At 10 p.m., the band Husker Dü, or some lesser imitation, was set to perform at the PBA Hall in Ft. Lauderdale. It was Friday, which invariably meant my buddy, Paul Johnson, would give me a ring to tell me where we’d hang out. Paul’s dashing good looks invariably lifted me into the next social echelon of girls, clubs, and night life of Miami in the 1980s.
I was like a pauper who had climbed up the wall and gazed into a pastel-streaked Promised Land of chic clothes, drugs, drinks, fast cars, and even faster women. I peered in awesome wonder at the life-giving satisfaction that could be mine, and Paul was my ticket.
His looks were in stark contrast to mine. Where I was tall, lanky, and awkwardly formed, his physique was sculpted. He sported a shock of jet black hair, and had eyes the kind of transcendent blue that melted girls’ hearts. He was my best friend and we were inseparable, but I always harbored a little jealousy against him for this.
“Hey Kev, what’s doing tonight? We goin’ out or what?” Paul asked from the other end of the line.
“Donny told me that some boss punk band is playing the PBA across from my office,” I told Paul.
“You think there’ll be chicks there?” Paul asked with the anticipation of a guy who actually had a chance.
“Of course. You know how it is. Girls with green hair, no hair, nose rings, safety pins, and ripped clothes. Our kind of girls. I’m totally amped.”
My sarcasm knew no equal.
“Rad. I’ll book it over there by ten o’clock,” Paul said.
We had to hang up quickly as we were both at work. I worked as an accountant in the Civil Division of the Sheriff of Broward County, and Paul was a teller at Coral Gables Federal Savings and Loan in the very chic 163rd Street Mall. Our insatiable and unswerving pursuit of money, and all the trappings that came with it, was what united us. When it came to chasing pleasure, all bets were off. We were rabid social Darwinists and determined to be the fittest. We wholeheartedly bought into Gordon Gekko’s famous quote from the film Wall Street that “greed is good.” We pursued our careers with the voracity and hunger of two starved lions. The world owed us.
Paul came from a broken family. His mom’s second husband was emotionally and physically abusive, which drove Paul and his younger sister into a closer relationship than most siblings. He watched the innocence that is the birthright of every child being taken from her and vowed to protect her at any cost. But there was only so much he could do. He would rise before the sun, even on weekends, and return late to insure a lesser sentence from his tyrant stepfather.
My circumstances were better than Paul’s. My father Ray had a short fuse, which was probably a perfectly natural trait for a man with his background. He spent most of his young life in Philadelphia with his older sister, being shuffled between abusive foster homes. At the age of fifteen, he escaped from the St. Joseph’s Industrious Home for Young Boys, and went straight to an Army recruiter’s office with a note from his sister swearing he was seventeen years old.
The recruiter gave him fifty cents and told him he needed to gain five pounds before he could join. My dad went to a Philly hot dog stand, bought a half dozen or so, devoured them, and returned to the recruiter twenty minutes later with five pounds of hot dogs in his stomach. Before long, he was on the ground, fighting in Korea, and witnessing things no fifteen-year-old should ever see.
He returned from the war and worked his way up to a sales executive position in Philadelphia, a position he held for nearly twenty years. When he and my mother moved to South Florida in the 1960s, there was no work to be found. After a few years of searching and working an assortment of jobs, he found a position in the Civil Division of the Sheriff’s Office of Broward County, where he watched four sheriffs come and go. He pulled some strings to get me a job in the same department.
He was a man cut from the fabric of an older generation that valued hard work and consistency over sensitivity, so spending countless hours coddling his children was not his first priority. That is not to say he was absent from my life. He just had the mindset of a man born in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. He possessed a kind of quiet strength only seen in those who live through genuinely hard times.
His sternness was tempered, though, by a quick wit, which I constantly but unsuccessfully tried to keep up with. His humor was in the dry and self-effacing vein, so he ingratiated himself to others with ease.
