Loads of Dirty Laundry

Bounced checks, phony documents, multiple bankruptcies, countless lawsuits, burned business partners, and an army of avenging attorneys might discourage most entrepreneurs. But as far as Mohamed Ibrahim is concerned, it all just comes out in the wash.

As laundromats go, My Dream Coin Laundry is spectacular. Row after row of shiny front-loading washing machines hum along to reggae tunes on the sound system. The white tile floor is spotless; dryers along the walls work for free. Men and women fold clothes in air-conditioned comfort while kids skip around laundry carts or play with toys or candy scored from vending machines. Behind a counter, hanging from two carousels, are racks of plastic-wrapped dry cleaning and a selection of shorts and T-shirts for sale ("Everything $1," a sign announces).

It's a 10,000-square-foot dream come true for its owner Mohamed Ibrahim, who opened the laundromat this past May as the centerpiece of his I Have a Dream strip center on NE 79th Street near Second Avenue. The half-blocklong mall, constructed on a lot where the Temple of Love Motel used to stand, is a spot of newness in this run-down but bustling part of the Miami neighborhood known as Little River, where drug dealers and prostitutes haunt alleys and lots between hardware, TV-repair, and secondhand shops.

The 35-year-old Ibrahim is an Egyptian who says he has lived in the United States most of his life and who named his shopping center after Martin Luther King's famous declaration out of reverence for his cause. "I am a black man," he proudly proclaims, perhaps referring to his roots in Africa, but surely not to the color of his skin. He likes to talk about the uplifting effect his clean new commercial venture is sure to have on the area. "I'm giving something to the community," he announces with a wide-eyed, earnest expression. "I love this neighborhood."

Details

Tall and lithe, balding at the crown, Ibrahim is wearing jeans and a red polo shirt that says "How can I help you?" over the front pocket. "Look," he boasts, striding through the laundromat and gesturing toward his customers. "Black, Hispanic, white -- you see everyone in here. You wouldn't believe how many people come up to me and thank me for saving them money."

With free dryers and 50-cent washers, My Dream has not only saved its clientele money, it's also inevitably wooed much of that clientele from competing laundromats in the area. Sure, the owners of those laundromats are upset, a fact Ibrahim says he sincerely regrets. "They are welcome to offer the same kind of service we do," he says, shrugging, palms upturned.

Rival laundromat operators, however, are only a minuscule contingent in the growing ranks of Ibrahim's enemies, and the really dirty laundry isn't sloshing around in My Dream's new double-load washers. Perhaps the only outward hint that things aren't perfect in Dream-land are the two closed shops down the mall: the Capri travel agency and Just a Weave hair salon, the latter also owned by Ibrahim. His brother Ahmed, commonly called David, operates the Three Brothers convenience market next door to the laundromat, but the two other sites will remain vacant unless a heated legal dispute is resolved in Ibrahim's favor.

He's in the middle of an astoundingly deep morass of business deals gone bust, most of them related in some way to I Have a Dream, all disastrous for everyone except the many lawyers involved. It took Ibrahim nearly eighteen months of legal wrangling just to open the laundromat. And while the place now runs like a dream, the coin laundry is currently in bankruptcy proceedings (Ibrahim recently made the surprise announcement that a group of investors now owns the laundry). His shopping center is in foreclosure too; and Ibrahim is the target of several lawsuits seeking, among other things, to recoup hundreds of thousands of dollars for contractors who built his shopping center and investors who financed it.

Other local projects Ibrahim is, or has been, involved in also have become similar legal and financial black holes. Over the past several years, he has used a bewildering variety of tactics to make and break deals, borrow and lose money, and somehow remain almost untouched, either by angry creditors or criminal prosecutors. He says he's a millionaire, yet he's declared corporate bankruptcy at least four times in less than a decade; both he and his wife have also filed for personal bankruptcy. For months he did not pay his trash pickup or former equipment-leasing companies, but eight weeks ago he came up with almost $400,000 cash to buy 64 new washing machines, and he says he's closing on the purchase of two more laundromats.

