By Sean Tuohy
While driving around Florida with my friends, I saw a lot of weird things. But the really bizarre, head-scratching, and downright horrific stuff can be found in the newspapers.
Newspapers like the Miami Herald where journalist Julie K. Brown has been covering crimes and investigations in Florida for the last seven years. So that means she’s been a busy woman!
Brown recently took some time out of fighting the good journalistic fight to look back on her career and try to explain why Florida is a sunny place for shady people.
Sean Tuohy: You are from Philadelphia originally how did you come down to sunny South Florida and what were some of your earliest thoughts of the area?
Julie Brown: I was recruited by the Miami Herald in 2005 after spending most of my career at the Philadelphia Daily News. I loved Philly! So…it’s been quite an adjustment, and still is, living in South Florida. The weather, of course, is wonderful. But the traffic, the lack of culture, and the lack of history and good old-fashioned values sometimes make me long for home.
ST: Who were some of your earliest influences?
JB: My earliest influences were Ernest Hemingway, Edna Buchanan, and former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez. I particularly enjoyed Lopez because he wasn’t afraid to piss people off.
ST: When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?
JB: After I spent a few months working in a lampshade factory.
ST: What is one of the strangest cases you have covered as a journalist?
But the strangest case of my career, and the one that had the most legs, was the murder case of Fontainebleau hotel heirs Ben and Bernice Novack. It had everything! In fact, one headline on one of my stories read: “Sex, limbs and duct tape.’’ Ben Jr.’s father built the famed Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach and the younger Novack wound up owning his own convention planning company. Ben Jr. had a fetish for prostitutes, women with prosthetic limbs, and had a wife who practiced voodoo and once tied him up with duct tape as part of a sex game. His wife Narcy hired two Miami hoodlums to whack him and his mother.
Police didn’t believe his mother was murdered. The cops concluded she died from a fall. But I reviewed the case and helped prove that they botched the investigation. She was beaten over the head with a monkey wrench.
ST: Florida is known for it's odd, nearly comic-like, crimes. What causes so many weird crimes to happen in Florida?
JB: Florida is a melting pot for so many cultures with different values, ideals, and ways of life. It is also a place where some people come because they have nowhere else to go. The climate is warm and they can live on very little money by hustling or doing odd jobs.
There is also the opposite end of the spectrum—people who are so fabulously wealthy that they tend to believe they can do, and get away with, anything they want, even if it’s insanely ridiculous or illegal. It’s considered the playground of the rich, the famous, and, sometimes, the stupid.
ST: What drew you to crime reporting?
JB: Crime reporting is about telling stories, more so than any other kind of reporting. I like to tell stories.
ST: In 2013, you wrote an in-depth report on abuse caused by the Miami Garden Police department. Can you give some background how you became involved in this story?
JB: I had previously written about corrupt police officers in neighboring Opa-locka, so when the owner of the Miami Gardens convenience store at the heart of the story decided he wanted to go public he sought me out. He wrote an email to the newspaper that eventually got forwarded to me. After I saw his videos, I jumped on it immediately. I requested all the public documents to support his allegations of civil rights abuses, as well as all the histories of the officers shown in the videos.
ST: Did your report on the Miami Gardens Police Department shed more light on police abuse in South Florida?
JB: The biggest crime problem in South Florida is not the criminals; it is the cops who abuse their power in the name of fighting crime. A badge does not give police the right to treat citizens like criminals. I believe bad cops have always been a problem here, since the Cocaine-Cowboy days. Sadly, it’s only gotten worse because police officers have strong unions that make it very difficult to fire bad cops.
ST: What is one of the most imported skills a journalist has to have?
JB: The most important skill a journalist should have is to be fearless.
ST: What is the best piece of advice you would give up-and-coming writers?
JB: Don’t take no for an answer. Find someone else who will say yes, or another way to get what you want. I hate when people tell me no.
ST: Name one random fact about yourself.
JB: Random fact: I’m only 5-feet tall.