By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Seventy-four-year-old antique dealer Billy Herrero vowed he wouldn't walk away from his "friends" -- his sprawling array of period furniture, Oriental vases, vintage clothing, Art Deco trinkets, and unadulterated junk collected over six decades. And in the end, he didn't. Early Christmas Eve, a few hours before he was to be evicted and his worldly possessions seized by order of a federal bankruptcy judge, Herrero set fire to his Coconut Grove home and hobbled upstairs to a rear bedroom. There he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
It was a tragic end to a flamboyant and fiercely independent life overwhelmed by battling attorneys, an impatient bank, and nearly $500,000 in debts. To the aging and infirm Herrero, the court action stripping him of his home and his beloved collection was an indignity he could not endure.
The abandoned son of a Spanish mother and an Irish father, a young Herrero struggled through several orphanages and the Great Depression. He emerged in the late Thirties and early Forties as one of America's top female impersonators, and lived a colorful life of decadence and fame. "I've enjoyed the company of dignitaries and degenerates," he told New Times as part of a profile published three weeks ago ("Billy's Last Stand," December 9). "I have had an amazing life." He may have earned more than a million dollars during his years on stage, but he had no way of knowing. He spent it all on parties, cars, and other assorted luxuries.
As the nightclub performance circuit faded in the Fifties, Herrero turned his attention to the dozens of trunks filled with costumes and cheap jewelry he had stored all over the United States. Eventually he parlayed these belongings into a treasure trove of antiques and collectibles with an estimated value of more than one million dollars. He called his store (which was also his home) near the corner of U.S. 1 and 27th Avenue "The Best Little Hoardhouse in Miami."
Herrero marked 1984 as the beginning of his downward spiral. At that time a city-sponsored redevelopment project was scheduled to transform 27th Avenue into a busy commercial district. Herrero claimed that a banker from Totalbank seduced him into borrowing $300,000 to improve his property in anticipation of a revitalized neighborhood, and assured him he'd be able to refinance the debt in the future if he had difficulty paying back the money. (Herrero already had nearly paid off the mortgage on his property.)
Soon after Herrero borrowed the money, the redevelopment project began to fall apart. But rather than quickly repay the loan, Herrero used some of the money to repair his shop and to pay medical bills. He said the banker then advised him to reinvest the remainder with Totalbank. The money he earned from those investments, however, was not enough to cover the interest payments on his loan. "I was a fool," Herrero said recently. "Like a lot of old people, I was flattered that these strangers were paying attention to me, spending time with me. I signed whatever papers they put in front of me. I let them get close to me, and today I'm all fucked up because of it."
In 1989, after paying back about two-thirds of the Totalbank loan, Herrero defaulted on the rest. On March 5 of this year, Circuit Court Judge Jon Gordon ordered the sale of Herrero's property, but a few hours before the sale was to take place, Herrero's attorney, Richard Siegmeister, blocked it by helping Herrero file for bankruptcy.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge A. Jay Cristol permitted Herrero to hold a series of auctions, giving the collector a final chance to raise money to pay back his debt. The auctions -- one in late November and another two weeks ago -- were financial failures, in part because of Herrero's stubborn refusal to cooperate with auctioneer Jay Sugarman, who says Herrero held back merchandise intended for sale and insulted prospective bidders.
This past Wednesday Judge Cristol appointed a trustee to seize Herrero's property, and attorney Siegmeister agreed to accept a five-day, temporary eviction while Herrero's merchandise was moved to a warehouse in preparation for a court-mandated sale. Siegmeister, who said at the time he was pleased with the judge's decision, called Herrero to inform him that he would have to leave his home that evening; informal plans had been made for him to stay with a friend.
But the cantankerous Herrero had no plans to go quietly. He immediately barricaded himself in his cluttered shop and began making phone calls to acquaintances and confidants in a desperate bid for help. When Siegmeister arrived at the store that evening, Herrero brandished an antique two-shot derringer and refused to allow him inside. "That's when I decided we should have some professionals here to mediate the situation," Siegmeister said. Miami police were summoned and surrounded the building. Herrero still refused to emerge, but because the court order did not specifically authorize forcible entry, the police eventually departed.
Siegmeister, two Totalbank representatives, and the court-appointed trustee and his assistants then retreated to a parking lot across the street from Herrero's fortress. Using a cellular phone, Siegmeister reached Judge Cristol and together they composed a revised court order that would allow law enforcement authorities to break and enter if necessary. "I feel a little unusual drafting an order evicting my client," Siegmeister noted.