True, Ibrahim was charged earlier this year with passing about $8000 in worthless checks; his former probation officer says he has since made restitution. But that's nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that everyone from minimum-wage handymen to well-heeled investors claims he owes.

"I've got three bounced checks [from Ibrahim] for $5000 each sitting on my desk right now," says one man in the laundry business (not a competitor), who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He is a human nightmare. Nobody knows where his money comes from, and nobody knows how he gets away with everything."

Even experienced litigation attorneys are impressed by Ibrahim's ability to thrive amid financial chaos. "That scumbag has more gall than any one individual I've seen in a while," says Philip Vova, one of many lawyers pursuing legal action of one kind or another against Ibrahim. "I know every sharpie in town, and this one is pretty good."

Ibrahim says he's from a wealthy Alexandrian family; he moved to California as a boy, became a U.S. citizen in 1972, graduated from high school in Pasadena in 1978, and earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California in 1981. It's impossible to confirm the existence of the degree because Ibrahim's social security number couldn't be found by USC's transcripts and verification office. But by the late Eighties, Ibrahim was living in South Florida, along with his father and at least two of his brothers. He says he briefly attended law school at Nova University in Davie in 1991, then operated a carpet-cleaning business.

He was a leasing rep for a frozen yogurt machine company when he met Marcel Stein, then the proprietor of the popular Uptown Deli in Miami Beach, about seven years ago; his brother David operated the Latin Market on Collins Avenue across from the Uptown. In the ensuing years, Stein would sell the deli, open a laundromat in North Beach, and emerge from time to time as a player in one of Ibrahim's numerous business transactions.

Stein in fact invested in and helped find other investors for one of Ibrahim's early acquisitions, the aging 50-unit Bay Village apartments on Normandy Isle in Miami Beach. In 1992 Ibrahim bought the corporation that owned the apartment complex. But the holders of the first mortgage on the property, which was worth almost one million dollars, complained that he didn't make agreed-upon improvements or timely payments, so they initiated foreclosure proceedings the following year.

In response, Ibrahim filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which would allow protection for Bay Village, Inc. during corporate reorganization. That stopped the foreclosure, at least until U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Paul Hyman threw the bankruptcy filing out of court. But in the meantime, Ibrahim somehow had managed to secure sufficient financing to purchase the 79th Street property for his I Have a Dream strip mall.

In 1994 Ibrahim transferred ownership of the Bay Village apartment complex to a different corporation, Island Pointe Associates, renamed the apartments Island Pointe, and again filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy under the new corporate name. Judge Hyman dismissed that filing, too, finding that it had been submitted in "bad faith" in an effort to avoid paying his creditors.

A state receiver, appointed by the court to oversee the operations of the apartments during foreclosure, became frustrated by Ibrahim's inability to produce required rent receipts and other routine business documents. The receiver, David Garfinkle, filed no fewer than four motions for contempt against Ibrahim.

Adam Winder was becoming frustrated too. Now 74 years old, Winder has led an eventful life, but he wasn't anticipating financial ruin near the end. He co-owned the Uptown Deli for several years with Marcel Stein. In November 1994 Winder was persuaded to lend $59,000 to Ibrahim (who was embroiled at the time in the Island Pointe foreclosure, though Winder claims to have been told nothing of this) for construction of the planned 79th Street I Have a Dream shopping center. There was something else Winder didn't know: The corporation that sold the 79th Street property to Ibrahim had been fighting for at least a year to collect $40,000 it was owed.

Shortly before Winder's cash infusion, another Ibrahim corporation, I Have a Dream Shopping Center, Inc., had acquired the property from Stein in the latest of a series of title handovers that had begun in June 1993, when Island Pointe Associates bought the commercial parcel and, a few days later, sold it to yet another corporation controlled by Ibrahim -- this one called Avalon Properties -- which then transferred title to Stein in April 1994.

Stein recalls owning the 79th Street property for no more than "maybe a few weeks" and says he deeded it back to Ibrahim because he'd changed his mind about getting involved in the development. He'd already witnessed Ibrahim's numerous problems with the Island Pointe apartments, though he blames overly demanding mortgage holders and previously existing code violations, not Ibrahim's management. He also says he had no qualms about recommending that his friend Winder (and others) invest in the shopping center.

