Every Lawyer's Nightmare

How infuriating is Joe Blake? Let's put it this way: His attorney is accused of trying to have him murdered.

If you believe that Joe Blake is marked for death -- as Joe Blake himself ardently believes -- then his killers should have it pretty easy. Blake is, after all, 83 years old. He is five feet six but looks shorter because of a slight stoop. And he gets out of breath so readily he sometimes wears an oxygen mask.

He spends most of his time in the same few places: his studio apartment in North Miami or the law libraries of various local colleges. His wardrobe tends toward shades of brown, and he is never without his weathered "Disabled American Veterans" cap, the one with the gold laurel leaves secured to the brim with clear packing tape.

So far, Blake says, he has dodged three potential hit men, twice evading cars that were tailing him and once ducking out of the St. Thomas University law library when he saw a rough-looking character enter. "Every time I walk out that door, I expect to end up on a slab. But I cannot believe the incompetency of the people he has hired to kill me."

Blake is talking about his ex-lawyer, George L. Garcia, who he insists threatened him with a gun and hired a crack-addicted client to kill him. To Blake, Garcia's alleged attempts to have him bumped off are only the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that might be fairly titled How I Became a Victim of the Legal Profession. He blames lawyers for the five years he spent at Raiford state prison for assault, for the loss of his interest in an Overtown hotel, and innumerable lesser affronts.

Most of the lawyers who have dealt with him over the years, however, consider Blake to be the ultimate nightmare client. And that suits Blake just fine. He has become one of South Florida's most strident legal-reform activists, cranking out a steady stream of anti-lawyer T-shirts and bumper stickers and demonstrating in front of courthouses. "I'm a target," Blake stresses, referring to the retributions for his legal hell-raising.

But hired killers trying to take him out? He's got to be making that up, right?

Wrong. More than two years after Garcia's alleged crimes, aggravated assault and solicitation of first-degree murder, the case is still pending, and the alleged victim is still mad as hell.

To speak with Joseph A. Blake about his travails is to invite a torrent of faxes -- legal documents, newspaper articles, and missives to and from the Veterans Administration, the governor's office, and countless lawyers.

About half the documents have been pecked out on the same typewriter and are titled "Brief History." Blake has written these capsule autobiographies at various points in his life, always immediately after some perceived injustice inflicted by attorneys. In interviews he rarely deviates from these scripts. (About the only facts not included in his Brief Histories are these: He has no children and has outlived his ex-wife and all three of his siblings.)

Born Joseph Bilenko in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1915, Blake remembers singing "The Internationale" during the Soviet Union's mourning of Lenin's death in 1924 ("in my little red tie," he notes with a chortle). Two years later the Jewish family fled Kiev for Montreal. Their reason for leaving? "Pogroms," Blake says flatly. "Sabers flying all over the place."

Joseph Bilenko later worked as a cabbie for several years, making six bucks (Canadian) per week. When he heard Henry Ford was paying five dollars per hour in his Detroit auto factories, he crossed the border and signed on with Ford's Hudson Motorcar Company, under the name Joseph Blake. "I played hockey for the Hudson team for six years," he recalls. "I spent most of the time in the penalty box."

Blake enlisted in the army in 1940, though he doesn't like to talk about his time in the service. Whenever he does, his eyes, light brown edged with steel gray, well up with tears. He hurt his back in basic training, an injury that required a fusion of vertebrae. (His back is gruesomely scarred.) Though the army then considered him, he served noncombat duty in the Pacific theater. He received an honorable discharge in 1944.

By Blake's own accounting, he is a man prone to running afoul of powerful establishments. After the war, for instance, he returned to Detroit and opened a dry-cleaning business. When the notorious Purple Gang crime syndicate asked him to pay protection, he recalls asking, in mock naivete, "Protection from what?" They sent picketers to his business (whom Blake served coffee), broke his windows, then, he says, booby-trapped a woman's winter coat, causing a fire at the cleaning plant where he sent the clothes.

Fed up with pressure from gangsters, Blake moved to Chicago, where he soon took a job organizing an association of tavern keepers. This infuriated local union heavies. Blake boasts that FBI agents tailed him for several months to protect him from harm. The stress of this line of work, along with advice from his VA doctors to seek a warmer climate, brought him to Miami in 1957.

Given the rough times Blake had in the Midwest, those doctors might also have prescribed a more sedate line of work. But when he got to Miami, he started a collection agency, tracking down deadbeats for department stores. Here began the downward spiral of his relationship with the legal establishment. The bad guy in this tale, as Blake tells it, was a state prosecutor who didn't like the fact that Blake used a form letter in his business headed "Final Notice Before Suit." Believing that Blake was flirting with practicing law without a license, the prosecutor called him down to the office and threatened to put him out of business.

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