Remember that 1970s TV show To Tell the Truth, hosted by Garry Moore? He would recite a biography, and a panel questioned three contestants, two of them impostors and one the owner of the biography. The panelists would guess which of the three was authentic. Then Moore would intone, “Will the real Joe (or Joan) Schmoe please stand up?” One, or maybe two, of the participants would wiggle in hiser chair as a decoy, and then the bona fide owner of the biography would rise.
A version of that show was enacted a couple of weeks ago in real time here in West Palm Beach, Florida. It involved a character from my real-life novel, Murder in Palm Beach: The Homicide That Never Died, which is closely based on a sensational, 1976 assassination. The person in the recent incident wasn’t sitting, but he did indeed rise to the occasion.
Murder in Palm Beach relates the saga of a karate expert who was framed for a murder and sent to prison. His name was Mark Herman, whom I named Mitt Hecher in the book. At the notorious Florida state prison in Raiford, Herman taught karate to inmates. He informed class members that he had trained the world kickboxing champion, named Sonny Stratton in the novel, a roman à clef, or “faction” book, as one wit has dubbed the genre that presents a fictionalized version of real persons and/or events.
Will the real Sonny Stratton please stand? Whoops, he’s already standing – even though he got whacked twice in the head. Here’s the story:
Sonny Stratton is really Steve Shepherd of West Palm Beach. At his karate studio, Mark Herman trained Shepherd, who claimed the world kickboxing championship five times back in the day. He’s now 68, and owns a kickboxing studio with his brother.
The other day, he emerged from a Mexican restaurant and headed to his car, walking with a limp because of a pulled muscle in a leg. Bam! Somebody smashed him in the back of the head with a bottle. “I blacked for a few seconds,” he said, and his knees buckled. The attacker then punched him in the face near his left eye, screaming, “Give me your (f-ing) phone.”
Shepherd collected himself and began fighting. He swung at the man, aged early 20s with long, dark hair, with a right cross. The fellow threw his hands up to protect his face, leaving his midsection open, and Shepherd landed a right hook. “And then he just crumbled right there,” the fighter said. “I felt his ribs crack.”
But bystanders, thinking it was just a street fight, intervened, and the guy got away. Police said a video in a nearby alley showed the guy pacing back and forth for several hours, apparently waiting for a victim. Investigators theorized the attacker was homeless.
So that was the real Steve Shepherd. Here is his alias in Murder in Palm Beach:
“All right, men,” Hecher (Mark Herman) barked, standing in the prison yard facing two rows of inmates.
A tall, black inmate in the second row shouted, “Stand up.”
“(Expletive) you, wise guy,” Hecher called back.
“Wise guy?” said the inmate. “Do I look Italian? You guys are the mobsters.”
“All right, all right,” said Hecher, “let’s cut the crap and get down to business. Karate takes a lot of discipline. Any of you guys ever hear of Sonny Stratton?”
“Oh, yeah,” one said loudly.
“The best,” said another.
“Greatest kick boxer of all time,” the outspoken black said, his voice ringing with finality, as if his opinion was beyond dispute.
“He was totally disciplined,” said Hecher. “I know, because I trained him.”
“No,” the black said, sounding incredulous. “You trained Sonny Stratton? You guys hear that? This here’s the man. He knows what he be doin’.”
“Yeah. He sure do,” said another, and the rest looked at each other and shook their heads in agreement.
“Sonny Stratton. Wow!” one exclaimed.
Shepherd is still standing, and has no intention of sitting on his laurels. His last professional fight was in 2000, when a law banned professional fighting past age 50. He successfully worked to get the law overturned. The recent attack ruptured an eardrum, but he hopes to fight professionally in March and set the record as the oldest person to do so.