Winder thinks he was deceived. "I take people's word, like in the old country," he says, referring to Poland, which he left in 1946 after escaping Nazi gas chambers by jumping out of a speeding train. "You shook hands and never felt sorry for it. Mohamed was supposed to pay me $2700 a month, but the first check bounced. I never got another check.

"Then Marcel and Mohamed started to tell me I should come in as a silent partner to [Island Pointe Associates]," he continues, referring to the company that owned the apartment complex. "That way my money would be secured. I let myself get talked into it; I gave him another $141,000, and I became a partner. They had a receiver on the building at that time, but I wasn't told. As a partner, I was supposed to know where the money was going. They said I would get a certain amount as an investor. I got absolutely nothing."

Attempting to ease Winder's alarm, Stein at one point called Ibrahim's wealthy father, Elghanam, in Vienna at the time, who assured Winder he'd be in the United States in the next few weeks and would make sure he got his money back. "He never came," Winder says. "It was one month, two months, then Mohamed comes to me and says, 'I'm going to refinance the building, so I need $16,000,' and I, like an idiot, agreed. But this time I got a little smart."

In January 1996, Winder says, he wrote two checks totalling $16,000 but made them payable to Ibrahim's attorney, Howard Galbut, for deposit in a special escrow account -- on the condition that the money be used only for the refinancing of Island Pointe and that if the refinancing effort failed, Winder would get back $7500. If it did go through, he would get the $200,000 he'd already invested plus the $16,000, according to terms set out in a letter to Galbut from Winder's attorney, Jeffrey Feinberg.

The security measure didn't work. Winder says he handed the checks to Ibrahim, who was to carry them to Galbut. The checks were later endorsed with Galbut's signature and were cashed. There was no refinancing, but Winder never received his expected $7500. His $16,000 simply vanished.

Today Galbut insists he did not handle the refinancing plan and that none of Winder's money was ever deposited in his escrow account. "[Winder] never sent any checks to me," Galbut says. "I never signed any checks. If there are any checks out there with my name on them, it's not my signature." Ibrahim says Winder was with him when the checks were deposited. Winder denies that. Attorneys for both men say a settlement is near. Meanwhile, the Miami Beach Police Department is investigating.

"That $200,000 was my life savings!" exclaims Winder, a trim gray-haired man who has had to go back to work as a kosher butcher and has retained a lawyer to go after his money, despite an almost complete lack of documentation of the loans. "Mohamed is a thief, in plain English. He needs to be run out of the country. I'll be honest with you -- sometimes I want to kill him after what that son of a bitch put us through."

Marcel Stein contends Winder's anger is misplaced. "Mohamed lost more money than anyone," he says. "It's a lotto when you're in business. You play, and if you win, you win. If you don't, it's rough."

Stein, who didn't lose as much in the deal, says he's doing fine with his own laundromat, a large but somewhat ragged space on a North Beach side street. The former partners have little to say to each other these days.

Island Pointe Associates filed for Chapter 11 again in May 1996, four and a half months after Winder loaned the $16,000 for refinancing. This time the court accepted the filing. As is usual in such corporate reorganizations, Ibrahim continued to operate the business under strict court-ordered guidelines, as Debtor in Possession (DIP).

One of the requirements was that the DIP place all rent monies and security deposits into a court-supervised bank account. According to a motion filed in November 1996 before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Friedman by Hollywood attorney Scott Orth, representing one of the mortgage holders, Ibrahim had been collecting rents of about $25,000 per month for three months. "Nevertheless," states the motion, "the Debtor's 'DIP' account contains less than $15,000!"

Ibrahim had never produced any documents to show how much money he'd collected or deposited, according to Orth's motion, nor had he paid any of the mortgage holders as required. So Judge Friedman converted the Chapter 11 to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy -- meaning all the corporation's assets would be sold to pay creditors -- and he appointed a trustee to take over operation of the apartments. (A trustee is appointed in a federal bankruptcy, whereas a state-appointed receiver oversees foreclosures.)

