Wednesday, July 27, 2022


Few amongst the twenty-five-year-old assistant prosecutors and PDs and thirty-five-year-old judges know how the Miami they work in and Instagram about came to be.

There are four names directly responsible for Modern Miami. From those names come a chain of several dozen other names like Edna Buchannan (Herald Crime reporter) that made Miami what it is today.  Most of our readers under 40 can probably only identify two or three. We hazard no one can identify them all.

The names are: Janet Reno; Maurice Ferre’; Arthur McDuffie; and Napolean Vilaboa.

Reno was the State Attorney in Miami in 1980. Recently appointed, she was puzzling about how to respond to an alarming rise in the murder rate- including an unheard-of traffic shootout in broad daylight between Colombian Drug dealers. The new head of the Public Safety Department’s Homicide Division (MDPD used to be PSD)  Frank Marshall was to soon experience the infamous Reno scowl as his detectives repeatedly failed to get a grand jury to indict the suspects they arrested near the scene of the shootout.

Maurice Ferre’, a Puerto Rican, was the mayor of Miami.  Uneasy about Cuban support for his reelection, Ferre’ had a direct line to Jimmy Carter’s White House and the remarkably novel view that the future of Miami was not- like Miami leaders believed for the last hundred years-facing north. Ferre’ believed Miami’s future was south- to Central and South America and saw Miami as the future banking and commerce capital of the Americas.  Faced with an unpredictable Fidel Castro in 1979-80 who was suddenly amenable to allowing Cubans to leave, Ferre’ shouted Que Vengan Todos! (let them come) as Jimmy Carter concentrated on his reelection and counted on allies in Central and South America to help take in what he figured would be a few thousand refugees at most.

Arthur McDuffie- born in Overtown, a decorated Marine and successful insurance salesman was the unlikely catalyst to the explosions that would rock Miami to its core and nearly burn it to the ground. All because McDuffie unfortunately had a suspended driver's license. 

Napolean Vilabos is the most unknown of the four. A car salesman and member of the secret Miami Committee of 75-  a group of successful Cuban businessmen in Miami who had back door communications with Fidel Castro and his government.

One April morning in 1979 Napolean Vilabos decided to take US foreign relations into his own hands. He had received word through Castro that Cubans in Miami could go pick up their families by boat from a non-descript port named Mariel. On April 21, 1979 Vilabos led a flotilla of eight boats from Key West to Mariel to get members of his own family. Miami leaders speculated that perhaps five hundred or a thousand people would be allowed to leave Cuba via Mariel.  

 Vilabos’s flotilla broke a dam which had begun to leak with the most unlikely of events- a disaffected Cuban bus driver named Hector Sanyustiz, having been previously imprisoned for upsetting a Cuban official during a bus ride, crashed a bus through the gate of the Peruvian embassy in Havana and successfully sought refuge and asylum. Castro- unable to get Peru to return Sanyustiz- removed his guards surrounding the embassy. With the gates to the embassy broken open by the bus, first a few, then a dozen, then a hundred and then thousands of Cubans streamed into the Peruvian embassy in Havana seeking asylum. Miami Cubans rallied for their compatriots and suddenly there was a humanitarian crisis as thousands of people without food and water huddled on Embassy grounds waiting for the world to come to their rescue as Castro starved them.

Miami from 1900 to the 1970s was a parochial southern town that had some national appeal due to tourism. In reality Miami was several towns- the tourists had Miami Beach; there was the Anglo parts of Miami; Jewish parts of Miami;  the historic African American communities of Overtown, Liberty City and The Black Grove; and Little Havana for the Cuban refugees from 1959-60. Each part of Miami and each community had their own competing interests. Pressure was slowly building, and then 1979 and 1980 happened and Miami blew apart like Mt. St.  Helens. 

Several seemingly unconnected threads came together in 1978-79-1980 that caused Miami to fracture. Before new Miami could emerge, the old and fractured Miami had to die. The disaffected Cuban bus driver who would later storm the Peruvian embassy was released from prison the day Arthur McDuffie was beaten to death in Miami. Napolean Vilabos's small flotilla arrived in Mariel on the day prosecutor George Yoss gave the opening statement in the McDuffie murder trial. The FBI was investigating the PSD’s homicide squad for corruption right when the new State Attorney and new chief of homicide were facing a puzzling and dramatic increase in the murder rate over a new and unknown phenomenon – cocaine and the drug wars. 

