ST. PETERSBURG — A well-known businessman woke up Wednesday morning to find his photo on fliers downtown calling him a predator who profits from "sexual violence, physical abuse and the caging of undocumented people."
Chuck Prather, owner of the Birchwood, a boutique hotel on Beach Drive NE, said more than a dozen fliers were posted on telephone poles and utility boxes. He called the experience "horrifying" and said it is likely connected to a protest last month in Tampa over the federal government’s zero tolerance policy of detaining people who enter the country illegally.
Prather owns the office complex at W Cypress Street in Tampa that houses the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. He said he believes he is being targeted because of that.
"This is devastating to somebody like me," Prather said while searching for fliers. "I believe in the right to protest. They can’t take away my right to earn a living. This is economic terrorism. I am powerless to do anything about this."
Last month, protesters gathered outside the office complex and said they planned to stay until they were removed or specific demands were met. They also set up tents in front of the building.
After 12 days and no progress or dialogue, they decided to take more direct action and bound themselves together. On July 30, police arrested six of them. Counterprotesters had showed up and stood across the road, waving President Donald Trump and Confederate flags and holding signs thanking ICE for the agency’s work.
Calls to abolish ICE gathered steam in April when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy. It has resulted in thousands of parents being separated from children traveling with them.
While taking his child to school Wednesday, Prather said his neighbor flagged him down to show him the fliers. Prather said his wife, a relative and an employee found at least 15. He said he then called Tampa and St. Petersburg police.
Yolanda Fernandez, a police spokeswoman, said a detective is searching the area for surveillance videos.
Prather, who also operates the Canopy Rooftop Lounge and Birch & Vine restaurant at his hotel, said it troubles him that someone is trying to harm his reputation over a federal policy that he doesn’t control or enforce. He said he invests in the community and employs 175 people.
In June, he signed a 10-year agreement to operate a restaurant, rooftop tiki bar and first floor cafe at the pier head building in the Pier District, which is expected to open in 2019. His company will pay an annual base rent of $162,000, plus taxes.
A week before last month’s protest, Prather said he paid more than $10,000 to repair damage to the Tampa building. Vandals, he said, filled door locks with glue and sprayed cans of expandable foam on card readers at every door. He said he has never "had a lick of trouble" when renting office space to the federal government – until now.
Prather built the complex 20 years ago. Various federal agencies have leased space there, but ICE is the sole occupant now.
The fliers encourage readers to boycott Prather’s businesses and gives his office address and telephone number so people can complain. It also says Prather earned his wealth through leasing property to immigration and border officials.
He fears people who read the fliers will see "predator in your community" and "sexual violence" and think he has committed a crime or done something heinous.
"I have nothing to do with ICE," Prather said. "My lease says the United States of America. I have no control who they put in there."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.