Hysteria High: How Demons Destroyed a Florida School
Miami suited the Devil. He arrived in Magic City in the 1960s on the lips of Caribbean exiles, who believed that evil spirits and demons invade the weak of heart. Among the pink-colored homes of Miami’s Cuban district, Little Havana, children played among the residues of dark rituals — little piles of cigar stubs, apples and severed chickens’ heads. By 1973, the year “The Exorcist” horrified theatergoers, it appeared the Devil had decided to settle down, like so many retirees, in Florida. In 1974, according to the Sarasota-Tribune, Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital treated 700 demonic possessions a month. That year, a 9-year-old girl stood up in a nearby church and said, “I am satan” in a voice that wasn’t hers. Then, just before Halloween in 1979, emergency dispatchers answered a chilling 9-1-1 call from a local school.
A riot had broken out at the Miami Aerospace Academy, a private military school in Little Havana, where screaming students were said to be “possessed by spirits.” This was no trick-or-treat prank. One teenager was unconscious; others injured. Kids had smashed windows and ripped doors from their hinges. Police and firefighters who raced to the scene found hundreds of hysterical high schoolers fleeing the building as if it were ablaze. The Devil, it seemed, was to blame.
When television crews joined the fray, witnesses blamed a Ouija board, while others spoke of “Bloody Mary” — a parlor game believed to conjure spirits. Then, as if by magic, the school’s owner appeared to address the media. Evaristo Marina, 48, who called himself “El General,” ran his fingers through his red hair, and dispersed the reporters with his disarming smile. But the story was already out. “Some students say it was demons,” wrote the Associated Press, in a report that covered front pages across the nation. “Miami School Hysteria Linked to Ouija Board,” cried the New York Times. Now the Devil was headline news.
The bizarre and unsettling events that unfolded 40 years ago this month, on October 25, 1979, have been described by scholars as “one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of American education.” Many questions remain. What possessed the students? Was the Devil truly at large in the Sunshine State, among the bikinis and rollerskating retirees of South Beach? Now, for the first time, former staff and students have revealed how violence, black magic, an exile obsessed with glory, and teenaged murder created America’s high school from hell.
Evaristo Marina believed he was born to lead men. He was brought into this world in 1930, in the Cuban beach resort of Caibarién, known as the White Town for its pale sand. Marina studied law at the University of Havana, where, according to George Navarini, a former student who knew him well, he clashed with a rival student named Fidel Castro. “Many times Marina and Castro would have these long-winded debates about Marxism,” Navarini said. After Marina graduated, he caught the eye of Cuba’s strongman president, Fulgencio Batista, who named Marina the General Director of Public Order. Still in his early 20s, handsome with piercing blue eyes, Marina found himself in control of nightclubs, casinos and police. Then disaster struck.
Castro had since created a revolutionary group that had overthrown Batista’s government, and put a price on Marina’s head, Navarini said. He fled to America in 1959 with a plan to rise to power. “He had the ambition that comes with someone who lost something,” Navarini said, “There is no more ardent collector of baseball cards than someone who once had the cards and lost them in a fire.”
Like many immigrants, Marina discovered his experiences counted for little in the Estados Unidos. He found work as a busboy, and later waited tables at Miami’s fashionable Biltmore Hotel. There, he served dinner to other refugee Cuban politicians, known as the Cuban Rotary Club of Exiles. When his shift ended, he would take off his apron and join them. The 25-year-old waiter boasted he would one day be Miami’s mayor. But the highest position he could find was coaching soccer at the Florida Air Academy in Melbourne. The school was associated with the Army’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. It gave Marina an idea.
He saw an opportunity for a new type of school. One that would blend Cuban discipline with the values of the American military. First he needed money. Stoked with the fire of immigrant hustle, Marina started a small beverage company, Iron Beer Soft Drinks, likely based on a popular Cuban soda of the same name. Then he needed legitimacy. Marina joined the Civil Air Patrol — an auxiliary of the United States Air Force — and rose to lieutenant colonel. He also found love. In 1959 he married a woman he met in Miami. In 1965 they named their son Evaristo Jr.
