Just about the time you think it's safe in Lake County, the moon gets full and the kooks crawl out.
Why us? Are we at the apex of some weird convergence of the planets? Is there some funky chemical in the water? Are people munching those tangerine mushrooms from my lawn again?
Lake County for years has been well known for strange happenings. Inevitably, someone in the Sentinel's Orlando newsroom would be telling a crazy story, and another person would say, "Lake County?" Nods all around. Of course.
Last week, Dr. Akram Ismail boosted Lake's reputation for bizarreness by getting himself arrested on charges that he paid one bungling thug $40,000 to blow up his former partner's business, break his legs, and find women to "sexually exploit" and "publicly discredit" the victim.
But that's not all. When Thug No. 1 failed to get the job done, authorities say that Ismail hired a second guy to break the second doctor's hands so he couldn't perform surgery, then kill his former partner, Dr. Nehme Gabriel. (Why it would have been necessary to break Gabriel's fingers before doing away with him is a bit of a mystery. Seems like overkill, so to speak.)
Ismail also wanted Thug No. 1 iced, as they say in the mob, presumably for incompetence.
Colorful casesIs this real life or some bad spoof?
Neither. It's just Lake County. Our crime history is a little, well, colorful.
Take one of the most notorious crimes here: the disappearance of two girls from a scuba-diving expedition at Alexander Springs on Oct. 2, 1966. No trace of the girls ever was found, and a cloud of suspicion hung over their boyfriends for years to come.
Finally, a few years ago, the case was officially closed when investigators concluded that a Martin County deputy convicted of torturing and murdering two South Florida girls had done the same with the missing Lake County teens. Unfortunately, the deputy was accused sort of in absentia. He'd been stabbed to death in prison by another testy inmate years earlier. So, did he really do it?
The same question applies to the case of the Mascotte police officer convicted of raping and strangling an 11-year-old schoolgirl in 1988 while he was on duty. James Duckett's case was filled with twists, including witnesses changing stories several times and other supposed suspects who couldn't be found.
Duckett's family provided yet another bizarre tale for Lake County's archives. The convicted officer's son, Josh, is the father of 2-year-old Trenton Duckett, who went missing from his mother's Leesburg apartment in August 2006. Shortly after a stormy interview on CNN in which loudmouth lawyer Nancy Grace grilled the boy's mother, she took her life. The television circus surrounding the case kicked into high gear, thanks mostly to Grace, and Melinda Duckett's family is suing Grace and the network, claiming the young mother was badgered into shooting herself in her grandparents' closet. The fate of the boy officially is still unknown, but investigators think he's probably dead.
Reckless drivingThen there were the vampires. Yes, you know, those mythical creatures that come out at night and prey on the blood of live people. The "undead" in this case were four teenagers charged in connection with the slayings of the parents of one of them in a home east of Eustis in 1996. The leader of the cult, Rod Ferrell, was 17 when he was sentenced to die for the bludgeoning of Richard and Ruth Wendorf. Their daughter, Heather, was cleared of wrongdoing.
Ferrell's death sentence was overturned on appeal because of his young age. But think of his pickle now — at 28, he is sitting in prison for the rest of his life having to explain to fellow prisoners with a straight face that he is a vampire and must drink blood. Bet that makes for some festive times on Cellblock A.
And now, we have Ismail.
So many of these crimes come out of nowhere. Ferrell was just some creepy-looking kid with droopy eyelids, stringy hair, a bad complexion and a wardrobe containing far too much black. And James Duckett? An unknown, unremarkable small-town cop.
Any observer of the 51-year-old Ismail, however, can see a pattern of strange stories in Lake.
The doctor, who practiced gastroenterology and internal medicine, has a record of disputes, arrogance and misbehavior that has been building over some years.
In 2004, he was arrested on charges of drunken driving and resisting arrest without violence after weaving over the double-yellow line on State Road 19 south of Howey-in-the-Hills. When the arresting officer didn't see things his way, the Egyptian-born doctor said, "I've had it." So had the officer, who hauled him to the Lake County Jail. He was convicted of reckless driving and did nearly $9,000 worth of volunteer work for We Care of Lake County, a nonprofit that helps the poor with medical care.
Airplane misbehaviorThe following year, when an air marshal dragged him off a Delta flight from New York to Orlando for drinking and defying a flight attendant's instructions to stop and sit down, Ismail insisted he shouldn't be arrested because he is "better" than the flight crew because he is a doctor.
Despite his elevated status as a deity on earth, Ismail was convicted of resisting a U.S. air marshal and sentenced to spend nearly every weekend for a year in prison. He was still on probation for that little scrape when he was charged last week in the murder-for-hire scheme. Federal authorities have placed a detainer on Ismail, and he is facing up to 24 months in prison for violating probation, regardless of whether he is convicted on the other charges.
Things are about to get unpleasant for him at home, too. Ismail's wife, Valerie, filed for divorce Tuesday, four days after his arrest. The mother of their four daughters signed a pre-nuptial agreement in 1995 when she married the doctor, whose net worth at the time was about $2.3 million.
She is entitled to only about $40,000, according to the agreement.. For the incident on the airplane, Ismail hired defense attorney Emilio Grillo, who defended the late mob boss John Gotti and in 2005 won acquittals of money-laundering charges against hip-hop music moguls Irving and Chris Lorenzo, founders of the rap label Murder Inc. A safe guess is that Grillo isn't cheap.
That's not allThen, there are his disputes with former partners. One ugly example is laid out in a lawsuit filed by Lake County doctor Susan Rendon, who sold him part of her laboratory business. She claimed in a 2006 lawsuit that he owes her $262,605.72 for six months' worth of work. He counter-sued, and the battle is still going on.
There's more, but you get the idea. The public records of Ismail's life raise more questions than they do answers, and more remains to be told as this story unfolds in the court system.