Marge, my mother, worked her way up from an entry level position at Hollywood Memorial Hospital to head of the lab there. She was long suffering and doted on all her children obsessively, making sure we were always sufficiently fed and clothed. Her work at the hospital meant she was on her feet all day dealing with who knows what, but somehow she always had enough energy for her four kids: Karen, Cindy, Kirk, and myself. She wanted to do everything for us and was always filled with a million questions about what we were doing and how we were doing it. Her day always began early; making breakfast, getting her kids to school an hour before her shift began, and picking them up an hour or two after it ended.
She and my father had been married for twenty-five years and the marriage was not always perfect. They tried their best to hide it, but I was a witness to many fierce arguments between them. It was a small house, and from my room I could hear everything that went on. I always acted as the pacifier; I would try to appease them and keep the mood light whenever I could. I was uncomfortable with any type of confrontation, and I developed a keen awareness of any brewing discord.
Money was always tight, but my mother knew a million tricks to keep our clothes tailored and stretch the food to feed a family of six. Some of her techniques met with our protests, and almost always clashed with our desires to look cool and keep up with the fashions popular at the time.
I was the youngest of four kids, which meant I was always the last in line for the hand-me-downs. I begrudgingly went to school with an unusual hodgepodge look of less-than-stylish clothes and shoes. Instead of the Reeboks most kids sported, I went with the off-brand sweater vest and sneakers my brother Kirk had worn for two years before me. I would sometimes rip them, or put clothespins in them in an attempt to appear “punk,” but my mother would unfailingly sew them back up and return them to my drawer, perfectly folded.
This was forever my burden and my battle. I always unwillingly operated on the outside of what was considered cool, always one or two steps behind chic. I longed to be a part of it all. Everyone else I saw seemed unaffected by this affliction. They always seemed to be having so much fun. Their lives appeared so worthy of my admiration.
I finished work at the Sheriff’s Office around nine, and decided to stroll across the street to the PBA Hall to see if our mutual friend Donny Beck had arrived. Donny “Rocket” was our longtime buddy and held the position in our circle as chief cultural advisor. He always knew where to find the bands, the brands, and the booze.
Donny chased after every girl that came within his radius, but he was desperately in love with two girls: Shawna, a brunette whom the rest of the guys would call Ka-reem due to her excessive height, and Jules, a delicate and shy blonde with emerald green eyes. He loved to clue us in to what we should be doing and saying to keep up with the masses. In these circles, it could be social suicide to make a faux-pas, like saying a band or club or style was radical, when it was decidedly not.
Donny was part of our group, but also operated outside of it. He was a lone wolf and would mysteriously disappear, sometimes for weeks. Then he’d reappear with the grandiose tales of his conquests and excursions into Miami’s clandestine nightlife.
I ditched the glasses, tossed the tie, and un-tucked the button-down oxford, which was my monkey suit. I had to tone it down a little to avoid being tagged with the worst of all possible labels at the time, the dreaded poser—the guy who wears skate clothes, carries a skateboard, but doesn’t know how to skate. In my case, it was the one pierced ear and work clothes that would give me away if I wasn’t careful in this world.
The punk rock world in Miami in 1988 was simply a relic from the movement that had ignited Great Britain and New York in the late 1970s. At this point, even “punk” was being eschewed in favor of the rawer movement called “hardcore.” Hardcore bands rejected any commercial success, and shunned punk bands for selling out. Bands like The Roidz, The Raging Pus Bags, People’s Court, and the Doldrums dominated the local scene. Most of the patrons of these fine establishments were ones who had survived all the bandwagon folks, and counted themselves among the chosen.
And this counter-culture, like every one before it, had a uniform; the “safety-pin aesthetic,” if you will. Metal-studded and spiked accessories poked through every available flap of skin. Mohawks of every size and color proudly displayed themselves like giant peacock feathers. Vagabond-chic, hand-me-down jackets and jeans hung loosely on everyone’s snarling, slouching bodies. It was an eerie spectacle to one unaccustomed to this brand of flamboyance.
I yearned to be part of this counter-culture, but I suffered from an intense feeling of inadequacy. I felt like the old joke: “I would hate to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” It was this innate desire burning inside of me to “fit in” that gave birth to “Ramone Simone.” Ramone was an alter ego that I created and became, whenever being Kevin Cross didn’t get me enough respect. He was a human chameleon, who took on the uniform and personality of whatever scene was the object of my envy.