Hundreds of thousands of refugees came pouring in to Miami just as billions of dollars of drug money washed ashore literally and figuratively. Lawyers cashed in; cops took bribes; the feds had no money laundering laws on the books to enforce; Janet Reno struggled to keep law and order as everything and everyone around her went slightly mad. Mayor Ferre’ touted the promise of America-Que Vengan Todos!- as he saw his town overrun by criminals and was abandoned by the president he helped elect four years earlier. The flood of drug money was such that the Miami Federal Reserve in 1980 had several billion dollars in cash while the rest of the Federal Reserve Banks had about a hundred million each. Cocaine was that big back then in our small city. 

Miami 1980. Sounds like the makings of a great book.

It is. 

All of the madness of Miami 1980 is pulled together in The Year of Dangerous Days-Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami in 1980,  by Nicholas Griffin.

The book details Reno and George Yoss and Hank Adorno plotting prosecution strategies while defense attorneys like Eddie O’Donnell, Roy Black, Joel Hirschorn, Richard Sharpstein and Jack Denaro formed a Miami criminal defense bar that was to become the best in the nation. 

Edna Buchannan, in late December of 1979, having gotten a tip about McDuffie, was pushing cops to talk about a seemingly simple motorcycle accident that did not make sense to her or legendary medical examiner Dr. Joe Davis and ME Dr. Ron Wright who did the autopsy on McDuffie. Buchannan inspected McDuffie’s motorcycle at the impound lot before the homicide investigators did (she was that type of reporter) and she sniffed out that what the cops were calling an accident was a brutal murder. McDuffie’s murder-uncovered as much by Buchannan as PSD Homicide’s famous detective Al Singleton,  and the trial and acquittal of the cops that killed him, was the final spark that lit the flame that blew the top off what was a smallish southern city with some pale tourists soaking up the sun on a stretch of Miami Beach every winter.

It's a great book. We highly recommend you place it at the top of your summer reading list.


Anonymous said...

Another infamous character that changed Miami was Ray Takiff. He was right out of central casting, Noriega's lawyer who got in some tax trouble with the IRS and agreed to wear a wire for the FBI to expose judicial corruption in Miami. The feds raided four judge's chambers and houses and for months the courthouse was abuzz with rumors of who was cooperating and who was getting indicted. Putting aside the trial, which was front page news for months, it changed the courthouse culture forever. Bribes and kickbacks, which had been treated as business as usual, were verboten. The culture of the courhouse pre-1991 and and post that date was fundamentally altered because of what became known as Courtbroom.

Anonymous said...

First, old enough to remember all four. And blessed to have worked for several years with one of the mentioned criminal defense lawyers who definitely put their stamp on, then, Dade County.
I left Miami for the Army in 1976. Came back in 1980.
Wow! Just in time to witness many of the events you discuss.
I will have to get this book.

Rumpole said...

Thank you. Sometimes I write the blog to share things with readers. I love books. When I can convince a reader to get a book that I love and has influenced me it makes all the work worthwhile. You arrived right at the start of this. I promise you that you will love this book. It's so well written.


Silvia Maria Gonzalez said...


I am so glad you brought this book up. It was a fascinating read and Mr. Griffin paints such a detailed picture of the rioters storming the REG that you can picture it happening as you are reading it.


Anonymous said...

I purchased the book on audible. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I lived here, and remember some of this, but
had no idea of the timeline. Thanks for putting this in context, and for your review of the book. Just bought it.

Hanzy & Coco said...

Tomorrow on Hanzy & Coco, following Morning Joe Hanzy speaks with Fed Chairman Jay Powell on the latest round of interest rate increases; Coco does his regular Thursday "Binge" review- the top shows you should binge watch this weekend; and then Internet and Tik Tok Chef sensation Louie B joins the guys and shows them how to make his new hot Everything and Anything twenty-minute Bagel. On Friday Brad Pitt joins the show for coffee and to talk about his new movie release Bullet Train.

Anonymous said...

The Peruvian Embassy massive asylum and the Mariel flotilla exodus took place in 1980, not in 1979.

Anonymous said...

I read the Griffin book in late 2020. I also lived in Miami-Dade at the time, and was involved in certain parts of the post-trial events. I thought the Griffin book was quite limited, relying solely on just a few sources, and it is pretty narrowly focused. But for those who were not here, or were not adults then, it certainly gives an interesting picture.
It's a pity that the wonderful prosecutor, David Waksman, died in 2015, and was therefore unavailable for Mr. Griffin to consult.

Anonymous said...

Bought the book. Enjoying it. Learned a great deal about the McDuffie case. It was shocking then, but learning more about the man, and the horrible beating, can one be more shocked 42 years later? Yes.