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'We're Back to the Jesse James Days' : Miami Plagued by Expressway Bandits

August 18, 1985|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

"He was standing in a police stance, you know, with his feet spread and the gun held straight out in front of him," she said. "I just froze."

Gynecologist Frank Carreno, 60, was pistol-whipped. Then, a bandit snatched his wallet and ripped two gold chains from his neck.

"Miami is not like it used to be," the doctor said sadly.

Actually, there has been a severe crime problem here for five years. Miami is a victim of its own geography and the nation's lust for cocaine.

"The drugs and the Mariels, that's why the crime is in Miami and not, oh, Des Moines," veteran prosecutor David Waksman said.

In 1980, the Mariel boatlift brought 125,000 Cuban refugees to this city. While the vast majority were law-abiding, a small percentage were desperate criminals, loosed from Cuban jails into a paradise for predatory ways.

At the same time, drug wars were turning Miami into a modern-day Dodge City. An estimated 70% of the cocaine used illegally in America enters the nation somewhere along South Florida's enormous coastline. This is where distributors split it up and, when need be, shoot it out.

In a few troubled years, the city that Jackie Gleason heralded as "the sun-and-fun capital of the world" changed into a capital of murder and smuggling and money-laundering, a city worthy of a new television title: "Miami Vice."

'Modern Casablanca'

"The modern Casablanca--it all ends up here," said Arthur Nehrbass, commander of the Metro-Dade Police's Organized Crime Bureau.

The federal government prosecutes more illegal firearms cases here than in any other U.S. metropolitan area. There is more credit card fraud per capita in Miami than any other place in the world, said Joseph S. Dawson, a security officer for Visa International.

Anxious community leaders have tried to fight back. They first huddled together against the tide in 1981. Appeals went as far as Washington. Vice President George Bush traveled here repeatedly. Federal agents poured in.

"Well, a little outrage is a good thing because we were doing pretty good for a while," said Lester Freeman, chairman of Miami Citizens Against Crime, a prominent group lobbying for more police protection.

Local police forces were expanded. Neighborhoods joined in crime watches. Finally, the troubling crime rate dipped, and the corner seemed to have been turned. Pressure let up.

"We went to sleep, I think," Freeman said.

The most recent crime figures surprised Miami's leadership, because they hit home. Some of those who had been attacked were among the elite.

Businessman a Victim

The 13 victims of the home invaders include M. Anthony Burns, chairman of Ryder Systems, the truck rental company.

Two hooded burglars entered his home through an open garage door. Carrying automatic weapons, they held Burns and his son at gunpoint while plundering the house of jewelry and cash. Then, they sped off in the family Cadillac.

"They just cruise along, looking for that open garage door or a youngster by an open door," Metro-Dade Police Maj. John S. Farrell said of the robbers. "Bad, bad criminals."

Two weeks ago, police caught Jeffrey Wilson, 21, the supposed ringleader, an escapee from the county jail, after he had surprised schoolteacher Betty Cerra, 39, in her bedroom. He was hiding behind her armoire, and he had a submachine gun.

"I screamed," she said. "But it wasn't a hysterical scream. It was more like when a child jumps out and scares you."

Her 11-year-old son, John, was by the pool when he heard the noise. He thought his mom had stepped on the cat. When he looked inside the sliding glass door, he saw the ski-masked man and ran to a neighbor, who dialed 911.

"Someone who would rob somebody with a machine gun hasn't grown up," the teacher said. "I'd like to turn him over my knee. I was so mad!"

Such crimes receive great attention here, where the police are free with information and the news media report it in thorough, sometimes gory detail.

In March, the city stirred with accounts of a nude man who confronted police with his girlfriend's severed head. In April, people followed a grisly puzzle of body parts found floating in the waterways.

William Wilbanks, a professor of criminal justice at Florida International University, believes that the intense coverage sometimes overdramatizes the danger.

"A lot of people think that if they take their car onto I-95, someone's going to jump out and get them," he said. "Well, I've figured out that with all the cars on I-95 the chances of that are about 375,000 to 1."

Misleading Statistics

The FBI statistics that rank Miami as a murder and crime capital, he also pointed out, are not meant to be used in comparisons. They are compiled from the nation's police, sheriff and highway patrol offices, and reporting procedures vary.

"Things are getting pretty overblown," Wilbanks said. "People hear the city's leaders talk and they say, 'Hey, if they think it's so bad, maybe it is so bad.' "

It is that bad, according to Freeman, chairman of the city's leading anti-crime group--bad enough to require more police and prosecutors and judges, to require building another jail and beefing up every part of the justice system.

"Damned if I'll let the bums run me out!" he said. "We need more outrage. We need to wake up the government. Spend some money!"

In the meantime, each person in Miami is left pondering the newest twist to what is now a weary tale of a city and its crime.

"I can tell you this," said Nancy Puchhas, victim in the summer of the highwaymen. "I'll never stop to change a tire on I-95 again."

Times researcher Lorna Nones contributed to this story.

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