A millisecond after the words crackled from the scanner hanging around his neck, Marc Siegal steered his red Ford Explorer toward Miami's popular Calle Ocho (Southwest 8th Street) in Little Havana.
He found blue flashing lights everywhere, a crowd of drunks spilling out of two bars and a naked man lying on his back in the street, his clothing cut away by paramedics. Siegal calmly nodded to the cops and grabbed his video camera.
He focused on a long black skid mark in the middle of the street, about 60 feet from the body. At the beginning of the mark lay a single brown loafer. Siegal turned the camera on a detective leading the driver of a white Oldsmobile off for a sobriety test. He then turned the camera toward the paramedics, who were draping a white sheet over the body. Three dark red pools of blood quickly seeped through the sheet, which covered everything but the dead man's feet and his limp left hand. Siegal spotted a ring. "A married man," he said without emotion.
Scenes like this happen every night on the streets of Miami, and Siegal, 36, a freelance video photographer who has been feeding local TV stations a steady diet of late-night blood and guts for the past four years, is usually there shooting.
The work is long (11 p.m. to 6 a.m. seven days a week) and not very lucrative ($100 to $150 a clip), but lately the enterprising Siegal has come up with a novel way to increase his take. He charges people to ride with him. His fee: $100 per passenger for four hours, "or longer," he says, "if your stomach can stand it."
Siegal has become Miami's newest exotic tourist attraction. His fliers – and a message to online computer users – tell the story:
"Robbery. Murder. Mayhem. Cruise Miami's mean streets in (relative) safety and comfort. Ride along with Miami's premier freelance television news photographer on his nightly rounds. Experience the thrill of shooting news in one of the world's most violent and beautiful cities."
Remember, this is the city where cocaine cowboys used to shoot it out in crowded mall parking lots. And this is the city where cops once tried to arrest a killer, only to have him throw his victim's head at them like a bowling ball.
In Miami, anything can happen. And that's exactly what Siegal wants to sell – a sense of danger, the thrill of knowing that at any moment you might witness Miami's innate weirdness.
On a recent night, for example, he took a guest to the locations of some recent smash-and-grab tourist robberies and the resting spot of a yellow Ryder truck that a German tourist drove before thugs ran him off the highway and killed him. Then it was on to the Molino Rojo bar, where the infamous Miami River cops plotted to steal a boatload of cocaine.
Siegal launched his Miami Crime Tour last fall, but since then only a handful of paying customers have taken him up on the voyeur's odyssey. Surprisingly, most of his customers have been local residents. "Not many nibbles from tourists," he admits. "But I haven't done any real advertising yet." He plans to circulate his fliers to concierges at local hotels.
When he isn't taking his ride-along guest to fires or murders or spectacular accidents, Siegal lectures on the best and worst coffee shops and cruises by the sites of famous crimes. In the past Siegal has taken customers on a tour of a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard where ravenous prostitutes roam both sides of the wide street; to the roof of Jackson Memorial Hospital to watch an air ambulance deliver a bloody body; and to the top of a tall parking garage on New Year's Eve to listen to the steady "pop-pop-pop" of gunshots. It's a local custom to fire into the air to celebrate the new year, a custom that can be deadly because, as Siegal puts it, "What goes up must come down."
Siegal is particularly proud of a recent discovery that he considers the ultimate symbol of Miami mayhem – a stop sign on which all the letters, save for a piece of the S, have been obliterated by bullet holes. "Like something you see in Beirut," he says.
One reward of Siegal's job is that he is now legend among local scanner buffs who sell video to local TV stations. Most hold at least two jobs to make ends meet. Siegal is the only one capitalizing on crime full time.
But his bread and butter (dare we say blood and guts?) is the scanner beat. His Explorer is a veritable rolling spy station. He keeps a scanner dangling from his neck. An earpiece feeds him a constant diet of static and police transmissions. There's another scanner, a beeper on his belt, a cellular phone and an emergency whistle. He is also equipped with a battery of pens and notebooks, a tripod and video camera, a blanket ("to cover all this equipment so thieves can't see it") and a bunch of other electronic gimmickry, including an "interceptor," a neat little gadget that picks up the strongest transmitter in the immediate vicinity – everything from taxis to the cellular phones so many cops use. His vanity license plate says 37 NOT, a play on the cop code number 37 for a suspicious vehicle.
"I'm teetering on the precipice of making a living at it," he says, deadpan. Last year he sold nearly 400 tapes to Miami's six stations at $100 a clip – a base income of $40,000. He also sells to the networks occasionally, and videotapes depositions and shoots film for tabloid shows.
If you're interested in buying a tour of Siegal's Miami, act quickly. The years of shooting dead bodies and maimed cops are taking their toll on him. "I'm getting a little burned out and disillusioned. I've got a wife and a six-month-old daughter," Siegal says. "If my wife didn't get benefits from her job at a local television station, I'd be out looking for other work right now. I've got to think about moving on."