By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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.
Four months later an angry debtor stormed into Blake's office and punched him. According to Blake, although he was in "a semidazed condition" he fired a revolver at the floor to scare the guy off. The bullet ricocheted and hit the man in the heel. Blake was arrested and later convicted of aggravated assault. To this day he blames his conviction on an inept defense attorney, a corrupt judge, and that overzealous prosecutor -- though he can't remember whether this prosecutor actually handled his case.
Blake served a five-year sentence in Raiford, near Gainesville. He doesn't talk much about this stretch except to note that his disability did not excuse him from the toughest jobs in the joint, including cutting wood. By the time he got out in 1965, Blake says he weighed 114 pounds and was badly dehydrated. He recovered, but as an ex-con he had a hard time persuading anyone to hire him. So Blake changed his name to Joseph A. Blaine, a name he would use for the next two decades.
He also decided, in the interest of avoiding further legal depredations, to become a lawyer. He earned an associate in arts from Miami-Dade Junior College in 1969, then started undergraduate work at the University of Miami in 1970, planning to go on to law school. He says injuries from a car crash kept him out of school for several months and derailed his legal ambitions.
Blake then decided to pursue real estate, buying distressed properties cheap and fixing them up for resale. He had, he says, amassed fourteen properties by 1977, when he then went into hotel operation. "Joseph Blaine" signed a lease with an option to buy the Willard Garden Hotel at 124 NE Fourteenth St. in Overtown. He says he "kicked the beer bums out of there," replaced the missing sinks and toilets, and instituted a strict security policy: no ID, no admittance.
Blake's account of what happened next is long and involved. The gist of it is that his financing collapsed; Blake claims this failure was engineered by an attorney in cahoots with one of his investors, who wanted to take over the business. After more than five years managing the Willard Garden, Blake was forced to declare bankruptcy and give up his stake in the property, as well as in the others he owned.
Blake sued People's Downtown National Bank, where he kept his corporate account, claiming they had used false information to freeze his account. When he lost that suit, Blake sued his own lawyer and appealed the case against the bank to the Third District Court of Appeal.
One lawyer-related frustration piled on top of the other. "I called anywhere from 1300 to 1500 lawyers, all the way to Jacksonville, and they were gung ho," Blake says in reference to his suit against the bank. "'A bank? Hey, that's deep pockets. They froze your account? False information?' Then when they found out that an attorney was the main instigator of the situation, that was it. That is when I turned sour on the legal profession."
In dealing with the case and with his bankruptcy, Blake began spending time in law libraries. He struck up friendships and correspondences with anti-lawyer activists in South Florida and beyond. Having supplied T-shirts and bumper stickers to the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach, he later began printing up shirts with assorted lawyer-bashing slogans: Restore the Constitution, Don't Vote for Lawyers, Justice for Sale, and Robbed by Judge or Lawyer? Use the Constitutional Common Law Court.
This last exhortation refers to a case that has made headlines recently. A landlord by the name of Emilio Ippolito owned some $20 million worth of property in the Tampa Bay area. The property deteriorated; local officials cited Ippolito for code violations, slapping liens on his properties, which were seized.
Furious at the treatment he'd received from the judicial system, Ippolito in 1992 formed his Constitutional Common Law Court of We the People. Ippolito was the judge of this court, which he claimed to be legitimate under the U.S. Constitution. During its four years of operation, the "court" handled various small-claims cases. But its primary raison d'etre was to hound the officials he blamed for his losses. He sent them a series of motions, letters, and arrest warrants, some of which charged the officials with treason. At least one missive pointed out that this crime was punishable by hanging. In March 1996 Ippolito, his daughter, and several others were arrested on federal charges of threatening judges. (They were convicted last year and are currently in jail awaiting sentencing.)
As Blake's activism heated up, he got wind of the common law court and soon became a devoted acolyte of Ippolito. The two men met during an abortive effort to launch a similar court in Palm Beach. Blake estimates he has sent $8000 to help support Ippolito's family. And he responded to the court's closure by firing up his fax machine. "I faxed over 700 underground organizations, patriotic movements," Blake recounts. "Now you know why I'm on the shit list of the legal profession."
Shit list or no, Blake has shown no signs of withdrawing from the fray. He is currently the plaintiff in two other cases: one against Public Storage for burglaries and damage to property he had stored there; a second against his former residence, the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged at Douglas Gardens, stemming from a wrangle over a co-op he had been leasing with an option to buy.
He had hoped that forming a Constitutional Common Law Court in Dade County, along the lines of Ippolito's, would provide him with a forum to litigate his cases. But even other local extremists have balked at such open defiance of the system. "Apathy," he sneers. "Apathy to me is tyranny."
But Blake's war on the legal profession isn't limited to his larger crusade. He also seems determined to personally antagonize as many attorneys as possible, by hiring them, assailing their work, then firing them. In late 1995 this cycle led Blake to the door of George L. Garcia's one-man practice in a Little Havana strip mall. Garcia, then 40 years old, handled mostly small-time criminal cases.
