Warmbier said he usually ended a job with $30,000 or $40,000 in his pocket. Siffin's take: $120,000 to $160,000, he claimed.

The exchange between Warmbier and Hodge has never before been reported in detail. It's recorded in sworn documents made public in a 1978 Nevada murder case that the state's supreme court reopened in 2000.

Siffin denies Warmbier's allegations, and his lawyer, Russell Hayman, points out that no charges were filed against the developer in connection with that case. "It was my mistake to befriend him. The moment I met him, I should have never had any association with him," Siffin says of Warmbier. "But I couldn't imagine that years and years after I knew him, this subject would keep coming up."

Artist's rendering of Mark Siffin's proposed City Square.
Courtesy of Miami City Square
Artist's rendering of Mark Siffin's proposed City Square.

True or false, the tale of drugs and swashbuckling oddly fits with Siffin's colorful past, which includes a globetrotting childhood with a brilliant father and a devout Catholic mom, a more-than-passing flirtation with drugs including heroin, and a long stretch of studying art and trading gems outside the United States.

He was born in 1950 in Bloomington, Indiana, to William and Catherine Fox Siffin. His father, who went by Bill, was a native Hoosier. Bill earned an undergraduate degree at Indiana University and then obtained a master's at the University of Minnesota. He eventually found a job with the Tennessee Valley Authority; then he won a fellowship to help pay his way to Harvard and married Mark's mother, Catherine.

There he earned a double PhD in political economy and government. Then the young couple moved back to Indiana, where Bill launched a groundbreaking think tank focused on aiding developing nations. Mark was their first child.

Like his son, Bill Siffin was a complex individual. He was both brilliant and mysterious, says Philip Morgan, a political science professor who spent decades working with him at IU. "Bill was generous and intimate yet still always distant," he says.

Mark Siffin's childhood was unconventional. The family frequently traveled on far-flung research trips and lived for several years in Bangkok. One long-lasting memory formed when he was 5 years old, while sitting at an outdoor café in Hong Kong. As he ate, Mark says, he noticed a pack of Chinese kids with bloated bellies picking in a sawdust pile, and he laughed: "Look at those fat kids!"

Bill Siffin grabbed his son by the arm and dragged him over to the starving children. "You're white, you're middle class, you have a good mind, and you have an obligation to conduct yourself in a manner reflective of your good fortune," he almost shouted at the boy.

The family moved to Hawaii when Mark was a teen, and he enrolled at a Catholic-run high school for military brats where he "endured a dreaded one-two punch" of nuns and Army officers, he told the Indianapolis Business Journal.

After high school, he took art courses at IU and in Philadelphia and tried to make a living as a painter. Then he moved to Paris, where he led a starving-artist lifestyle. "I had zero aspirations toward being a businessman," he says.

He spent several years in France, never finding much success. "My father sent my sister to try to convince me to stop living in $2-a-night hotel rooms, to come back to America to join the real world," he says.

Upon return, he took gemology courses, but then he left again — for Burma, where he stayed with missionaries and swapped gems.

Just more than a decade ago, Siffin proposed a project in Los Angeles much like the one he wants to build near the Arsht Center in Miami. That experience provides prescient clues about the fate of the large mall, garage, and billboards he plans to erect just off Biscayne Boulevard. First he lined up a partner — Apollo Real Estate — and then finalized a deal for a block on the Sunset Strip including the historic Playboy Building. He proposed a $250 million, 200,000-square-foot shopping center and later announced a partnership with Clear Channel to add huge LED billboards.

That, of course, alarmed residents, so Siffin launched a charm offensive. He met with condo boards, associations, and activists. The doors to a mansion he had purchased on Blue Jay Way in West Hollywood, a hilly enclave just above the Strip, were always open, he says.

Siffin cut a laid-back, philosophical figure, showing up to business meetings wearing pastel shirts and chatting easily about fine art. "He was one of the most unflappable guys I've ever met," says Steve Martin, a lawyer and former West Hollywood mayor. "Even when people started rabidly attacking him, he never showed any signs that it affected him."

One spring day, he even won over a civic activist by saving her life. Jeanne Dobrin, a gadfly and organizer who was then 81 years old, had come to Siffin's home. They talked for a while before she tried to back her car out of his driveway. "Something went wrong with my brakes, and I rolled over a curb, down a three-foot drop, and then slid all the way down a hill," Dobrin recalls. "I ended up slamming into a house."

Siffin leaped a fence, dashed down the hill, and pulled Dobrin to safety before firefighters arrived. She ended up a vocal supporter. "We have a lot of greedy developers here, but he was a very smart man, a very good man," she says.

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