by Craig Pittman | December 28, 2020

Craig Pittman’s Weird Florida News In Review 2020

The wild and wacky stories that grabbed headlines and (some) hearts across the Sunshine State this year.

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Golfer Kyle Downes had no qualms about retrieving his ball from the tail of a gator in Cape Coral.

Florida, like the rest of the nation, has undergone a wrenching, agonizing year dealing with a pandemic, lockdown orders, debates over mask use, a broken unemployment system and bitter political divisions. But throughout all of this disruption in 2020, one thing remained constant.

Florida continued producing plenty of weird news.

That Florida kept on being an odd and strange place despite all these other things going on was, for me, a comforting thought. Just as there’ll always be an England, so too there’ll always be a Florida man messing with an alligator when he shouldn’t.

Take, for instance, the alligator that hangs out at the Coral Oakes Golf Course in Cape Coral. The gator’s name is Charlie, and he’s about 9 feet long. One fine day in early December, Kyle Downes and his brother were golfing when Kyle’s ball took a bad hop—and landed on Charlie’s tail. 

Most people would have left the ball where it was, but that’s not how a Florida man plays the game. Kyle eased up behind Charlie, stretched out the hand he apparently was willing to lose and grabbed the ball. Charlie responded by diving into a nearby retention pond, which is the gator equivalent of a hole in one. 

Other Florida reptiles were not so forgiving. I am thinking here of the 62-year-old bicyclist who was out for a spin on a Marathon bike path in July when an iguana darted in front of him. According to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department, “The iguana became lodged in between the front tire and front wheel fork of the bicycle, causing the front tire to lock, which threw the victim over the handlebars and onto the asphalt.”

The human needed stitches. The iguana needed burial, or perhaps a barbecue spit.

The principal of a Key West high school handing out diplomas from a safe (and somewhat dry) social distance. Photography by Mark Hedden.

Like that iguana jumping in front of the bike, the many perils facing us in Florida forced us to make tough choices, some of them wrong. This was summed up by a photo that went viral on social media in July. It showed a real road sign in Tallahassee with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. One arrow, pointing left, was labeled COVID TESTING. The other one, pointing right, said HOOTERS. (If only someone had thought to combine them!)

Mask-arade

Coronavirus itself is no laughing matter, but our responses to the crisis could offer some comedy. For instance, we saw some genuine Florida ingenuity at work in coping with the pandemic. A high school in Key West held its graduation by posting the principal on the back of a boat and letting the seniors zoom out on jet skis to get their diplomas. Another one, in Miami-Dade County, held its graduation ceremony at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and seniors picked up their diplomas as they drove across the finish line.

I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear—things gotta breathe.

That ingenuity also surfaced repeatedly as Floridians jerry-rigged masks out of everything from underwear to plastic buckets. One of the best improvisations belonged to a guy in the Keys whose picture, snapped by WLRN’s Nancy Klingener, made the rounds in March. He was strolling through Publix wearing a snorkel and mask, shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt depicting a gun and the words “Buy Me Brunch.” Laugh if you must, but he had grabbed a pack of toilet paper, no easy feat at the time.

This Florida man scored some toilet paper but had his own interpretation of COVID-19 mask requirements. Photography by Nancy Klingener.

Some of the debates over mask mandates reached a height of oratorical excellence that I am still savoring months later. My favorite was the lady at a Palm Beach County Commission meeting in June who announced, “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear—things gotta breathe.” 

Not all of our coronavirus responses were rational ones. A Fort Myers school sent an eighth-grade girl home because teachers thought she was exhibiting symptoms of the disease, but her mom said it was just “that time of the month.” Meanwhile, librarians around the Tampa Bay area found patrons were microwaving borrowed books to try to sanitize them, perhaps unaware that a metal ID tag inside the book cover would start a fire. No word on whether one of the scorched books was Fahrenheit 451.

Our bitterly divided electorate provided some unintentional comedy as well. In October, a Bradenton voter tried to get a mail-in ballot for his dead wife and told police he was doing it just “to test the system.” (The system passed, but he got in trouble.) And in December, a Bay County attorney told a political meeting that he had registered to vote in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff by claiming he lived at his brother’s house, and then encouraged everyone in the crowd to do the same—to the point of giving everyone his brother’s address. (He’s under investigation now.)

Honestly, though, the best Florida election story concerned the race for an Orange County School Board seat held by a former teacher with a doctorate. The charter school industry, trying to oust her, supported a candidate who had a background in adult porn, declaring him “the champion we need for our kids.” (He lost.)

It’s a Jungle Out There

We probably should have guessed this would be a rough year way back in February. That’s when Disney reported that one of its Jungle Cruise boats had sunk. I didn’t realize that’s what they meant when the theme parks promised to make the rides more immersive. Fortunately, the crew was able to fight off the vicious animatronic hippos using their blank-shooting pistols and corny jokes.

Even a pet kangaroo wound up in jail this year. His name is Jack and he escaped his backyard enclosure in Fort Lauderdale when his owner left the gate open while recycling. The cops conducted a slow-speed chase as he hopped toward freedom. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel later published a photo showing Jack staring out from behind bars. Technically he wasn’t in jail, but rather locked in a stall in a stable where the police keep their horses. Still, a lot of people sympathized with that thousand-yard stare.

