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Marshals take out pirate radio

Published Nov. 20, 1997|Updated Oct. 2, 2005

Doug Brewer thought it was thunder pounding him awake at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday _ until he saw federal marshals and city police crowding onto his front porch with guns drawn.

"I woke up and looked out the front door, and there were those little laser things from the guns in my eyes and people going crazy," he said later.

After a tense moment, Brewer, 43, let the agents in, whereupon they handcuffed him and executed a federal warrant to clear most of the stuff out of his garage.

But it wasn't drugs or guns the agents seized. It was radio equipment _ the microphones, headsets and low-power transmitters that until Wednesday had broadcast the alternative rock and don't-tread-on-me attitude of 102.1-FM, "Tampa's Party Pirate."

Marshals also seized equipment from two other unlicensed "pirate radio" stations in Hillsborough County _ an eclectic rock station at 87.9-FM and a 96.7-FM station with a far-right edge to its programing.

In recent months, however, it has been Brewer's station, and his long-running conflict with the Federal Communications Commission, that has received nationwide notice.

At 100 watts, the Party Pirate had, at best, a range of no more than 20 miles. But to big stations such as 102.5 The Point, the signal created unwanted confusion.

The FCC also says illegal "micro-broadcasters" can pose a threat to public safety by sending out signals that interfere with communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, dispatchers and police or ambulances and hospitals.

In the past two years, Brewer unsuccessfully has petitioned the FCC to grant him a license and has dueled with the agency when it ordered him off the air. He even photographed two FCC agents parked in front of his house last year.

Over time, the ante steadily went up. By last month, a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal quoted Ralph Barlow, the district director of the FCC's Tampa field office, as saying, "Sooner or later I'll nail him."

On Wednesday, FCC officials overseeing the removal of items from Brewer's house and in the agency's Washington office referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which said publicity had nothing to do with the decision to shut down the stations.

"We take all of our federal offenses seriously, and we act upon referrals that we get to our office," said Monte C. Richardson, executive assistant U.S. attorney. "I know that the FCC referred these three individuals to our office, so we acted upon them."

The U.S. attorney filed three civil lawsuits seeking the forfeiture of property from the pirate stations. While Brewer was not charged with a crime, the operator of the Lutz station was indicted on charges that he operated a radio station without a license since November 1995.

Federal agents seized broadcasting equipment from the Lutz home of Arthur L. Kobres, 53, but the 14-count indictment said he continued the illegal broadcasts until Sept. 24. If convicted, Kobres could face up to two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

At a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Tom McCoun on Wednesday afternoon, Kobres said little, but what he did say reflected a belief that government interferes with the private property rights of citizens.

After his release on $25,000 bail, Kobres would not discuss his broadcasts with a reporter who approached him in the hallway of the federal courthouse.

"You're the enemy, sir," he said.

Also knocked off the air was 22-year-old Kelly Benjamin of Seminole Heights. A college dropout known to listeners as Kelly Kombat, Benjamin is considered a pioneer in Tampa's underground broadcasting scene.

Like Brewer, Benjamin was not charged with operating an unlicensed station, but the officers who served the seizure warrant arrested him on misdemeanor charges of possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He was released from the Hillsborough County Jail on $1,000 bail.

Brewer's attorney, Roger Rigau of Tampa, said the seizure "reeks of selective enforcement." Neither he nor Brewer would say whether 102.1 would resume broadcasting, but Rigau did say his office already had received inquiries from other stations interested in Brewer's talents.

"They're going to have a difficult time quieting him down," Rigau said.

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