In 1968 Marina sold his beverage company and used the profits to open his academy. In a crowded marketplace of military-styled schools, he named his “Aerospace Academy,” conjuring images of spaceships and astronauts, then so wildly popular in America. He marketed the school to traditional, Hispanic parents. “I believe in the command authority,” Marina said with a slight lisp: “I do not drink. I have never been drunk in my life. I do not smoke.” His only vice was a hunger for power.
Marina tampered with his Civil Air Patrol uniform, creating a fetishized version with fancier epaulettes. In the mirror, his spit-and-polish appearance and general’s hat recalled his old mentor, Cuba’s president, Batista. That was the moment “El General” was born. Marina even tried out his own political catchphrase: “What I say is what I do.”
Marina named his teachers Colonels and Majors, and dressed his “cadets” in Air Force blue. Behind the towering school gates, he marched them across the yard in camouflage fatigues and melon-sized helmets. Inside, students from kindergarten to 12th grade learned “reading enrichment and remedial mathematics.” Boys and girls were educated separately. Marina pulled out of formation any boy with hair “too long for my taste,” and sent them to the school’s barbershop for a buzz cut. “Girls look good with long hair,” he conceded.
Attendance was slow at first. Sergio Capablanca, an early enrollee, recalled that his mother couldn’t afford the $65 monthly tuition. He said Marina paid for his first week with a wad of bills from his own pocket. Another early enrollee, Roger Romaelle, said he thrived at the school, quickly becoming fluent in Spanish. “We also learned a lot about the history of Cuba,” he said. Virtually every minute of the students’ time was dictated by a schedule, starting with a flag-raising ceremony at 8:30 a.m.
Marina took some teens straight from juvenile detention, giving them false identities, lest any parents learn of their crimes. Enrollments skyrocketed as the school gained a reputation for straightening out bad teenagers. “A lot of the children, they didn’t have fathers,” explained Romaelle.
Soon, the Academy was overwhelmed with students, some paying $6,000 a year. Flush with cash, Marina purchased a 1.3-acre property opposite Miami High School, for nearly $1 million. The new campus boasted a two-story classroom building, an office building and an Olympic-sized pool. Marina hired a film crew to shoot a commercial that played at cinemas across South America. Wealthy families flew their children to board at the Academy, filling the school’s three dormitories. By 1971, Marina commanded over 1,000 students. Boys outnumbered girls three-to-one.
Josef Wolf, a hazel-eyed Colombian who studied at the school from 1968 to 1976, described it as “paradise.” “I always wanted to be in the Air Force, I wanted to be a cop, to wear a uniform,” he said. Under Marina’s tutelage, Wolf excelled in the gym, developing an enviable body with 16-inch biceps. Wolf, now 59, describes Marina as “Donald Trump” — thirsty for power. Marina channeled school profits into a run for the Miami City Commission in 1972. His narrow defeat hurt: In 1973, the school filed for bankruptcy, though it would continue to operate for years.
To attract more war-minded boys, Marina offered military science, fencing, and judo, while in a separate building girls were taught home economics. Teresita Gonzales, who transferred from a Catholic school where the nuns often beat her, was thrilled to shake her pom-poms for the Tigers. The Academy’s football team filled three glass cabinets with trophies, yet no one asked why the team’s star quarterback never removed his helmet. The Academy was steeped in secrets: “Miss Williams,” who worked in the school, was secretly Marina’s wife.
It is not known to whom Marina sold his soul in exchange for a U.S. Air Force F-84 fighter jet, but he somehow got one in 1972. The decommissioned plane had once torn a seam across Korean skies in supersonic flight, but Marina delivered it through Miami streets during rush hour, and it destroyed several palm trees and scratched parked cars. Marina proudly displayed it high above the school’s entrance. It was a magnet for military-obsessed boys, and their fathers.
