These are confusing times for affairs of the heart. Men are sleazy jerks; women are fickle teases. For years now, the lonely and lovelorn have resorted to dating services and romance sections of weekly newspapers.
Romantics, however, hold out for miraculous chance meetings in laundromats, discount stores, airports, and gas stations. Those are the kind of places that 46-year-old Vernon Braithwaite met women. During the past five years, he wed one woman and promised marriage to at least six others, prosecutors say. He fathered two children -- one by his wife and another by a fiancee.
"He's a really sweet guy, he really is," says Valerie Teemer, who identified herself as Braithwaite's "significant other" in a recent telephone interview. "He and I have been together for more than five years now. Evidently I must care about him a lot."
For Braithwaite, though, the honeymoon is over. The self-proclaimed doctor of psychology and preacher from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia is in the Metro-Dade West Detention Center. Prosecutors say that, armed with sweet talk and occasionally a machete, Braithwaite swindled more than $70,000 from seven women and stalked an eighth. He was arrested at his Southwest Dade home August 16 and is being held without bond. The charges: organized fraud, grand theft, aggravated stalking, and falsely claiming to hold an academic degree. The trial is set for September 28.
"What was most alarming to us was that there was domestic violence involved," comments Miami-Dade Police Detective Christina Reyes. His modus operandi, according to Reyes: Soon after meeting a woman he would propose marriage. Then he would borrow money. When confronted about his unpaid debts, he would become violent.
"Vernon Braithwaite is not a violent man," contends his lawyer, Jerry Cariglio, who has entered not guilty pleas to all the charges. "This isn't a case of Vernon meeting these women, taking money from them and leaving. It appears it's the other way around. These women are the ones who broke off the relationships." Cariglio denies his client stole money from anyone.
Braithwaite's trail of broken hearts apparently started in his native St. Lucia, where he made news in the Crusader newspaper. According to a December 29, 1990 story by reporter George Odlum -- now the island's foreign minister -- Braithwaite claimed to be a medical doctor and minister. Hairdresser Daisy Willie was quoted in the article. Today, she says she dated him for two weeks about five years ago and remembers him well. "He wanted to borrow money and I said 'I don't lend money to any guy, sorry,' " recalls Willie, who now works in a salon at the Rex St. Lucian Hotel in the town of Castries. She says Braithwaite proposed marriage after a week, but she declined. Attorney Cariglio questions the veracity of the Crusader article, which did not include a comment from Braithwaite.
Most of the women Braithwaite wooed in Southwest Dade during the past five years were less penny-wise than Willie, according to prosecutors and court documents. Only one of them -- who gave her name as Danielle -- would tell her story to New Times. But others testified under oath about Braithwaite. Their stories provide a dizzying tale of unbridled romance, astonishing forgiveness, and unpredictable brutality -- which Cariglio "vigorously" disputes on many counts. Here are some highlights from the arrest affidavit:
Louisa Nesbit contends she met Braithwaite at a Southwest Dade laundromat in September 1993. He told her he worked at home as a psychologist, counselling employees of Publix and Burdines. He gave Nesbit his number. Apparently she was impressed. She called him that night and after dating for a month, Braithwaite proposed marriage. Nesbit at first demurred, then agreed. She believed Braithwaite's story that his parents wed following a week-long acquaintance. A month later she was pregnant. Then he started asking for money, telling Nesbit his funds were tied up in a lawsuit with his ex-wife. First Nesbit loaned him $350. Then $1500. Then $3400. By mid-1994, Nesbit was broke, her car was repossessed, and she defaulted on her mortgage. She left Braithwaite and moved in with her sister, but relented after he apologized. Then during an argument, she claims he indicated he would cut her with a machete. "He's never threatened anybody with a machete," retorts Cariglio.
Shortly after the baby was born in September 1994, Braithwaite ripped a telephone from a wall and moved out. Nesbit claims he owes her $11,000.
Sophia Lopez, a home products saleswoman, claims Braithwaite simultaneously conducted a relationship with her. Braithwaite and Lopez met at a Southwest Dade K-Mart in fall 1993, she says. Lopez called him two weeks later and they married a little more than a month after meeting. Soon Lopez guaranteed a $20,000 car loan for Braithwaite, who promised to make the payments. Though lenders soon repossessed the automobile, she forgave him -- then forked over her Spiegel and Shell credit cards. He rang up $1300.
