Land Grab

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

Another developer was also interested in the property, and during a meeting at a realtor's office in May of last year offered $2.75 million to Ali and Perez de Corcho. But Reuben La Brado showed up at the offices halfway through the meeting and killed it. Grace Ali recalls, "He said to them: 'You're crazy to buy this. This property is worth no more than $1.84 million.' They immediately took their offer off the table. José wanted to kill [La Brado]. I told him to keep his cool." Then, the next day, Escobar secretly signed a sales contract with Wohl for $1.84 million. (La Brado doesn't remember things that way. "It's my word against theirs," he says. "Fortex has their version of events, [Armando and I] have ours.")

Ali and Perez de Corcho say they didn't learn about the secret contract until two weeks later. Again it was Ervin Smith in Opa-locka who broke the news. Smith told Perez de Corcho that this time he'd seen an actual sales contract, signed by Armando Escobar. A few days later the other three Sailboat Cove shareholders -- Marcelo Ali, Ted Lyons, and Henry Crespo -- filed suit against Pinnacle, which reacted by asserting its ownership of the property and threatening legal action of its own if the Sailboat partners didn't back down. Escobar's former partners are convinced he had a side deal going with Wohl. What else would explain why he'd sign for $900,000 less than the other offer and $1.3 million less than Pinnacle itself had previously offered?

Perez de Corcho claims that early in the game, back in mid-2001, Michael Wohl attempted to get him to sell out his partners and deliver the property to Pinnacle. He remembers the moment: "There was one time we're meeting and Grace wasn't there yet. And he asked me, 'José, what do you want?' And I said, 'Well, we told you, home ownership, Grace and I ...' And he said, 'No, no, no. Forget about Grace. What does José want to get this project in our hands?' And right then Grace walks in. And this guy turns and says, 'Goddammit! Fuck! Sonofabitch!' just like that, about Grace. I got livid and walked out."

Michael Wohl still covets the Sailboat Cove property, and no wonder: It's valuable
Michael Wohl still covets the Sailboat Cove property, and no wonder: It's valuable

He pauses to let the old anger subside, studies his boots for a moment, then continues, more quietly but with the same intensity: "And then they had the -- my God! There's no honor amongst men. I mean, he could have either done two things -- taken me outside and let's get it going, or at least not ever call me back. But then he calls back again: 'Hi, we'd like to continue. We'd like to take you to breakfast at the club.' Unbelievable. The guy has no shame."

"Pinnacle has been after us for over a year and a half," Grace Ali adds. "Mike Wohl was calling me on my cell day and night. He wouldn't leave me alone. He didn't understand 'No thank you very much, we're not interested.'" Ali says that when Wohl's methods of persuasion didn't work, he sent an emissary, lobbyist Peter Bernal, to reason with them. "He came to see us," Ali recalls, "and said, 'Look, these people really want this property. Why don't you just sell it to them?' I told Peter: 'Tell Mike Wohl we're going to do our development whether he likes it or not.'"

It's strange that Wohl would send Bernal to lobby Ali and Perez de Corcho, but even more disturbing that Bernal would agree to do so. Bernal is a player in the local business and political realm, but he's also a long-time member of the county's Affordable Housing Advisory Board, which recommends public funds for low-income housing. Pinnacle frequently petitions this board for public money controlled by the county -- and has received millions from it over the past several years. Bernal is a large, nearly bald man with glasses and a fondness for guayaberas. His background is worth noting here. In 1987 he was a spokesman for Miguel Recarey, Jr., head of International Medical Centers, the nation's largest HMO at the time. Recarey was indicted in 1987 for conspiracy, bribery, and obstruction of justice, but fled to Spain, where he remains a fugitive.

Bernal's next brush with notoriety came in 1994, when his good friend state Sen. Alberto Gutman attempted to earn a million-dollar "consulting fee" for assisting in the sale of a local Medicaid HMO to Physician Corporation of America. At the time Bernal was a spokesman for the company and Gutman was, conveniently, chairman of the Florida Senate Health Care Committee. Gutman eventually went to federal prison.

Bernal then moved on to a position as board chairman of the Allapattah Business Development Authority, just in time to be on hand for the ABDA's role in the 1997 Miami vote-fraud scheme that finished the political career of Xavier Suarez, toppled Humberto Hernandez, and led to the 1999 felony voter-fraud case of Angel Gonzalez (subsequently elected a Miami commissioner, claro!).

In August 2002 Wohl took another approach. He created a company for the specific purpose of buying the mortgage note on the Sailboat Cove land and sought to foreclose on the property, even while claiming in the lawsuit that Pinnacle already owned it. Creditors began circling like a wolf pack.

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