Seven-year-old Manny Ruiz had been raised by his aging grandparents, who introduced him to war movies. He longed to wear a uniform and shoot a real gun like John Wayne. When he enrolled in 1976, the rambunctious student said he wanted to fight the Nazis. “I loved every moment of going to that school,” he recalled. Ruiz and his new pals lived out their military fantasies, earning ribbons for good behavior. They pretended they were in the band Kiss. “We were the sheriffs in town,” he said.
Rumors swirled about El General: “At one point we thought Evaristo was a Santero, or was practicing Santería,” said Ruiz. “He would dress in all white sometimes, it is very prevalent in Miami.” Santería — which means “saint worship,” is a religious movement popular among Cubans, which combines African and Roman Catholic teachings. Santería worship involves offering the blood of animal sacrifices to the spirits.
In Little Havana, ritual magic was common: Haitians practice Voodoo and Bahamians believe in Obeah. In the 1970s, these African-based religions often mixed with American spiritualism, making Ouija boards popular. Ruiz recalled how Major Cunan, a red-haired biology teacher, pestered students to let her read Tarot cards in class. “Losing her son in the Vietnam War devastated her,” Ruiz said.
Marina paid Major Cunan and 12 other teachers $200 a week, and many weren’t certified. He told a reporter: “You bring in a teacher certified from the state of Florida and he might be a homosexual.” Nothing infuriated Marina more. He announced his school’s mission: to help students fight communism, drugs and “homosexualism.” Marina said he installed microphones in the school’s bathrooms and ordered inspections every five minutes. “We teach morality,” he said. “I go to church every Sunday. I go in uniform, with my students.”
As ever, Marina obsessed over gaining political power. He ran again for public office in 1976, spending his cash on bumper stickers and his time knocking on voters’ doors. That same year, he watched his old enemy, Fidel Castro, become Cuba’s President, after 17 years as Prime Minister. Marina, meanwhile, lost again. “Education and politics don’t mix,” said Capablanca, whose father was Marina’s bookkeeper. Marina had put his brother, Jose, in charge of the school as he campaigned. “The Colonel” wore a pencil mustache and aviator sunglasses. The kids called him “Pepe.”
But then the tidy grounds and image of the Academy gave way to something more mysterious and primal. “On more than one occasion we found strange things, like dead chickens with a red silk ribbon around their necks, tied with three knots,” said Navarini, who was the school’s only student of Italian descent. “From my Cuban classmates I learned these were offerings to the Santería gods.” Navarini said he also found “kilo prietos” — blackened pennies that were left by several at the Academy who practiced Santería, he said. “The pennies were used to protect against “el mal de ojo” — or “the evil eye.”
In the mid-1970s, Marina separated from Miss Williams, who he claimed “upped and left for New York,” leaving their son behind. “I had to be mother and father to the boy,” he said. Soon, Evaristo Jr. was enrolled in the Academy. Meanwhile, Marina always had a new girlfriend, said Ruiz. “Beautiful, beautiful women. He had impeccable taste, and allowed them to hang out at the school, or they would help in the cafeteria.”
Cheerleader Gonzales said she was twice invited to Marina’s home after school proms. “I had a chaperone, my mom,” she explained. Marina loved to host the moms, pouring them Cuban coffee at his fancy condo. Another former student, Arthur Hernandez, said Marina was besotted with his mother. Marina and his father were friends back in Cuba, he said, and when his father died he was offered free tuition. “My mom was a really beautiful woman,” he said. “He came on to her several times. Until that one day she had enough of his bad breath and read him the Cuban riot act.”
In time, cracks began to appear in the persona Marina had crafted for himself and his school. Cracks also began to appear, literally, in school buildings, which were erected cheaply during Miami’s construction boom. At any moment, a child’s fist might burst through the drywall from the classroom next door. Keen-eyed students realized the school’s fighter jet wasn’t a killing machine, just a spy plane with its observational windows painted over. Some kids believed the plane was cursed, that its pilot was burned alive.
At the Academy, not everyone was who they seemed. A newspaper investigation revealed that the Academy’s quarterback, who never removed his helmet, was a disgraced ringer from Miami High. Romaelle, who played defensive end for the Tigers, recalled an on-field brawl that required “police, SWAT, the whole nine yards.” Discipline was Marina’s answer.
