Eugene, 31, a former North Miami Beach High School football player, had been on South Beach for Urban Beach Week. Something snapped.

Eugene walked west along the MacArthur, shedding his clothes along the way, until he came upon Poppo. Unprovoked, Eugene, forever to be known as the Miami Zombie, straddled his victim, punched him, stripped off his clothes and tore away most of Poppo’s face — with his teeth.

Eugene, who refused to stop the mauling when confronted by police, died in a hail of police bullets. A blinded Poppo is at a long-term care center in Cutler Bay, his treatment paid for by Medicaid.

Blood and toxicology tests on Eugene detected traces of marijuana but nothing to explain his actions on that memorable day.

Nude man tosses head at Miami cop

It wasn’t enough that Alberto Mesa stabbed his 18-year-old girlfriend Dina Tormos 111 times, beheaded her with a hunting-type knife and left her body inside his Miami apartment.

What Mesa, 23, took from that apartment elevated Mesa’s act to a true only-in-Miami moment: At dawn on March 2, 1985, under the Metrorail station near Southwest 33rd Court and 29th Terrace, Mesa stripped bare and leaned against a support column, clutching the severed head of the woman he had dated for six months. As police officer Derek Aycarte, 22, approached, Mesa hurled the woman’s head at the officer and shouted, “I killed her. She’s the devil!”

Mesa, who believed he was possessed, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a non-jury trial. He was committed to the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Cocaine Cowboys

The first clue that something wasn’t quite right about that white Ford Econoline in the lot of Dadeland Mall in Kendall on July 11, 1979, was the crudely stenciled red signs on each side of the vehicle. The company names didn’t match: The right panel read: “Happy Time Complete Supply Party.” The left: “Happy Time Complete Party Supply.”

One of Miami’s top cocaine dealers, 37-year-old Jimenez Panesso, and his bodyguard, Juan Carlos Hernandez, 22, might have lived to see the 1980s had they paid more attention to their surroundings and driven off in their white Mercedes with its bulletproof windows.

As Gerald Posner recounts in his 2009 book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power — A Dispatch from the Beach, Panesso was a regular customer at the mall’s former Crown Liquors. The duo strolled inside. Two men from the Ford van followed. Wordlessly, one of the men shot Colombian drug lord Panesso four times in the face with a .380 Beretta. The other gunman sprayed the store with a submachine pistol. Two dead dealers, four others injured.

Years later, Griselda Blanco, “the Godmother of cocaine,” was linked to the hit. She was killed in Medellín in 2012 by an assassin on a motorcycle.

Miami River Cops

You can almost see this one playing out on an episode of NBC’s Miami Vice.

The setting: aboard the Mary C at Jones Boat Yard on the Miami River. The date: July 28, 1985.

A consortium of crooked cops in the Miami Police Department, masterminded by Armando “Scarface” Garcia, a 23-year-old officer, storms the boat to rob men guarding a stash of 350 kilograms of cocaine.

(Cue Jan Hammer’s jumpy Vice score.)

The startled men jump overboard but three can’t swim and drown. The investigation, which made news around the world, lasted for years. More than 100 officers were arrested, fired, suspended or reprimanded.

(Roll the end credits.)

The Versace Murder

“Stylish life, brutal death,” screamed the Miami Herald headline on July 15, 1997, hours after serial killer Andrew Cunanan, 27, gunned down famed fashion designer Gianni Versace, 50.

The fashion mogul, who’d partied with Elton John, Sting and Princess Diana, was shot execution-style on the steps of Versace’s Ocean Drive mansion, Casa Casuarina. He died three blocks from where he had just eaten breakfast at the News Café.

Nine days later, Cunanan, who had left a trail of four bodies from Minneapolis to Miami before he came upon Versace, shot himself to death aboard a houseboat on Indian Creek.

The mass murderer on a bicycle

Carl Robert Brown, a Hialeah middle school social studies teacher, was peeved over a $20 repair job on his lawn mower engine he had had serviced at a machine shop three miles from his house.

Brown, 51, awoke on Aug. 20, 1982, alongside his 10-year-old son. Brown, muttering to himself, clambered aboard his bicycle with its oversized tires and wire basket. A 12-gauge shotgun he had purchased at a nearby gun store just the day before hung off his back.