The first incarnation of Ramone was a punk; complete with ripped T-shirt and jeans, leather jacket, spiked hair, and confident swagger. I would use my brother’s old driver’s license to get into clubs and introduce myself as Ramone Simone, a graduate student at Nova University. I once met a girl at a club called City Limits in Fort Lauderdale, and I carried on a six-month relationship with her as Ramone Simone, punk-about-town.
This was Freud’s idea of the id, the ego, and the super-ego, in its purest form. The id is that part of our psyche that selfishly seeks pleasure and personal goals regardless of others. It is amoral and its only concern is fulfilling our deepest desires in spite of societal restraints. The super ego is the antithesis of the id and acts as a conscience, telling us what is acceptable behavior, and punishing us with feelings of guilt when we behave improperly. The ego is what helps us decide between the id and the super-ego, and is responsible for fulfilling the desires of the id in an acceptable and realistic way.
Ramone Simone was the personification of my id. He was the part of me who could be all the things Kevin Cross was incapable of, like having the confidence to talk to girls, or telling people what I really thought about them. This night, however, I was just Kevin.
Entering the club, I immediately spotted Donny’s wiry frame and ghost-white skin wafting through the crowd of punk rockers. I began to make my way across the room to him, sidestepping the plebeians eyeing me with particular disdain, and being careful to avoid the mosh pit of people slam-dancing. For the uninitiated, slam-dancing consists of repeatedly hurling your body into a fellow patron with as much force as you can muster until sufficiently mind-numbed.
Our usual hangout, Perone’s, had closed a few weeks earlier, and the PBA Hall was the first candidate for a replacement spot. These kinds of clubs wore their filthiness like a badge of honor. The filthier your bar was, the more legitimate. I always suspected they employed a whole crew of anti-janitors, guys who came in the mornings to spread dirt, write on the wall, and paint like a blind person. The PBA had all this charm, but you couldn’t get away with bringing your own beer like we could at Perone’s and Fire and Ice, which was a huge negative for us poor kids.
We would buy a bunch of the cheapest beer imaginable, usually Schafers, and smuggle them in using our baggy jeans and leather jackets. We found a way around that quickly, inventing what we called “The Breakfast of Champions,” a well-balanced meal consisting of Cheerios and cheap vodka. We would furiously eat as many spoonfuls as we could before entering the club. We theorized that the vodka-soaked Cheerios would sit in our stomachs and absorb more slowly, drawing out the intoxication, and eliminating the need to buy over-priced beers or liquor.
“Donnyyyy!” I screamed over the noise. “Donnyyyyyyyyy!”
Finally, I got his attention and he pulled me into a dingy corner of the club where we would wait for Paul. Donny grabbed my arm and pulled me down so he could talk into my ear.
“S’up, Kev? You see that girl by the bar? She was totally checking me out, dude. She’s a total betty.”
“Yeah, I saw her and she wasn’t checking you out. She was staring at that un-pierced, virgin skin. I know that look all too well, my friend. How’s Shawna?”
“Man, why you always gotta be raggin’ on me, dude? Look at her, she’s righteous, but she ain’t out of my league.”
“Look at us, man. She’s not only out of our league, but she plays an entirely different sport, my man.”
“Pish, posh! Speak for yourself. If you will it, it is no dream.”
“Theodor Herzl, man. If you will it, it is no dream.”
“Right, well, ‘will’ all you want. It ain’t happening.”
“Have it your way. All I’m saying is . . . by the way, what are you wearing?”
“I just got off work. I didn’t have time to change. Why? Is it that bad?”
“You’re wearing a button-up oxford and loafers, and you ask me if it’s bad? This isn’t the Rotary Club. Let me see that tie,” he said, yanking it from my pocket and tying it around my forehead.
“What are you doing? Is this supposed to be cool?”
“No, but at least they won’t be looking at your outfit. Plus, you can always say it’s some kind of statement against the corporate overlords or something.”
“It’s nothing, Kev. What can I say? It’s a gift. It would be selfish to deny humanity of my skills, right?”
“Whatever you . . . Hey, I think that’s Paul,” I said, motioning to the silhouette of Paul darkening the shabby door of the club.