“If the children are going to run the schools, then close the schools or let the Russians run them,” he said. Delinquents were prescribed calisthenics — punishing exercise routines that gave his young offenders the strength of men. When El General was out of earshot, they changed the lyrics to their marching chants to: “Marina! Oh, you S-O-B! Marina’s fat! We know that!”
Punishment was meted out by a new “disciplinary instructor.” Major Mckently, an African-American football coach in his thirties, was paid to patrol the school brandishing a cricket bat known as Big Ben. On his rounds, cruel Mckently tapped the 38-inch wooden paddle against his thigh, making his keychain jingle with a Thwack-ching! Thwack-ching! “Big Ben and I go way back,” recalled one former student on the school’s Alumni Facebook Page. “Those sadistic sons of bitches drilled holes through it so the damned thing would whistle.”
Joe Perez, who maintains the school’s Facebook page, recalled that students were paddled “once, twice, three times depending on the gravity of the crime.” He said Mckently was “built like an ex-NFL player,” and paddled boys and girls so hard that he once snapped Big Ben in half. Students longed to escape and they did so through odd games and explorations of the supernatural.
“Somebody learned the trick how to make you pass out,” Ruiz recalled. “It was some sort of breathing exercise. I remember it was a surreal awakening, I just felt very weird.” He recalled students playing Bloody Mary in the bathrooms. They turned off the lights, lit a candle, and chanted “Bloody Mary” while staring into a mirror.
By October of 1979, the student body was preoccupied with the occult. One former student confessed on Facebook: “I was at the famous séances. They were pretty eerie, I think it was more like hypnosis, but nevertheless weird.” The yearbook that year featured a 12-pointed star on its black cover. One teacher was nicknamed “the Exorcist” — “because she’ll scare the **** out of you.” American students tried to guess who among the staff and students was involved in Santería. “Santeros dressed in white, and we were all in uniform. Can’t tell the difference,” said Navarini. “Marina’s brother certainly might have been involved in Santería,” Ruiz said.
Josef Wolf had left Miami to continue his schooling back in Colombia. When he visited the Academy in 1979, aged 19, Marina needed a new disciplinary instructor — Mckently had vanished. Wolf accepted an extraordinary offer of $1,200 a month, and treated himself to a brand new Corvette. When he walked into the dining hall, students snapped to attention. “I never believed in hitting people,” Wolf said. “I’d been hit myself.” On that fateful week of Halloween, 1979, Wolf had a front row seat.
It was a Thursday afternoon. Biology teacher Patricia Murphy was explaining cell division when the trouble began, she later told a newspaper. At 12:15 p.m. she was escorting her 10th graders to their next class, when she became aware of a problem in the girls’ bathroom. “They wouldn’t let anyone in,” she recalled. When Murphy investigated, she found a 13-year-old girl sobbing. She sent for a school administrator to take care of the girl, and led her students to a nearby classroom. There she heard the sounds of “girls crying, and boys kicking” from the hallway. When her 30 students heard the commotion, they bolted for the door. It was bad timing. The hallway was busy with students coming back from lunch. Panic was spreading.
Murphy found a group of hysterical students, four girls and two boys. A crowd gathered around them. “I don’t know what caused it,” she recalled. “When the girl in the restroom got upset it seemed to infect her friends.” Now, her own students were sobbing uncontrollably. Somewhere, a scream rang out. Murphy led her class to the second floor to escape the madness. What the devil was going on?
Wolf was marching a group of students across the yard when he heard the commotion. He looked up at the building and saw a teenager crash out of a second floor window and land on the roof of the school bus. The fall should have crippled the boy, but unbelievably, he rose to his feet. “I saw this guy on top of the bus, so I jumped off after this guy,” Wolf recalled. “I tried to hold him back. All of a sudden, boom, he turned his head like ‘The Exorcist.’
