By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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County hall has no record of an application for the project, and León chuckles at the memory. "Listen, I wish I could put a golf course on three acres," he says. But he was clearly embarrassed by the letter. On March 14, he hand-delivered his own missive to Hull, demanding all plants be cleared from the one-fifth of an acre by the end of the week.
Hull was shocked. "It would have cost nearly $1 million to move that many plants, rent a suitable piece of land for them, and to care for them there."
For the next two months, the conflict heated up daily. León's men would try to erect a fence around the land and hack down plants with machetes. Hull would call the cops. The process repeated at least 10 times. Then Hull worsened matters by taking out a lien on León's property. León sued Hull July 22 to remove the lien. The resulting months of litigation cost Hull nearly $100,000, and he lost the case.
In November, police arrested Alfredo Gutierrez — a 34-year-old with convictions for everything from burglary to assault — for breaking in and killing Hull's birds. Though a judge ordered Gutierrez to pay $27,500, Hull never saw a penny, and finally, on May 4, 2006, he declared bankruptcy. Between the accident, the storms, the theft, and the legal bills, he had nothing left. He owed his creditors $87,000 and burned with shame that he couldn't satisfy those obligations. "Being a Midwesterner, I'd always been proud of paying bills on time," he says. "Nothing hurts worse than owing so much money and not being able to pay."
But that wasn't the end. León challenged Hull's bankruptcy filings, claiming the gardener had not disclosed income from his nursery or the true value of his plants.
In December 2006, Hull surrendered unconditionally. "I am sorry for wrongfully accusing you, your family, and your employees of building a heliport and golf course," he wrote in a December 23 letter to León that is filed with the court. "I acknowledge the procedural appropriateness of the plants' removal from your property, but, while not an excuse, the trees were like a family to me and their removal was upsetting."
León says he accepted the missive in lieu of legal fees, as a compassionate gesture. "I had many financial losses because of this whole situation," León says. "But to me, the truth is most important."
Dr. Nancy Klimas, an acclaimed medical researcher at the University of Miami who has lived across the street from Hull for 20 years, watched the whole sad chapter unfold. "I'll never understand why [Hull] picked this fight," she says. "You get into a pissing match with a skunk, you're going to lose."
This past September 23, the thwack of slamming car doors pierced the quiet fall air and brought Hull from his living room. Gathered in front of his bamboo front gate were more than a dozen officials from four agencies, led by the Florida Department of Health. They'd arrived after receiving an anonymous tip that Hull's property was littered with dead birds; someone suspected bird flu was the cause.
Hull was scared. "I said, 'There's not a dead bird in this place, but there's no way you're coming on my property,'" he recalls.
They left, but two hours later, a Miami-Dade Police helicopter circled over Hull's land, snapping photos of his plants and aviary. The pictures now fill most of a three-page report that the health department's inspectors wrote about the visit.
Trevor Coke, a 23-year department of health environmental supervisor with a lilting Caribbean accent, said it is routine to involve several agencies when there is a complaint of dead birds and disease. But he admits it is exceedingly rare for the police to bring out their helicopter.
"We asked around, and some of his neighbors mentioned the noise his birds make," he says. "But that's about it. No one mentioned a smell or anything, and we couldn't see any dead animals."
Hull's vet, Harris, says the complaints are completely bogus. "Hull's birds are healthy. In fact he's the kind of guy that spends $200 on a bird that's only worth 20 bucks, just to keep them healthy," he says. "If one does die, we always do a necropsy. De has invested a lot in the birds; he wants to know what happened more than anyone."
Authorities kept coming back. They have filed two serious violations against Hull since August. One, for $4,000 on August 12, cites him for "failure to maintain required setback between animals and building." The other case, filed by the Florida Department of Health, based on the helicopter photos, is still open.
Hull fought the accusations, but on August 14, wracked by pain from the fibromyalgia and kept awake by thoughts of everything he'd lost, he decided to fight no more. He rose from bed and shot a massive dose of insulin into his bloodstream. "I just decided it was time to check out," he says.
Hull's partner found him unconscious, and an ambulance rushed him to nearby Baptist Hospital and then to Palmetto General in Hialeah, where doctors saved his life.