22 June 2014

There was a Crooked Village

by Leigh Lundin

Little Stomping

Picture a village whose reason for being is a criminal enterprise. Imagine its entire raison d’ĂȘtre, its very existence hinges upon fleecing the public. Typical of such towns, as many as one in fifteen to twenty of residents– men, women, children and chickens– are part of its politico-judicial machinery: crooked cops, municipal machinators, and corrupt clerks.

And not ordinary crooked cops, but heavily armed with the latest in high-power assault weaponry and shiny pursuit vehicles. Police– poorly trained but still police– yet some may not have been certified officers at all. One fancied himself Rambo and stopped tourists with an AR-15 slung across his chest like that inbred couple in Open Carry Texas.

Village authorities arbitrarily moved town limit signs beyond the actual town’s boundaries in a bid to increase exposure to radar patrol… and revenues. When cops sat in lawn chairs aiming their radar guns and sipping from their open containers, they turned a blind eye to the citizens who dried their marijuana in the convenience store’s microwave. Oh, and those shiny police cars? The town often didn’t bother to insure them, this in a village where the police department wrote more tickets than Fort Lauderdale but still outspent its budget.

speed trap
First of three speed traps in
a 20 mile stretch of US 301.
AAA believed to sponsor sign.
Speed Trap

Set this supposition aside for the moment.

When I was a kid who couldn't yet drive, a short story left an impression on me. The plot centered around a man traveling to Florida who was caught in a small town speed trap. The police tossed him in jail.

Andy Griffith they weren't: they kept him imprisoned as the authorities systematically drained his assets like a spider sucks juices from a fly. Who do you turn to when the law is corrupt?

Florida sunshine has always attracted northerners during the icy winter months. In the first half of the 20th century, snowbirds filtered south through the highways and byways of America. Before the 1950s, towns and villages in the arteries of early tourism discovered they could make money fleecing tourists  passing through their area.
Lawtey, Hampton, Waldo
Lawtey, Hampton, Waldo speed traps
 
US 301
US 301: Jacksonville ↔ Gainesville
Atlantic at right, Georgia border at top


Some places in the Deep South considered northern travelers carpetbaggers and therefore fair game. Even so, town fathers and others found it easy to offset moral compunctions when considering the sheer profit involved. Could they help it if a Yankee ran a stop sign obscured by tree branches or failed to notice the speed limit abruptly changed from 55 to 25?

Where’s Waldo?

In the tiny towns of Lawtey, Hampton, and Waldo, that’s exactly what happens as the speed limits bounce every block or so from 55 to 30 to 45 to 25 and back again. If you have the time and patience, you might try locking your cruise control in at 25mph, hoping to beat the system. But they have an answer for that too– tickets for failing to maintain a safe speed.

In the early 1990s, it dawned on Hampton that nearby US 301 was an untapped piggy bank with the emphasis on piggy. The highway had been a source of resentment when it passed within a few hundred metres of the town limits, but devious minds found a way to make the road pay. The village annexed a strip of land 420 yards (384 metres) along the federal highway and began hiring candidates for police officers. Hampton’s speed trap was born.
(See maps below.)

In a state with a governor who committed the largest Medicare/Medicaid fraud in history, it takes a lot to outrage the Florida Legislature, but over time, Hampton succeeded. Their downfall started when they had the audacity to ticket State Representative Charles van Zant. Thanks to him, Florida lawmakers drew up plans to revoke the city's charter and revert the village to an unincorporated plat of county land.

Hampton with annex
Hampton with annex
Hampton with annex
Hampton
The events that set Hampton above (or below?) its speed trap neighbors, Lawtey and Waldo, is the corruption that took place off the highway. The village can’t account for monies in the high six-figures while at the same time failing to provide basic maintenance and repairs. Under one free-spending family that ‘managed’ the little city, it ran up large debts at local stores and on the municipal credit card.

While the town failed to properly bill residents for the water utility, the clerk collected cash– Sorry, no receipts. The water department can’t reconcile nearly half of the water actually distributed, telling auditors the records were “lost in a swamp.” And if residents complained about inefficiency and corruption, their water supply was cut off altogether, prompting Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith to refer to the situation as “Gestapo in Hampton.

As CNN suggested, the town became too corrupt even for Florida to stomach. State and federal auditors agreed and wheels started turning to unincorporate the town and strip it of its charter. The road to perdition seemed inevitable.

Road to Recovery

But not everyone saw it that way. Once corrupt authorities slunk back into the shadows, good citizens of Hampton stepped forward. A former clerk took over the reins. A new resident made plans to run for mayor, replacing the current mayor who resigned from his jail cell. Volunteers put together a plan to bring the town into compliance and moreover, they acted upon it. Among other things, the town plans to de-annex the strip of land encompassing US 301 although the ‘handle’ part of the town’s griddle shape will remain.

At present, efforts to revoke the town’s charter remain in abeyance and it looks like the town may have saved itself. We can only wish legislators had the political gumption to rid the state of speed traps altogether in places like Waldo, Lawtey, and Windemere.

Short Story Bonus

And, in case you were wondering, Jacksonville is probably not named after Shirley Jackson, despite her [in]famous short story about a small town. Read it on-line | download eBook PDF | download audiobook.

15 comments:

CarolynJenkins said...

Ahhhh, you brought back memories. Way back in the mid '50s, my parents took the family on a vacation to Florida. Actually, the Martin company in Maryland was dividing and relocating half its employees to central Florida. This vacation was more like a search for a house expedition with kids in tow. My Dad was stopped in Waldo for going 7 miles over the speed limit and ended up in jail. The rest of us, Mom, my sister Beth and me spent the night sleeping in the car until one of my Mom's brothers came through with the money to get him out. My sister was able to relate this story to me since she was the oldest. I was around 2 at that time. The car did not have A/C back then. Didn't need it in Maryland in the summertime, at least back then.