Wolf said he recognized the student, but said he had transformed into “pure evil.” The boy’s eyes had “turned red, bloodshot, no pupils,” he said. He growled like a rabid dog.
“Leave me alone!” he barked at Wolf.
Wolf’s blood turned to ice, he said, when the boy reached out and grabbed him. Wolf was in the shape of his life, he said, but the boy was possessed with the strength of 10 men. Somehow, Wolf broke free, and the kid sprinted away. More screams pierced the air.
Wolf was stunned. He said he watched as howling, gnashing students tried to escape the building. “A little black girl was running up the street towards Miami High. I tried to run after her to bring her back inside, it was chaos,” he recalled.
As panic infested the school, windows smashed. The Colonel carried a limp boy from the building, as sirens wailed in the distance. “I was there front and center,” recalled a former student called Tony. “We ran like crazy out of the school that afternoon and Marina’s brother [was] trying to get us all back.”
When Lt. Dan LeMay of the Miami Fire Department arrived, he saw one boy covered in blood after shattering a window to escape. “Some kids said something supernatural had possessed him,” he said. Miami Police Officer Harry Cunnill couldn’t believe the scene. “The whole school went berserk,” he said. “Teachers and students were running around tearing up things.” Frank Rollason, a Miami Fire Rescue Captain, told the Miami News he witnessed two boys and a girl “going bananas.”
Journalists outside pointed microphones at terrified students as they fled. Student Jose Navarro, 13, told them: “Everybody felt weak. Me and my friend made a cross.” Another student said he saw three girls “screaming about ‘Bloody Mary.’” Accusations flew like in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Someone said they saw Murphy, the biology teacher, performing a hypnosis demonstration. She denied it.
LeMay, the firefighter, said the hysteria spread “like a domino effect.” But even the adults present believed dark forces were at work. The school’s shaken English teacher, Illana Viciedo, quit her job on the spot, telling reporters: “There were girls screaming that there was a spirit inside the Ouija board.” Celeste Coonan, one of Marina’s campaign workers, confessed that she’d heard girls talking about “witches.”
Marina, dressed in white, denied any supernatural involvement. “We don’t teach those things here,” he snapped. He was genuinely concerned, not for his children, but for his political career. “Somebody put the kids up to it,” he said. “One week before the election and everybody is trying to get me.”
Meanwhile, Wolf dashed up to the classroom where he’d seen the boy leap from a window. “When I went back upstairs, there were two people, they were playing this board,” Wolf said. “They were playing a Ouija board.” He’d never seen one before, he said, but it looked “professional.” Wolf can’t remember the names of the teenaged boy and girl, but said they were dating, and lived in nearby Westchester.
It was now 3 o’clock, so Wolf agreed to drive them both home. As his Corvette roared away from the school, Wolf felt the danger was over. But that was when things got really strange, he said. Whatever spirit had possessed the school that afternoon, it was following them home.
Witchcraft scares have spooked schools across Europe since the Middle Ages. In 1639, a “supernatural riot” broke out at a girls’ school in Lille, France. There, 50 students confessed to witchcraft after a headteacher saw “devil’s imps” circling their heads. By the turn of the 20th century, hysterical outbursts in elite European schools became commonplace. “Mass spirit possessions” are also routine at Malaysia’s ultra-strict schools, where, like at the Miami Aerospace Academy, students scream, writhe on the ground and smash windows.
Robert Bartholomew, an American sociologist who studies “mass psychogenic illness” blames the regime at these strict institutions. He wrote: “All work and no play fosters abnormal states of mind that reflect local beliefs in the existence of an array of supernatural creatures.” In Miami, demons.
In an email, Professor Christopher French of the University of London wrote that “demonic possession…has certain benefits if used strategically. It allows those with little power to indirectly protest about their lot in life and engage in behaviors which, under normal circumstances, would never be tolerated.” He added that the possessed “genuinely believe…that they are under the control of some kind of spirit.”
An Indian professor of Clinical Psychology who has studied demonic possessions, Y.S. Vagrecha, said that mass possessions often grip “marginalized” groups. The Academy students in Miami, he wrote, were “at a subconscious level, revolting or protesting against the regime which oppressed them.”
