From the 'Hunger Games' summer camp to the Palm Beach toilet paper scam, why is Florida the world capital of weird news?

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Craig Pittman explains the oddities of the Sunshine State's state of mind

This summer, hardly a day has gone by without someone or something from Florida dominating the headlines in America.

First to hit the front page: Glenn Greenwald unveiling top-secret information. Greenwald grew up in Florida and even ran twice for political office in Lauderdale Lakes (he lost).

Then came the trial of Sanford neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman for the killing of unarmed passerby Trayvon Martin. Jurors said afterwards that they acquitted him because of Florida’s controversial ‘Stand Your Ground’ law on self-defence.

Then a Major League Baseball scandal broke, involving Alex Rodriguez and a dozen other players accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs at a clinic in Miami, where Rodriguez was once a star high-school athlete. Then Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, who also grew up in Miami, bought the Washington Post. And on it went.

Those of us who live in Florida are familiar with this phenomenon. When a major story makes headlines, the rest of America says, “Wow!” or “What the…?” But we Floridians say, “Where’s the Florida connection?”.

We know there must be one. The 9/11 hijackers took their flight training here. The Boston Marathon bombing led to an FBI shoot-out here. Remember the Watergate break-in that brought down Richard Nixon? The burglars hailed from Florida.

To people outside Florida, our major exports appear to be citrus and sunburns. But Floridians know that our primary export is news – mostly those strange stories that set the world’s tongues wagging. Where else would school officials think it a good idea to base a children’s summer camp on The Hunger Games?

Over the years, such authors as John D MacDonald, Charles Willeford and the recently departed Elmore Leonard have well depicted the dark side of the Sunshine State. Carl Hiaasen, the Miami Herald columnist who created his own genre of wacky Florida thrillers, always boasts that he doesn’t make anything up for his fiction. He just reads the papers.

Spend some time here and you’ll see what he means. This is the state where a driver wearing a Darth Vader mask attacked the state trooper who pulled him over. This is the place where a roving rhesus monkey not only evaded capture for three years but also earned itself a profile in The New York Times. This is where a high-school student was arrested for a science experiment, where police used a Taser to subdue a runaway kangaroo, where an undercover federal agent masqueraded as a gorilla.

I love it here. I’m a native Floridian married to another native Floridian. I grew up hunting in Florida’s forests, fishing in its lakes, canoeing its rivers. I love taking my kids to the beach to swim and hunt for shells. So far we haven’t found a single swordfish eyeball or floating bale of marijuana, unlike other Florida beachcombers, but I keep hoping.

From a lifetime of reading and reporting Florida news, I know my state is full of avid nudists, armed Wiccans, ardent UFO spotters, uniformed Scientologists, python wranglers, gator-trappers and freelance buttocks-enhancers. To me, Florida is the most fascinating state of the 50. It’s a place where tragedy often wears the mask of comedy and you never suffer an irony deficiency. Just this month, a Miami man confessed on Facebook to killing his wife, even posting a photo of her body. He’s the author of a book titled How I Saved Someone’s Life and Marriage and Family Problems Thru Communication.

Florida is the Land of Flowers but also the Land of the Face-Eating Zombie. We have an abundance of natural beauty – gin-clear springs, sugar-sand beaches, glorious sunsets – and oodles of nutty behaviour. For instance, consider the bowler from Jupiter who tucked a gun in his pocket and on his backswing accidentally shot himself.

A woman browses for guns at the National Armory gun store in Pompano Beach, Florida A woman browses for guns at the National Armory gun store in Pompano Beach, Florida
Odd things happen everywhere, but more odd news seems to happen in Florida than anywhere else. Plus, our weird news always seems weirder than anyone else’s. Other places have scammers, but only in Florida do you have the West Palm Beach con artists who raked in $1m by convincing elderly people to buy ‘special’ toilet paper. Other places have thieves, but only in Florida would you find the Gainesville man accused of swiping an entire dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia (it’s been returned). Other places have drug smugglers, but only in Florida would you find the crew who dumped cocaine from a plane only to have it land at a Homestead crime watch meeting, narrowly missing the police chief.

Florida police officers have the toughest job in America. Cops here have to be prepared for anything. A simple wreck on the highway may turn out to involve a truck full of llamas. A potential mail bomb may turn out to be a sex toy. Florida criminals have been known to steal everything from rare orchids to an entire boxing ring.

Of course, dealing with such loony scofflaws may be why so many cops go off the rails. Consider the recent sex scandal involving about half the Lakeland Police Department, where one officer allegedly asked to drink a woman’s urine.