Miami attorney Joel Tabas, the trustee, immediately called Capital Bank to freeze the DIP account. But for some reason the account was allowed to remain open for at least three more days, during which time Ibrahim withdrew thousands of dollars from the account. Tabas ultimately sued Capital Bank and recovered $12,500. But after just one month he resigned from his trusteeship, noting that the apartments were in dangerously bad repair and that selling them would not even cover the claims of the secured creditors.

In effect, Tabas "abandoned" the property, and so the state foreclosure action continued toward its conclusion -- the auction of the property with proceeds going to the mortgage holders. Before the auction, however, Ibrahim sold the apartments. That wasn't illegal, as he still technically owned them, but the Miami entrepreneur who bought the apartments from him apparently wasn't aware that the property was so heavily encumbered. When that woman was unable to satisfy the creditors, the auction proceeded -- but she got none of the money.

At the auction this past August the apartments were purchased by a partnership of investors who had once loaned money to the property's former owner, Randee Sallee, a Miami Beach businesswoman. After selling to Ibrahim, Sallee wound up holding the second mortgage. Sallee says she was ruined in a tortuous series of events stemming from Ibrahim's default on the million-dollar first mortgage and ensuing years of bankruptcies, receivers, frozen bank accounts, foreclosure, and almost monthly crises with insurance coverage, building code violations, and other money-drainers. "It's not all [Ibrahim's] fault," Sallee says. But she is quick to add: "I know a lot of people who would stand in line to serve Mohamed lunch in jail."

Tabas, at the behest of the U.S. Trustee's Office, had undertaken an investigation of allegations by Sallee and other creditors that Ibrahim had diverted revenues from the Island Pointe apartments to the I Have a Dream shopping center. The attorney in Tabas's office who recently concluded the investigation is doubtful she'll prove anything, largely because Ibrahim simply creates no paper trail.

"Mr. Ibrahim stated on the record that after a month he just throws records away," says Debi Galler. "We've been having to reconstruct records as best we can, but with rental units changing hands, people paying cash, it's not quite like other businesses where the same vendors have the same customers.... It's not clear-cut that the money disappeared. Even if money had flowed to I Have a Dream, I know it's so far underwater I wouldn't get anything."

This past July a mortgage broker named Frank Alter, on behalf of a trust he administers, bought the first mortgage on the 79th Street I Have a Dream property, which Ibrahim had purchased in June 1993.

Jill and Allen Greenwald, the holders of that $350,000 mortgage, had begun foreclosure proceedings against Ibrahim in late 1996, which set off a flood of claims against him by other investors and companies that had been hired to perform construction work on the shopping center and were now seeking payment for their services -- from concrete and lumber suppliers to electrical contractors to aluminum shutter installers.

At the same time, in December 1996, Ibrahim filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy for his laundromat, under the corporate name Dream Coin Laundry. (The I Have a Dream Shopping Center itself remained under foreclosure proceedings but not bankruptcy.) The next month the laundromat bankruptcy was converted to the more stringent Chapter 7.

But unbeknownst to the Greenwalds, a company called Meusfirst Building Corporation -- sellers of the property to Ibrahim's Island Pointe Associates -- had been trying for nearly three years to collect on a $40,000 mortgage it still held.

After the Greenwalds began foreclosure proceedings against Ibrahim, an attorney for Meusfirst discovered a highly suspect document in the Dade County property records. The document, known as a "satisfaction of mortgage," had been signed by one Sal Bechar, who falsely claimed to be president of Meusfirst and whose address was the actually the Island Pointe apartments. The "satisfaction of mortgage" he signed indicated that the $40,000 Meusfirst had been trying to collect had already been paid. (If the mortgage had remained "unsatisfied," the Greenwalds couldn't have obtained title insurance to protect their large investment in the mortgage.)

Meusfirst intervened in the Greenwalds' foreclosure action, asserting that the "satisfaction of mortgage" document was fraudulent. (The company's claim has yet to be resolved.) Other unsettling discoveries also began to emerge: At least two contractors found records on file with the county showing their claims had been paid even though they hadn't been. "I don't know who did it," says Wade Peterson, attorney for K and A Lumber of Homestead, "but someone filed a fraudulent release of our lien."

