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On the beach: Should an entrepreneur's past matter?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 23, 2014)
Photo: Scot Caviness's Shark Bait Beach Gear concession

Scot Caviness provides beach chair, umbrella and gear rentals in front of some of Vero’s most exclusive resorts.  On the side, he’s helped rescue nine people from the ocean, has cleaned the beach and has raised money for local charities. Given the way Caviness has led his life since arriving in Vero, his past may come as a surprise.

Last week, Vero Beach 32963 reported that the company owned by Caviness, Shark Bait Beach Gear Rentals, had made a pitch to the City of Vero Beach to operate a beach chair and umbrella concession at South Beach Park.

A reader then called with a tip, based on a rumor going around among beach regulars, that Caviness had a criminal record for dealing drugs.

The tip panned out, as Broward County court records show Caviness, now 48, was arrested in December 1989 in Fort Lauderdale when he was 23 and charged with conspiracy to traffic in cocaine. He was convicted in 1991, served three years in federal prison, escaped in 1994 and, after living as a fugitive for five years, was caught in 1999, re-imprisoned and finally released in 2008.

The big question is whether anyone should – or will – care?

According to public records, Caviness pled guilty in January 1991 to a first-degree felony charge which carried a sentence of 15 years in federal prison. Caviness admits the conviction, the prison time and the escape, but says he never pled guilty to anything because the police and federal agents violated the public trust and their oaths to uphold the law.

“They manufactured charges against me that took 10 years of my life away from me,” Caviness said on Monday.

In his version of events, Caviness was in his fourth year in the Merchant Marines when the story began.

“I had a motorcycle accident and couldn’t work in 1989. When I was recovering from the accident, somebody called me and said, ‘I found something on the beach,’ and it turned out to be a kilo of cocaine,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do with it. He threw it in the trash can.”

Caviness then told an acquaintance about the cocaine found on Fort Lauderdale Beach. The acquaintance had other ideas.  Caviness said he had no clue what the bale of white powder was worth, but the U.S. Office of Drug Control Policy lists the 1990 street value of a kilo of cocaine to be roughly $167,000.

“We went and got the kilo out of the guy’s garbage can,” Caviness said. “He didn’t even know we got it out and took it.”

Their career as amateur drug traffickers was short-lived. Within 12 hours, they were embroiled in a Drug Enforcement Agency Task Force takedown and ended up in handcuffs in the parking lot of the Banana Boat tavern on State Road 84 in the custody of the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Caviness following his conviction was sent to federal prison and, as he said, “because I didn’t get in trouble,” was eventually transferred to an Air Force camp in Maxwell, Alabama.

“I figured I had served the amount of time for what I actually did, so I left,” Caviness said.

As a fugitive from justice, Caviness said he did not engage in further criminal activity, but worked as a boat painter and refinisher. That’s what he was doing when the U.S. Marshals found and arrested him in Mediera Beach in January 1999, according to Hillsborough County records.

His appeal to the Third District Court in Pennsylvania, where he was incarcerated, was denied, so Caviness – still maintaining he was a victim of miscarriage of justice – served another nearly nine years.

“There’s a lot of ways to look at things and I have proof that they did manufacture charges against me,” he said. “It is what it is, it’s a piece of my past and I can’t change it. I’m not going to try to dress it up. If I had it to do over again, would I? Of course not, but I don’t try to hide it from people.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate database shows that he was released from the system on April 16, 2008.

The last six months of his incarceration was spent in what Caviness described as a “halfway house” where the staff helped him get a Florida driver license and voter registration card. After his release he began working again as a paint and fiberglass technician for a yacht company in South Florida.

By 2009, Caviness was in southwest Vero living in a home owned by his mother, Shahnda Caviness.

“My grandmother moved back up here from Ft. Lauderdale and my mother moved back up here. Mom needed help. Mom had bought a house up here, too big for her as a single parent,” Caviness said. “I didn’t know it, but she had bought it with the intention that I would live there with her.”

He made friends by getting involved in charitable causes, even putting on a 5K run to benefit a local fraternal law enforcement organization. He made contacts on and around the beach and saw a niche market that he could fill – beach chair, umbrella and gear rentals.

On Sept. 24, 2009, he filed incorporation papers for Shark Bait International. Over the past three and a half years, Caviness has become a member of the extended Vero Beach Lifeguard Association family, serving as a volunteer and even assisting in nine rescues on Vero’s beaches while he tended his beach chair and umbrella business in front of Costa d’Este and the Driftwood Resort.

Lifeguard Erik Toomsoo even bought into the business as a partner, though Caviness said he’s paid Toomsoo back and he’s out of Shark Bait now.

Has Caviness lied about his past to ingratiate himself with Vero locals? Caviness said he feels that he’s been up front with everyone from hotel managers to city officials, and that he has never tried to hide his criminal record.

“I’m happy to talk about it. It’s not something I’m proud of, it happened when I was 23 years old,” Caviness said.

“I did take that package. It washed up on the beach and I tried to sell it. I was guilty of trying to do that,” Caviness said. “But for somebody to make a little stupid mistake and for it to close down their whole life is just ridiculous. To me, I don’t know. It’s kind-of like discrimination.”

Caviness said he’s kept memoirs and even joked about possibly writing a book. His experiences might be quite an entertaining tale, but Caviness said he does not think the city or anyone else should hold his criminal record against him.

Vero Beach City Recreation Director Rob Slezak confirmed that, upon final approval of a vendor contract, the city runs a background check on people it contracts with for services. Presumably, a first-degree felony drug conviction and escape from federal prison would show up on such a report.

“I can understand if they do one, but if they use that to jeopardize me having a contract ... I have nine rescues and I’m an open-water lifeguard,” Caviness said. “I’ve done a lot for the city. I’m no scam artist. The managers at the hotels know about my record.”

“I told them I have this issue – it may be pertinent and it might not. I told them about my whole deal,” he said. “The city, they know about it as well. I’m not sure if I told them, but they know.”

City Manager Jim O'Connor said a felony conviction and prison record would not necessarily disqualify Caviness from getting the contract.

"The answer is, I knew he was in prison and I knew it had to do with drugs," said O'Connor, who had a chat with Caviness after hearing rumors. "We talked to him about it and he admitted it and said he felt like he had done his time and was free to run a business. I asked if it was a felony and he said yes, that he'd spent time in jail. I didn't know about the escape.

"Having full knowledge is not a problem,” O'Connor said. "We do not have a policy that says if you've been a convicted felon (you are disqualified), but the council obviously has the right to if the council has a problem like that."

O'Connor recognized the value of having Caviness on the beach, helping with rescues and said his criminal history presents no special risk to the city.

"He's been in business for several years working for local businesses around here and I did verify that," O'Connor said. "What (we want to make sure is that) he has the license, make sure he has the insurance."

Caviness said the same quality that made him escape from that camp in Alabama is what gives him the courage to tackle an ocean rescue.

“If someone is in distress, I’m helping them out. Yes I did escape, but not a lot of people would have had what it took to do that, just like it takes a lot to go out into some kind of crazy sea and rescue somebody,” he said. “You don’t know what people are going to do when they’re drowning.”

Overall, Caviness sees himself as a net-positive to the community. “I feel like I’m more of an asset than a liability. I don’t feel that I’m a liability at all.”