Psychologists believe that what drove the students to madness wasn’t evil spirits or a weakness of heart, but pent up anger and hearts finally emboldened to do something about it. Marina’s hidden microphones, the cricket bat, and calisthenics might have caused the “supernatural riot.” But it doesn’t explain what happened to Wolf.
As his Corvette weaved through the Little Havana traffic, Wolf quizzed the students about what he had seen back at the school. They promised him they were “just watching” the Ouija experiment. When they arrived at the girl’s house, the students didn’t want to wait alone for her mother to arrive home from work, so Wolf stayed. They poured him a soda, and they were “just chit-chatting” until about 8 o’clock at night, he said. That was when the lights suddenly went out.
The house was pitch black. Wolf said a door slammed shut. The television flickered on and off. In the dark, the teenagers made a terrified confession, Wolf recalled. “The boyfriend admitted he was doing stuff with the Ouija board.”
Wolf said he fumbled his way to the front door, heart pumping, as he struggled to open the lock. He said he had to practically kick the door open. He ran to his Corvette, leapt in.
Then he turned the key.
“It was like the car didn’t have a transmission,” he said. “I’m putting the pedal to the metal and the car wouldn’t move.”
He was trapped.
When he finally got the engine started, he tore out of the neighborhood. He said he never saw the teenage couple again, and told this story for the first time on Facebook, decades later. Like many staff at the Academy, Wolf quit his job immediately, and said he enrolled in the local police academy. “I’d lost all control over myself,” he said, “and over the students.” Today he describes himself as a skeptic, but strongly believes something supernatural occurred at the school. It changed the course of his life.
Rumors of demons at the school circulated among superstitious parents. Many students were yanked out of the Academy that week, including Manny Ruiz, even though he was in another part of the campus and hadn’t seen the hysteria. “It was because there was a sense of something horrible going on in the school,” he said. “I was very distraught when I was moved.”
The empty seats in class infuriated Marina. His political war chest suffered. His own investigation into the riot was hampered by the fact that his hidden microphones were just a myth. Then, a few months later, a “Santería vigil” just miles away from the school exploded in violence. Police found a sacrificed chicken, a “voodoo cane,” and two dead Cuban refugees.
The Civil Air Patrol withdrew its association with the school. When the student officer system collapsed, chaos ruled. Within a year of the riot, Marina had lost the election and his school building, due to financial mis-management.
Marina moved the school to a grim motel and lawyers’ office nearby, as attendance dropped to just 300 students. Boys and girls were thrown in together. Forty student boarders slept in spartan dormitories, six or eight to a room. In 1980, Marina moved in too, leaving his fancy condo to sleep in an apartment in the building.
Elsewhere in Florida, supernatural happenings seemed to be on the rise. In August of 1981, a fire-rescue team was called to a Boynton Beach home, where a 16-year-old boy was thrashing uncontrollably, claiming to be possessed by Satan. It took four men to hold the boy down, while an Episcopal priest and a Baptist minister performed an exorcism. “Unless you were experienced on how Satan disguises himself, you would think it was drugs or alcohol,” said the Rev. Richard Bass.
Back at the Academy, Florida’s satanic panic made it hard for Marina to attract top teaching talent. Classes became a joke. When a new enrollee asked about the aerospace lessons, a teacher pointed to the sky and said: “Look, that’s as much aerospace training you’re going to get here.” Marina’s son won Cadet of the Year in 1982.
That year, Marina ran for the Legislature, spending $38,059 on his campaign— more than any other candidate. An outraged Marina finished third by 75 votes, and demanded a recount. A judge threw out the result after finding evidence of ballot tampering. Marina was getting desperate, yet, a small, loyal base of parents fiercely backed him.
