The 20-ton buoy in Key West, Florida, is a shrine to the quaint town at the southern tip of the continental United States, a Cold War-era object that has long been a tourist attraction and residents’ pride.
So members of the community were naturally upset when a pair of young men in shorts and backwards caps were spotted on security camera footage setting fire to the southernmost Point Boy in the darkest hours of New Year’s Day.
But locals were furious about something else that also violated the calm spirit of Key West’s island community: One of the tourists didn’t tip his bartender.
The lack of gratuity on three separate drink orders was troubling many locals, especially since the regional economy depends on an army of low-wage workers in the service industry trying to make a living in an expensive tourist hub. Which is only 2 miles away. 4 miles but welcomes about 3 million visitors annually.
And that also appears to be what the pair did.
The video of the burning spread on social media. In this, two people can be seen rolling the Christmas tree to the buoy. One looks around, and the other bends to the tree and lights it. Within seconds, the tree is a flame. As his partner appears to be taking pictures, he flashes a rock ‘n’ roll salute in front of the fire.
Like many Key West residents, Cameron Briody saw the footage the next day. The bartender at Briody, Irish Kevin’s, a popular bar on Duval Street, the city’s main drag, immediately recognized the men. According to a police report, he did this because Briody served only those who did not tip him that night.
“Tipping is very important, because it is everywhere, but especially here,” Mayor Terry Johnston said in an interview, explaining that Key West is full of people who work multiple jobs to make each job. Huh. “Our service staff go out of their way to make sure you are having a great time.”
Cash was paid for one drink, but the other two were purchased with a credit card, leaving a paper trail. Briody contacted the bar’s general manager, Dallin Starks.
Starks said he matched the time stamps on the card slips with video footage of when the men were at the counter and were tracked through the bar. Starks said cameras at the bar also recorded scenes that appeared to show the young women he approached were rejecting the men.
Starks said, people are “more memorable if they leave you a big tip instead of a normal tip or don’t tip at all.” “Of all the people Cameron served that night, it just so happened that he was the only one who didn’t give him a tip.”
Starks and the police said the same people in the bar video had lit the Christmas tree. Police said they left the bar around 1:50 a.m. on New Year’s Day and the fire broke out at the southernmost Point Boy at around 3:20 p.m.
Police have identified the two as Skylar Rae Jacobson, 21, of Texas, and David Brendan Perkins, 22, of Leesburg, Florida. Police said they had obtained felony warrants for both men on suspicion of criminal mischief, with damages exceeding $1,000. Both individuals did not respond to requests for comment by phone and text message.
According to the police report, the men confessed over the phone when an investigator arrived. Reportedly, Perkins said the men found the tree on Duval Street around 2:30 or 3 a.m. and had no intention of damaging property. The report said that he used a lighter to start the fire and did not add any fuel. The report said that Perkins called it “a big mistake”, while Jacobson said they were “not thinking.”
The town’s tongue-in-cheek name adopted in 1982 from Conch Republic, Florida, which has turned into the city’s fickle alter ego, is forgiving. Some of its residents, such as Jim Gilren, a boat captain and bar owner who calls himself the Secretary of State for the Republic, do not want the pair to serve jail time.
“The Secretary of State does not think that these people should be punished,” said the Secretary of State. “They should do community service so they can really appreciate what a great community we have here.”
Prominent West citizens are “not a vindictive people,” he said, calling for “emotional healing.”
But it appears that Conch Republic’s restorative-justice philosophy conflicts with that of the state of Florida.
“When I saw the video the next morning,” Dennis Ward, the state attorney who oversaw Key West, said in an interview, “I went, ‘Wow, look at these idiots.'”
Ward estimated that 35-40% of Key West’s lawsuits involved tourists. Drunk driving. War. A case a few years ago that involved a man manhandling a pelican.
Wrist slaps don’t work as a deterrent, Ward said. Ward said, like Gilran, he wants the buoy incident to be a learning moment for young people.
“Yeah, I like to use things as a learning experience,” he said. “Like, you come down here and you do this? You’re going to do some jail time.”
Ward said he would recommend some time for both, though he wasn’t sure how much and added that a sentence would ultimately be a judge’s decision.
According to the city manager, Patty McLachlin, the buoy has been restored at a cost of about $5,300.
Earlier, it has been battered by Mother Nature. Hurricane Irma stormed it in 2017, leading to a shiny new paint job from the original artist. But McLachlin said the buoy hadn’t been broken yet.
Starks said it wasn’t unusual for people in their early 20s not to tip. She said the negative attention the two men received was their own form of punishment. She also wants to see him do community service, but in Key West, not in his hometown.
“We all do dumb stuff when we’re kids,” she said. “I know it’s a little higher than most people, but you have to remember they were 21 and 22.”
“If the judges are up for it, Cameron and I could use a lot of landscaping right now,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the new York Times,