Florida produces so much weird news that at least three blogs and five Twitter accounts now pump this precious resource to the outside world, the most famous being ‘@_FloridaMan’. All the major aggregation sites now recognise Florida stories as major click bait, so they help spread the wildest tales far and wide.

Why does so much weird news happen here? It’s a combination of factors:

OUR WEATHER

The Sunshine State’s subtropical climate has attracted everyone from voodoo priests to circus freaks to retired CIA agents looking for a warm place to chill out. With no snow to keep them cooped up indoors, Floridians are out creating mischief all year long. In the heat, tempers flare quickly and fights erupt over everything from cups of soup (jail riot) to missing shrimp (samurai sword attack and knife throwing). Our judgment clouded by the humidity, we tend to reach for any weapon handy – machetes, lawn gnomes, dead fish, even a frozen raccoon.

OUR GEOGRAPHY

Florida has long been the end of the line for people fleeing their past. We are the state of second, third, and fourth chances. But once they’re here, most folks discover you can’t really get away from your past. In the 1920s, after Carlo Ponzi was busted in Boston for running the original Ponzi scheme, he fled to Florida – where he was caught running a real estate scam.

OUR HISTORY

Floridians have been stubborn and strange right from the start. In 1845, when Florida joined the United States, the first flag that flew over our capital bore the slogan, ‘Let Us Alone’. Florida’s cattle-herding settlers didn’t cut the same romantic figure as the cowboys of the Old West. Artist Frederic Remington described them as “low-browed cow-folks” who would “shoot and stab each other for the possession of scrawny creatures not fit for a pointer-dog to mess on”.

We’ve always been a sunny place full of shady people. In the 1920s, hucksters were using everything from performing elephants to bathing beauties to sell swampland to gullible buyers. By the 1980s, when the TV show Miami Vice and the Al Pacino movie Scarface were burnishing Florida’s public image, so many Key West police officers were on the take that the FBI declared the entire department a continuing criminal enterprise.

In 2000, Florida’s fumble-fingered ballot-counting determined the outcome of the presidential election. A year later, the snarky website fark.com decided Florida generated enough strange news that it deserved its own tag. It remains the only state so honoured.

Sanford neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of unarmed passerby Trayvon Martin. Jurors said that they acquitted him because of Florida's controversial 'Stand Your Ground' law Sanford neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of unarmed passerby Trayvon Martin. Jurors said that they acquitted him because of Florida's controversial 'Stand Your Ground' law
OUR PEOPLE

Since the Second World War, keeping Florida’s economy afloat has depended on maintaining a constant influx of new residents, prompting The New Yorker magazine to dub us ‘The Ponzi State’.

We went from being the least-populated Southern state in 1940, with 1.8 million residents, to nearly 20 million now – and 95 percent are crammed in within 35 miles of the state’s long coastline. This human tsunami rapidly altered the state, bringing in the young, the old, whites, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and a host of other census classifications, all bumping up against each other, ramming into each other’s cars, loudly objecting to whatever their neighbours are doing.

Each year these residents are joined by hordes of tourists bumbling around. (The number of visitors may be higher than we realise, considering how many reports of flying saucers are regularly filed.) The tourists do dumb things – such as the Illinois newlywed on his honeymoon who was busted in a Polk County prostitution sting. The residents do dumb things, too – such as the burglar in Silver Springs Shores, who snorted containers full of human and canine ashes, thinking they were drugs.

Exacerbating all these conflicts is the fact that when it comes to government spending on mental health, Florida ranks 49th.

OUR POLITICIANS

A study released last year found that, from 2000 to 2010, Florida led all the other states in total convictions of officials and staff who broke federal public corruption laws.

When our political leaders aren’t breaking the rules, they’re coming up with new ways to embarrass themselves. For instance, our legislators banned gay marriage, but later discovered they had never outlawed bestiality. Our current governor, Rick Scott, gave out a hotline number for dealing with a meningitis outbreak, except it turned out to be for a phone-sex line.

The consequences of such leadership can be serious. The ‘Stand Your Ground’ law was based on a mangled anecdote about a Pensacola shooting where that law would not have applied. A newspaper investigation found it’s now being used to free gang members involved in shoot-outs and drug dealers who argue with customers, but legislators won’t even consider repeal.

Still, Florida’s politicians are more entertaining than the duly elected dullards elsewhere. We’ve had candidates who hired hit men to take out opponents, who claimed to be the target of voodoo priests, who bragged that they warded off the Mayan apocalypse by dancing on a rooftop. Former governor Lawton Chiles showed up at his second inauguration with a potato gun and began firing spuds at his mansion.

