But the man’s facts were wrong. I learned through research later that that particular suicide attempt had failed.
And, even later, I learned that there was no gun battle. John, his nephew and two friends, surrendered peacefully to St. Lucie and Palm Beach County deputies, who handcuffed and then shot them all down execution style.
Suspicious deaths in police custody. How shocking. Who’da thought that could happen in Florida?
At the Miami Beach Sun and, later, at the Miami Herald, I pored through more old stories and became hooked on the tale of legendary outlaw John Ashley and his star-crossed love affair with Laura.
They haunted me, but their voices were mere echoes, their faces ghostly shadows from the past. And I was busy, covering crime in modern Miami at a time when if police stopped ten cars at random they found guns in nine of them.
Then late one night, as I looked for something else in the newspaper morgue, I stumbled upon an old photo, a handsome youth, a teenager, with a grin so infectious that I couldn’t help but smile back. How startling to see John Ashley’s face for the first time. The legend was now real.
How strange to see him, nearly 100 years later, from my vantage point on the observation deck of history. He stood at the threshold of manhood, with a fresh haircut, wearing a crisp white tropical suit, and a dark tie, his life stretched out before him like a promise. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined then how broken that promise would be, or that he would soon become the most controversial and notorious character in Florida’s colorful and violent history.
Nothing in his family history hinted at such a future. His father, to whom he was close, had been a lawman himself. A legendary marksman, he taught his son to shoot until John was even better. John was one of nine children, not one had ever had even a minor brush with the law, and then, something happened.
Last year, December, 2011, marked the centennial of the killing that launched the legend.
That fatal bullet ricocheted into prison breaks, bloody battles, and a historic gun fight on the dusty streets of what is now modern, downtown Miami.
I often thought about John and Laura, all the lost lives and broken hearts, as I covered the police beat for the Herald during that perfect storm of events (the Cocaine wars, the Mariel boat lifts and the McDuffie Riots) that led to unprecedented violence. In 1981 Miami-Dade County broke all records and was number in homicide with 637 murders. I covered them all. My editors didn’t want me to. Homicide had become so commonplace that they said to only cover the major murder of the day. I knew what they meant but pretended not to. How do you select the major murder of the day? Every murder is major to the victim. They all wanted to live. And we’re all in trouble when victims become mere numbers, statistics. I thought it vital to get them all, all of their stories, into the newspaper of record, in black and white, on our consciousness forever.