Now that the Greenwalds have been bought out by the anonymous trust administered by Alter, Alter has resumed the foreclosure action against Ibrahim and I Have a Dream Shopping Center, Inc., albeit less than vigorously, according to several attorneys. "There's no logical explanation why a foreclosure suit should go that slowly," says Theodore Jewell, a Miami lawyer who represents the court-appointed federal trustee in the Dream Coin Laundry bankruptcy case. "Or why, when a foreclosure is pending, the property is still being improved."

Another question puzzling Jewell is the whereabouts of thousands of dollars invested in the shopping center and unaccounted for. And the major creditor (a laundry supply company that removed its leased washers and dryers from My Dream last December after not being paid) would like to know how Ibrahim recently paid $400,000 in cash for 64 new washing machines.

Despite all his financial woes, Ibrahim this past March bought a corporation that owned a group of buildings (but not the land beneath them) on Biscayne Boulevard and NE 88th Terrace -- a strip of small shops, including a laundromat, and two apartments that used to be known as the Viking Motel. He's got big plans for his most recent acquisition, but these plans have apparently not included monthly lease payments for the land to Harry Cooper, a Kentucky resident who inherited it from his mother in 1990. Cooper has filed a lawsuit seeking to cancel Ibrahim's lease and take possession of the structures.

Last spring Ibrahim began evicting business tenants and demolishing one of the Viking Motel buildings in preparation for turning most of the area into a huge day-care center to be called Village Kidz, according to a building plan he's printed up.

Yet Ibrahim soon allowed his new acquisition to slip into foreclosure. This past September Frank Alter, on behalf of another trust he administers, bought the mortgage on those buildings, too. Then he had his attorneys renew foreclosure proceedings.

So Ibrahim now faces the prospect of losing both his I Have a Dream shopping center and the future day-care center. Does he look worried? "It'll never happen," he predicts cheerfully.

There may be good reason for his optimism. Most of the lawyers involved in litigation against Ibrahim believe the foreclosures are merely maneuvers to ensure that he keeps his properties. They suspect that Ibrahim and/or his family are the actual beneficiaries of the Alter trusts -- and they plan to prove it. If the attorneys are correct, Ibrahim would be foreclosing on himself as a way to retain possession, an act the attorneys say is illegal. Ibrahim denies there's any connection between his family and the trusts. Alter won't identify any parties to the trusts, but he too denies any connections to Ibrahim or his family.

Verifying information about such trusts is difficult in Florida, which has no disclosure requirements. Lewis Huss, an attorney for one of the contractors with a claim against Ibrahim, says he has requested from Alter's lawyer, Barbara Jimenez, copies of all documents relating to the trusts, but to date he's received no relevant papers. Huss's next move, he says, will be to ask Circuit Court Judge Norman Gerstein, presiding over the foreclosures and other lawsuits involving Ibrahim, to order Jimenez to produce the documents.

Jimenez, a sole practitioner who is handling Alter's foreclosure actions against Ibrahim, shares office space on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach with attorney Charles Neustein. Neustein represents Ibrahim in the foreclosure matters. (Jimenez and Neustein have denied that they share any professional affiliation.)

On top of having to deal with packs of attorneys, Mohamed Ibrahim still contends almost daily with the insistent complaints and demands of the lady next door. By late 1995 construction of the shopping center was more or less complete. Ibrahim had leased a shopful of washing machines, had obtained operating permits for all the stores, and everything was ready to go -- except for one extremely annoying hindrance: a Frenchwoman named Monique Taylor, who owns the apartment building immediately to the west of the shopping center.

Taylor had been fighting Ibrahim ever since that morning in 1994 when she found a chainlink fence stretched across part of her property, blocking access to the Dumpster and her tenants' parking lot behind the apartment building. A contractor had put up the fence in preparation for construction of the shopping center.

