by Craig Pittman | December 27, 2023

Florida’s Wildest News Year Yet

Craig Pittman unravels the eccentricities of 2023 in the news—from toilet-invading iguanas to cocaine-fishing police chiefs and much more

Gamers suuure were excited in December to see that the trailer for the latest version of “Grand Theft Auto” featured a variety of scenes straight from authentic “Florida Man” headlines. Hey, there’s an alligator in a swimming pool! And a woman twerking atop a moving car! And a naked guy gardening!

In other words, a typical day in Florida.

However, if the game makers want to stay current with this product scheduled to hit stores in 2025, they better incorporate at least some of the weird stuff that happened in 2023. Fortunately, there’s a LOT to choose from.

If nothing else, they might include scenes about a governor whose very serious presidential campaign was derailed by silly discussions of whether he had lifts in his boots, and a prominent political pair from Sarasota who were ensnared in a sex scandal that exposed their hypocrisy.

Party Animals

And they need to include lots of iguanas, because they were all over the news this year.

Iguana intruders made the normally boring business of doing your business in the bathroom into more of a bowl game. Over and over, people in South Florida lifted the toilet lid to discover a reptile in residence.

One Miami woman spoke for the multitudes when she filmed an iguana in her toilet and announced: "I swear to God if he jumps I will (expletive) die!"

Another one made a much more dramatic entrance, resulting in this headline: “Miami man injured by falling iguana during outdoor yoga class.” The iguana hadn’t fallen because of a cold snap. It had been fighting a larger iguana in the trees and lost its—footing? clawing? Whatever. Anyway, it toppled 25 feet and smacked the man in the head like an errant sandbag.

The largest Burmese python found in Florida. Photography courtesy of WGCU.

Of course, the best-known of Florida’s invasive reptiles is the Burmese python. In July, a crew hauled in a female in Big Cypress National Preserve that broke the record for the largest one ever found in Florida: 19 feet.

However, I think a more impressive feat came when some python hunters in South Florida found a 75-year-old woman who’d gone missing in Umatilla, nearly 300 miles away.

An even more amazing recovery this year happened in Interlachen, where deputies stumbled on an African land tortoise that had vanished in 2020. In the three years it was on the “run,” the peripatetic pet had traveled 5 miles— all of it in the direction of Africa.

Bears made the news by acting like Yogi Bear and taking food, whether in a pic-a-nic basket or not. One in Longwood swiped a just-delivered order from Taco Bell, then came back for the soda. My favorite was the one in Navarre that took Halloween candy–but just one piece!

No Florida news roundup is complete without alligator stories. One of my favorites involved a woman who “borrowed” a small gator from the Tampa Bay area wildlife refuge where she’d been employed and took it to a Winter Garden resort, where she put it in the bathtub in her room so she could take pictures with it for her birthday.

A somewhat less believable excuse came from the Orlando man who was caught hiding a small alligator in a 35-gallon aquarium in his garage. He told a wildlife officer it was a form of protective custody: he didn’t want someone else to take it home and eat it.

A very different excuse involving animal-related news came from Palm City. A suspected car thief, when stopped by the cops, insisted that his name was “Dog” and then responded to all further questions by barking.

By far, though, the most disturbing headline involving a Florida animal was the one that said a Clearwater man had pooped on a dead possum for no apparent reason.

Civil Serpents

Speaking of disturbing, the Florida Department of Education came under fire for its changes to the state’s Black history standards that, among other things, claimed that enslaved people had learned valuable skills while they were owned by white people. To fight back, department officials released a list of 16 examples of people who had supposedly benefited. But it turned out nearly half their examples were never slaves to begin with.

One of the more unusual bits of government news concerned Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville who, according to the Washington Post, had quietly sold his house in Auburn and moved to a home in Santa Rosa Beach in the Florida Panhandle. So now Florida has three senators! Maybe next we can steal one from Georgia.

Because I love to see citizens participating in their government, I also want to highlight the woman in Boca Raton who stood up at a city Planning and Zoning Commission meeting and asked for the creation of a “Sugar Daddy and Mommy Appreciation Day.” They do so much for the economy, she explained.

