The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks leads many to reexamine one of the most significant events in modern American history, and many Americans believe that, 21 years later, our government is still not telling the full truth about what happened that day. Conspiratorial thinking has exploded, and become a mainstream phenomenon.
But to be called a "conspiracy theorist" is no compliment. If you are accused of being one, you are a tinfoil hat-wearing, schizophrenic paranoiac who believes in lizard people and a flat Earth.
This might be a little unfair. History shows us that governments and shadowy networks have conspired to illicit and nefarious ends. From the Iran-Contra scandal to oil companies hiding data about climate change and CIA-funded mind control programs, real conspiracies abound. And what is a conspiracy anyway? The legal definition is “an agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act, along with an intent to achieve the agreement's goal.” That's pretty broad. What doesn’t fall under that rubric?
By that very loose definition, Sarasota is filled with conspiracies that go back more than a century and, these days, in the time of loony politics and social media, we’ve landed on the national radar. A New York magazine article dubbed our beach town the “Conspiracy Coast,” while Vice wrote a story calling Sarasota “the Conspiracy Capital of the United States.” The Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Chris Anderson goes even further, claiming Sarasota County “has somehow become the Conspiracy Capital of the World.”
Are we really a hub for conspiracies? Is there something in the water? Or is it the white quartz crystal sand?
Here are eight common conspiracy theories that involve Sarasota—ranging from the very absurd to the very real.
Conspiracies are born out of coincidences, so we’ll start with the big one—9/11. Sarasota has a bizarre number of connections to this defining moment in world history, and we still don’t know the whole truth about what really went on here leading up to that fateful day.
Sarasota was destined to be in the 9/11 spotlight because President George W. Bush was reading to a classroom of second graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary when he was told a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. But, in a strange and eerie coincidence, three of the hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, lived and trained here, too.
Stranger still is the al-Hijji family, who lived in a gated Sarasota neighborhood. It would take 10 years, but it was eventually revealed that this Saudi family, who had connections to the Saudi government, had fled in a hurry days before the attacks. They also had reportedly hosted Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers at their home in the year leading up to 9/11.
To make matters more suspicious, the FBI and CIA worked in tandem to prevent the public from knowing about this family’s possible involvement with the terrorists. The information discovered in Sarasota would later lead to the revelation of Operation Encore, an internal investigation by a small group of FBI agents that showed Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Mysteries remain about what really happened in Sarasota. One of the many unanswered questions about that day is why the Secret Service did not immediately hustle Bush to a secure location, as it apparently did with Vice-President Dick Cheney, or why Air Force One left Sarasota without a fighter jet escort while a hijacked plane was still in the sky.
Even more mysterious is a largely ignored incident that allegedly took place on the morning of the attacks at the Colony Beach and Tennis Resort on Longboat Key. A couple weeks after 9/11, a story in the Longboat Observer claimed that a van full of what the Tampa Bay Times described as "men of Middle Eastern descent" arrived at the Colony on the morning of Sept. 11 and said they had a poolside interview scheduled with the president. While the FBI and Secret Service have disputed this claim, and allegedly asked the publication’s editor to stop writing about the matter, the Observer continues to stick to its reporting.
Katherine Harris and the 2000 Election
The Sept. 11 attacks weren’t the first time Sarasota was involved in shaping the course of history. Our sleepy county featured prominently in the hot mess that was the 2000 presidential election. A quick refresher: Republican George W. Bush defeated Democrat Al Gore thanks to a 537-vote margin in the state of the Florida. A state recount of the vote was challenged by the Bush team and the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices ruled 5-4 to stop the Florida recount. As a result, Bush won Florida by a 0.009 percent margin and, subsequently, the electoral vote.
But even before the hanging chads and the "Brooks Brothers riot" (an orchestrated anti-recount protest in Miami that Roger Stone took credit for), Sarasota socialite and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had overseen a controversial effort to purge Florida’s voter rolls of ineligible voters. The firm hired for the job removed more than 173,000 Floridians from the rolls, but the list was flawed, and thousands of voters were wrongfully turned away. In an election decided by 537 votes, this might have made all the difference. Harris would later certify the election results that favored Bush.
Siesta Key and the Lost City of Atlantis
On a lighter note, many woo-woo Sarasotans love to say that the fine quartz sand of Siesta Key comes from the Lost City of Atlantis. It’s unclear who started this claim, but since quartz is one of the favored crystals among the New Age crowd, finding a beach full of the stuff would be tantamount to stumbling upon Nirvana. Some say that, because of the Atlantis sand, Sarasota has received mysterious protection from hurricanes, and that the sand creates high vibrational energy for anyone who plops down and meditates on the beach.
While there’s nothing nefarious afoot on the white sands of Siesta Key, the myth of Atlantis was a favorite of Nazi leader Henrich Himmler, who commanded the SS. Atlantis, he believed, was home to a super-race of Aryans that fell into the sea. According to the theory, refugees from Atlantis scattered across the world and helped found great civilizations throughout history, providing pseudo-historical evidence for the superiority of the German people.
We Build the Wall
Just last week, Steve Bannon surrendered to officials in the state of New York as part of charges related to his role in the We Build the Wall scheme. Back in 2018, Bannon and his associates started a GoFundMe and raised more than $25 million to privately build a wall along the United States' southern border. Two years later, members of the group were accused of ripping off donors by siphoning money from the project and were arrested on wire fraud and money laundering charges. One of the co-conspirators was local businessman Andy Badolato.