Taylor, a long-time Upper Eastside activist and current member of the City of Miami Nuisance Abatement Board, complained to the local Neighborhood Enhancement Team (NET) office, to the city's public works and building and zoning departments, and to the city attorney's office. Inspectors and surveyors came out to look things over but were buttonholed by Ibrahim, who complained that Taylor, a somewhat grandmotherly woman given to wearing long flowered dresses and her gray hair in a bun, had trespassed on his property and threatened his construction workers with a semiautomatic pistol. (Taylor denies owning a gun, much less waving one at anyone on the site.)

The city took no action, but a few months later, according to Taylor, a garbage truck knocked down part of the fence, and soon afterward it was removed. This new development did nothing to ease the tension between the two neighbors.

"Then I got a call from one of my tenants saying, 'I don't know how to tell you this, but you're going to have a very big water bill,'" recalls Taylor. "Someone had gone over the wall [between the properties] and connected a hose to a spigot in back of my property, and they weren't even bothering to turn off the water at night. My tenants turned it off a few times. He was even watering his plants with my water. Sure enough, the bill was $1420. When I tried to get the NET officer to issue a citation, she refused. She said, 'Well, he said he was going to pay you back.' We ended up paying the whole thing."

Next there was a battle over how much water Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) would allot to Ibrahim -- that is, how many washing machines he could install and if he would have to pay any of the sizable environmental impact fees due on new-machine use. Depending on how much water use had been permitted before at the address, a certain flow would be grandfathered in and Ibrahim wouldn't have to pay impact fees (about $1500 per washing machine) on that amount.

Taylor discovered that DERM had granted Ibrahim a water-use permit based on a 76-unit apartment building having previously been on the property. But Taylor protested that it had been a motel, with fewer than 76 units. (Motels logically use less water than apartments, so Taylor and other laundromat owners concluded Ibrahim was getting an unjust discount, one reason he could offer free dryers.)

DERM official Vicente Arrebola said he could find nothing in property records indicating what kind of building had been there. Ibrahim gave Arrebola an affidavit signed by an inspector for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation verifying that a 76-unit apartment building had previously stood on the site. The inspector's boss in Tallahassee, however, wouldn't vouch for the veracity of the affidavit because he couldn't find records to back it up. Finally Arrebola discovered city fire department inspection records showing the building had been a 66-unit motel. He decreased the gallon usage allotment, and Ibrahim had to remove some of his washers.

But the real problem was that the city had approved the blueprint for the shopping center and had granted certificates of occupancy apparently without realizing it was impossible to drive into the parking lot in back of the laundromat -- a parking lot required by the city -- without crossing Taylor's land.

It's only a five-foot-wide stretch along the back alley running parallel to 79th Street, but Taylor says that five feet is necessary to allow passage of trucks onto her property. And without the parking lot in back of I Have a Dream, the strip center could not have met the city parking requirements necessary to obtain necessary permits.

This past April, after Taylor had provided city officials with a 1980 deed to the land and tax records in an attempt to verify her ownership, Ibrahim brought in his own deed. It was a "corrective quitclaim deed" prepared by the office of Charles Neustein, Esq., Ibrahim's attorney, signed by Marcel Stein (who had owned the property for about six months back in 1994, when Ibrahim's Avalon Properties deeded him the title) and duly recorded in the county plat book. Sure enough, the five-foot strip was part of the land deeded to I Have a Dream Shopping Center, Inc.

City officials took note of the two conflicting deeds and couldn't judge which was valid, so they decided to wait on the outcome of the civil lawsuit Taylor filed in May against Ibrahim. The suit asks the court to determine who owns the disputed parcel. In the meantime, Ibrahim had finally secured a temporary operating permit for the laundromat on the condition that the two other shops in the mall besides his brother's grocery -- the salon and the travel agency -- not open because of the insufficient parking. They opened anyway, until Taylor got the police to come by several days later and close them.

In depositions taken in August and September by Taylor's attorney, Charles Neustein said he had known nothing about the corrective quitclaim deed until Taylor's lawsuit was filed. (The lawsuit names as defendants Neustein and Stein, as well as I Have a Dream Shopping Center, Inc.) Ibrahim testified that he'd typed the deed himself on stationery he computer-generated with Neustein's name and office address on it. Neustein, who had threatened to file a bar complaint against Taylor's attorney if he didn't drop Neustein from the lawsuit, disavowed his client's use of his name.