Anonymous said...

In New Mexico -- and this is contemporary -- many towns have "seat belt traps" that nab only people with out-of-state license tags. This includes people who are simply not wearing their seat belt "properly" (although it is on and fastened). And the fines are hefty. The officers there also stop people for driving "too slow" as well as for speeding, and I am sure you've seen some of the gunplay that's been involved in recent traffic stops and even moving homeless people off public lands. I had never heard of the situation there until we lived there for 2 years. I've lived in a number of states, including the deep South, and I never lived anywhere I was so afraid of "law enforcement officers" in my life as there.

Vicki Kennedy said...

Good article, Leigh. I’m a native New Mexican and love the state. I saw on TV that the FBI is investigating the police force of the state’s largest city-an action I thought long overdue. Someone I know once came through the N.E. corner of the state from Colorado. This person noticed something odd. All the out of state cars were pulled over for speeding while all the instate cars were allowed to pass on through. I’ve never run across any problems and have driven through the state (with Colorado plates) south from the Colorado border and into West Texas, which is a distance of some 500 odd miles. This was two different times, coming from Cortez, Colorado to Farmington through Gallup to Albuquerque and on down, the other time coming from Aztec to Albuquerque and on down.

Leigh Lundin said...

Carolyn, I'm so sorry! That must have been traumatic for your family, especially because you were trying to enjoy your time together. That also suggests the road has quite a history of sucking from the pockets of strangers.

Anon and Vicki, I hadn't heard that about New Mexico. It's a shame that towns and counties see visitors and people minding their own business as sources of money. I wonder what 'properly' means? And how often do authorities stretch the truth?

When I was 16, I installed seatbelts in my mother's Rambler and the following year, when I got a car, I installed seatbelts in it– and used them. The joke around town was that I made my dates wear a seatbelt– see, one was installed on the driver's side and the other in the middle. I don't think I've ever driven without a seatbelt.

A program like 60 Minutes did a television news exposĂ© about northern Texas, targeting out-of-state people driving through, even those at the speed limit. These things can be frightening, but that's probably the point– scared people are quiet, unquestioning people.

Robert Lopresti said...

Leigh, good scary piece. You might want to read Thomas Perry's novel DEATH BENEFITS which takes this sort of thing way up the ladder.

Leigh Lundin said...

Thanks, Rob. I'll check it out!

Eve Fisher said...

I've got a Carolyn story, too - only ours was in Texas, and, to be fair, my father was going 110 in a pink - white tank of a Buick. We got stopped and taken to the local small town, where they were taken inside and little 6 year old me was left to sit in the car (in the shade) for what seemed like hours. We'd parked next to a school, and I remember assuming after a while that they weren't coming back out, and I'd go to school there, and I'd sleep in the car, but where would I go to the bathroom?

There are still speed traps all around the country, and if you're ever coming through SD, please remember to go the exact speed limit in the little towns. On the highway, good luck keeping up with the locals.

Leigh Lundin said...

Aww, Eve. That poor little girl!

Mine happened in North Carolina in the early hours of the morning. It was spooky. I may write about it one day.

A Broad Abroad said...

Thought our elected officials knew every trick in the book, but they could learn from lawless Lawtey. Scary that it could go on for so long, undetected.

Leigh Lundin said...

ABA, it took a lawmaker getting nailed for something to happen (although the Rep. Van Zant claimed there was no connection between his speeding citation and his efforts to dissolve Hampton). Even now, it appears legislators aren't willing to pull the plug on naughty Lawtey and Waldo. Judging from Carolyn's comment, those towns have been abusing the public trust for many, many decades.

Jan Grape said...

Sometimes FL is as crazy as TX about crazy laws then sometimes TX seems normal to the rest of the country. My late husband and I spent 3 summers in NM, 2000, 2001, 2003. Never saw any problems with speed traps or seat belt laws. But have been there in four years so can speak to current police gouging. Since I don't get out on the highway much, this just adds another reason to even head out onto one.

Leigh Lundin said...

Jan, citizens find it frightening when authorities are willing to exceed the law to fill their coffers. People wonder if they're willing to compromise the law for one purpose, what will they do in other circumstances? Are how far are the willing to go, perhaps bend the law until they break it?

C.S.Poulsen said...

Lol. I was sternly warned thirty years ago about Waldo and Lawtey. Thank goodness I paid attention. I made it through without incident. However, On my way to Valdosta Ga about a month ago, I passed six cars withina half mike pulled over by six state troopers on I75n.
Just over the fl line. Maybe ga has joined the easy money machine.
Still none of the above compares to when I was nineteen. I was worried about gas on Alligator Alley. We pulled into a drive way in the middle of oblivion and found ourselves on a compound full of men in striped uniforms.
I kicked the car into reverse and we two girls became very religious the next ten miles or more until a gas station appeared. It was 1972. I drove one of the first two cylinder Honda's psold in the USA.
To this day I thank it for its 41mpg gas mileage and saving my schoolmate and I from a life of slavery in Fl or worse. Alligator alley has since been populated but I would still hate to be lost or arrested in Lawtey or Waldo. I hear the Deliverance theme every time I think of those towns. Thanks, Leigh, for tonight's nightmare.

Leigh Lundin said...

Deliverance theme… (laughing)

I think the short story mentioned in my article above may have been set in Georgia, but I was just a kid when I read it. Mainly I remember the import rather than the venue.

Glad you made it safely out of Alligator Alley as well as Waldo and Lawtey.

Elizabeth said...

Be careful driving through Emporia, Virginia!