Land Grab

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

Lee seems weary of the whole business. "There is a lot of hubbub about it," he allows, although in his view it amounts to the not-in-my-back yard syndrome. "All it is now is a hunk of dirt next to a lake," he opines. "There's no reason not to do anything with it. I think it's a positive change. We just want the developer to comply with city zoning. Other than that, we can't tell them what to do on their own property."

As Lee is speaking, planning director Al Tate walks in. Tate is a tall, older fellow with a bit of a paunch, hair to his collar, glasses, and a winky eye. He follows up on Lee's comments. "People throw mud on the wall, you clean it off, and they throw mud again," he sighs, settling into a chair. "I don't mind. I've been through this before. There's always going to be opposition." Tate explains that he worked for the Opa-locka planning department years ago, was fired in one of the city's regular coups, then brought back in March 2003 by Mayor Myra Taylor after Smith's firing.

The conversation shifts to those neighbors opposing the Serenity Lakes project and their belief that the fix is in between Pinnacle and the city. Gerald Lee interjects: "Al, is the fix in for you? Because I'm not getting squat."

Alex Barrera
José Perez de Corcho and Marcelo Ali at their Sailboat Cove site
Steve Satterwhite
José Perez de Corcho and Marcelo Ali at their Sailboat Cove site

Tate pauses, then answers. "I've been here two months," he points out. "I'm not here to hide anything. I was brought in to bring things to light. I asked [Pinnacle] to bring in a new set of plans because I didn't have any here. Pulling the files, I don't have very much at all in them."

When Lee leaves the room, Tate closes the door to his office and assumes a confidential tone. "I don't know who to trust," he confesses, glancing back at the door. "There's a problem with all the files. I don't know how they let this get so bad." Tate reveals he's heard rumors that Smith, the previous director, had an unusually close working relationship with Pinnacle. He lifts his hands helplessly. "I just don't know," he says.

David Gonzalez, one of the two planning board members who voted against approval of Pinnacle's project, says that in the ramshackle kingdom of Opa-locka, it's often hard to determine whether strange things happen because of graft or simple incompetence. "When dealing with Opa-locka, it sometimes looks like they're trying to do something that's not right," he observes. "A lot of things are missing from a lot of files, but the problem is that everybody has access to those files, including people higher up than Ervin Smith. I think Mr. Smith knew a lot but he was doing what he was told -- to try to keep his job."

Shuff and her neighbors suspect that the initial application submitted to Ervin Smith by Pinnacle constituted fraud because it appears the signatures of the property's original owner, Byron F. Sherrill, were forged. When Grace Ali heard about that she had her attorneys hire a prominent handwriting expert, who determined the signatures "were clearly not executed by" Sherrill.

While it's not yet known who actually signed the documents, it wouldn't be completely out of character for Michael Wohl to cut legal corners in pursuit of a goal. In 1989 he gave up his license to practice law in Florida rather than fight Florida Bar disciplinary proceedings related to allegations he forged his clients' signatures on some documents in order to take their property, then lied about it to the bar. The bar also investigated him in 1988 for allegedly misappropriating the monthly mortgage payments of a client who'd asked him to deposit them into a trust account. That case involved forged signatures as well. He additionally relinquished his New York law license during disciplinary proceeding stemming from the same events.

Just because Wohl has been credibly accused of lying, cheating, and stealing in the past doesn't necessarily mean he, or someone else at Pinnacle, forged Byron Sherrill's signature. If forgery was in fact committed, the most likely motive would seem to be mere impatience. Sherrill wanted to sell his property and was more than willing to help Pinnacle get the approvals needed to close the deal. Later he did sign a new application, and those signatures are not in dispute.

The new application allowed Pinnacle to receive approvals for more than a million dollars from the state. "We think that based on all the fraud and misrepresentation, there should be a full investigation because it's public money they're using to do all this," Shuff demands. New Times has learned that the State Attorney's Office is looking into the matter, but former Pinnacle executive Sean Schwinghammer doesn't think they'll find much. "I can say things about Pinnacle that are negative, but there was nothing illegal," he maintains. "It was always done by the book. If you violate the rules in our industry, you're not allowed to practice for two years. We are not about to risk that for one small deal."

Wohl declines to answer questions about Serenity Lakes, citing the litigation between his company and the Alis. "They have no credibility," he snaps. But he does offer an opinion about the homeowners. "We've been incredibly responsive to their desires and needs," he asserts. "The bottom line is they don't want to see a rental development there. We're entitled to build a rental development there as a matter of law. Everything else is caca as far as I'm concerned."

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