OUR SENSE OF ALWAYS TEETERING ON THE EDGE OF DISASTER

When you live in Florida, you spend half the year watching for hurricanes. Otherwise you’re watching for lightning strikes, shark bites, stingray barbs, alligator attacks, coyote packs and the occasional centenarian driver who has confused the brake and accelerator. You can’t even trust the ground you walk on. Just ask the folks at the Disney-area resort who saw half of it swallowed by a 100-foot wide sinkhole.

Some Floridians seem to go out of their way to court disaster – for instance, the man nabbed this summer picking hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Little Big Econ State Forest, who’d concealed a two-foot alligator in his backpack.

A roving rhesus monkey not only evaded capture for three years but also earned itself a profile in The New York Times A roving rhesus monkey not only evaded capture for three years but also earned itself a profile in The New York Times
OUR WACKY WILDLIFE

Florida is home to some of the oddest animals in the world. Some are natives, such as the dumpling-shaped manatee, the only endangered species that people think they can ride as if it were a pony. Some are invasive species, such as the giant African land snails that like to snack on stucco walls.

When people interact with the wildlife, it gets wilder still. Boaters are constantly being smacked in the face by leaping sturgeon. A nudist colony resident who went for a swim was chomped by an alligator and had to be rescued by her nudist husband. A deer hunter nicknamed ‘Scuttlebutt’ killed an endangered Florida panther with an arrow because he thought it was competing with him.

OUR PROMISE OF LAISSEZ-FAIRE LIVING

In the 1980s, our tourism industry told the nation to come to Florida because ‘The Rules Are Different Here’. Some people took that to mean that in Florida there aren’t any rules, period. Did the doctor make you wait too long in the exam room? Punch his lights out (West Palm Beach). Did you need some distinctive lawn decorations? Steal more than 140 items from a local cemetery (St Cloud). Upset that a beloved local roadside attraction is closing? Free all the animals – although, as one attraction employee said to a reporter, “What kind of an idiot would let a mountain lion out right in the middle of Bonita Springs?”.

OUR LOVE OF ARTIFICE

In Florida, the artful fake often trumps the genuine article. Thus we have a state park near Crystal River which employs a school of professional mermaids, although we have far stranger real animals (see above). Our most famous public building is Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World, although the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in any single location is in Lakeland. At the enormous retirement community called The Villages, where everyone zooms around in souped-up golf carts, plaques on display paint a vivid picture of the area’s rich history. It’s all malarkey, concocted over a bottle of Scotch and a case of beer by the developer and his family.

OUR OVERWHELMING GREED

Everything in Florida seems to be for sale, and everyone focused on the next hustle. We consistently lead the nation in identity theft and mortgage fraud. Blinded by greed, people overreach as they grab for the gold ring – like the woman who made millions working a phony refund scam and then boasted on Facebook she had become the “queen of IRS tax fraud” (she got 21 years). Or the people on Florida’s east coast who filed claims for damages from the 2010 BP oil spill, which tainted beaches on the west coast. My favourite was the Palm Beach polo magnate who tried to adopt his girlfriend so they could dip into his children’s trust fund.

The gap between Florida’s rich and poor is so wide, it’s second to only New York. But the gap isn’t so large that the rich cannot stumble to the other side. The largest private home in the nation is under construction in Florida – a 90,000 sq ft mansion that includes a 30-car garage, 10 bathrooms, three pools, two tennis courts and a bowling alley. The couple – later made famous by the acclaimed documentary The Queen of Versailles - building it made a fortune in time shares, but wound up in foreclosure, becoming a perfect symbol of our cycle of boom and bust.

OUR PERVASIVE SUGGESTIVENESS

Between the warm weather and all those tourists, we have a lot of people in skimpy clothes who aren’t in town long. Add in that no-rules atmosphere and a plentiful population of strippers, porn actors and sex-industry workers, and you can see why illicit canoodling is such a constant temptation. Sneaking out for sex in the Sin-shine State has snared big names such as evangelist Jim Bakker and presidential candidate Gary Hart. We’ve had couples caught in flagrante delicto on a crowded beach and on a tabletop in a family restaurant. Incidents need not involve a couple. Just ask the Cape Coral man arrested for making out with a pair of blow-up dolls while parked in front of a supermarket.

Despite the constant flow of freakiness coming from Florida, folks continue to flock here. We may top 100 million visitors this year. I, for one, am happy to see that our strangeness is no deterrent to tourism, because I’m a big fan of Florida letting its freak flag fly. You want normal? Go to one of those boring states like Wyoming. You want to greet every day’s news with a raised eyebrow, widening eyes and a gasp of astonishment? Come on down to the Sunshine State – and bring your traveller’s cheques. We’re waiting for you!      

Craig Pittman is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, @craigtimes

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