Shootout at the Mango Corral

Since this story is well-told as a whole, I include it here for your reading enjoyment:

Extreme south Florida is a tropical paradise. Ocean breezes whisper through dried palm branches, the sun sizzles tourists and fruit trees alike, and even a bad weather day still beats much of what we have here in the frozen Northland. Yet we packed the kids and left there, and this is why.

I have told this countless times, this beginning of the end of our life in Florida City, the last city before the Florida Keys. The tale is always met with an expression of disbelief. But it is absolutely true. This is how it happened:

My then-husband Paul (now ex) was a deputy police officer in Florida City, a small town of about 7,500. Through a friend, he was invited to move into a house in the middle of a ten-acre fruit grove just west of town because he was a cop. Guess that should have been our first clue. For $500 a month, we were offered a five bedroom, two bath house with a huge screened-in pool, surrounded by mango, avocado, banana, orange and grapefruit trees, from which we were welcome to choose for our family of five. But that wasn’t all.

This grove also cultivated the essential tropical fruits, like black sapote, key lime, papaya, breadfruit, starfruit, eggfruit (which tastes just like eggnog when ripe), mamey, kumquats and more. It was heaven of a sort we’d never experienced. We couldn’t wait to get settled.

We began moving boxes, particularly to the upstairs where it wouldn’t be easily noticed from outside. Not because the landlord was worried, but because theft was a problem. Paul explained that the owner wanted someone like him in there because druggies anxious for easy cash had been sneaking into the grove to steal aluminum girders from the pool enclosure. With a cop on premises, the theft would theoretically stop. We had plenty of guns; he’d taught me to use them. I thought we could handle things.

We’d gone to take a second load of boxes and small furnishings after work one late afternoon, when the girls yelled down that someone had broken in. We confirmed someone had been in the house; the girls’ boxes had been rifled, and the ceiling fan and other items we’d purchased new to install were missing. Paul immediately put the kids back in the car and we patrolled the area, finding the missing items stashed in a clump of vegetation on the far side of the grove, waiting to be retrieved.

We made a police report and Paul called his partner, Tom. They decided they’d better install some security lights, so after dinner we came back to do that. We left the children, ages 8, 9 and 12, back at Tom’s house, and drove there in our van. Tom and his wife followed in theirs. Paul parked our van in the huge three-car carport and both of them climbed on its roof to screw lightbulbs in the ceiling ports. Tom’s wife and I waited, talking, watching a little nervously into the dark shadows around the house.

As the three lights came on, the carport was ablaze. Lights were on inside, too. It was starting to look like home. As Tom’s wife and I took the steps, shots came from the north side of the house, aimed at the carport. She ran inside, but more shots followed–through the house–and she screamed, came running back out and jumped in her car. Tom and Paul scrambled down from the van and ran around the house in the direction of the shots, returning fire. I remembered Paul’s .38 was on the counter inside so I ducked in and grabbed it, then hunkered down along the concrete steps, praying. A lot.

While the shooting continued, I thought it was the longest two minutes of my life. Until it stopped. Then footsteps came toward me along the side of the house where I couldn’t see. That seemed even longer.

I crouched there, gun in my hand, trying to remember the sequence

cock the gun, aim, squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk, hold it steady

while I waited to see who came around that corner.

Meanwhile, Tom’s wife, scared out of her wits, had squealed out of the driveway, some sort of commotion as she pulled out onto the road, and she was gone. I knew she’d call the police right away. Two cops under attack in a grove, presumably by druggies? How long could it take before we got help, right?

The footsteps came closer and I held the gun up, ready, just as Tom and Paul walked into sight. About fainting with relief, I stood, looked them both over for injury, saw none. They said there were several men, they thought they’d hit one. I told them where Tom’s wife had gone. They debriefed each other, confirmed their opinion about how it had gone, then went into the house to find the bullet hole through the window and the bullet in the wall.

We left the lights on, even though it illuminated all of us as potential targets. It was less scary that way. And we waited. And waited. About 45 minutes later, we saw a huge armada of red lights heading our way, officers of the Metro-Dade police force based 10 miles north in Cutler Ridge. Probably a dozen cars pulled in the driveway, the flashing lights and chatter of police radios a grating change from the previous silence. Both Tom and Paul lit into them for taking so long, and some senior Metro cop came to calm them down, got the story, and then directed officers on scene to tape off the area.

The “area” included the carport where my van was still parked, and I objected, because I’d need the vehicle. I’d been practicing law about a year, but criminal law and police procedure wasn’t my field, so I didn’t know if they had to keep it. Eventually Tom talked them out of impounding the van, but Metro insisted they had to take all the guns on scene. I thought Paul would have a stroke. He’s yelling that it took 45 minutes for them to arrive on an ‘officer needs help’ call, and then they wanted his weapons? How would he be able to protect his family? Did they intend to post someone there? The officer didn’t seem to care. (Paul calmed down after Tom reminded him he had two dozen or more at his house and he’d be glad to share. Cops.)

Tom’s wife showed up soon after, telling the police there had been a man waiting at the end of the driveway, trying to block her from her mad escape. She told the officers she thought she ran into him. But they never found anyone injured, either from the car, or the shooting. At least no one came forward for treatment.

Only when the investigation was finished did we find out what Metro actually thought had happened. When the call came in, they assumed a drug deal gone bad between local dealers and dirty cops. They were prepared to arrest anyone on the scene, apparently, and finding frightened wives and boxes of kids’ clothing convinced them this wasn’t the time. We got the guns back. But we moved in anyway.

I know that sounds crazy to anyone who didn’t live in Miami in the 1980s. It was the year before K was born, and I’d been a newspaper reporter for six years, covering everything including dead bodies and drugs. Paul had been a cop for about the same length of time. Miami Vice wasn’t just a tv show for us; it was a way of life.

We never went out without a gun. We locked everything all the time. We watched over our shoulders all day, every day. So we enjoyed the fruit, and the pool, and tea on the veranda on Sunday mornings with the jazz station playing. We had one more theft, when someone broke in and took a VCR. A different morning, I came face to face with an unknown black male as I walked onto the patio, scaring both of us, especially as I went running back in, alone with my three-month old daughter, yelling to no one that they’d better get the gun.

One night when we saw a flashlight in the back of the grove, Paul and I each went out with a gun, ready to defend ourselves, him taking a north row and me taking an east, meeting up where the intruder turned out to be my father, who happened to be staying with us. He’s lucky we weren’t trigger happy.

During the 70s the shootings were mostly dealer on dealer, gang on gang, and everyone else was fairly safe. In the 80s this became less and less true. In the six months before we left South Florida, there were five shooting deaths within five minutes’ distance of our house. No place to raise kids. So we bid farewell to the tropics and hello to rural Pennsylvania, where the most excitement we’ve had is suspicion of a meth lab dumping into the sewer in front of our house.

Somehow, that’s just fine with us.

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