At one point in his deposition, Ibrahim rose from his seat at a conference table and offered to purchase Taylor's land. "I'll write you a check right now," he declared. When she declined, he offered to sell her the shopping center. She wasn't interested.

"I can't believe this," Ibrahim says later, leaning back in his desk chair in the laundromat office. "Five feet! This is so silly. She can't claim that land. She's just using that in her plan to destroy me. It's been hell from day one. She's paid off a lot of people with the city. I can prove it." (He has so far produced no proof of payoffs. Taylor calls the allegation absurd.)

The man seated behind the counter at My Dream Coin Laundry is wearing an almost-clean plaid shirt, jeans, and an annoyed expression (although most of the attendants, who are neighborhood people, are unfailingly helpful and pleasant). His face, what isn't hidden by a baseball cap, is a quagmire of broken capillaries, sun-baked creases, and matted beard. He looks as though he might belong to the group of homeless men and women camped out under a tree about a block northeast of the strip center.

He might live on the street, or he might be one of the lucky workers Ibrahim sometimes allows to sleep in one of the vacant apartments at his recently acquired Viking Motel apartment building. Despite the poor condition of most of the apartments, almost all of them empty now, sleeping men can be seen through holes in walls or behind blankets covering smashed-out front windows. The buildings have been cited for leaking sewage and garbage and condemned, but everyone is going to have to leave anyway, sooner or later, because this is where the big new day-care center is supposed to stand.

Ibrahim often gets homeless people and poor immigrants to work for him. He is proud to be bringing jobs to the neighborhood, he says, though not all of the workers feel so privileged. Sometimes they end up making only one or two dollars per hour, according to current and former employees, their relatives, and acquaintances. Sometimes the arrangement works well, especially if they're undocumented or accustomed to living on the street. But a lot of people who say they've worked for Ibrahim, for cash handouts, are as angry as the big investors who lost money. They just don't have the means to sue.

Take Ana and her husband Jairo, for example. The immigrant couple (they asked to use pseudonyms) had been renting an apartment in the Viking since before Ibrahim bought it. Jairo did construction work at My Dream Coin Laundry, but after seven weeks, he says, he was fired after having been paid only $200. The couple got two months behind in their rent. "When Mohamed came by for the rent, I told him I don't have the money," Ana recalls. "He said, 'Next month you either move or pay.' I told him my husband hadn't gotten his money, but he just said I had to have the rent next time."

Then in mid-August they found an eviction notice on their door. Their neighbor Sylvie, a single mother from Haiti who says she had worked two weeks at the My Dream Laundry for $5 per hour but had only received $75, also faced eviction. "Three of us went to the judge, and we told him we couldn't pay the rent because the landlord wouldn't pay us," Sylvie explained. "He said he was sorry, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Now I guess I'm going to have to move into a shelter."

Ibrahim asserts that the tenants he evicted did ask him for work months ago but that he didn't hire them, so their money problems aren't his fault. Ana and Jairo have since found another apartment and want to forget about everything related to I Have a Dream. They're not sure where Sylvie went. Jairo and several of his friends who hired on as laborers at the shopping center -- but say they were never paid in full -- have had to chalk up their experiences to life in the United States. "It wasn't just me," Jairo insists. "Mohamed always has someone working for him and he doesn't pay. I tell everyone who starts over there, 'You better be careful, because you're not going to get your money.'"

He hires those in need and he always pays them, Ibrahim insists. But someone's always complaining, spreading all kinds of lies. Undoubtedly the worst offender, he adds, is Monique Taylor, with her almighty five feet of alleyway that has made his life miserable for more than two years.

But now it looks as though he's got the problem solved, he confides happily. "No one knows yet -- I just bought the lot across the street, and I'm going to put the parking over there." So all the stores in I Have a Dream can open, and he can start making some rent money. And then he can get all these foreclosures and liens and bankruptcies out of the way and start building that lucrative day-care center.

"I need to resolve this mess," he confides with his characteristic guileless gaze. "I need to get on with my life.

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