Fraud, as usual, was so widespread it should have been declared the official hobby of Florida. One of my favorite cases involved a Williston blimp company magnate who defrauded the federal government out of nearly $8 million from the COVID loan relief program. He used some of his ill-gotten gains to buy a private island near Yankeetown. I was surprised he didn’t blame inflation.

The blimp man’s brother-in-law is former Rep. Joel Harding, whose best-known achievement as a state legislator was sponsoring the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law. Harding also wound up heading to prison after he pleaded guilty to defrauding the COVID loan program of $150,000. Apparently “family values” means “being an outlaw like my in-law.”

Good Cop/Bad Cop

They were far from alone. It may be hard for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office to find enough good cops to run the old “good cop/bad cop” routine after 17 of its deputies and corrections officers were charged with fleecing the federal pandemic loan program.

Other examples of bad cops include the Hillsborough County jail deputy who was smuggling pot-laced brownies into the jail to sell to inmates. There was also the Hernando County deputy who claimed he’d been wounded in the thigh during a gun battle with a couple of carjackers, but eventually confessed he’d accidentally shot himself while playing with his firearm.

One of my favorites in this category was the female Miami police officer who was busted for beating up her unfaithful boyfriend, with an assist from the man’s other girlfriend, who happened to be pregnant at the time. Never upset a pregnant lady.

 A similar love triangle involved two Orange County deputies and a sheriff’s department supervisor having sex while on duty in, among other places, the parking lot at the Disney Springs shopping center. It really is the Happiest Place on Earth.

There was no sex involved in this next case, but another Orange County deputy who was busted in St. Cloud for driving his motorcycle at 90 mph while racing another motorcyclist said he was going so far over the speed limit because he wanted to impress his girlfriend.

Perhaps the most startling bad cop story of the year came from the Bay Pines Veterans Affairs hospital in St. Petersburg. One of its federal police officers accidentally turned on his bodycam while he was turned on. As a result, he recorded himself having sex with a woman in his patrol car while he was on duty. His superiors didn’t want to release the video to a reporter, but emails showed that a number of those superiors had already watched the techno peep show.

The ultimate good cop story: Tampa’s police chief-turned-mayor went on vacation in the Florida Keys and while fishing she reeled in 70 pounds of cocaine. Yes, she turned it in!

We had a spate of fake cops, too. One of the more creative was the Miami woman who was stopped by a state trooper while driving a car painted to look exactly like a state trooper’s car. She told the trooper that she’d seen their cruisers and “fell in love with the color scheme.”

The story along these lines that really blew my mind was the Pensacola woman who was carrying her company’s payroll to the bank and reported that she had been robbed by someone impersonating a cop. But then the real cops found the “stolen” money in her car. Turns out she was impersonating a robbery victim.

Some volunteer detective work produced an unusual result. A team of divers searching a Doral lake for clues in a missing person found not one, not two, not three but 32 abandoned cars on the bottom.

Detained Duds

Floridians busted for battery showed their usual creativity in their choice of weaponry. They used Slim Jims, a pack of Oreos, a lollipop, a sausage, a burrito, a steak, chicken wings, a slice of pizza, a frozen chicken, a “fusillade of Snickers” and a bag of dog poop.

And as usual we had plenty of stories about stupid criminals. I think the dopiest ones were probably the Poinciana burglars who dialed 911 from the crime scene to ask the cops to help them move their loot. They also wanted a ride to the airport. The cops gave them a ride all right, but to a different destination.

Second place would go to the crooks who ripped an ATM machine loose from a Lake City bank. They then dragged it across the parking lot, through some grass and then down the street—until a cop noticed and started chasing them. At that point the robbers took off on foot, abandoning both the ATM and the truck pulling it, which turned out to be stolen too.

Let’s end with a couple of stories that were so meta that the video game people would probably reject them for being a tad too on-the-nose:

Police found a mobile meth lab parked by the Florida state line welcome station. I predict it will never replace that cup of fresh orange juice you can obtain from the welcome station staff, but it might lead to a lot of repeat business.

And in Seminole, the cops showed up to bust a man who was reported to be causing a “public disturbance,” “yelling at traffic” while walking on the road in front of cars and “refusing to stop.” He did all this while holding a can of beer—specifically, a brand known as “Florida Man.” I bet when he sobered up, he told the cops, “Hey, it wasn’t me—it was the BEER!”