Treasure Island

In legendary outlaw haven North Bay Village, a prominent physician's reputation is on the line.

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.

In 2007, The Sopranos featured a wry nod to North Bay Village's past, as Tony and Paulie fled to the island to escape scrutiny for an ancient murder. The set location? The Grandview Palace.

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."

In 2003, Charles and James oversaw conversion of the Grandview into condominiums. The building has been defined by ill will ever since. They were two of three members on the board of directors, and in essence controlled the building's finances and maintenance when condo owners began complaining of disrepair. Nine months after Hurricane Wilma slammed the building, residents picketed outside to complain about needed repairs, including blasted windows and damaged walls, water pipes, and balconies.

The city's chief building official, Paul Gioia, says he took control of the building in November 2005 until developers completed $2 million in repairs. He found infractions at the building that he claims predated the storm, such as broken fire sprinklers, problematic elevators, faulty wiring, and construction work done without permits. "It is just the arrogance of power," Gioia says. "He didn't want to spend what he didn't have to. It was one of the worst-maintained buildings I've seen in the last 20 years."

Edwards wasn't cordial about the interference when the Miami Herald questioned him at the time. "Either the guy is suffering from Alzheimer's or he just makes up crap," he grumbled about Gioia.

The latest conflict might be harder to shake off. On January 29, 2004, according to court records, Edwards penned the Grandview Condominium Association to announce he had found an insurance company that would provide the building with general liability coverage for thousands less than the previous carrier.

The letter didn't reveal that the doctor was a managing member of Florida Mutual Assurance — or that the papers establishing the firm had been filed the same day he wrote the letter. Nor did it disclose that, according to prosecutors, Florida Mutual wasn't licensed to provide insurance in any state.

The same week the missive was sent, two founding partners of Florida Mutual, Brickell attorney Juan Zorrilla and insurance agent Vidal Sainz, quit the company, state records show. (Neither Sainz nor Zorrilla returned messages left at their offices.)

James Edwards then signed four checks totaling $233,730 from the Grandview Palace's bank account to Florida Mutual. The checks were deposited into a Maryland Merrill Lynch account controlled by Charles, North Bay Village cops discovered.

The plan began to unravel last May, members of the condo association charge, when new property owners replaced the father-and-son developers on the board of directors. The board's newly hired lawyer, Aaron R. Cohen, learned that a 2005 case, in which an elderly woman sued after falling on the pool deck, hadn't been handled by an insurance company. "I asked James: 'Where's all the insurance information for 2004 to 2005?'" Cohen recalls. "He produced a policy that just didn't look right: The text was different sizes, different fonts — it looked like an old-school cut-and-paste job that was put together by somebody in tenth grade."

Cohen was alarmed, he says, when he traced Florida Mutual to Charles Edwards. On March 4, the condo association filed a civil suit seeking $701,000 in damages from the developers.

The same day, the State Attorney's Office charged the company with organized fraud, grand theft in the first degree, and issuing insurance without a license — all felonies.

Says the Edwardses' attorney, Davis: "My clients got a bid from their existing insurance provider that was astronomical. They looked around and decided to create their own provider. James Edwards saved the [condo] association about $150,000 in premiums. Out of gratitude, they've sued him."

Florida Mutual's lack of an insurance certificate stemmed from a misunderstanding, Davis claims. "They received advice that state licensing wasn't required," the lawyer says, declining to elaborate on the origin of that advice.

But insurance agent Sainz told investigators he had informed Dr. Edwards that "operating an insurance company in the State of Florida required specific licensing which the company did not have" and that skirting that requirement "constituted a felony," according to a North Bay Village police report. Sainz quit two business days after papers were filed with the state creating Florida Mutual because he "could not be affiliated with [this] company," he told cops.

Asked about Sainz's resignation, Davis responds, "I don't know anything about that."

Even if Florida Mutual is criminally convicted, the surgeon and his son will face only financial sanctions. "Well, you can't put a corporation in jail," says Assistant State Attorney Fred Kerstein, who's prosecuting the case, "but you can certainly obtain fines or restitution. Obviously, you want to try to get as much money for the association as possible."

State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffin implies it's unlikely individuals will be charged: "We aren't inclined to be used as a pawn in another game."

Republican state Rep. Julio Robaina, a white-collar crime crusader who has taken an interest in the case, says the State Attorney's Office is in danger of setting a lamentable precedent. "If you steal a car worth $233,000, you can bet you'll be charged with a felony," he says. "[This] sends a message to the rest of the country, saying, 'If you want to commit fraud, come to Miami-Dade County. The worst that will happen is you have to pay back the money you stole.'"

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