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

Times Staff Writer

Drug crimes had been scary enough--the chases and shoot-outs and dumped bodies that sometimes washed ashore from the serene bay.

Still, to the good citizens of Miami, the ghastliness seemed remote. It was the intramural combat of drug dealers--bad blood between bad people. The city watched with a macabre fascination.

Now, however, a different spate of crime--brash attacks on the innocent--has become Miami's preoccupation. This is the summer of the "highwaymen," expressway bandits who ambush motorists. They leap in front of them during rush hour or stop them in the night with a hurled brick or dangerously placed debris.

Perhaps even more frightening are the "home invaders," robbers who randomly cruise by fine homes, waiting to find someone standing near an open door. Wielding submachine guns, they charge inside, ransacking the house for cash and jewelry.

"We're back to the Jesse James days," said Chief Eduardo Gonzalez of the Metro-Dade Police Department.

Lurid crime stories have been accompanied by a splash of grim statistics. The Miami area was America's 1984 murder capital, according to an FBI report released a few weeks ago; it ranked second in overall crime, behind only metropolitan Atlantic City, N.J.

"No one is safe in South Florida anymore," wrote Miami Herald Publisher Dick Capen, normally a community cheerleader and finder of silver linings. His column was headlined: "Tell Our Leaders You've Had Enough!"

"None of us is prepared to live in constant fear, with anarchy everywhere--stalking our expressways, our homes, our streets, our shopping centers," he wrote. "We consider ourselves lucky if we're able to go out at night, or leave town on vacation, without being ripped off."

Demands by powerful civic leaders have sent politicians and bureaucrats scurrying for solutions. Manpower has been dispatched, studies ordered, promises made.

Colonels and majors of the Miami Police Department have joined their patrolmen along Interstate 95, the city's busy north-south expressway. State troopers have saturated the short, troubled spans of road around the clock.

Gov. Bob Graham himself is supervising a plan to protect motorists. It includes police dogs, plainclothes officers posing as stranded drivers, surveillance by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, improved lighting and higher fences.

Still, the highwaymen remain bold.

Motorists Attacked

On Monday, the bandits attacked three more motorists, bringing the yearly total of incidents to 99, according to the Highway Patrol's count. Two of the latest holdups occurred during rush hour. All of the robbers escaped the scene of the crime.

This explanation came from a convicted highwayman, Richard Stanley Phillips: "People can't get a good description of you--you can do it so fast."

He is one of 25 men arrested so far in connection with the crimes. Most live in the impoverished neighborhoods along the expressways. In many places, they need only to jump a low railing to enter the highway. Their ages range from 15 to 55, though most are in their late teens and early 20s.

Phillips, 30 and unemployed, lives beside State Road 112, one of the imperiled roads. In court, he pleaded guilty, receiving a sentence of two years' probation. He now claims to be innocent, insisting that his knowledge of the highway crimes comes only from living so close.

Started on Street Corners

"It all started on street corners, good little areas where you could knock off a car and then disappear into the neighborhoods," he said.

"But people started thinking: Why wait? Go ahead to the expressway. Plenty of cars coming right to you. You can make it happen."

Rochelle Ritter, a 34-year-old real estate agent, was victim No. 63. Five weeks ago, she was driving slowly through rush-hour traffic during a downpour. A young man was dodging amid the traffic.

"I remember exactly what I was thinking," she said. "This nut is going to get himself killed. So I tried to maneuver around him. . . . I came to a stop.

"Then I felt a bam! My whole body moved. I went 'Ah!' and gasped, and pieces of glass went into my mouth and throat. A second kid had thrown a 7- to 10-pound concrete rock through my passenger window."

The highwaymen grabbed two bags from the front seat of her 1983 Cutlass, then dashed away. Earlier, she had been to the jeweler, where she had picked up some family heirlooms left there for cleaning. The bandits made off with two watches, a pearl tie tack and opal earrings.

"What gets me is that there is just no way that the people behind me didn't see it happening," Ritter said. "They just drove up around the right side, on the shoulder of the road, and would stop and look at me like I was an exhibit from Disneyland."

Other victims ran over wheel rims placed on exit ramps, their tires flattened on impact. When Nancy Puchhas got out of her car, a man rushed toward her, emerging from a hiding spot in the grassy embankment.

"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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