The Knight of Blight

Miami developer Aristides Martinez once seemed an inner-city savior. Today he goes by another name: Slumlord.

Six years would elapse before Martinez was again seriously pressed to take responsibility for his apartment buildings.

Events following several drug-related arrests between July and November 1992 at one of Martinez's buildings illustrate the developer's political influence.

When Martinez's building sprang a sewage leak, Ofcr. Wade Orner followed the nasty smell all the way to the landlord's Coral Gables offices
Steve Satterwhite
When Martinez's building sprang a sewage leak, Ofcr. Wade Orner followed the nasty smell all the way to the landlord's Coral Gables offices
When Martinez's building sprang a sewage leak, Ofcr. Wade Orner followed the nasty smell all the way to the landlord's Coral Gables offices
Steve Satterwhite
When Martinez's building sprang a sewage leak, Ofcr. Wade Orner followed the nasty smell all the way to the landlord's Coral Gables offices

After inspectors cited Martinez and company for creating a public nuisance at 1320 NW 61st St., the landlord appeared before the city commission. On January 14, 1993, commissioners made clear their hesitancy to confront the millionaire property owner. "If [Martinez] decides to walk away from [Miami Limited and Miami Limited II], you've got thirteen vacant buildings that are going to be vandalized, and we're in trouble.... How much money would we owe the federal government if he walked out?" said then-city commissioner, now convicted felon Miller Dawkins. In what seemed a rehearsed answer, then-Assistant City Manager Herbert Bailey, a Dawkins protégé, responded: "Approximately $4,000,000 ... we'd lose it all on second mortgages."

A week later the city's Nuisance Abatement Board retreated on the charges after Martinez argued that he had made efforts to work with local law enforcement to curb drug activity at his properties. Rather than fine him, NAB members asked Martinez to make a "contribution" toward the board's investigation. As a result Martinez pleaded no contest to the charges and paid $250, thus avoiding a full evidentiary hearing on the efforts he had made to curb drug activity at his properties.

Interestingly Martinez said he could not pay the $250,000 per year required for increased security. "I don't have that kind of money," Martinez told the board. Four years later, on New Year's Day 1997, a bullet fired from a Martinez property terminated the career of Miami Police Ofcr. Ricky Taylor. At 12:30 a.m. Taylor was shot in the head while sitting in a patrol car in front of 1320 NW 61st St. He survived but was disabled by the wound.

On December 18, 1998, Taylor sued Martinez, alleging the building owner contributed to the criminal atmosphere that led to the shooting. According to Taylor's lawyer Jerome Wolfson, between July 1994 and September 1998, Miami's notorious John Doe gang was operating out of the place where Taylor was shot. "We are saying that the building was unsafe.... Martinez should have known of the dangers which emanated from that property," maintains Wolfson, who adds that Martinez failed to ensure his property was not a center of drug activity. The case has not yet been decided.

On a late spring afternoon in 1998, Teresa James stood on the second-floor balcony of her tiny one-bedroom apartment on NW 61st Street. Her six-year-old daughter milled about near her, sticking close and occasionally reaching out with one hand to touch or embrace her mother's thighs. James held her other child, a one-year-old baby girl, in her arms. The calm in the air only heightened the anxiety, which grew nightly. Drug deals and loitering were on the upswing. Her building, like the one next to it, part of Martinez's Miami Limited II housing complex, was under siege. Rats scurried through the walls at night, and cockroaches scattered when she turned on the lights.

From her perch James listened to the familiar chatter of female voices below. For some time she had found comfort in talking with other tenants about the problems they shared: busted water pipes, yellow drinking water, bullet-pocked walls, leaking roofs, sagging walls, broken locks, stoves that didn't work, crime. She recognized another voice, that of a white, middle-age man, and she immediately became worried. A cop, she thought, Got to keep my distance. In Germ City it was dangerous to be seen talking to the police; there could be serious repercussions, revenge exacted by local drug dealers. James took a step back from the balcony, pretending to look distracted by the northern skyline, glancing now and then at the interloper. He was asking a lot of questions. He even dresses like a cop, she thought.

What James didn't realize at the time was that the man would help deliver her and her children from danger. Thomas K. Petersen, a Miami-Dade juvenile court judge, had learned of problems at the complex in March 1998, while hearing a delinquency case. Cops had chased a young man, who was a suspect in a drug deal, into the building next to James's, also part of Miami Limited II. They entered without producing a search warrant. Because the building was public housing, police alleged a search warrant was unnecessary. "Why would the city and the county support public housing in a place where it was virtually impossible to raise children?" Petersen wondered.

With the help of a friend, public defender Roger Gibbs, the judge opened his own informal investigation. After he talked with Teresa James, he met with many of the women who lived in the complex. "There were rats running around; it was apparent everything was terrible, horrible," Petersen says today. He documented and photographed his findings and on April 8, 1998, sent them to Rene Rodriguez, director of the Miami-Dade Housing Agency. "Not only was the overall environment of the street unsafe and hazardous, as it has been for the last twenty years, but ... the conditions in the apartment buildings were equally deplorable," wrote Petersen.

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