Sunday, November 19, 2017
Human Interest

Those Florida mug shots aren't always funny

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Since 1949, Florida prisoners have been stamping the words "Sunshine State" on our license plates, despite most of our cities getting more annual rainfall than famously gloomy Seattle.

These days, though, the Legislature should change our nickname to "The Punch Line State." We're constantly producing stories about kooky crooks, crooked politicians and other wackiness that get circulated worldwide.

Friends of mine know how much I relish these tales, so they tag me on Facebook when they see one.

One afternoon my buddy Bill in Miami tagged me so I'd see a story from South Florida about a guy caught prowling a strange neighborhood armed with brass knuckles and a knife.

What made this funny was his mug shot. He had smeared dark grease all over his face and looked kind of dopey.

I laughed about it, so I tweeted his picture and called it our Florida Mug Shot Du Jour. It was retweeted by other folks who found it amusing, and that was the end of it — or so I thought.

The next day I got an urgent call from Bill.

"Take it down," he said.

"Do what?" I asked.

"That guy's mug shot. Take it down," he said.

Bill explained that since tagging me, he had learned that the guy was a military veteran who had served three tours of duty in Afghanistan. Friends said he had post-traumatic stress disorder. He was on 100 percent disability and having trouble adjusting to civilian life.

Knowing all that made his photo not quite as funny anymore.

I deleted the tweet, but I couldn't delete the implications inside my head.

As a lifelong Floridian, I know that in this state, tragedy often wears the mask of comedy. A man wins a Deerfield Beach pet store's cockroach-eating contest, then keels over, and the medical examiner says he choked to death on insect parts. Someone attending Zombicon in Fort Myers is shot and paramedics can't find the victim because everyone's made up to look like the walking dead. A burglary suspect hiding from the cops is attacked and eaten by an alligator.

I laughed about each of those stories and never gave much thought to the families of the victims and how they felt. But with so many strange things happening here every day, chances are good that eventually one of those "Only in Florida!" stories may involve you or someone you love.

In the Miami suburb of Kendall, two men got into an argument over dog poop, and one shot the other dead. The man who died was the uncle of someone I knew, a very sweet woman who was devastated by what happened. Just as with the grease-smeared veteran, once you saw the pain behind the dog-poop shooting, it didn't seem amusing anymore.

It's human nature to gawk and giggle at absurdities, then pass the wildest ones along to a friend or co-worker. But sometimes when we do that, we forget that real humans are involved who are dealing with serious problems, and that hee-hawing about their misfortune makes it worse.

Case in point: In 2013 my colleague John Pendygraft wrote a brilliant story about a Brandon couple. They'd been hog hunting together, and the man accidentally shot his girlfriend in the leg. She barely survived and a year later still walked with a limp.

Headlines about the shooting were ideal fodder for all the aggregation websites and late-night comics: "Florida Man Mistakes Girlfriend for a Hog, Shoots Her." The stories were generally illustrated with a picture of a hog, not a human.

Dealing with strangers' cruelty about the shooting became part of the couple's ordeal. Bubba the Love Sponge sent his radio listeners to the victim's Facebook page to see if she really looked like a hog. Vicious comments piled up on the page until family members took it down. When the page disappeared, though, some of her friends feared she had died.

The derisive laughter didn't let up for weeks. "They really wouldn't leave it alone until that guy ate a man's face in Miami. Then it just disappeared," the man told Pendygraft.

Listen, I'm not saying we shouldn't laugh at the crazy stories that happen in Florida. Some of them really are funny, like the one about the Marion County burglars who mistook urns of human and animal ashes for drugs and snorted them.

I'm just saying that from now on, when I look at the mug shots of people involved in weird Florida crimes, I'm going to make myself repeat an old phrase we seldom hear anymore: "There but for the grace of God go I."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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