Thirty minutes later, Brown arrived at Bob Moore’s Welding and Machine Service on North River Drive, vowing “to kill everybody.” Employees scattered as he opened fire in the shop. Within moments, eight men and women were killed and three were wounded, the largest mass murder in Miami-Dade history. Brown calmly rode off on his bicycle.

Mike Kram, a neighboring metal shop owner, chased Brown in a 1981 Lincoln and crushed him against a concrete light pole with his car.

The welder whose work upset the gunman escaped unhurt.

Snoozing on surveillance

Two beauty queen sisters, Denise and Diane Herthum, 20 and 18, members of a prominent Baton Rouge family, and a drug-dealing suspect, Jackson Smith, 31, were found slaughtered in the Tanglewood apartment Smith had been renting near the Miami River.

The women were strangled and found with black hoods over their heads. Smith was shot.

The Oct. 19, 1972, crime became Miami-Dade’s first noted mass murder. But what makes this one novel is that customs agents were stationed outside, 24/7, keeping the apartment under surveillance for narcotic activity. Yet no one saw the killer(s) enter and the case was unsolved.

The murders “sent the investigation down the drain,” U.S. Customs officials told The Miami News in 1977. Many years later police linked execution-style killer Ricky Cravero to the slayings but no one has paid for the crime.

Cops ’n’ robbers

FBI Suniland shootout

The bloodiest shootout in the FBI’s 107-year history shattered the quiet of an unincorporated South Miami-Dade neighborhood, now Pinecrest, on April 11, 1986, behind the Suniland Shopping Center that fronts South Dixie Highway.

FBI agents Benjamin Grogan, 53, and Jerry Dove, 30, died in an exchange of gunfire with Michael Platt and William Matix, heavily armed bank robbery suspects.

Platt, the more vicious of the two, would rival The Terminator, the killing machine made famous in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Dove fired what should have been a deadly shot into Platt, decimating his right lung. But Platt darted around a car, ambushed the agents, and kept firing, even as other FBI agents hit him 11 more times. Injured agent Edmundo Mireles finally brought Platt down with a bullet to the spine. He also took out Matix.

After five minutes and 145 shots, two agents and the suspects were dead, and six other backup FBI agents were wounded.

In April 2015, the FBI dedicated its new $194 million Miramar headquarters in the names of Grogan and Dove. President Barack Obama signed the tribute.

Mob hits

The gangster died on the 13th floor

Fatty Walsh, bodyguard to a New York mobster, was murdered by rival underworld figure Edward Wilson on March 7, 1929, at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

Walsh came to his untimely end inside a vast 13th-floor, two-bedroom suite that was being run on the sly as a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Or did he?

Walsh’s ghost supposedly haunts the hotel to this day. The No. 1 elevator, the main access to the 13th floor, has been known to automatically rise to that level and stay put. “They say Fatty Walsh wants company,” storyteller Linda Spitzer told the Miami Herald in a 2000 article.

Life and death in the fast lane

Don Aronow was rich, handsome and a standout among the powerboat set. U.S. Customs agents were so impressed with his Cigarette boats for their ability to reach speeds that helped them elude easy capture, they commissioned Aronow to build an intercept vessel dubbed Blue Thunder.

Problem: the 59-year-old Cigarette boat founder and powerboat racer came to the attention of the wrong people.

On Feb. 3, 1987, Aronow died on a dead-end street dubbed Thunderboat Alley, so-named for the Formula, Donzi, Magnum and Cigarette racing boats he sold nearby at his USA Racing office in what is now Aventura. Benjamin Kramer was jailed for ordering the hit, carried out by triggerman Bobby Young for $60,000.

Prosecutors argued that Kramer, a rival who owned a casino and raced powerboats, wanted Aronow dead over a business dispute. In 1996, Kramer was sentenced to 19 years in prison for his role in the slaying; he was already serving a life sentence on federal drug-smuggling charges. Young, who served his sentence in Oklahoma for the Aronow murder, fled to Miami while on probation. In 2009, he died of natural causes at 60 at Jackson Memorial.

