Florida is a land full of mysteries.
Why do we call it "the Sunshine State" when every major city gets more rain than Seattle? Why, after a hurricane destroys our homes with flooding and storm surge, do we rebuild in exactly the same spot? Perhaps the biggest of them all: Why are mullet constantly jumping? (My kids contend it’s due to fish flatulence, but these days they may just be trying to get above all the toxic algae blooms.)
So it’s only natural that about 1,000 mystery writers and mystery fans from all over are flocking to St. Petersburg this weekend for the nation’s biggest mystery convention, Bouchercon, which starts today. I will also be a featured author.
They will find that we are, to borrow a phrase, a sunny place full of shady people. Florida is regularly ranked No. 1 in the nation for fraud. Identity theft and credit card scams attract more customers than either of our major league baseball teams. There’s a reason the New Yorker once dubbed us "The Ponzi State."
This is no recent development. In 1827, when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Tallahassee, he wrote that the territorial capital was "a grotesque place … rapidly settled by public officers, land speculators, and desperados." If he visited today, he’d say, "See previous report."
When you read those ubiquitous "Florida Man" news stories, they usually involve petty crimes: the guy who ran through a convenience store carrying an alligator and asking if they were out of beer, or the lady who was charged with shoplifting while dressed as a turkey (she explained that she wore the costume because it was Thanksgiving).
But Florida has produced far greater criminals than those.
We’ve had some con artists who became famous — for instance, Glenn "Dare to Be Great" Turner, whose motivational tape empire turned out to be a pyramid scheme. We’ve had con artists who ought to be famous, too, such as the trio who in 2011 convinced people in Palm Beach County that the federal government had changed its regulations on toilet paper. Thus, they said, everyone needed to buy their "special" toilet paper (that was really just the regular kind). They raked in $1 million. One sucker bought enough to last 70 years.
We’ve also had more than our share of famous serial killers, too, such as Aileen Wuornos (the subject of the movie Monster) and Danny Rolling (whose gory handiwork inspired the Scream movies). The granddaddy of them all, Ted "The Deliberate Stranger" Bundy, was nabbed in my hometown of Pensacola by a patrolman who spotted a strange car on his beat, ran the plate and learned it was stolen. Bundy was inside.
We’ve seen some superb police work here in Florida, too. My favorite recent example happened in Vero Beach, where police found a man and a woman drowned at a fish farm — but in separate ponds. The man’s pickup truck was parked, doors open, next to the pond in which he was found. The woman’s purse was on the ground next to the passenger door. She was in a pond in the other direction.
Was it some sort of bizarre ritual slaying? A serial killer at work? Nope. Police announced in July that the man, 77, frequently brought women out to the fish farm for, shall we say, trysts. He and the 55-year-old woman who accompanied him on that fateful night both had cocaine in their systems.
When the man parked his truck, he parked too close to the edge of the pond. When he stepped out of the truck, he fell in. Because he was impaired, he couldn’t climb out. The woman knew she couldn’t pull him out alone so she set off to find help – and, in her impaired state, fell into a different pond. It was, as the British bobbies say, death by misadventure.
Given material like this, is it any wonder that Florida has produced so many great (if somewhat warped) chroniclers of crime? Their ranks include such pioneers as John D. MacDonald and Charles Willeford, and such modern-day practitioners as Tim Dorsey, Lori Roy, Randy Wayne White, Steph Post, Alex Segura, Vicki Hendricks, Lisa Unger, James W. Hall and some fellow named Hiaasen who shows promise.
So welcome, all you thriller fans, and please join us in searching for the answers to Florida’s greatest mystery: Why do people read about all the weird crimes and environmental problems happening in Florida and still keep moving here?
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected]bay.com. Follow @craigtimes.