MIAMI — Marco Rubio’s first year of college at a small school in Missouri ended badly. His grades were awful. A neck injury dashed any hopes of achieving greatness on the football field. He was hurting for money.
He resolved to go back to Florida and get his life on a path to success. Instead the 18-year-old added to his troubles after returning to Miami for summer break: He was arrested one night in May 1990 for being in a crime-plagued public park after closing time, according to police records and an interview with a friend who was cited with Rubio that night.
The previously unreported misdemeanor, which eventually was dismissed, tugged Rubio into the criminal-justice system just one year after the conviction of his brother-in-law in a major drug-trafficking case had exacted a devastating toll on his family. But that summer also marks a turning point for Rubio, the moment when a somewhat aimless young man found a direction and purpose that shaped the highly focused politician who now sits among the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination.
Rubio, who has no history of criminal convictions, has never discussed his arrest publicly, and he did not mention it in his 2012 memoir, “An American Son.”
Rubio declined an interview request. Todd Harris, presidential campaign strategist for the senator from Florida, dismissed the episode as a minor infraction with no relevance today.
“When he was 18 years old, he violated a municipal code for drinking beer in a park after hours,” Harris said. “He was never taken into custody, never hired a lawyer and never appeared in court. Why The Washington Post thinks that is a story is beyond me.”
There’s no indication that Rubio was involved in any illegal activity other than drinking beer and being in a public park after closing. The police incident report, which does not mention alcohol, states that drug activity was “not applicable.”
The arrest took place after Rubio had completed a difficult first year in college in Missouri and was looking to make a shift in direction by transferring to a community college in his home state of Florida. In his memoir, Rubio wrote about getting more serious about his studies that summer and leaving behind his football aspirations.
Rubio has been entranced by football since childhood. At South Miami High School, not far from his home in West Miami, he became a starting free safety on the football team but was benched after missing a tackle, Rubio wrote in his memoir. Still, he dreamed of someday making it to the NFL.
In high school, he was an underperforming student who struggled so much that he had to take a course in summer school to graduate. Rubio — who years later would graduate cum laude from the University of Miami law school — ended his senior year in high school with a 2.1 grade-point average, he wrote in his memoir.
Despite his middling high school grades, tiny Tarkio College in Missouri offered him a scholarship to play football. At Tarkio, his football prospects improved — he became a starting wide receiver on the junior-varsity team and performed well as a replacement cornerback on the varsity squad. But his academic record sank to new lows. He has said his grades were “abysmal,” so bad that he would not have been eligible to play sports in the spring.
A nagging neck injury imperiled Rubio’s football career. He wrote that he was “alarmed” by reports that Tarkio might be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy because of problems with its finances.
Rubio was determined to change his trajectory.
“I had to transfer to a school that would prepare me to do something important with my life, something other than play football,” Rubio wrote in his memoir.
He left Tarkio and returned to Florida to sort out his options. He arrived at a plan to enroll at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, where students often improve their grade-point averages before transferring to the University of Florida.
He had not wanted to enroll in a school in Miami because he worried he “would be too distracted there,” he wrote in his memoir, without detailing what might have occupied his attention. Even so, he spent the summer in his home town before classes started at Santa Fe.
In Miami, Rubio, always short of cash, took a job as a messenger for a courier service, driving a 1983 Pontiac Firebird that his father had bought for him, according to his memoir. Frequently, he wrote, he ferried documents from law firms in the Brickell neighborhood to offices downtown, just to the north.
It was not far from there that Rubio’s arrest occurred. At 9:37 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23, 1990 — five days before Rubio’s 19th birthday and an hour and a half after sunset — a police officer was dispatched to Alice C. Wainwright Park, a shaded stretch of grass along Brickell Avenue where the neighborhoods of Brickell and Coconut Grove meet, according to a Miami police incident report. The park, studded with palms and gumbo limbo trees, offered a stunning vista of Biscayne Bay, a “millionaire’s view for the masses,” according to one newspaper review.