In 1983 the school hired a Latvian teacher, who told the Miami Herald he was fired for striking a boy with a billy club. “I couldn’t help myself,” confessed Adrie Winzentowitsch, 62. “The black boy was of rich parents and he managed to terrorize spiritually all the other boys by boasting.” The Latvian shocked the community when he admitted he was a former volunteer in Hitler’s army. Marina told a journalist: “I don’t know that guy.” But a former student, Maurice Miselem, 20, told the Herald: “He told us he was a Nazi.”
In 1984, Manny Ruiz persuaded his grandparents to let him re-enroll, and found the school in ruins. Gone were his Kiss bandmates. “I don’t know what happened to that jet,” he said. “It felt like the school was demon-possessed. It bordered on the paranormal, there was a bad spirit in that place.” Ruiz said gym teachers forced kids to fight each other for sport. Bullies beat him. Everywhere was cocaine. Ruiz sunk into a depression, listening to the same Iron Maiden song: “666 — the number of the beast.”
“I cried to God from the bottom of my heart,” Ruiz recalled. “And I said, ‘If you are a reality, I need to do something right now because I can’t bear it anymore.’ I just wanted to die.” Ruiz said he found a small Bible and started reading from the Book of Revelation. “The devil will put some of you in prison to test you,” it read. Ruiz carried the Bible daily for “protection.”
During that first semester of 1984, another new student arrived at the Academy. “He was quiet, stayed to himself, kinda the awkward kid,” recalled Ana Maria Cooper, a former student. The 14-year-old didn’t always answer to his name, Arthur Simpson, and told some students that he’d come straight from jail. They assumed the red-haired kid was making it up “to be macho.” But when another new cadet arrived, the pair quickly recognized each other from behind bars. A new terror haunted the school’s overnight boarders.
One night in May of 1984, a six-year-old boy escaped from the dormitory at the Academy and made a dash for the chain link fence. He had just started to climb when the alarm was raised, and police officers pulled him down. As he was carried back inside the school, he cried: “The monsters are after me!”
The boy’s mother claimed the monsters were older cadets at the school. After an investigation, Miami police said there could be as many as a dozen victims of abuse, and in May of 1985, they charged five Academy students with sexual assault, including Simpson. Police soon discovered the teenager’s real name, sending shockwaves through the school. He was Clarence Carr, a teenage murderer.
Carr had snapped one night in March of 1984, after his mother once again took back his father. The 33-year-old security guard regularly abused them both, a court heard. That night, the boy recorded a last will and testament on his tape deck: “I leave all my toys and things to the Salvation Army,” he said sweetly, before his tiny voiced flashed with anger. “When I die, I want my body to help other people. I love my mom, and I love my dad, and I love my grandparents, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want my mom to be hurt…so please, God help us.”
Carr slipped on a pair of shooting-range ear mufflers and loaded his father’s .38-caliber handgun. The whole world was silent as he took off his shoes and padded into his parent’s bedroom. He approached the bed, lifted the gun and unloaded three rounds into the head of his sleeping father.
After his arrest, Carr was marched into court wearing a light blue jacket. Onlookers described his troubled expression as that of a much older man. The judge, who sentenced him to 10 years probation, sent Carr not to an official correctional facility, but to the Miami Aerospace Academy — possibly in a clerical error. The decision was mired in mystery. Carr’s education was paid for by a secret benefactor: Count Tassilo Szechenyi.
Born in a castle in Budapest in 1912, Count Szechenyi was reportedly fifth in line to the Austro-Hungarian throne. During the postwar Soviet occupation of Hungary he fled to Cuba, later arriving in Miami in 1954, where the Miami New Times described him as “a wastrel, a rotter, a stumblebum.” The Count had met Carr’s mother at a sports club, reports said. Marina couldn’t say no to his money.
Carr’s attorney insisted his client was a “follower, not a leader” in the alleged abuse. Marina claimed a conspiracy. He said the victim’s mother had blackmailed him, and demanded $5,000 to drop the charges. The State Attorney for Dade County, Janet Reno, who would later become Attorney General under President Clinton, investigated, and filed no charges.
