For Key Biscayne police and village officials, a new law enforcement crackdown aimed to grab the public’s attention on a needed public safety measure: writing $75-dollar tickets mainly to kids for riding their electric bikes and scooters in village parks.
For reporter Tony Winton, the issue quickly turned from covering the day’s top local story to a personal safety threat.
Two days after his report was posted on The Key Biscayne Independent’s website someone called Winton, the nonprofit news organization’s editor-in-chief, threatening him with physical violence.
“Hello. I’m going to tell you this one time and one time only. If you don’t leave these scooter kids alone, I’m going to rape you and your whole family,” the caller said in a message left on Winton’s office line, which links to his cellphone. The voice appeared to be digitally altered, and the phone number was apparently blocked.
“This was a personal threat,” Winton said. “It’s bizarre because of what the story is about. It’s about the police department trying to enact a policy protecting people… a public safety issue, ” Winton added.
When the call was made about 9pm on February 19th, Winton didn’t answer right away. He was with his wife at a local performance of the Broadway musical Wicked and his cellphone was turned off.
When the show was over, he played the voicemail. “I hear this rather disgusting recording, and I think, ‘someone is very sick,’ ” Winton said.
For months, Winton has filed several stories for KBI’ website and podcast about the issue. The Village Council has been debating how to address a rising number of complaints about close calls between pedestrians and people riding electric bikes and scooters on sidewalks and in parks.
The Council’s answer is a local law making it illegal to ride e-bikes and scooters, as well as non-electric bicycles, in Key Biscayne parks, including the Village Green. So far, Key Biscayne is not enforcing a state law prohibiting electric bikes and scooters on sidewalks as well, fearing young riders would face serious risk if they instead moved onto busy streets.
On February 15th, The Council authorized Police Chief Frank Sousa to write tickets to offenders in a month-long effort that’s only targeting parks. Many of the tickets were handed out to children, leaving some in tears, Winton reported.
The ticket-writing didn’t start without a public heads up.
First, police issued about 400 warnings, held two community meetings, met with school leaders, conducted interviews and blanketed social media to publicize the new law. As word spread, Sousa said some riders began to get the message and walk their bikes and scooters in parks.
Then came the latest story, turning Winton into a target.
It’s not the first time Winton has been threatened for reporting on public hearings or village policies. Last fall, during the 2022 election campaign, he got two anonymous phone calls after filing a story about a candidate for Village Council accused of bumping and shoving an opponent.
In both calls, no words were spoken. Only funeral music was played. Winton notified the FBI.
This time, he filed an official Key Biscayne police report.
“It’s now the second time in six months that I’ve been threatened, and I needed to put it on the radar of the (police) administration,” Winton said. “It was personal and directly and concretely related to news coverage and that’s why I reported it.”
“We take this matter seriously,” Chief Sousa said.
One of his detectives called Ooma, an internet-based phone service used by KBI. Winton’s number was dialed at least four times before the caller recorded the rape message, the detective said. The caller also blocked his or her number, making it harder to trace. Ooma told police the company didn’t have the caller information and was unable to pursue more information.
“We can’t provide information that we don’t have,’ Ooma corporate spokesman Mike Langberg told KBI. When asked whether someone with bad intentions can simply block their number and remain a mystery, Langberg said, “If no information is given to the provider…we’re not withholding information, it’s just not there.”
He added that Ooma fully co-operates with law enforcement. Langberg said he did not know whether a subpoena would yield more information. “If [the police] felt they can get more, I’m sure Ooma would try to help,” Langberg said.
“Unless something else happens, we may be up against a stone wall,” Sousa said.
Sousa would not say whether a subpoena is expected. “I’m not in a position to see if that’s the next natural step.” he said.
Sousa defended a journalist’s right, and Winton’s in particular, to write a story without being threatened.
“He’s doing his job as an independent reporter without having to be subjected to this,” Sousa said.
Does he think Winton is in danger? “It’s not for me to say,” Sousa responded.
Winton is an award-winning journalist, who traveled extensively for The Associated Press for 30 years. He’s used to people disagreeing with news stories and inevitably, sometimes getting complaints, but nothing like his recent experiences. He describes the e-bike story, for some, as touching a nerve.
“We know how serious the issue is, but it also shows you some people are unhinged or get unhinged by emotional stories or stories with emotional components,” he says.
Key Biscayne is Winton’s hometown, and it frustrates him to see this kind of reaction. “What’s surprising to me is that you would think an affluent society wouldn’t act in this way. But in reality, it’s no different than any place else.”
According to the nonprofit advocacy group the Committee to Protect Journalists, 2022 was a deadly year for journalists around the world:
“At least 67 journalists and media workers were killed during the year–the highest number since 2018 and an almost 50% increase from 2021,” according to the Committee. The increase was mostly driven by the war in Ukraine and violence in Latin America, the CPJ said.
The latest U.S. Census data puts Key Biscayne’s island population at just under 15,000. Real estate is on the high end: the median value of owner-occupied housing units is $1.2 million with a 2021 per-capita income of nearly $80,000.
Winton insists he won’t let personal threats of violence impact his work.
““If someone knows who did this, truthfully, I would hope [they] will try to get this person some counseling.”
Susan Candiotti, a former national broadcast journalist, is a board member of Miami Fourth Estate.