Grand Theft, Church

Ghetto redevelopment Miami style is anything but divine

Edwards & Carstarphen, the private law firm the city attorney hired as a closing agent, started sending out checks totaling $252,000 in taxpayer money in May of last year. Pellerin got a $10,080 broker's fee. Another $69,000 went to the Mellon United National Bank to pay off the remainder of the loan from 1983. Another chunk went for title insurance and other closing costs. Muriel King received a check for $158,309 payable to Church of Divine Mission, Inc. She deposited it a month later at a San Diego branch of the University and State Employees Credit Union. (The city's closing attorney, Deborah Edwards, did not return calls for comment.)

How much Siskind received remains a mystery. But it is known that he persuaded CRA administrators to pick up the tab for a delinquent $5111 water and sewer bill the church owed Miami-Dade County. City commissioners later voted to eliminate the $123,750 in unpaid fines for code violations that had accumulated on the property.

When reached by phone at her home in Alabama, Valencia King Nelson, Clennon King's 76-year-old sister, insists: "We took all appropriate action." She complains that people are looking for something "scurrilous" where there isn't anything. And yet she does not recall participating in any votes to remove board members.

Leo Casino believes the Lord, and possibly government prosecutors, will judge the ones who sold this holy building
Steve Satterwhite
Leo Casino believes the Lord, and possibly government prosecutors, will judge the ones who sold this holy building
The Divine Mission was eternal in Clennon King's plan, but not the CRA's
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The Divine Mission was eternal in Clennon King's plan, but not the CRA's

Reached by phone in San Diego, Muriel King is also reticent. She declines to specify where the money went. She also claims -- contrary to corporate records on file at the Florida Department of State -- that she was a board member at the time of her father's death and that Casino and Cohn were not. "Believe me, I examined those records, the board examined those records immediately after my father's death," she says. "We examined those records and as far as I'm concerned, as far as we're concerned, those individuals who claimed they were on the board did not end up being on the board until after my father's death." She admits that she participated in a meeting in which Casino, Cohn, Antoinette Keaton, and Clifford Bell were removed but would not say where or when it was held. (Bell did not return calls to his Arizona home. Keaton could not be located.)

Muriel declines to say how she became "authorized director" of Church of Divine Mission, Inc., but she does express disdain for Casino and Cohn. "If these people had some concern about what happened, why didn't they contact me or contact one of us?" she asks. "I was there in Miami on the day that my father passed away.... I had to make arrangements to get my father out of Miami, take him home, and not one person came forth to help me.... I also gave a memorial for an evening dinner for the people in the community to memorialize my father. And not one person contributed to that. So it just seems strange to me, this much time has passed and you have these people coming out of the woodworks trying to question what has occurred."

In fact city attorney Alex Vilarello's Divine Mission file shows that Casino came out of the woodwork immediately after the CRA purchase took place. That file contains a memo citing a complaint made by Casino that Teele and Siskind had "conspired to defraud" the church's members by "developing a fake board out of California."

Setting: A beige Wynwood warehouse at 2200 NW Second Ave. The building is headquarters for the Advocacy Foundation, Thriftopia (the nonprofit's secondhand store), and Artopia (an art gallery with studios). A New Timesreporter arrives to see if Siskind will respond to Casino and Cohn's allegations that he stole the Church of Divine Mission. Siskind, a bearded, portly 62-year-old, launches into one of his favorite roles: sarcastic, unpredictable blabbermouth. "New Times!" he shouts snidely, then seethes about the newspaper's previous reports detailing some of his past schemes. Nonetheless he agrees to answer a few questions. He leads the reporter into a small room in the building and closes the door. The reporter starts his tape recorder and places it on a long wooden drafting table.

Siskind begins to recap how his involvement with the church began when he met King's son, Earnest. The Advocacy Foundation president, who refers to the apartment building as a "house," is prone to shouting.

"Everybody knows this," he huffs. "I saw Earnest King. Earnest King was laying on the street! He was evicted out of his house! I saw his paintings, his art. I've been involved in art all my fuckin' life! I don't con nobody! So the fuckin' articles that those two [New Times] scumbags wrote -- they're lyin' bastards."

He lowers his voice. "I never saw him [Earnest] in my life until then. I met him, I said, 'What's an artist like you doing on the street?' We talked. I said, 'What's the problem?' He told me. I said, 'Well look, I'll pay your lawyer's fees and see if I can get you back in if what you told me is true!' ... We went to court, went before a judge."

Working himself into another tantrum, he accuses Casino of forging documents in an effort to take over the church, then retracts the allegation. "This guy, this lyin' bastard Casino.... He forged documents after the man was dead, after the rabbi was dead, and tried to take over the building.... That's how Earnest was on the street and everything else. I'm not saying he[Casino] forged it. Somebody forged [it]. [Because] when you're dead you can't sign anything.... Anyway, to make a long story short, they [the lawyers] said [to Earnest] you go back in the house. So they ordered him back in the house. That was the end of Casino. I never saw him again, except he was going to sue me for $20 million and the Mellon Bank for $20 million. All kinds of crazy bullllllshit. And that was it.

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