Florida Like You’ve Never Seen It
By Isabelle Lee
Dave Shealy claims to have seen the ever-elusive skunk ape of Florida legend in 1974. He founded the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters/tourist trap to capitalize on the lore of Florida’s giant, hairy man-beast. But don’t get it twisted; those who believe in skunk apes say the creatures have four toes, not five like the Pacific Northwest’s Sasquatch. The skunk ape also, apparently, prefers hanging out in trees to lumbering around on the ground.
Welcome to Florida, where a skunk ape sighting is just one of a host of crazy events that defined life in the Sunshine State during the 1970s. Disney World opened in 1971. Drug trafficking soared as cocaine dominated the hedonistic Miami party scene. Ted Bundy was finally apprehended in Pensacola in 1978 after escaping prison in Colorado. Join us for a dive into the best stories illustrating the mayhem that was Florida during this turbulent time.
She was the orange juice queen, leaving an aftertaste that was anything but sweet. The leader of the anti-gay Save Our Children movement in Miami during the 1970s, Anita Bryant is unlikely to be receiving a wedding invitation from her gay granddaughter this year. Bryant, a former beauty queen, used her good looks and charm to rally people against pro-LGBTQ legislation. Miami had passed a law barring discrimination against gay residents in 1977. As a campaigner, Bryant successfully spearheaded public efforts that saw the law repealed. Bryant was a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice, so gay rights activists initiated a boycott. She was dropped by the company years later, not for her position on gay rights, but due to fallout from her own messy divorce.
Miami’s godmother of cocaine was responsible for at least 40 (and some allege up to 200) murders in the ’70s and ’80s. Born in Colombia in 1943, Blanco is said to have taken her first life at the age of 11. She was ruthless in her pursuit of money and control of the cocaine trade between Miami and Colombia. Famed for allegedly inventing the motorcycle drive-by style of assassination, Blanco also employed far more grisly murder methods as she established her network, which smuggled cocaine valued at $80 million every month into Miami. As with many supercriminals, the law caught up with Blanco. She fled to Colombia to avoid drug trafficking charges, but returned to the U.S. in the late ’70s and was eventually arrested. After serving time in New York, she was deported to Colombia in 2004, where she was shot and killed in 2012 at age 69 — by a motorcycle assassin.
The story behind America’s most notorious female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, is as tragic as it is twisted. When she was 3, Wuornos and her older brother were abandoned by their mother and went to live with their grandparents, as their father had killed himself while serving time in prison for committing sex crimes against children. Wuornos was later sexually abused by both her brother and grandfather. But it was in the 1970s that the troubled Wuornos’ crime spree began. Following an arrest for a DUI, assault and disorderly conduct in Colorado in 1974, she hitchhiked to Florida, where she married Lewis Gratz Fell, a wealthy yachtsman 50 years her senior in 1976. After Wuornos hit Fell with his own walking cane just weeks after their wedding day, he filed for divorce and she found herself back on the streets. Soon after, she once again turned to prostitution to support herself and became the “damsel of death,” murdering seven men who she claimed tried to rape her in the following decade.
The Winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Before the Buccaneers NFL franchise landed Tom Brady in 2020, it boasted a less-than-enviable record. In 1976, the team went 0-14 in its debut season. In fact, the Buccaneers continued losing well into the next season, amassing 26 straight losses — an NFL record at the time — before finally beating the New Orleans Saints in December 1977. In the entire first season, the Bucs never managed to score more than 20 points per game. At the time, coach John McKay — known for his horn-rimmed glasses and dry, cutting wit — referenced the poor season by joking to reporter Michael Katz in a New York Times article that he had started asking his wife to start his car and taste his meals. “That way, if she doesn’t get sick, I know it’s all right for me to eat,” he said. Forty-five years later, the 1976 Buccaneers are still considered one of the worst teams of all time.
The Undefeated Miami Dolphins
A very different story unfolded farther south. In the 1972 NFL season, the Miami Dolphins won every game — the very first team in the league to achieve the feat. Coach Don Shula helmed the perfect team to 17 straight victories, culminating in a Super Bowl victory over the Washington R——s. Shula inherited a mediocre team in 1970 before quickly whipping it into shape. The secret? The Dolphins “Worked harder than the other team, we practiced harder than the other team, and we are out there later,” Shula said. Cliched or not, harder was certainly the word: Shula wouldn’t allow players to drink water on the field during practice. While his methods may have been brutal, they clearly worked, earning him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Open for Fun
You’ve seen enough videos of parents surprising their kids with trips to Disney World to know just how incredibly meaningful the world-famous theme park is to generations of children (and adults too, if we’re being honest). The park opened in October 1971 after seven years of construction involving 9,000 workers. Yet it had a poor start: Just 10,000 people showed up on the opening day — a far cry from the 300,000 visitors the Florida Highway Patrol had predicted. The cost to get in? Fifty cents to park your car and $3.50 for a ticket to mingle with some of 5,000 “cast members” portraying classic Disney characters.