Badolato, who owned the home on Casey Key that Steve Bannon listed as his place of residence during the 2016 election, pleaded guilty to wire fraud earlier this year. (Bannon pleaded not guilty to the charges against him last week.) But what makes the case of Badolato curious is how long he was able to skirt the law. According to reporting by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Chris Anderson, Badolato and Bannon had working together for decades, and Badolato had assisted the FBI on more than one occasion. In 2008, Badolato worked with the FBI to record conversations with Louis Caputo, who claimed he had ties to the mafia and who loaned Badolato $12,500 at an interest rate of 500 percent. According to the Department of Justice, Caputo threatened Badolato when Badolato did not pay him back, and in 2013 Caputo pleaded guilty to extortion.
Tales of the Skunk Ape—Florida’s very own version of Bigfoot—have been around for more than 200 years. There are reports dating back to 1818 of a “man-sized monkey” stalking fishermen and stealing food, and there have been a total of 325 Skunk Ape sightings in Florida, eight of which allegedly took place in Sarasota County.
As with Bigfoot, most experts believe Skunk Ape to be a case of mistaken identity; they write off the mythological creature as people confusing it with a bear. And, for the most part, Skunk Ape has just become a fun mascot for the state of Florida.
But it’s also attracted anti-government and magical thinking types. In a Smithsonian Magazine article, the author interviewed an earnest Skunk Ape expert whom the magazine called “the Jane Goodall of skunk apes.” The expert went on to tell the author that on a night when he saw the creature, a government helicopter arrived and hovered above the site for hours. He also claimed that some Skunk Ape hairs he had collected were confiscated by unidentified federal agents who came to his home.
Art Nadel, the “Mini-Madoff”
Nicknamed the “mini-Madoff” of Sarasota, Art Nadel ran a complex scam from his office in downtown Sarasota that swindled $168 million from nearly 400 investors.
Nadel, a disbarred lawyer, moved to Sarasota in 1978 and lived a quiet life at first. He played jazz piano in restaurants and drove a $4,000 used car. Years later, he started small investment clubs with returns that attracted a father-and-son investment team who, in 1999, turned it into the hedge fund Scoop Management Co. Nadel managed the fund and became the purveyor of the biggest Ponzi scheme in Southwest Florida. He raised $330 million by claiming returns as high as 55 percent.
When people started asking for their money, the whole thing unraveled. The fund had been losing money from the beginning. Scores of Sarasota residents lost fortunes; some lost their entire net worth. Nadel briefly went on the lam, but surrendered to authorities in January 2009 and was sentenced to 14 years behind bars. He died in prison three years later at the age of 79.
You might wave off the Nadel story as just a common white collar crime, but this is Sarasota. One thing Nadel did would make a conspiracy theorist’s head explode: He bought the aircraft facility that once trained two of the 9/11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta. In 2006, Nadel incorporated the Venice Jet Center, which, up until 2003, was called Huffman Aviation and owned by Rudi Dekkers. On top of teaching the hijackers how to fly, the school was responsible for filing student visa request forms for them. (In 2012, Dekkers was charged with two drug conspiracy counts for trafficking cocaine and heroin in a private jet.)
The Sarasota Assassination Society
In 1884, when Sarasota was comprised of just 60 families, a group of men formed the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee. The New York Times would dub them the "Sarasota assassination society” after their crimes caught national attention. “Bound together by terrible oaths,” the Times wrote, these men killed Sarasota residents Charles Abbe and Harrison Riley. Abbe was shot in the head with a double-barreled shotgun on Cunliff Lane in the Bayview neighborhood. His body was dumped in Sarasota Bay. Riley was shot and had his throat cut.
The motive for the killings is unclear, although it is suspected that the group killed Abbe out of personal resentment. He was a wealthy man in a place where most people lived in shanties. He was also the postmaster, and a Republican in a town of Democrats. Riley was just as disliked. His job was to kick squatters off the land.
Seven men were found guilty and sentenced to death, but by 1892 they were all free. Two escaped and the rest were pardoned. Perhaps some good ol’ boy sympathy from the powers that be? This bit of Sarasota history is memorialized today at the Bidwell-Wood House in Pioneer Park.
Stop the Steal
Since the 2020 election of Joe Biden, Sarasota has become the nerve center of Stop the Steal—the protest movement that falsely claims that only massive electoral fraud defeated former President Donald Trump.
At the head of the movement is Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor. In the wake of Trump’s defeat, Flynn implored the outgoing president to declare martial law and seize voting machines around the country. In April 2021, Flynn bought a home in Sarasota County, and people have since followed him here, including former Overstock chief executive officer Patrick Byrne. In an interview, Byrne called Flynn his “Yoda” and said he bought himself a home in Sarasota because he “wanted to be near him.”
Byrne has used his fortune to finance efforts to overturn the election results. He gave $3.25 million to Cyber Ninjas, the Sarasota computer security company founded by Doug Logan that was hired to audit the results of the 2020 election in Arizona. The audit found no evidence of fraud.
The list goes on. According to the Herald-Tribune, Maria Zack, a Republican operative with ties to Sarasota, has claimed that foreign powers used an Italian satellite to electronically change votes from Trump to Biden on election night. And then there’s my favorite, Adam Johnson, the Parrish man whose visage will be etched in the halls of American history after he stole Nancy Pelosi’s podium during the Jan. 6 riots.