Source suicide prompts soul searching
I was on Interstate 95 heading back to The Miami Herald last summer when I received a call that Arthur Teele Jr. – the former Miami Commission chairman I had spent more than a year investigating and questioning – had shot himself in the newspaper building lobby.
When I arrived 10 minutes later, cops had sealed off One Herald Plaza, which was surrounded by TV crews and reporters sniffing around for color and sound bites. Teele’s body lay on the shiny terrazzo floor, blood framing his head, his trademark oversized glasses resting inches from one hand, the gun near the other.
Teele – a person of such fierce disposition that he once clocked a lobbyist in the face and bragged about his kills as a decorated soldier in Vietnam – had taken his life with a bullet to the head.
He was a troubled man at the time of his suicide in July 2005. He had been removed from office after being arrested on state corruption charges. Prosecutors accused him of taking more than $100,000 in kickbacks from contracts given to developers through a quasi-governmental city agency he chaired – money intended for some of Miami’s poorest residents. The Feds charged him a few days earlier with money laundering and fraud. He had gone deep into debt to help pay his legal bills.
Then came what appears to be the last straw: hours before Teele killed himself, an alternative tabloid, the Miami New Times, published a tawdry account of his alleged, uncorroborated exploits with drugs and a male prostitute, taken verbatim from the files of the Miami-Dade State Attorneys Office.
I had spent almost two years focusing on the obscure city agency that Teele chaired, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), and some of his questionable activities in that capacity. The CRA, which operated with public funding outside of the city of Miami’s charter, oversaw redeveloping Overtown, one of America’s poorest neighborhoods, according to the U.S. Census.
One of my stories detailed how Teele ordered the CRA to hire a convicted prostitute and thief. She was eventually fired. Another story detailed a questionable deal Teele brokered to build parking lots in a place where many residents don’t own cars. These lots remained empty years after they were built.
Investigators used my stories to help formulate the corruption charges against him.
Teele spent long hours with me, several times over lunch, talking about his ideas for expanding the boundaries of the CRA, explaining the agency’s problems such as the gaping holes in its accounting and finances, and lambasting me for asking about them. Some of the last times I interviewed him, the conversation dissolved into angry tirades on the “yellow journalism” that he accused me of doing.
Teele went to Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler demanding my removal from the Miami City Hall beat, saying my coverage was racially biased. Teele was an African-American. I’m Hispanic. Fiedler stood his ground, telling Teele my coverage was fair and that I would continue to cover the city and the CRA.
Since the early 1980s, Teele was a powerful leader, head of the U.S. Urban Mass Transportation Administration in the Reagan administration in the ’80s, chairman of the county commission in the 1990s, chairman of the city commission, a force to be reckoned with in Miami politics. But during his last days, his life unraveled into a tangle of arrests and humiliation.
Then on the scorching summer afternoon of July 27, New Times hit racks around the county. Teele took a seat on a bus bench outside the Herald building with a green canvas bag. At 6 p.m., he walked into the lobby. After calling former Herald columnist Jim Defede, a friend, he pulled the gun out of the bag and held it against his head.
As police cars neared the building, he pulled the trigger.
When I arrived a few minutes later, nursing a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, I told my editors that I couldn’t participate in the coverage. I left the building shaken after about an hour, escorted to my car by a sympathetic co-worker.
By now, the blood has been washed away. Teele is buried. The shock has passed into the annals of local lore. But to me, the Herald lobby is still haunted by Teele, standing sentinel over my convictions.
This is about what we do as journalists: the endless digging, the confrontations, the exposing. We know it can put corrupt people in prison. We know it can help reform broken and unjust systems. But can it contribute to someone’s suicide?
I remember often posing questions to Teele that I felt the FBI or the state attorney’s office should have been asking. Reporters carry no guns or badges. We have no subpoena power. The only thing between Teele’s yelling and wagging finger and me was my notebook.
When Teele took his final bow, he almost closed the curtains on my convictions about journalism. I always viewed reporting as a constructive, creative career, not a destructive one. My coverage of the CRA and Teele was the first serious investigative reporting I had done in my career. When Gov. Jeb Bush suspended him after the first of several corruption-related arrests Teele faced in the year leading up to his suicide, I felt that my reporting had helped the poorest part of the community see justice.
But Teele’s suicide shattered my noble perspective. The politicians we cover are not supposed to kill themselves in the lobby of our newspaper.
I took a few days off to think over my career choice. I considered leaving the profession.
To this day I wonder what would have happened had I run into Teele in the lobby that day. Maybe I could have talked him out of pulling the trigger. Maybe he would have taken me with him.
When I returned to work following Teele’s suicide, one of my editors, Judy Miller, invited me into her office. She told me that I had nothing to feel bad about. That I had just done my job.
I still haven’t pieced together all the lessons Teele taught me about politics, about corruption, about our role in protecting democracy. But one thing is for certain: Teele’s ghost lingers, every day, in the lobby in his oversized glasses and his dapper suit, waiting for us to walk through the glass doors.
Oscar Corral is a Miami Herald staff writer who covers the Cuban exile community.