Courts & Crime

Dispute over tomato leaves man with broken neck

A dispute over a tomato in South Miami-Dade sent a Miami Beach man to the hospital with a fractured neck and back and left police scrambling to identify his attacker.

Robert Lerner, 44, was on his way to the Redland for a photo shoot with his daughter, a 10-year-old child model, just after 9 a.m. Jan. 28 when she became fascinated by the sight of a tomato field.

"She'd never seen one before," Lerner told The Miami Herald on Monday night. "She thought it was such a beautiful thing."

So, Lerner pulled over so she could pick a tomato.

That's when it got ugly.

A man, claiming to be the owner, parked his Jeep Wrangler in front of him.

"He was yelling and calling us thieves," Lerner — who is 44, five feet four inches tall, and slim — recalled.

"I tried to explain it was just one tomato. But before I could he did some — I don't even know — flip move on me." Then the man drove away in his Jeep.

After his fall to the pavement, Lerner's neck got stiff. He drove his daughter to the modeling assignment a half mile away, then decided it was a good idea to call 911.

He was taken to South Miami Hospital, where doctors placed titanium rods in his neck. Now he is wearing a neck brace, which could be on for as long as three months, doctors told him. Lerner, who constructs drum sets for a living, is now unable to work.

He gave police a detailed description of his attacker, which they used for a composite sketch. The attacker was described as five feet nine inches tall and weighing about 175 pounds with light-colored, salt-and-pepper hair.

"At first, I was just in shock," Lerner said. "Then I hurt. I hope someone catches him so he is not able to do this again."

He said his daughter picked a good tomato, red and very ripe. But he is unsure whether she ate it.