Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Closures, crocodiles and other headline grabbers

FLORIDA KEYS -- Bay closures, Cay Clubs and an unfortunate crocodile all featured in local headlines this year.

Talk of closures, real and proposed, lingered throughout the year. But the only closure that actually occurred came in October, when a 16-day shutdown of the federal government meant that Everglades National Park had to make 790 square miles of Florida Bay off limits.

The closure angered local fishing guides and bay users in part because rangers continued to patrol the bay during the shutdown. The only difference was that instead of being tasked with normal law enforcement, they were under orders to keep people out of the park.

Fishing guides chafed that the shutdown was bad for business. Fishing tournaments were forced to alter their hunting grounds. Park officials, meanwhile, were almost apologetic about the whole situation. They didn't issue a single ticket during the 16-day shutdown.

Still, as the congressional standoff, and thus the bay closure, extended into a second week, a group of guides decided to make an impression.

In conjunction with Monroe County Tourist Development Council publicity point man Andy Newman, they organized an Oct. 9 protest just outside the park boundary.

More than 100-plus boats showed up, their occupants sporting flags, signs and, of course, beer for the two-hour event.

The protest garnered press both locally and from the wire services AP and Reuters. But the closure lasted another week, until Congress ended the federal shutdown in the wee hours of Oct. 16.

In the spring, it was potential Florida Bay closures of another form that drew the ire of anglers. Continuing a general management plan development process that has lingered for more than a decade, the National Park Service proposed closing a third of the bay to combustion engine use. Only trolling motors were to be allowed in 131,000 acres of the bay.

In selecting the proposed closure areas, Everglades officials sought to protect flats and seagrass beds from possible groundings. But the plan drew a groundswell of opposition from a coalition of Upper and Middle Keys fishing guides and merchants. Crowds in excess of 100 turned out for meetings at Coral Shores High School and the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center to tell Everglades Park Superintendant Dan Kimball that the closures would severely hamper their ability to access favored fishing grounds. The result, they said, would be devastating to the local backcountry fishing industry and harmful to the overall Keys economy.

Speakers, especially guides, proposed alternative ways to reduce damage to the Florida Bay flats, including converting the proposed pole/troll zones to pole/troll/idle speed zones. They also urged the park service to keep key access channels open to motors in order to facilitate transit through the bay.

As the park service went back to work on the plan in June, officials said they would likely implement some of those ideas.

Back on land, the defunct development company Cay Clubs made big headlines in 2013, five years after it unceremoniously closed, leaving behind a string of Upper and Middle Keys properties in disrepair.

On Jan. 30, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission accused five company executives of running a $300 million Ponzi scheme. Cay Clubs CEO Dave Clark, his wife, Cristal Coleman, Cay Clubs CFO Dave Schwarz, Director of Sales Barry Graham and Director of Investor Relations Rick Lynn Stokes enriched themselves to the tune of millions at the expense of 1,400 investors, the SEC charged in the civil case, even while they failed to complete any of their promised 17 upscale condominium redevelopments in the Keys and elsewhere.

From 2004 through 2008, Cay Clubs lured investors, according to the complaint, by promising an automatic 15 percent return through a two-year "leaseback" agreement in which the unit owners rented their condos back to the developer. But beginning in 2005 Cay Clubs didn't have the money to pay the 15 percent returns, so they began paying back earlier investors with money from new investors.

The charges garnered heavy attention in the Keys. But Clark and his co-defendants haven't taken them sitting down. In July, they successfully prevailed upon U.S. District Judge James Lawrence to make the SEC file a revised complaint.

The defendants' legal fight hasn't centered on the fraud charges, but on the issue of whether the SEC has jurisdiction in the case. The SEC says it does, arguing the Cay Clubs was selling investment contracts that hinged upon the leaseback agreements. But the Cay Clubs executives say they were simply selling real estate, which isn't governed by the SEC. Buyers weren't required to enter into the leaseback deals.

While calling for the revised complaint, King also sided with the defendants on which legal decisions have the most bearing on the case. He stated that two 2011 cases cited by Clark's attorneys are more relevant than the 2008 case the government cited as precedent.

As the year ends, the Cay Clubs case continues to move its way through the pretrial process. Most recently, Clark and his co-defendants requested that the case be moved from Key West to Miami in order to avoid potential jury bias. King has yet to rule on the motion.

On both land and the water, a crocodile known to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as Blue No. 9 was an unlikely and unfortunate headline maker in 2013.

The Blue No. 9 saga began on April 23, when she nested in a planter in the yard of Lower Matecumbe Keys residents Peter and Elaine Vlaun. FWC agents waited for her to lay her eggs and then transported her, at the behest of the Vlauns, to an undeveloped bayside area 4 miles north.

However, Blue No. 9 quickly returned to her former haunt in the Tollgate Shores neighborhood. On May 6, neighborhood resident Keith Allen heard gunshots. The crocodile was found on May 12, a victim of bullet wounds to the head.

The "assassination," as one FWC agent called it, sparked a new round of debate over how to handle the native reptiles, which in recent years have become more frequent residents of Keys canals.

It also created a bit of an uproar. A crowd of more than 30 people gathered in mid-May at the Port Antigua homeowner's park beach to commemorate Blue No. 9. FWC agents, who were among the attendees, brought fliers advertising a $6,000 reward for information leading to conviction of the crocodile shooter. Killing an American crocodile, which are designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is a third-degree felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Around the time of the memorial service, FWC agents searched the Tollgate Shores home from where Blue No. 9 was believed to have been shot. But so far, the case remains unsolved.

Another case of local interest, however, has ended. In October, a Fort Lauderdale jury convicted Anthony "Little Tony" Ferrari for his role in the 2001 killing of Sun Cruz Casino founder and Key Largo developer Konstantinos "Gus" Boulis. Ferrari will serve life in prison.

The other defendant in the case, Anthony "Big Tony" Moscatiello, however, will have to be retried. Judge Ilona Holmes granted Moscatiello a mistrial when his attorney, David Bogenschutz, became too sick to participate in the court proceedings.

rsilk@keynews.com

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