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It was an operation of unprecedented ambition, one that salvaged the life of a completely paralyzed patient and made a national star of 37-year-old wunderkind spine specialist Dr. Charles C. Edwards. In July 1979, the University of Maryland Hospital surgeon sliced into the back of 33-year-old Baltimore housewife Jessie Thomas and dredged out a cantaloupe-size malignant tumor and three and a half vertebrae. The patient, her lower back a boneless accordion, lay immobilized for nearly two months. On August 31, Dr. Edwards returned to the operating room with a metal-and-plastic spine replacement of his own design. He hoped to bridge Thomas's missing vertebrae so she could sit in a wheelchair. After 17 hours of metal rods, screws, and wire mesh being implanted — and a three-month recovery — Thomas arrived home just in time for Christmas.
The Yale-educated Edwards was profiled in Newsweek and touted in papers across the nation. His primitive man-made spine was among the first steps toward recent space-age advances in spinal fusion surgery.
These days, at age 67, he's the director of the Maryland Spine Center and a professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Maryland. But the good doctor's stellar reputation could soon be ground to a pulp in, of all places, North Bay Village.
This past March 3, condo owners at the Grandview Palace, a bayfront building on the village's Treasure Island, sued Edwards and his son James, alleging they had "unlawfully taken" $233,730 from the group's coffers. The same day, the State Attorney's Office filed criminal charges of organized fraud and grand theft against Florida Mutual Assurance Trust, which lists Edwards as its "managing member" — legalese, in this case, for founding shareholder. Charles and James Edwards "created a company with the intent of getting money out of the [condo] association," says Reinaldo Trujillo, current vice president of the board of directors and vice mayor of North Bay Village. "There was nothing done legally."
Four calls to Charles Edwards's home and office in Maryland were not returned. Nor were two messages left for James on a cell phone and at the Grandview Palace office, which New Times also visited seeking comment. On March 12, Florida Mutual Assurance Trust entered a plea of not guilty.
The Edwardses' attorney, Alvin B. Davis, calls the accusations "ridiculous... [Florida Mutual] was created to save the condo association money. It was funded with $5 million of Charles Edwards's own money. Does that sound like a sham company to you?"
The defense attorney representing Florida Mutual, Hy Shapiro, declines to discuss the case except to offer a warning: "Dr. Edwards certainly has an exceptional reputation, and I would hope that nothing written about him would tarnish that."
Though Edwards has never before run afoul of local law enforcement, the tiny hamlet of North Bay Village — 7,000 residents on three man-made islands plunked onto Biscayne Bay — has had a metropolis's share of outlaw history. In the '60s, it was a stomping ground for vacationing mobsters from Chicago and New York. On Halloween 1967, gangster "Big Tony" Esperti gunned down Thomas "The Enforcer" Altamura there. Nine years later, the remains of a Mafia colleague were found stuffed into a fish barrel bobbing in the bay. In the '80s, the FBI busted three cops after they tried to extort protection from an undercover agent. And in 2004, the mayor and three commissioners were arrested on charges ranging from bribery to unlawful secrecy.
The 532-unit building and its accompanying marina were designed by high-rise pioneer Tibor Hollo, who opened it to renters in 1985. The architecturally unremarkable 23-story L-shaped tower, originally called Flamingo Plaza, cost $73.2 million, Hollo says, and loomed over what had previously been a three-story town. "By that time, the mobsters were old," Hollo recalls, "but there were lots of Damon Runyon characters still remaining. If I remember correctly, there was a council-lady who was a madam."
Hollo later sold the building, and in 1995, Edwards and his son James purchased it. Two years later, Edwards led an investment group that bought Newark-based Kiwi International Airlines — which had recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy — for $16.5 million, according to the New York Times. The company continued to hemorrhage cash under his watch, and in 1999, it filed for terminal bankruptcy. Facing tremendous losses, the company tried to recoup paltry thousands in its last days, auctioning off office equipment and selling tickets it would never honor.
In 1996, Edwards spent $10 million on a once-prestigious pair of 12-story apartment buildings in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Three years later, they were condemned as "unfit for human habitation" and seized by the township after inspectors found them rife with code violations and pest infestations, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Attorney Davis declines to comment about Kiwi and says his client did nothing wrong in the Cherry Hill case. He points out the condemned buildings were mostly uninhabitable when the doctor bought them and maintains Edwards was a victim of cronyism between city officials and a developer who later bought the properties. "The mayor was raising funds for a congressional campaign," Davis says, "and the developer was one of her political contributors."