POLITICS BRINGS THE FIRE
Democratic National Convention
The year was 1972, and a political firestorm had descended upon Miami Beach. The Democratic National Convention for the upcoming presidential election had come to town. South Dakota Sen. George McGovern won the party’s nomination by a tight margin, and his anti-Vietnam war stance caused pandemonium on the convention floor. McGovern’s nomination caused strife in the party because of his anti-war stance. The controversy meant he didn’t deliver his acceptance speech until nearly 3 a.m. to a country that had mostly gone to bed. During the three-day event, there were fireworks away from the politics too. Two members of the Black separatist movement known as the Republic of New Africa were arrested for gun law violations at the hotel where McGovern was staying. But that small incident amounted to a real victory for the Miami Beach Sheriff’s department: The previous DNC in Chicago saw 680 arrests and 1,327 people injured.
Then Came the Republicans
The Republican Party held its own national convention in Miami Beach just a month after its political rivals. At the event, President Nixon accepted his party’s nomination for his third presidential run. But outside on the streets, bedlam ruled. Thousands of anti-Vietnam War protesters marched on and overran the convention. Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who was fresh out of jail having served time for inciting a riot at the aforementioned 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, led protesters in the chant, “One, two, three, four. We don’t want your f—ing war.” On the night of the nomination, police arrested 900 protesters who failed in their efforts to delay the proceedings but succeeded in publicizing their anti-war sentiments on national TV.
Miami’s First Hispanic Mayor
On Nov. 8, 1973, Miami elected Maurice Ferré as its first ever Hispanic mayor. At the time of his election, only 3% of Miami’s registered voters were Hispanic. During what would turn out to be a 12-year stint in office, Ferré transformed Miami from a one-trick tourist destination into a thriving cosmopolitan city by fostering high-rise construction and opening the city’s ports to international business. He worked to desegregate a host of city departments by appointing the first Black city attorney, the first Black city manager and Miami’s first two Black police chiefs. He welcomed immigrants fleeing repression and economic collapse in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and initiated projects to build affordable housing. Before he passed away of cancer in 2019 at 84, Ferré spoke to The New York Times about his legacy, recalling that he had often been called “a visionary.” He will forever be remembered as the “the father of modern-day Miami.”
In the 1970s, Miami was ruled by cocaine — people were trafficking cocaine, snorting cocaine and spending absurd amounts of money on cocaine. The notorious cocaine kingpins’ beachside playground in the Coconut Grove district, The Mutiny Hotel, is where drug wheelings and dealings and associated mayhem went down. Soon after opening in 1969, it became the epicenter of the industry in Florida. Throughout the 1970s, its hallways swarmed with traffickers, assassins and celebrities. In large part due to the criminal activities, the branch of the Federal Reserve Bank that covered Miami boasted a $5 billion cash surplus by 1980, and hotels like the Mutiny were the perfect place to blow cash on expensive Dom Pérignon or by chartering flights from Miami to nearby islands. Understandably, the real-life establishment was a magnet for cast and crew of Brian De Palma’s narcotrafficing epic Scarface and the classic series Miami Vice.
From Coke to Woke
From the outside, Cuba-born Jorge Valdes led a regular life. After college, he went to work for a former accounting professor who got him a job as a bookkeeper for a grocery store called La Puerta Del Sol in Miami. As was common at the time, the store was a front for drug smuggling. Valdes, for his part, was shipping cocaine into Miami for Colombia’s Medellín Cartel and by 1977, he had been hired to manage the cartel’s entire U.S. operation. But his time on top was short-lived. He was arrested in April 1979 for his part in the cartel’s activities, which he passed on to Miami’s most prolific dealers, Sal Magluta and Willie Falcon. After five years behind bars, Valdes is now a reformed man. He’s an author, pastor, motivational speaker and nonprofit founder with a Ph.D. in Bible studies.
Death Doesn’t Lie
Fisherman and drug trafficker Raymond Grady Stansel Jr. was indicted on charges of smuggling 12 tons of marijuana on his boat through Daytona, Florida, in 1974. Then, on the morning of his trial, his lawyer announced he had allegedly drowned in a diving accident in Nicaragua, despite having surrendered his passport before being released on bail months earlier. Instead of sticking around Florida, Stansel had slipped his police detail and caught a flight on a friend’s plane to Key West, Florida, where he convinced his girlfriend to meet him on the run, got back on the plane, and finally took off for Honduras. From there, the couple bounced around Central America before finally settling in Mossman, a remote town in Australia. There, Stansel changed his name and became Dennis “Lee” Lafferty, a fisherman and champion of the environment. That was until he died in a car accident in 2015. His 40-year ruse unraveled as police pieced together anonymous tips, finally stumbling across the news of Lafferty’s second, officially verified death.
- Isabelle Lee, OZY Author Contact Isabelle Lee