During a court hearing, the mother of Carr’s alleged victim had to flee a throng of angry pro-Marina parents, in scenes described by the Herald as “straight out of a Franz Kafka novel.” Even after Carr was sentenced to 10 years, dozens of female parents chanted: “Miami Aerospace! Miami Aerospace!” But Marina’s finely crafted façade was continuing to crack.
A Herald exposé discovered that the Academy was “entirely unregulated, unlicensed, unaccredited and unsupervised.” Anyone with $15 could start up a private school like it. Meanwhile, Miami police arrested Dr. Gregory Macyke, 52, a former teacher at the academy, who had two arrest warrants for passing worthless checks. “Sometimes the press makes problems,” said Marina. “They kill my political career. Please don’t crucify me like they crucified Jesus Christ.”
At the school, Ruiz was also tired of his tormentors. He tucked his Bible inside his faded blue shirt and confronted the ringleader of the school bullies. “I felt like it was God’s armor. God was protecting me,” he said. “I had my bible that day when I kicked the crap out of that kid.” He never returned to the school.
Marina was forced to withdraw from the race to become mayor in April of 1985. He pledged to devote his time to solving problems at the Academy. He promised to install “closed circuit television” in every room. Just weeks later, a 17-year-old student told the Herald she was pregnant, after a teenage cadet forced his way into her dormitory room. Marina said the problem was finding adequate female teachers: “It’s not easy to find a person who does not smoke, who does not drink. Sometimes you start looking and you find that woman likes another woman.”
That December, a 15-year-old Academy student was sentenced to three years in prison for first-degree murder, after giving a 19-year-old female student a deadly dose of cocaine. To Marina, it was all a conspiracy. On July 17, 1987, two days after he started his third mayoral campaign, Marina claimed he was the victim of a baseball bat attack by “agents of Fidel Castro.” This time, his election loss was a landslide.
Two city investigators found his school building was “deplorable,” with children washing in bathtubs backed up with feces. When he was finally forced to close the school in August of 1988, Marina blamed the economy. “It was better to do what I did and close the school than go into bankruptcy,” he said. Three months later, he was selling legal insurance.
Despite its catastrophic failures, the Academy produced graduates who served in the military, and became doctors and lawyers. George Navarini actually entered the aerospace industry. Josef Wolf said he became an undercover detective (and asked that his name be changed here to protect his identity). Inspired by the Herald’s reporting on the Academy, Manny Ruiz became a police reporter. “In some ways I feel that those reporters rescued me from the bullies,” Ruiz said. He later worked on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize.
The Devil still loomed large in Magic City. “Is any city more firmly locked in the brimstone-y grasp of Satan than Miami?” asked the Miami New Times. In 1988, police rescued a stolen lion from a local junkyard where it was due to be ritually sacrificed. Later that year, voodoo dolls soaked with blood and covered with feathers were left outside federal buildings in Florida.
Two years later, Florida’s Palm Beach became the scene of America’s first-ever televised exorcism. More than 29 million viewers watched a Roman Catholic priest exorcise demons from a 16-year-old Colombian girl. Anonymous “Gina” was a patient of the Miami Children’s Hospital psychiatric ward, just five miles from the site of the Miami Aerospace Academy. Bishop, J. Keith Symons, who permitted the taping, issued a terse statement that read:
“The Devil really exists.”
Like a man possessed, Marina kept entering the mayoral race, losing for the final time in 1989. Court records show that he married and divorced four times to three different women. Until his death in 2009, aged 79, his only political win was a 1996 election as head of the Miami-Dade Fire Board. (His old nemesis, Fidel Castro, would live another seven years.) Marina was buried with the Academy’s flag folded into his coffin. He is remembered as “El General,” a man whose school was destroyed by demons both imagined and real.
Jeff Maysh is a non-fiction writer based in Los Angeles. His recent stories include “Dr. Rap” for The Atlantic, and “McScam” for The Daily Beast.
Butcher Billy, a Brazilian artist based in Curitiba, Brazil, recently created artwork seen in the hit Netflix show “Black Mirror.”
Additional reporting: Barak Wright. Additional design: Kelsey Lancaster.