The Night The Lights Went Out On Collins Avenue

When Carl Weersing threw the main circuit breaker in his Fairmont Hotel apartment, the place went dark. Really dark.

Carl Weersing loved his apartment. For $550 per month, he and his pal Alfonso Yepez got a second-floor roost in the very heart of South Beach. The whole world passed by their sunny terrace near the corner of Collins Avenue and Tenth Street.

One small concern soured this otherwise sweet arrangement. Month after month, despite his best efforts at energy conservation, Weersing's electric bill was about $50. The bills seemed high, especially considering that the apartment had no air conditioning.

On January 21 Weersing threw the main circuit breaker on his kitchen fuse box. "I stepped out onto the terrace and all the neon lights around the hotel and the downstairs cafe were dark. All of a sudden I realized: that's where my money was going for 38 months."

"Carl came running downstairs and said, `Wait till you see this!'" recalls neighbor Jim Gillon. "He gave me a demonstration, and I couldn't believe it. I went outside and took Polaroids of the neon lights. Carl would throw the power switch on his fuse box, and the lights would go out. He hit the switch again and the lights came back on."

Jose Novoa, on-site manager of the Fairmont Hotel and Garden Restaurant, promptly showed up with an electrician and worked on the wiring in Weersing's apartment. The tenants' monthly power bill thereafter dropped to about $15. But getting reimbursed for their unwitting electrical donations was harder. At first, Weersing and Yepez claim, Novoa and "owner's representative" Richard Gonzalez denied there had ever been a misappropriation of power. Then theysaid the snafu was an innocent misunderstanding, and offered a total of $25 as a settlement.

Finally, more than four months after he first discovered the electrical problem, Weersing received a check for $1186.59 from the owners of the Fairmont. "This check is a complete satisfaction of all claims...against Bascones Enterprises... pertaining to erroneous electrical billing," an attached note read.

Weersing and Yepez say their receipt of the settlement check was the opening assault in a six-month war with Novoa and Gonzalez. Today, both parties are suing each other in Dade Circuit Court -- the landlord for eviction, the tenants for alleged "harassment and retaliatory conduct."

While still trying to resolve the electrical oddity, Fairmont managers threatened to tow his car from in front of the apartment house, Weersing says. In addition, after allowing Weersing and Yepez to keep a poodle for more than two years, they ordered the tenants to get rid of the dog. When Yepez and Weersing complained about a small rent increase instituted on short notice, Novoa and Gonzalez threatened to increase the monthly charge to $800, the tenants claim. In July, Weersing returned from his father's funeral in Ohio to find the apartment's spacious outdoor terrace padlocked. "Our insurance does not permit usage of the terrace," wrote Gonzalez, in an attached note.

Later that month, fed up with various maintenance problems inside their apartment, Yepez and Weersing asked Miami Beach code enforcement officer Mike Saunders to inspect their residence. Saunders's July 10 report ordered Bascones Enterprises to fix water-damaged walls and ceiling, and cracked shower tiles, and provide alternate temporary housing for Weersing and Yepez while the landlord hired a licensed exterminator to take care of a termite infestation.

Hours after the city code inspector visited their premises, Weersing and Yepez received this note from Gonzalez: "Gentlemen: This will serve as notice that your rental of apartment #12 is considered terminated. We will require that the apartment be vacated by July 31st, 1992."

July 31 has come and gone, and Weersing and Yepez still occupy their second-floor nest at the Fairmont. Because they rented the apartment without a written lease, their landlords were legally entitled to sue for eviction without explaining why. But with the help of Miami attorney Walter Deloatch, Jr., Weersing and Yepez have countersued for damages in excess of $15,000, saying their eviction is malicious and illegal.

At a recent hearing, County Judge Raphael Steinhardt granted Deloatch's motion to move the matter to Dade Circuit Court, a strategy that will delay the resolution of the lawsuits. Until the suits are settled, Weersing and Yepez are entitled to remain in their apartment, giving them plenty of time to hunt for new digs among the posthurricane-priced apartments of South Beach.

Gonzalez and Novoa did not respond to requests for an interview made through their attorney, Miami Beach Commissioner Niesen Kasdin.

Meanwhile, Weersing's and Yepez's neighbor Jim Gillon has also been summarily evicted from the Fairmont, a fate he says suits him fine. Gillon, who himself manages a 39-unit apartment building on Ocean Drive and sits on the board of the Miami Design Preservation League, admits he didn't always pay his rent on time, but calls the Fairmont landlords "monumentally arrogant. I've never seen anything like it in any business I've been in in my life, and I'm 50 years old.

 
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