Clara Curd, 66 years old and 5-foot-1, said he was after her purse. Roy Levine, 42, said he was just bumming a cigarette.
Whatever the truth, the outcome of their recent confrontation on a downtown Miami street was a .32-cal. bullet in Levine's stomach, fired from the revolver Curd said she carried in her purse just in case.
After three nights in jail, Curd was released without bond on condition that she report daily to a probation officer. But she still faces charges of aggravated battery, carrying a concealed weapon and using a firearm during a felony. Levine is in the hospital, recovering slowly and likely to be more careful around little old ladies.
Like most large American cities, Miami has a crime problem. But here it seems to involve guns to an extraordinary degree--guns in the hands of cocaine dealers, in the hands of foreign revolutionaries, in the hands of fearful citizens such as Curd and even in the hands of law officers.
People in Miami know about the prevalence of guns here and act accordingly. Longtime residents warn newcomers against letting traffic disputes get out of hand, lest the opponent lose his temper and pull a gun from the glove compartment. Policemen complain about the dark-tinted car windows popular in Florida sun, saying they never know what passengers have in their hands.
A Cuban immigrant recounted a little demonstration of Miami gun-sense that occurred not long ago in a movie theater. The Cuban, deeply involved in Miami's political and cocaine underworld, took his wife and gun to the show. When some men with Afro haircuts sat in front of them, the couple complained that they could not see. Several such whispered complaints were ignored, he told a friend.
"So I took out my pistol and made it go 'clack, clack,' " he said, smiling triumphantly and making the motion of arming a semi-automatic. "They slumped down in their seats right away, and 10 minutes later they took off."
Other demonstrations are less benign.
Three men burst into the home of Mary Louise Perez-Vega in the wee hours one morning late last month and opened fire, killing her 8-year-old son and wounding her.
Dade County police said Perez-Vega, who fooled the attackers by playing dead, was the real target of what they said was a "cold-blooded execution."
Perez-Vega is the widow of Gen. Reinaldo Perez-Vega, who was kidnaped and killed in Nicaragua in 1978. Gen. Perez-Vega had been chief of staff to the U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza, whose government blamed the general's death on Sandinista revolutionaries now running the country.
Centac 26, a special police squad formed to deal with drug-related killings, is investigating the attempted murder of his widow. Saying the case is "sensitive," spokesmen have refused to discuss why the hit team might have struck. No one has been arrested.
Tension is apparent here between the growing Latin population, mostly Cuban and Colombian, and local blacks, largely left out of a boom that has embraced the Latin newcomers. Miami being Miami, the latest surfacing of tension involves guns.
The city police department's Hispanic Officers Association has charged that State Attorney Janet Reno succumbed to "incredible political pressure" in recently indicting two Latin officers for manslaughter in the shooting deaths of two black suspects they had stopped for questioning in separate incidents last year.
The association president, Sgt. Bernardo Bestard, called a news conference to blame "so-called black leaders" for the pressure.
Although he did not say so, Bestard seemed to be referring to calls from local black leaders for indictment of Luis Alvarez, a Latin officer whose shooting of a black youth Dec. 28 led to two days of racial disturbances in the Overtown black ghetto.
A protest march and special City Commission meeting last month concentrated on the Alvarez case. City Manager Howard Gary said Reno has promised to decide soon whether to indict him.