As he made his way over, I noticed he lacked his trademark confident gait.
“What it is, fellas? Hey, Donny Rocket,” Paul said.
“Hey Paul. Man, I am so glad you are always early,” I said.
“Are you sure we should really be here?” Paul asked.
“Well, I don’t know if you should be here, pretty boy,” Donny taunted.
“You know,” Paul groaned. It sounded like a lead-in to a biting comeback, but I knew it wasn’t.
“You know” and “don’t worry” were Paul’s catch-all phrases. They meant a myriad of things from “hello,” “goodbye,” “stop making fun of me,” “I agree,” and “how are you, kind sir?” to “Excuse me, I find this vichyssoise to be a bit on the runny side.”
“Just joking, man. I already have some ladies picked out for us,” Donny said.
“Pshht,” Paul said, mimicking a walkie-talkie. “Silence radio contact, we are going in. Pshht.”
“If Donny’s not scared, I’m not,” I said, heading out into the writhing abyss of jeans. I tried to make eye contact with some of the girls, but coming up empty just made a beeline for the bar.
“I’ll have a Budweiser,” I said, leaning the backs of my elbows on top of the bar.
This is where I felt the most comfortable. I’ve found that it’s just exponentially easier to look cool while leaning. Leaning beats standing, kneeling, lying, and squatting hands down when it comes to the “posture coolness” scale. There is no more pathetic feeling than standing in the middle of a room full of people with your shoulders slumped and hands at your sides, while shooting nervous glances at everyone else, as they talk freely and comfortably with one another.
I leaned on the bar for about a half hour, shifting my weight and sipping the beer whenever I needed something to do. The entire time, I was trying to psych myself up to talk to some girl in the vicinity, but to no avail. I would let Paul do the leg work. He had the bait. I would just wait patiently in the boat for the catch. Eventually, my patience paid off.
Paul brought a couple girls over and introduced me to them.
“I want you to meet my friend Kevin. Kevin, this is Stacey and Lily,” Paul said coolly.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
This is where I always got stuck. What am I supposed to say to two girls standing in front of me with ripped jeans, intentionally asymmetrical haircuts, and metal studs in their noses? What do I have in common with them?
“You guys know anything about this band?” I finally asked.
“Yeah, they’re pretty rad. My brother’s friend’s cousin is the drummer,” said the one I guessed was Stacey.
“Whoa, nice. That’s cool,” I said.
“Nice outfit, Kevin,” the other girl said, flicking the black tie dangling over my ear.
“Oh, this? My stylist says I should wear more black. That’s all this is. What do you think? You like it?” I said, striking a pose for her.
“It’s slimming,” she said.
“Yeah. You don’t know the half of it. I’m actually 300 pounds. You can’t tell, right?”
“Wow, that’s incredible! I never would have guessed. Who’s your stylist?”
“His name’s Donny, but he’s hard to get in to see. He’s got a waiting list a mile long. I could probably pull some strings and get you an appointment if you want,” I smirked, getting Donny’s attention at the end of the bar.
I was about to bring my “A” game, but before I could say, “Did you know Sid Vicious invented the Pogo dance?” or “You know, I was at CBGBs back in the day,” the club erupted in a frenzy. Everyone was heading for the door, which was now flooded with flashing red and blue lights.
Somebody yelled above the fray, “It’s the fuzz!”
The fire department and police pulled the plug on our joyous evening by declaring the place a fire hazard. Everyone in the club scattered like cockroaches when the light is turned on. The police detained the ones they could and searched them for anything they could find. Paul and I were nineteen years old, and Donny was still eighteen. Because we were in possession of alcoholic beverages, I went to work.
I quickly tucked in my shirt, pulled my wrinkled tie from my head and flung it haphazardly around my neck as we approached the round up.
“These two guys are with me,” I said, calmly flashing my Sheriff’s Office ID with a big gold star emblazoned on the front. I casually strolled past the cops with my two buddies in tow. In the clear now, we could relax.
“Oh man, I think I need a new pair of pants. See yous! Suckas!” Donny yelled as he vanished into the night, running like a frightened, emaciated ghost, with one hand grasping his jeans to keep them from falling. He was off to soak up more culture.