Slain sub king

Gus Boulis, a Greek immigrant who came to the United States as a 16-year-old stowaway, would find that submarines, as in sandwiches, were the key to his fortune in the new land.

The founder of Miami Subs, and a string of other South Florida eateries, including the former The Italian Fisherman in the Keys, was driving his green BMW on Feb. 6, 2001, on Southeast 17th Street in Fort Lauderdale when he was blocked by a Mazda Miata. A black Mustang pulled up alongside his car and a hit man opened fire.

The murder-for-hire of the 51-year-old was linked to a floating casino empire he founded, and lost.

A group of investors, some linked to the Gambino crime family, gathered to buy the fleet but the deal collapsed and Boulis began making plans to regain the company.

The move would prove his undoing. Anthony “Little Tony” Ferrari and James “Pudgy” Fiorillo were convicted. Anthony “Big Tony” Moscatiello is now being retried after a mistrial was declared.

A perfect hit

A member of the Gambino family, Thomas ‘‘The Enforcer’’ Altamura, a Mafia hitman, turned up for dinner on a 1967 Halloween night at the popular A Place for Steak restaurant on the 79th Street Causeway in North Bay Village.

He would never enjoy his last meal. As Altamura, 53, strolled inside, rival Anthony “Big Tony” Esperti, 37, a former boxer, rose from his seat at the Harbor Lounge bar and pumped five slugs into Altamura.

Big Tony was a big hit with the crime scene investigators. “What a beautiful hole that is,” the medical examiner was overheard saying when he saw the victim’s head wound. Big Tony was sentenced to life for his handiwork and died in 2002.

Crimes of passion

The socialite with the white ’stache

Stanley Cohen, 52, a successful developer, married his secretary, Joyce McDillon, in 1974. Twelve years later, his wife, by then a cocaine-sniffing socialite, was convicted of hiring three hit men to kill Cohen in the bedroom of their Coconut Grove mansion on South Bayshore Drive.

During her trial three years later in 1989, Frank Zuccarello testified, under a grant of immunity, that he, along with two thug pals, Anthony Caracciolo and Tommy Joslin, were hired by Joyce to kill Stanley on March 7, 1986. The wealthy developer, father of former WPLG-Local 10 reporter Gerri Helfman, was found with four bullet wounds to his skull as he slept in the couple’s bedroom on a king-sized brass bed.

Joyce was convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to 25 years to life. In 2013, the Florida Parole Commission voted to set a target release date of April 2048. She would be 97.

The Facebook killer

Derek Medina, 31, a Coral Gables High 2001 graduate, lived his life on social media, but few were interested.

All of that changed on Aug. 8, 2013, when the South Miami man posted a grisly photo on Facebook: the corpse of his wife, 26-year-old Jennifer Alonso, as she lay slumped on the kitchen floor of the townhouse they shared on the corner of Miller Drive and Ludlam Road.

Attached to the ghoulish photo Medina wrote: “Facebook people you’ll see me in the news.”

What he did, police say, is murder his wife by firing multiple shots at her at close range after the two quarreled.

The image, quickly removed by Facebook, went viral. Medina was charged with first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty, citing self-defense. A jury is expected to hear a trial later this year.

Meantime, Medina’s self-published book, How I Saved Someone's Life and Marriage and Family Problems Thru Communication, is currently ranked 6,047,498 on Amazon.

Political potboiler

A bullet for FDR

Would-be presidential assassin Giuseppe Zangara, a Miami bricklayer, had it in for capitalists after the Great Depression and a 1926 Miami hurricane made finding work nearly impossible.

Zangara bought a .32-caliber pistol for $8 at a downtown drugstore and two days later, on Feb. 15, 1933, he made his way to Bayfront Park. There, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was giving a speech to the largest crowd assembled in Miami.

Zangara, aiming at Roosevelt, got off five shots but missed his target when a Miami housewife, Lillian Cross, grabbed his arm, and screamed, “Don’t do that!” But a wayward bullet struck Anton J. Cermak, the mayor of Chicago, in the stomach. He died from the wound weeks later on March 6.

Justice was swift. Zangara was executed in the electric chair on March 20. He, too, was in a hurry. “Pusha the button,” were his last words.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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