NORTH MIAMI, Fla. – When he was one of Miami's notorious "cocaine cowboys" in the 1980s, Mickey Munday made millions of dollars flying loads of drugs for Colombia's Medellin and Cali cartels.
He knew infamous Medellin kingpin Pablo Escobar. He liked to fly his illicit cargo to out-of-the-way landing strips in the Everglades using night-vision goggles. He sunk his drug profits mainly into real estate rather than exotic cars and yachts.
Now Munday, who served nearly a decade in prison, has created a makeshift park next to his quiet North Miami home. The park has a place for people to put padlocks and is dedicated to love — something that might atone a little for his notorious past.
"I have dealt with some of the most dangerous people in the world," Munday, 71, said in a recent interview. "Most of them are dead or in jail forever. I'm lucky."
Using his push lawnmower, Munday carved a pair of interlocking hearts in the grass above the word "love" cut into the rocky soil. With local artist Maurizio Raponi, he built a metal sculpture also containing the same four letters in red. And he strung a series of fence posts with plastic-covered chains so people could attach padlocks as a symbol of lasting love — similar to the clusters of locks found on bridges in Europe.
It's even got a sign: the "Lock-In Love Park."
"I've always done crazy things like this," said Munday, brushing aside his long blonde-and-gray hair. "It's a little something to feel good about. Every day you hear about so much crap."
On a recent visit, there were about three dozen locks on the chains. Some people left little messages on them, such as "Believe," while others wrote names or initials of spouses, lovers, children, friends and pets. Three 11-year-old girls attached a trio of locks together and declared themselves sisters forever, Munday said.
Someone else attached a blue steering-wheel locking device.
"I don't know if it's a guy who misses his Mustang or what," said Munday, who lives in a house adjacent to the lot along a wide canal. "Every day I come out here, there's new locks. Each one of them has a little bit of a story."
A neighbor, Steve Holmes, attached a lock with an "H'' written on it to signify love within their family. He said his 4-year-old daughter gets excited every time she sees it.
"She says, 'Daddy there's our lock!'" Holmes said. "It's just to promote unity in the neighborhood. It's a positive thing to do."
Back in his cocaine cartel days, Munday was part of an organization linked to dozens of murders and shootings that made South Florida the nation's violence capital. As told in the 2006 "Cocaine Cowboys" documentary — in which Munday plays a large part — there were suitcases full of cash, hit men with machine guns, drug-laden speedboats, night drops of drugs in the swamps, clandestine landing strips and numerous close calls with law enforcement.
A self-taught pilot, Munday estimates he could make about $2.5 million a night running drugs between Colombia and Florida. But rather than buying flashy exotic cars, yachts, expensive clothes and hitting the nightlife like many of his contemporaries, he invested the money into real estate.
"I tried to be a ghost. I didn't want to be seen," he said. "I never had anything to do with all the violence."
In 1987, he was among 30 people indicted by a Miami federal grand jury on drug trafficking charges, but it took about three years for federal agents to track him down. Munday was arrested in 1990 living under an assumed name in Richmond, Virginia, and soon after began his prison stint.
He was paroled in 1999. The feds had long since seized all his drug-related assets. He mainly gets around on a bicycle these days.
His fledgling love park had been used for years as a canal access point by the South Florida Water Management District, but he had only seen crews use it a few times a year. There was a fence there with a sign that read: "No Parking. Discharging of Firearms Prohibited."
The lot was also overgrown with weeds. A few months ago, Munday saw two boys fishing there and a man in a wheelchair on a sidewalk. It turned out the man was a veteran wounded in Afghanistan and the boys were his sons — and he couldn't get to the canal's edge because there was no opening in the existing fence.
So Munday installed a new fence with metal posts sunk into concrete, and now it has an opening.
"I said, 'I'm fixing this,'" Munday said. "It's more than big enough for a wheelchair. Now he can go fishing with his kids."
The love park concept gradually grew from there. Munday and Raponi said they'd like to install similar artwork and places for love-symbol padlocks at other parks around Miami, using a metalworking shop Raponi owns.
Munday was asked whether this project atones somewhat for the criminal life he previously lived.
"It does, but I didn't mean it that way. I did it for fun. I didn't just put art in a park, I put in a whole park," he said. "Maybe it will make people reach out and touch something."
A friend of Munday's, Holly Cleveland, said she recently surprised her husband on their anniversary by taking him over to the park and attaching a lock with their wedding date written on it. Then, they threw the key into the canal.
"You lock in your love and you throw away the key. It meant a lot to be able to share it with my husband," she said. "I know Mickey has had a reputation in the past, but I know him as a really great guy. It's him of all people. That makes it even more interesting."
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Miamicurt .