“See ya, man!” I hollered after him.
Paul and I walked together across the street and sat down in the Sheriff’s Office parking lot, watching from afar the lights and commotion of the squad cars, fire trucks, and punkers fleeing the scene. In the ethereal glow of the flashing reds and blues, we sat and pondered, as we often did, about a different life. A life free from broken-down cars, lousy home lives, low-paying jobs, empty pockets, and second-rate everything. Any life would surely be more satisfying than the one we had. We said nothing, but we both knew what the other was thinking.
Finally, I broke the silence.
“Man, there’s got to be something better than this. You know, I would have bought those girls drinks, but I don’t have the money. I’m tired of it.”
“Isn’t there anything you can do? You’re supposed to be some kinda genius boy wonder, right? There’s gotta be a way.”
“Well,” I pushed the words out of my mouth, reluctantly at first, “There is something I’ve been thinking about.”
“Now, this is just something I’ve been thinking about, mind you, but there is this account I handle at the Sheriff’s Office.”
“It’s this account that takes deposits for the costs involved in evicting somebody from their house or office or whatever. But here’s the thing. The account is almost all stale money. Almost all the money in it belongs to dead people, or businesses that moved. And the sheriff doesn’t give a rip if these people get their money back because, by law, the money goes into this discretionary account. After ten years, he can do whatever he wants with it; buy squad cars, weapons, boats, whatever, you name it.”
“I’m listening. Lay it on me, brother.”
For some reason, we automatically started talking in hushed tones.
“Okay. So, let’s say I am a Good Samaritan and want to give the money back to these poor slobs who never got their refunds. I would need to cut a check for each and every one of them, and return the money to its rightful owner, right?”
“Yeah, but how would your righteous deeds go unnoticed?”
“Well, listen. Each account only has a small amount of money, say forty, fifty, or sixty bucks, but there are thousands and thousands of them. None of the amounts are enough to arouse any suspicion. It’s called salami slicing.”
“What about the number of checks?”
“That’s the beautiful thing. I handle hundreds of checks every day. I thought about it. I could slip the bogus checks in with the legit ones and nobody’s the wiser.”
“Hmm,” Paul muttered. I could see his brain processing the odds.
We both sat in silence for several moments, weighing the pros and cons of embarking upon a life of crime. Neither of us really wanted to cross this threshold, but rationalization is a powerful thing.
Life is made up of decisive moments like this. The trouble is, sans the proper road signs, we only see them in hindsight. The way you decide them informs the next set of decisions you will have, and so on, until these decisions either topple over and crush you, or you’re standing on top of them with hands raised exultantly.
Joseph Campbell, the famed mythologist, saw the hero’s adventure as divided into three sections: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Departure begins with “The Call to Adventure” and “The Crossing of the First Threshold,” where the hero is faced with a dilemma outside himself that he must either run from or face. Once he has crossed the first threshold of his adventure, there is no going back.
We were not, of course, heroes in the traditional sense. Actually, we weren’t heroes in any sense, but we were being called to cross a threshold by something within ourselves. Something that had been lying in wait in our hearts for a long time. We were sick of being poor, and always having to settle for the second best. Why should we not enjoy the effortless and joyful life like so many others around us?
When I was younger, I frequently hung out with two neighborhood guys named Tommy and Jason Tomeleri. Their family was rich, and always rumored to be connected to organized crime. And this, of course, raised their coolness a few notches with all the local kids.
Whenever I would go over to their multilevel house and pass through their laundry room, something always caught my eye. The room was consistently full of loose change from the pant pockets of the family. I would pick the coins off the floor or from the top of the washing machine and pocket them. One day Tommy saw me doing this and screamed, “What are you doing? That’s stealing!”
The accusation shocked me. It had never occurred to me that this innocent action could ever be construed as theft. After all, these were just unwanted, stray coins dropped from the pants of people who had enough already and didn’t need them. What I was doing was a harmless reallocation or redistribution. It was almost a virtuous, noble, and upright act in my mind. It didn’t hurt anybody, but it helped me immensely.
That happened when I was a kid, but here I was proposing a similar kind of crime to Paul.
