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Man, 95, defends a piece of his paradise

By ROBIN MITCHELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000


TAMARAC -- For 30 years, since he retired as an electrician from New Jersey, the modest ranch-style home has been Nelson "Bob" Edwards' piece of Florida.

Two golf courses in town, the sunshine, and four trees in the yard loaded with grapefruit, fresh for the plucking by him and his wife, Mary.

On Monday, eight years after Mary died and five months after the state chopped down three of the trees because of citrus canker, the 95-year-old Edwards defended the last of his grove -- the 12-footer -- with an old and empty bolt-action rifle.

Broward County Sheriff's Deputy Raymond Rogers tried to explain why the tree had to go. So did Agriculture Inspector David Benner, who had knocked on Edwards' front door Monday with the word that the last tree had to go.

Don't take my tree, he told Benner.

Edwards worked the bolt on the rifle. Rogers drew his weapon and told Edwards to drop his. Benner jumped Edwards from behind and grabbed the rifle.

Edwards was charged with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer. He was released late Monday after a neighbor posted $5,000 bail.

"He's lucky he wasn't shot," said Broward sheriff's spokesman Jim Leljedal.

Neighbor Al Somma said Edwards only wanted to scare off the inspector. The rifle "wasn't loaded, and he can barely see," said Somma. "He was really scared."

Edwards' misfortune with his grapefruit trees began in October, when the blight struck his Broward County Mainlands paradise and Florida Department of Agriculture citrus canker eradication program workers removed three of his trees.

Canker is a scourge to the state's citrus industry. One of the most dangerous bacterial diseases to affect citrus, it is eradicated only by destroying infected and exposed trees. The state has issued canker quarantines in parts of Broward, Miami-Dade, Collier, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Manatee counties.

The state's citrus canker eradication program calls for citrus trees within 1,900 feet of an infected tree to be destroyed. Plant pathologists say 95 percent of exposed trees that become infected are within 1,900 feet of a diseased tree, though infection can reach as far as 4,000 feet. No known chemical compound controls the bacteria.

Tom Grace, who lives across the street from Edwards, said his neighbor was "set in his ways. If everyone thought one thing, he'd think another. He's harmless and 95. I hope this doesn't kill him."

On Tuesday, Edwards drew his blinds and refused to answer his door or telephone.

The tree was chopped down Monday.

- Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report.

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