The bayside park, named for the first woman to serve on the Miami City Commission, had been established in 1965 at the site of a dilapidated estate. It is flanked on three sides by ornate mansions and pricey condominiums. Madonna and Sylvester Stallone would own homes there in the early 1990s.
Despite the high-priced real estate nearby, the park had become a notorious locale in the late 1980s and early ’90s, a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes and gang members.
A local homeowners association’s newsletter documented the complaints of neighbors: “Gang warfare, gunfire, prostitution (straight and gay), drug dealing and muggings.” Police were attuned to the complaints because of a pattern of problems at the park, said Delrish Moss, a Miami police public information officer and a 32-year veteran of the department.
“It was very dark and had lots of trees,” he said. “People went out there to smoke illegal substances, have sex, drink.”
A full account of what led to Rubio’s arrest and the dismissal of the charge are not included in available public records. The court file has been destroyed, according to Miami-Dade County court clerk’s records.
According to the Miami police incident report, a police officer arrived at the park at 9:47 p.m., 10 minutes after being dispatched. The report notes that Rubio and two other teenagers were inside the park after hours. In a recent interview, Angel Barrios — one of the men arrested with Rubio — said they were sitting in a car when they were approached by an officer.
“We were there just hanging out,” said Barrios, who owns several coin-operated laundries in the Miami area.
Barrios said he could not recall why they went to the park that night.
“We never even used to go to that area,” he said. “That might have been the first time I went there.”
Barrios was one year behind Rubio at South Miami High School. When they were in school together, Barrios said, Rubio and his other friends “were just messing around and partying. Trying to get pretty girls.”
Rubio also harbored higher ambitions.
“Ever since we were teenagers, I remember Marco Rubio saying he wanted to be the first Hispanic president of the United States,” said Barrios, who said he has lost touch with Rubio but runs into him from time to time and calls his old friend “a great guy.”
During Rubio’s last year in high school, he wrote a senior-year dedication, bequeathing his “ability to avoid getting killed to Angel.” It appears that Rubio was referring to Barrios, though Rubio did not mention Angel’s last name. Barrios did not respond to questions about the dedication.
Record searches turned up no evidence that mug shots were taken.
“I don’t think we got handcuffed and taken to jail,” Barrios said.
Instead, Barrios said, the teens were given “a piece of paper,” a “PTA,” short for a promise to appear in court. But Barrios said, “I don’t think we even ended up going to court.”
Yet the episode was unsettling.
“You’re a kid,” Barrios said. “If the cops go up and ask your name, you get scared.”
Rubio had witnessed the legal system up close in the previous years. His brother-in-law, Orlando Cicilia, had been arrested in 1987 in a major federal drug case.
Cicilia’s arrest forced Rubio’s older sister, Barbara, out of her home, and she and her two young children had to live with Rubio’s family during his final days in high school. Cicilia was convicted during Rubio’s senior year.
A year after Cicilia was sentenced, Rubio had his minor brush with the law. Court records state the charges against all three teens were dismissed in July, two months after their arrest. Law enforcement officials say it was common in those days for minor offenses at the park to be dismissed.
Authorities said they had more serious issues to worry about at the park.
With Rubio’s legal issue resolved, he packed his Firebird the next month and drove to Gainesville to start classes at Santa Fe College. Barrios would share a townhouse with Rubio there, he said.
In Gainesville, Rubio wrote in his memoir, he immediately set about checking out “the party scene.” Barrios remembered buying Keystone beer, an inexpensive brew, for their parties.
“We came from regular working parents,” Barrios said. “There was nobody that was rich.”
Rubio attacked his courses with a newly found intensity and sense of purpose.
“We were all really focused into the studying,” Barrios said. “Our group, we would just study like heck.”
That summer, an important letter arrived for Rubio. His new focus had paid off: He had been accepted at the University of Florida. He was on his way.
Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.