Land Grab

Why would some vacant property in dirt-poor, dysfunctional Opa-Locka lead to all-out war?

Soon they formed a corporation called Sailboat Cove to purchase the property. Marcelo Ali and Armando Escobar each controlled a 42.5 percent share. The other fifteen percent was split evenly between two other men, Ted Lyons and Henry Crespo, because of their political and community connections in Opa-locka. Crespo, a former city housing official, found the property for the group to develop. Lyons, a black Republican who recently lost a bid for office in the new city of Miami Gardens, was granted his share because he helped sign up 80 people in the area who made deposits on the units -- needed to obtain construction financing.

The idea was to build townhouses because that's what the community wanted. Sailboat Cove's partners made promises to county Commissioner Betty Ferguson and state Sen. Frederica Wilson (whose support they sought) that they wouldn't just build apartments. Home ownership, the ladies felt, was what a cash-strapped area like Opa-locka needed to increase the tax base and to attract upwardly mobile new residents who might take a healthy interest in the city's insular political culture. Similar sentiments were expressed by residents in Opa-locka and by neighbors whose homes lay across NW Seventeenth Avenue in a pocket of unincorporated Miami-Dade County known as Biscayne Gardens.

Grace Ali, born in Colombia to Argentine parents of Italian and Lebanese ancestry, describes her heritage as "South American mutt." A petite, attractive 40-year-old, she has wavy dark hair and large, wary brown eyes under a fringe of long lashes. She seems to subsist largely on Diet Coke, coffee, and cigarettes as she balances work with being a single mother to an energetic twelve-year-old daughter. Ali got into this line of work after watching her boss at the fence company where she used to work clean up after Hurricane Andrew. She thought: I could do that. She knew an engineer, José Perez de Corcho, who'd consulted on projects for the school district and other places around town, and asked him to join her. She approached her brothers and they formed a construction and engineering company.

Angry neighbors: Page Shuff (center) and like-minded friends at the Pinnacle property
Steve Satterwhite
Angry neighbors: Page Shuff (center) and like-minded friends at the Pinnacle property
Marcelo Ali, Ted Lyons, José Perez de Corcho, and Grace Ali still haven't broken ground
Steve Satterwhite
Marcelo Ali, Ted Lyons, José Perez de Corcho, and Grace Ali still haven't broken ground

After a few years they had a nice little business going. But the Sailboat Cove project was going to be the big one. They figured it would cost $17 million to build, but they expected to make about $3.6 million in profit once the 172 townhouses were sold. Things began to go wrong almost immediately.

For one, Pinnacle was determined to purchase the property and wouldn't take no for an answer. While initially Grace Ali and Perez de Corcho didn't want to sell, Escobar began pressuring them to get back the money he'd invested because he wanted it for another business deal. So the company tried negotiating with Pinnacle in hopes of partnering with them to build a project of mutual benefit. Ali asserts that Wohl wasn't interested in home ownership, only apartments, which would have meant breaking their promise to the community. Also, as happens in business, they couldn't agree on a price and the right terms. Eventually, in spring of 2002, the Sailboat Cove group cut off negotiations, and on the evening of April 11 rejected Pinnacle's three-million-dollar bid to buy them out.

But when Ali and the others tried to move forward with plans to build their townhouse project, possibly with another developer, roadblocks suddenly appeared. Earlier the same day Pinnacle had expected to win the property, Perez de Corcho -- a tall, slim Cuban American with a penchant for cowboy boots, God, and the NRA -- got a call from the engineer he'd hired to guide his project application through Opa-locka's Community Development and Planning office (actually a dilapidated trailer parked behind city hall). The engineer was sitting in the office of director Ervin Smith. Perez de Corcho: "He called me and said, 'Ervin wants to know why you're concerned about this project, since you don't even own it anymore.' I said, 'Excuse me? What do you mean we don't own it?'"

The engineer proceeded to inform Perez de Corcho that Smith had just shown him a project site plan submitted by Pinnacle that included Sailboat Cove's property. So Smith had taken out Sailboat's plan and application and substituted the Pinnacle plan for Serenity Lakes. Flabbergasted, Perez de Corcho had his attorney send a letter to the city notifying them that Pinnacle didn't own the property and they wanted to continue with their plan. They also sent letters to Pinnacle, complaining of the company's presumption.

Meanwhile, the four Sailboat shareholders were also exploring options to sell the property outright. A $2.75 million offer from the Gatehouse Group was too good to pass up, and they voted to accept, thus causing Wohl to drown his sorrows in a Vegas bar. It may seem odd that Grace Ali and her partners would be trying to develop the property and sell it at the same time, but because Escobar wanted his money, they felt they needed to move forward on both fronts to protect their interests. Ali and Perez de Corcho say they didn't realize that Escobar and Reuben La Brado were secretly meeting with Wohl to plot the sale of the property to Pinnacle. Thus, when the deal with Gatehouse fell through a short while later, Escobar immediately asked Perez de Corcho for a letter authorizing him to negotiate with Pinnacle again. Perez de Corcho wrote the letter, but stipulated that any agreement to sell had to be voted on by all four company shareholders.

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