Racist, Corrupt – and Sheriff

Sheriff Walter Clark was a liar, a friend to organized crime and a lawman who helped terrorize Broward’s black community.

By: 

John Dolen

Published date: 

Dec. 1, 2017

It should be apparent to anybody today that a man using the campaign slogan “the first white male child born in Fort Lauderdale” doesn’t portend great things.

Sheriff Walter Clark, who held the office of Broward County Sheriff almost continuously from 1931 to 1950, personified the seedy underbelly of law in Broward County as no one has before or since. He and his chief deputy, his brother Bob, were an insidious team. Among the indignities they inflicted on local black citizens was their practice of rounding up black men for vagrancy, then giving them a choice. The men could pay a $35 ticket (which most could not afford) or work it off picking vegetables until the fine was paid. The farmers working with the Clarks would credit the black workers a fraction of what was paid to whites, thus extending their sentences. Then the farmers would pay the Clarks $35.

It was in 1935 during the reign of Sheriff Clark that a 37-year-old field hand named Reuben Stacey was lynched. Described by friends as affable and well liked, Stacey was arrested after a white woman reported that he attacked her with a knife. But locals later testified that he simply came asking for a glass of water – and she panicked.

Sheriff Clark said he decided immediately to transfer the prisoner to the more secure Miami jail. But his six officers were said to have been overpowered by a mob who apparently knew the route, near what later became Davie Boulevard and 31st Avenue. Stacey was strung up, and his body discovered later to have 17 bullet wounds.

According to the Sun-Sentinel, a woman came forth in 1994 saying that she participated in the lynching. She said it was Deputy Bob Clark who strung Stacey up, and then ordered everyone around to participate in the murder by each firing a shot into the body.

Stacey was dead within 48 hours of his arrest. A grand jury was convened two days after the lynching. No one was charged.

Sheriff Clark also had a tolerance for dirty money. During Prohibition, he not only turned a blind eye to mobsters setting up shop around the county, but when the alcohol was flowing again in 1933, he allowed gangsters to run illegal gambling clubs quite freely. Heck, he had an enterprise himself. In the words of Sun-Sentinel writer Robert Nolin, this was the scene: “Slot machines, legal and otherwise, sounded their merry clatter everywhere: drugstores, filling stations, emporiums, even fishing camps. Those were the wild times. … More sophisticated gambling brazenly thrived in swank casinos or ‘carpet joints’ - so called for their fancy appointments - toward which locals turned a blind eye.”

While some slots were legal until 1937, most weren’t. Nor were the gambling joints, made possible by Clark’s shady affiliations with known gangsters Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Joe Adonis and Jimmy “Blue Eyes” Alo. Other mobsters, such as Julian “Potatoes” Kaufman and Longy Zwillman “strutted about town, pockets filled with ill-gotten cash,” writes Nolin.

The clubs spanned the county from Pompano Beach to Hallandale with names like the Plantation, the Colonial Inn, Club Boheme, Club Greenacres, the It Club and the Valhalla restaurant, with Clark’s officers nonchalantly directing traffic outside. Even a less sinister venue called Cap’s Place was allowed to thrive as a casino. The Clarks themselves ran the Broward Novelty Company, a lottery and slot machine enterprise that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra income for the law-enforcement chiefs.

Not that all was peace and love amongst the mob guys. According to Gene Burnett, author of Florida’s Past, Potatoes Kaufman ran afoul of the others. His club, the Plantation, was a gambling joint that started as a packing shed on a vegetable farm. “Potatoes disappeared one night, rumored to have drowned trying to swim wearing cement snowshoes,” Burnett writes.

Clark’s run came to an end in 1950 at the hands of a crusading U.S. senator. In Miami hearings on national crime, Sen. Estes Kefauver laid out for all to see the nefarious mob connections of our Broward sheriff. Spectators broke out in fits of laughter when Sheriff Clark said he was unaware there was any gambling going on in his county.

A few days later, Gov. Fuller Warren suspended the sheriff. Indictments soon came, but he was acquitted. Clark didn’t savor his victory long; he died months later, in 1951, from leukemia. He was 47.

By the way, he was not the first white child born in the city. But what’s one more lie with this guy?