The Soul of an Alligator

Bill Warner likes a fight. This one's a doozy.

By S.I. Rosenbaum | The St. Petersburg Times | October 20, 2007

He'll tell you flat out: He did it.

He shows no remorse, this 80-year-old man with bright blue eyes and a nose like a boxer's after one round too many.

"I'm defending the damn alligators," he says. "Simple as that."

Next week, Bill Warner will stand trial before a judge, accused of theft, harassment and sabotage.

He plans to represent himself. He's looking forward to it.

"I wouldn't mind a couple nights in jail," he says.

***

Middle Lake, in Sun City Center: a montage of stucco houses, American flags and golf carts. The man-made lake is home to catfish, herons and egrets.

And alligators.

Everyone has seen them, with their squat legs and prehistoric smiles. Big ones - 400, 500 pounds. Dick Barret, 76, has seen them waiting on the lawn.

They want his dog, McTavish, a Scottish terrier. "Bite-sized dog," Barret says. "A real good snack."

Annie Kannee, 74, has seen them. A gator once rushed her standard poodle, Tray. She doesn't let him out in the back yard anymore.

She keeps a pitchfork in the shed. "Just in case."

In June, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission sent a trapper to see Jim Potter, who lives between the Barrets and the Kannees. Like them, his back yard ends at the lake.

The trapper wanted to know: Could he hang a gator trap off the edge of Mr. Potter's back yard?

Be my guest, Potter said.

On the topic of gators, Potter tries to be neutral.

But he will say this: "They don't belong in this community. These old people can't move too fast. They can't get out of their way."

***

Some facts about Bill Warner:

He joined the Marines, but World War II ended before he could see any action.

In the '60s, he was an ad man in Manhattan. He wrote slogans: "Light up a Kent, you've got a good thing going" and "A morning without oranges is like a day without sunshine."

His wife, Gail, died three years ago. Five adult children are scattered across the country.

He only dates women under 60. There's a woman in Brandon he takes out to dinner. There's a woman in Montreal who doesn't visit him anymore.

He shows off her picture. "Je vous aime, madame," he says to the picture. "Je vous adore."

Last month he went to the Bahamas, to go diving with the sharks. On the bottom of the ocean, he sat as still as he could as a woman in armor scattered chum and the carnivorous fish circled him.

"If they bite me, kill me, I'm okay," he says. "I've been here a long time."

He wanted to try sky-diving, but they wouldn't take such an old man up to fall through the clouds.

***

The trap in Potter's back yard was a line and a hook, baited with a piece of cow lung. When someone cut the hook off the line a few days later, the trapper replaced it.

A few days later the line was cut again. He replaced the hook a second time.

The third time, Potter was waiting with a camera.

Along came Bill Warner in his kayak, paddling up to the gator trap.

As Warner cut the line, Potter snapped a picture. Then, he said, he ran outside.

"I took your picture!" he called to Warner. "You're going to get a visitor!"

"Send him over!" Warner yelled back, paddling away.

Sure enough, Warner received not one visitor, but three.

Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Kelly Hite showed up with two trappers. Warner told them he'd been expecting them.

He showed them the hook he'd cut off the line. One of the trappers recognized the unique knot he had tied.

"The guy said,'You broke the law,'" Warner said.

Some heated words were exchanged. "I'm a sweet, calm guy," Warner said, "but you can push me all the way over the edge."

Officer Hite remembers it another way.

"He immediately started telling me that it was not right to be trapping alligators like that. He said it was cruel and inhumane. He began cursing," Hite wrote in his report.

Hite read Warner his rights. He told Warner he was being charged with harassment of a trapper, petty theft and criminal mischief.

***

Warner started arguing his case when they brought him in for the arraignment.

The judge had to tell him to save it for the trial.

He got a court-appointed attorney, but he gave her the boot.

As far as the facts go, he disagrees with only one thing: He cut the bait line twice, not three times, he says.

"I would have cut it three times, but I didn't," he says.

He has done some research. He says that as many as nine alligators have been taken out of Middle Lake in the past two years. A hundred and fifty out of all of Sun City Center.

Too many, he says. "A damn crime."

"It's like living in Africa and saying, "'Come get the lions out of my yard.'"

He doesn't expect to win the case. "The kids told me, 'Dad, don't lose your temper or you'll go to jail over this thing,'" he says.

He says he wouldn't mind. If they fine him more than $100, maybe he will go to jail rather than pay it.

And maybe that's the real reason he's doing this. That sense of danger and excitement.

That's why he likes to swim with sharks.

He has seen them, he says, the old men with tubes up their noses. Their big night out is going to the Olive Garden. Someone wheels them in and stashes the oxygen tank under the table.

"That's bullshit," he says.

Not that way for him.

Not that way for Bill Warner, swimmer with sharks, perpetual lover, defender of alligators.

"I want to go a hundred miles an hour until I hit the wall," he says. "I don't want to fade away."

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