A fellow attorney familiar with Garcia's work describes him as a "jail rat." He spends much of his time at the county jail, offering his services to the newly incarcerated. He also acts as a registered agent for some thirteen Florida corporations, according to state records. Many of these firms are run by his relatives.
At the time he agreed to represent Joe Blake in his case against Public Storage, George Garcia himself had already shot and killed a man. During a home-invasion robbery of his uncle's house in 1994, Garcia shot two intruders, killing one of them. Miami police deemed the shooting justified, and no charges were filed against Garcia.
The cranky old lawyer-hater and the attorney unafraid to defend himself with lethal force quickly found themselves at loggerheads. After a particularly frustrating court date on January 23, 1996, Blake hopped in his beat-up 1986 Cadillac Cimarron and followed Garcia back to his office. When he got there, he says, he told Garcia he was firing him and demanded that Garcia return his case file.
Garcia's office is a tiny, two-room affair, including a small reception area. Blake says he hovered over Garcia for some 40 minutes, moving between the two rooms as Garcia worked on other things without giving Blake the file. Finally, Blake says, he confronted the younger man in his office. Garcia was behind his desk, Blake in front of it. "I pounded the desk and said, 'Damn it, George, I want my goddamn file and I want it now.'"
Garcia then reached into his desk drawer and pulled out not Blake's file but the Glock 9mm semiautomatic pistol for which he had a concealed-weapon permit. It was loaded. Glocks do not have a safety.
Blake claims Garcia pointed the gun at him and ordered him out of the office. "I said, 'Go ahead and shoot, George, but I'm not leaving without my file,'" Blake recalls. Garcia then put the gun back in the drawer, gathered up Blake's file, and gave it to him. Blake says he went to a nearby gas station, took a good twenty minutes to calm himself down, then called Miami police.
Two patrol officers accompanied Blake back to Garcia's office and called for a detective. According to the cops' sworn depositions in the case, Garcia admitted pulling out the gun and said he felt threatened by Blake. "No matter how nasty he can get, you can see [Blake] is a feeble old man who has a lot of health problems," patrolman Brendan Monroe stated in his deposition. "There's no way a young, vital male is going to be threatened by him."
Garcia also denied pointing the gun directly at Blake. Even so, the officers and the detective (ironically, a detective who had worked on the home-invasion homicide case in which Garcia had been cleared a year before) reached the same conclusion: It still sounded like aggravated assault. They arrested Garcia. Blake has not seen his former attorney since that day. But two months after the aggravated assault charge was filed, the case took a turn for the weird.
During those two months, Garcia's attorney worked feverishly to get the charges dropped, or at least reduced to a misdemeanor. By March 1996 it was clear that the State Attorney's Office was ready to proceed.
On March 25 Garcia called police to complain that a client of his, a homeless crack addict named Rafael Hernandez Palacios, had assaulted him in his office and was trying to extort money from him. He told police where to find Hernandez.
Hernandez told police a different story: Garcia had given him $400, telling him to hire someone to kill "the old man." In a 330-page deposition, Hernandez said the same thing, that Garcia had talked to him about the aggravated assault charge Blake had filed. "If his case was not dropped, something must be done to that man," Hernandez stated. "He began to tell me it was an elderly person, that he was about 80 years old, and that person had charged him with something, and that he did not want to lose his license [to practice law]."
Hernandez goes on to say that Garcia was hoping the assault charge would go away because of Blake's criminal record: "But if the case were not dropped, he needed my help. I asked him what kind of help. He said, 'Any kind of help. I don't care if I have to kill him, as long as I do not lose my license.'"
Police looked up the pending assault charge against Garcia. Particularly telling was that Hernandez, who lived on the streets of downtown Miami, knew where Blake lived in North Miami -- though he didn't know Blake's name. (Garcia later told police that Hernandez must have seen Blake's case file in his office.) In his deposition, Hernandez maintains that he never intended to kill "the old man" or to hire anyone to do it. He just pocketed the money Garcia gave him and spent it, mostly on crack.
The police found Hernandez's statements convincing enough to arrest Garcia for solicitation of first-degree murder. The State Attorney's Office is still pressing that charge, along with the aggravated assault. Because the alleged assault involved a firearm, that charge carries a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in prison. The maximum sentence for the solicitation charge is also three years.
George Garcia would not comment for this story. His attorneys, Ed Shohat and Pamela Perry, advised him not to do so, and they themselves declined to comment. But the four-volume court file of the consolidated case against Garcia, filled mostly with depositions, makes their defense strategy clear: Portray Hernandez as a lying, thieving crackhead and portray Joe Blake as a dangerous nut case with a vendetta against lawyers.
Planned defense witnesses have asserted that Hernandez himself was using the Blake assault case as a way to shake down Garcia. One states in his deposition that he overheard Hernandez saying he wanted a $15,000 payoff from Garcia in exchange for retracting his accusation that Garcia solicited him to harm Blake.
