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Rush's drug use has Palm Beach in tizzy

The talk show host's problems garner him sympathy from some neighbors and disdain among others in the wealthy community.

By TOM ZUCCO
Published December 14, 2003


Rush Limbaugh's home in Palm Beach is part of a block of property he has assembled since 1996.
[Times photo: Tom Zucco]

[Updated 12/15/03, 16:47]

PALM BEACH - Don Auteri leaned against his squad car and watched the stores along Worth Avenue slowly come to life. It was 9:05 Thursday morning, and the smaller shops were open. But the heavy hitters - Gucci, Chanel, Armani and Ralph Lauren - were fashionably late again.

A silver Rolls-Royce rolled silently to a stop across the street, and an elderly man with jet-black hair, two-tone black and white shoes, white shorts and a pink and white polka-dot shirt climbed out. A Yorkshire terrier was under his arm.

This, Auteri said without glancing over, is a different world.

The local Publix offers valet parking and $299.99 bottles of 1998 Montrachet Grand Cru in an oak wine case. The fire department buildings are historic sites and could easily pass for some of the $2-million homes. And there are enough Jaguars here to open a game preserve.

As for many of the 10,500 or so people who live here full time, they remain mostly a mystery.

"No one knows what goes on behind those 20-foot hedges," said Auteri, who has patrolled the not-so-mean streets of Palm Beach for 23 years.

More than 90 percent of the crime here involves thefts and burglaries, he said. It's as if everyone has mutually agreed that violent crime is in poor taste. "The last murder we had," Auteri said, "was about 10 years ago."

And then, on Oct. 14, this quiet little world was rocked when the face of one of Palm Beach's most notable residents was plastered on the front page of the National Enquirer.

RUSH LIMBAUGH CAUGHT IN DRUG RING

At least, say some residents of this finger of sand that covers just 3.75 square miles, Limbaugh had the good sense to drive across the bridge and buy his drugs in West Palm Beach. It didn't happen here.

Still, Limbaugh, who will be 53 next month, was national news. And Palm Beach was guilty by association. Again.

In early October, Limbaugh was forced to resign from ESPN for making a comment that a black NFL quarterback was overrated because the media wanted to see him succeed. That quarterback, Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb, has since led his team to a 10-3 record.

After acknowledging he was addicted to prescription pain medication, Limbaugh completed a five-week stint in rehab - his third try - and is back on the radio, talking to about 20-million listeners a week on more than 600 stations. He has not been charged with a crime.

The penalty for illegally buying large quantities of prescription painkillers is up to five years in prison, and prosecutors promise Limbaugh will receive no special treatment.

Some people here have brushed the incident aside along with all its lurid details, like the indiscretions of a wayward uncle.

"If anybody is hooked on prescription drugs, it's an illness," said Lt. Jim Sorrentino, a 22-year veteran of the Palm Beach Fire Department. "There's a lot more shame in some of the political goings-on than in someone who is ill.

"I have sympathy for him. And I'm not a Republican."

Others are more forthcoming.

"He brought a negative attitude to Palm Beach; that's the real crime," said Shannon Donnelly, society editor for the Palm Beach Daily News. "That's the worst crime you could commit in this atown."

A registered Republican who is twice divorced and married to his third wife, Limbaugh is alternately described as pompous and bombastic on the air. And it may seem as if he craves attention. He was made an honorary member of Congress by adoring conservatives in 1994. Two years earlier, President George H.W. Bush personally carried Limbaugh's bags into the White House when Limbaugh stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom.

But those who know him say he is shy and retiring off the air, a man who prefers to curl up on a sofa and watch football.

"He's not out much," Donnelly said. "He has a circle of friends he socializes with, normally at the clubs and at his home.

"I never see him in the stores."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer has a mansion here. So does Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffett, Vic Damone, and Ivana and Donald Trump (separate residences).

But few can match the fiefdom Limbaugh has amassed on the north end of the island.

In 1996, Limbaugh and his wife, Marta, paid $6.7-million for a new 12,000-square-foot Michael Burrows-built oceanfront home. Two years later, he bought the oceanfront lot just to the north for $3.9-million, and the following year, he paid $1.2-million for another adjoining lot.

Five months later, he added yet another lot, this time for a mere $450,000.

Finally, in 2000, he paid $2.3-million for the last piece to his puzzle, a 2,700-square-foot house that just three years earlier sold for $820,000.

The five parcels have a combined appraised value of more than $26-million, according to the Palm Beach County property appraiser.

Limbaugh paid more than $466,000 in property taxes this year, which means he's helping to pay for his own criminal investigation.

The drug probe began when Wilma Cline, 42, Limbaugh's former housekeeper, told the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office that from 1997 to July 2001 she gave Limbaugh thousands of sandwich bags filled with painkillers in exchange for Cuban cigar boxes stuffed with cash.

She says the transactions took place in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant and at an Amoco station. For a few weeks, both places were minor tourist attractions. People ask Denny's employees if they have found the Rush parking lot, but the restaurant workers have never seen him.

Ditto for the workers at the Amoco on Okeechobee Road.

Just as the heat of publicity began to subside, it roared back to life this month. Investigators who raided the offices of four of Limbaugh's doctors said in search warrants that the talk show host engaged in "doctor shopping" for prescription painkillers. Limbaugh was the first to break the news, denying any wrongdoing to his listeners and accusing prosecutors of going on a "fishing expedition."

For now, at least, the gates and hedges surrounding his compound keep the world at bay.

The winter social season, meanwhile, is in full swing.

Within walking distance of where Limbaugh broadcasts his show is Green's Pharmacy. "You might find him there," said Auteri, the Palm Beach police officer.

"No, really. They have a lunch counter there and sometimes he stops in."

The store, by any standards, is unremarkable. It's as if it forgot its jacket and tie.

But the coffee is hot and the bacon and eggs are affordable. Most of the customers are people who work - not live - here. Carpet installers, electricians, drywall hangers. People who are glad to be able to sit for a while.

"He has come in here, but I don't know why," said server Nanci Lane, who has worked at Green's for eight years and lives in West Palm Beach. "Not lately, though."

Both of Lane's children are grown, but she can't retire. She's got bills to pay. Besides, she loves her job. It's what she knows.

"I wouldn't say much to him if he came in now," she said. "But I'd serve him.

"No, I'd wait till he got out on the sidewalk. Then I'd go out there and ask him about what he said about finding the ones doing drugs and locking them up forever.

"I'd ask him about that."

She poured another cup of coffee for a customer at the counter.

"Sometimes, things you say might come back to haunt you.

"Maybe it's haunting him. And maybe it's not."

[Last modified December 15, 2003, 17:08:04]


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