Pythons continue to conquer territory in Florida including a spin in a Mustang in Dania Beach and a Maytag in West Palm Beach. Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

Speaking of rogue animals, pythons continued making headlines in 2020. In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis invited a pair of python hunters to his State of the State speech, something that would never happen in any other state. Meanwhile, the wildlife commission tried dispatching dogs to sniff out the snakes’ distinctive musky odor and flirted with the idea of advertising all the things you can make from python meat. Nobody’s written a cookbook yet.

The pythons kept finding ways to surprise us, though. In October, the driver of a Mustang in Dania Beach noticed the “check engine” light was on. Under the hood: a 10-foot python that had wrapped itself around the engine block. Automakers, please listen to me: For cars sold in Florida, the “check engine” warning should be much more specific.

Even more surprising was what happened in August, when a woman in a high-rise apartment in West Palm Beach who was checking her laundry discovered a python in her washing machine. That story left me with so many questions, such as: “How did the python get into her washer?” and “Do you wash pythons with your darks or your lights?” and “Is this a clue about what happened to all my missing socks?”

An ancient Florida reptile made news too. Harold’s Auto Center, a car repair shop in Spring Hill that’s built to resemble a very large dinosaur, was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. I don’t think Harold’s had anything to do with the guy in Deltona who broke into a woman’s house and later claimed he did it because was being chased by dinosaurs, but you never know.

Bad Boys, Bad Boys

As usual, stories about Florida crime made it clear we are bereft of criminal masterminds. The best example is probably the guys nabbed for smuggling drugs in Santa Rosa County in February. They hid the drugs in a bag clearly marked BAG FULL OF DRUGS

Another genius was the Miami man who was busted because he used some of the $3.9 million in Payroll Protection Plan money he got for his businesses to buy a $318,000 Lamborghini Huracan for himself. I don’t see the problem, though. He needed the money to keep his four moving companies afloat, and that Lamborghini definitely moves.

Like the crooks, Florida cops experienced some epic fails, too. In September, Miami-Dade police successfully located a pizza delivery driver’s car that had been stolen—but while they were setting up a perimeter around it, a train ran into it. In November, Lee County deputies tried to question a woman who had left her dog in her car while she shopped at PetSmart, but she fled. When they caught her, the cops tried to Taser her but missed—and hit the dog.

To no one’s surprise, Floridians got in trouble for using a variety of odd things as weapons. My favorite was the woman from Pensacola who dressed up as an angel for Halloween, and then attacked several cops using her wings as weapons. Unfortunately, no one dressed as a devil showed up to complete the picture. 

Sometimes the handiest weapon is the one at the end of your arm. In July, a flight attendant arrived at her Safety Harbor home only to discover her husband having sex with another woman. She punched him in the eye and then in a move straight out of Animal House, smashed his acoustic guitar against the wall, too.

Fight footage from Florida is always making news. In December, video of two guys tussling in a Broward County Wawa went viral because their pants kept falling down. The oddest fight, though, involved four men who got into a brawl in the parking lot of a Home Depot in Tampa in May. Instead of kicks and punches, they threw cans of paint on each other, as if they were demented Jackson Pollock fans.

The best Florida crimes, however, are the baffling ones. For instance, in September a mystery man swiped four vials of cat blood from a St. Augustine veterinary clinic. In October, a man wearing goggles and a suit made of garbage bags broke into a Pompano Beach business and set fire to a dozen garbage trucks, for no apparent reason. Back in April, Flagler County deputies arrested a Palm Coast woman who was putting porn inside plastic Easter eggs and leaving them in people’s mailboxes. She told the cops she was “trying to educate people.” Did she think they were doing it wrong? 

I can’t leave out the Palm Bay woman who, in September, tried to hire a hit man to kill her husband’s mistress, and claimed it was a birthday present for herself. Wouldn’t a nice pedicure have been more practical? 

Then there was the owner of an Oldsmar barbecue joint who in October flipped out over a couple of devastating Yelp reviews for his place, beating up the author—who just happened to be his girlfriend’s son. One of the reviews did have a point, though, contending that the owner “should spend less time threatening customers and more time on learning to cook properly.”

Spiritual Journey

Meanwhile, in August a Port St. Lucie man fired a gun at a car because he believed one of the women inside was a witch who had cursed him. When questioned, the other people in the car said the woman was, in fact, performing a Santeria ritual at the time, and added “that they disliked her for it.”

I’m still thinking about the Gainesville man who took a deputy’s police cruiser as well as the deputy’s credit card. When caught, he explained he was “on a spiritual journey.” I am not sure which religion offers nirvana for drivers of stolen cars—perhaps he was starting his own.

Speaking of cars, Florida road rage incidents continued to set a new standard for creativity. In September, an Orange County driver posted a dashcam video to social media that showed him repeatedly firing a gun through his own windshield while driving 100 mph He later admitted the video “doesn’t capture my smartest moments.”

The most telling story of all, though, may be the one about the 20-year-old man spotted in December driving around the Clearwater area with a fully loaded AR-15 sticking out of his car window. When the cops caught up with him at a laundromat, they asked why he was displaying a weapon that way. He explained that he had recently relocated from Alabama, and he carried the AR-15 because he “has seen crazy stuff since moving to Florida.” 

Hey pal, join the club. And just wait until you see what 2021 has in store! That’s one spiritual journey you won’t want to miss, whether you’re in a hot cop car or a Lamborghini.


Read more Flamingo stories by award-winning author Craig Pittman.

Photo credits: Golf Course Gator, iStock; Key West Graduation, Mark Hedden; Florida Man in mask, Nancy Klingener

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