Perry and Shohat have found many lawyers who have seen Joe Blake (or Joe Blaine) lose his temper. In fact, at least one lawyer came forward voluntarily after the Miami Herald ran a story on March 28, 1996, describing both the alleged assault on Blake and Garcia's alleged solicitation of Hernandez.
"My reaction was, some poor schmo dealing with Joe Blaine fell into one of his traps," says attorney John Genovese, who encountered Blake in the Eighties, during his Willard Garden Hotel days. "This Joe Blake was so similar to the Joe Blaine I remembered: He was playing the victim, where I regard him as very cunning."
Genovese contacted Garcia's defense lawyers and was deposed. "My impression of Joe was that he was a kind of menacing, kind of aggressive guy," Genovese says. "But in front of the court, it was always, 'I'm a disabled veteran, I'm on medication,' and so forth."
Genovese mentions that, while Blaine was running the Willard Garden, he was accused of menacing tenants with a gun. County records show that Joseph Addison Blaine (whose birthdate is the same as Joseph Addison Blake's) was charged with aggravated assault, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and felony possession of a firearm in 1982. The charges were dropped. Joseph Addison Blaine (with a birthdate in 1923 that matches the one on a driver's license issued under that name and that expired in 1981 -- and whose home address was the Willard Garden Hotel, where Blake lived at that time) was charged with second-degree grand theft in 1981. Those charges were dropped.
Blake denies ever being charged with these crimes, despite what county records say. "I would be suspicious of anything coming from the court clerks under the name Blake or Blaine," he cautions.
The Garcia case file contains depositions from lawyers who have had more recent dealings with Blake, both in person and over the phone, wherein they state that Blake "did not seem rational," or that "he was a very rude old man," or that "he made threats of violence against me and my secretaries."
Blake called Michael S. Goodman, trying to get him to take over the Public Storage case after the Garcia incident. Goodman declined. "He was calling lawyers cheats, MF's, you know, saying derogatory things about them," Goodman recalled in his deposition. "Then he told me he was going to fuck me up like he fucked up George Garcia. I think at the end, according to my notes, I told him to go fuck himself and I hung up the phone."
None of this testimony surprises Blake in the least. "The Mob protects its own," he murmurs.
The front door of Joe Blake's one-bedroom apartment doesn't have a doorknob, just two deadbolts. A jalousie on the door bears a sticker reading: "Trespassers will be shot on sight."
Blake responds to a knock by opening the jalousies and peering through the metal grill behind the glass. "I'm drowning in paper," he explains, opening the door only a crack. "I live in a little warehouse. I just don't let anybody in here, period."
Blake locks up the apartment, gets in his car, and tears off toward the FIU library, where he likes to conduct his meetings. He's tough to follow; he drives fast and aggressively, traits that have earned him numerous tickets and that would help him shake any aspiring hit men.
Blake is pushing ahead with the Public Storage and Miami Jewish Home suits. His activism continues as well, with his favorite cause being justice for Emilio Ippolito, whom he steadfastly describes as a "political prisoner." He hasn't given up hope on the Willard Garden Hotel case either. Even though his last appeal was denied in 1994, he still harbors hopes of filing charges under the federal RICO statute against the bank that "screwed" him.
All of this is taking place under the pall of the Garcia case, though, which he says results in at least two phone hangups every day. What galls Blake the most is that, throughout the two years during which charges have been pending against Garcia, the attorney has not only been out on bond, he has continued to practice law. "If you or I had hired a hit man, we'd both be in jail until trial," Blake declares. "You call the Florida Bar and they give him the best recommendation."
Ana Alvarez, a legal secretary with the Miami office of the Florida Bar, confirms that Garcia "is in good standing with us." She explains that whenever criminal charges are filed against an attorney, a Bar complaint is filed as well, and a judge determines if the attorney has violated any Bar rules. This is exactly what happened to Garcia, she says, and no disciplinary action was taken.
Again Blake isn't surprised. Nor is he surprised that the prosecutor handling the Garcia case, Ruth Solly, is pushing for a plea bargain. Solly would not comment for this story. In general, though, if a prosecutor wants to offer a plea agreement against the victim's wishes, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle herself has to approve the deal. A trial date has not yet been set for the Garcia case.
"I've been tortured for two years," Blake seethes. "I jump every time the phone rings. I wake up in the middle of the night screaming. The doctor's doubled the strength of my thioridazine [an anti-anxiety medication] to keep me out of a padded cell."
As Blake's voice rises, his two hearing aids emit a piercing whine. Undeterred, he roars on. "They told me he wouldn't spend a day in jail, but he'd lose his license to practice law for five years, and maybe do some community service. This is typical Janet Reno-style politics. 'He's an attorney! We've got to help him!' I've suffered for two years, and that son of a bitch is going to suffer also."
He pauses. The fact that he is an activist, he admits, probably doesn't help the case against Garcia. "They're arresting people like me every day, all over the country." He sighs. "Every day, I expect to meet up with either a bullet or a cop come to arrest me.