Finally, Paul piped up. “You’re working for the Sheriff Nick Navarro, the guy you told me coached Al Pacino how to act like a drug kingpin for the movie, Scarface? The guy Chuck Norris calls ‘Dad’?” Paul asked rhetorically.
“One and the same.”
“And you want to steal from him? Mm hmm. I see.”
“Yeah, I hear you. Plus, my dad got me this job. I can’t screw it up. I really don’t see a way to make it happen,” I said, already thinking of alternate schemes.
“I’ll tell you, though, Navarro is a class-A jerk. He definitely deserves it. One time, he was walking through the office when he just stopped and looked me over. Then he looked at my coworker and said, ‘What is he doing here? I thought he was just temporary help.’”
“Man. Okay, so the guy’s a jerk, but we can’t just . . . ,” Paul whispered. I could see the cogs turning in his head. “Well, wait a second. At the bank, I can set up accounts and make deposits into them at will as long as it’s within reason. The problem would be, how could you make it seem like all these people were receiving their money?”
“We don’t have to. They all kicked the bucket, or they’re living 3,000 miles away. I’m telling you, nobody cares about this money. I think we can do this, man. Why not?” I said with hope rising within me.
“This is interesting. Are you sure no one would notice it? Who else besides you takes care of the account?”
“Just me. Only me. I handle everything.”
“So, you would print the checks and put them in the pile, right? Who sees them?”
“Just my boss, Laurie. Sometimes she doesn’t even look at them. After she signs them, she gives them back and I mail them after work.”
“Okay, so you could bring me the checks and I could deposit them.”
“How? How do we set up an account?”
“That part is easy. I set up the account as if somebody came in. They would never even question it. We can make withdrawals from the account . . . actually, accounts, because I think it’d be better to have at least two.”
“Who would get the money? Do I have to go in there?”
“No, never. I would take the money out as if a withdrawal was made. It’s done all the time.”
“I think we can do this. Do you see a down side? How can we get caught? If it gets hairy, we bail. I erase all the accounts we took from, and you close the accounts, right?” I said, my excitement growing with the thrill of planning a crime.
Growing up, I always aspired to be an FBI agent. The portrayals of agents in the movies, TV, and comics always looked so cool to me. I would stroll into the place, flash my badge, and tell those local cops to go get a donut because the real pros were here. I would crack that serial killer case by finding some code or pattern in his letters. Cross. Kevin Cross. My name would be in the papers. Maybe they would even make a movie about me.
At age sixteen, I studied my brains out for the FBI entrance exam, but missed by three points. I was crestfallen, but I knew they were looking for lawyers and CPAs, so I decided that would be my focus.
When I graduated high school and left for college, everything seemed possible. I was the boy wonder. I had talent leaking out of my ears. I was an unstoppable force. The world would bow at my greatness. They would talk about how I came from humble beginnings and rose to prominence through sheer genius and force of will. An inspiration to everyone.
But my attempts to get Navarro to notice me were fruitless. When I first discovered the stale accounts, I tried to return the money to their rightful owners, but was scolded for it. Then I had the brilliant idea to take the money and invest it for him. I neglected to tell him this because I knew keeping it secret would make my inevitable announcement that I had made him boatloads of money so much more dramatic:
“Listen, the name’s Kevin Cross. Yeah, the guy from accounting. I have been taking that stale money and investing it for you. I doubled it. Yes, you heard right. Doubled.”
“Right this way, Mr. Cross. We have a corner office just for you. You’re going places, son,” Navarro would say. “Johnson, you have one hour to get your filthy junk out of here!”
When he heard of my grand scheme, though, it didn’t play out the way it did in my head. He reprimanded me and told me to just do my bleeping job.
“Yes, sir,” I responded through clenched teeth.
Here I was, presented with a chance at revenge against Navarro and all the naysayers, along with my perceived enemies living that fast life that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. I would finally rise above the great, unwashed multitude and take hold of my birthright, what was rightfully mine, my divine appointment to greatness.
The plan was perfect. Simple. Elegant. Undetectable.
“What do you think, Paul?”
Paul grinned and said, “You know.”
For the rest of the story, check out Embezzlement: A True Crime Story