Throughout the first half of 1994, they argued over his unpaid debts, Lopez attests. On one occasion he smashed her head against a car window while driving away from The Falls in Kendall. "That's not true," counters Cariglio. But Lopez says she pardoned Braithwaite, allowing him to add his name to her Citibank Visa account. She did not forgive him so easily after becoming pregnant in April 1994 -- especially when he punched her in the stomach and held a machete to her neck. Again, Cariglio says those allegations are false. After Lopez sought a restraining order, Braithwaite left her. But that didn't stop him from charging another $759 on her Visa card. He purportedly left a tab that Lopez estimates at $2000.
On December 24, 1994, Braithwaite allegedly struck again. Lainee James, says she was his next victim. James, a clinical psychologist from Silver Spring, Maryland, met him while waiting to board a plane to Trinidad and Tobago at Miami International Airport. When she returned home from vacation, she called him. After two weeks of telephone conversation, he proposed. She declined. By the end of January, he had visited her in Silver Spring and the loans began to flow. During a shopping spree he spent $3600 of her money and promised to reimburse her. But his checks to her bounced. He blamed it on his ex-wife and James says she forgave him.
James claims she then loaned him a whopping $33,500 to pay off his lawyers. When Braithwaite failed to repay the loan by April 15, 1995, James grew concerned. She flew to Miami to see him. At the airport, he told her that his ex-wife had arrived at his house the night before, begging him to take her back. James ended the relationship and notified police. Her claimed damage: $50,000.
During the next three years, at least four other women maintain that Braithwaite beguiled them, the court records show. But in 1996, trouble arose. In February he called a psychologist's office and asked receptionist Sandra Davis to lunch. Davis, a Trinidadian, says she agreed and that he claimed to be a minister who owned thirteen houses in the Miami area. Three weeks later, she agreed to marry him and bought a wedding dress. The nuptials were canceled after one of Davis's cousins recognized him from the St. Lucia newspapers. Davis contends she loaned Braithwaite $3000 that he never paid back.
In January 1997, Victoria Logan states she met Braithwaite at a Borders Books & Music store. She allegedly called him two weeks later and loaned him $6300 while they dated over the next six months. In June 1997, when Logan confronted him about the unpaid debts, he threatened to use his machete. She says she's owed $6300.
It was Danielle's stalking charges that finally triggered Braithwaite's arrest this past May. A 30-year-old woman from the Caribbean island of Nevis, she agreed to speak to New Times only if her true identity were concealed. Danielle admits that she fell under Braithwaite's spell when he introduced himself at an Amoco station on SW 184th Street on a December morning last year. Braithwaite allegedly told her he was a psychology professor at Florida International University, where Danielle is enrolled. She was taken by his "nice smile" and aggressive style. "I don't want to go looking for a guy. I want him to find me," Danielle confesses. The fact that he was a fellow Caribbean islander also put her at ease, so she broke with her usual practice and handed over her home telephone and beeper numbers.
Braithwaite apparently wasted no time. He called her later that day and they went out for lunch. She found his understanding of Christianity appealing. "He knows his Bible well," notes Danielle, a Seventh Day Adventist. They dated for several months. Though Braithwaite did not charm Danielle into loaning him money, he proposed marriage and she accepted. But she grew skeptical when he claimed that he was soon to become St. Lucia's new Miami-based consul. She called the island's consulate in New York, which denied his claim. When she confronted him about the apparent lie, she says he threatened her. Last March she accused Braithwaite of stalking and threatening her with a machete.
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Braithwaite's lawyer had no comment on any of the women's financial issues, except to say his client is innocent of grand theft allegations. But he charges Danielle with lying: "Basically, what happened was that my client broke off with her and she was upset about it," asserts Cariglio. Cariglio adds that in her March 18 statement to police, Danielle falsely claimed she ended the relationship. To bolster his argument, he faxed a letter to New Times -- dated March 10 -- in which Danielle wrote, "I really care about you and I want our relationship to work ... I want the fun Vernon back, the one who makes me laugh."
Danielle admits she was still hopeful when she penned the letter. But that was before she filed stalking charges, she points out. Now she speaks differently about her ex-fiance: "Vernon Braithwaite is a friggin' con artist. He's a manipulator. He's a liar. There is nothing good about him." For Danielle, the moral of the story is simple: She should have listened to her mom. "After I introduced him to her, my mother said, 'There's something about him I don't like,' " Danielle relates. "My mother said, 'Time will tell what kind of person he is.' Well, time sure told!"
While awaiting trial in Miami, Braithwaite is again making waves in St. Lucia. "He's quite a smooth talker. He can take you in quite easily if you're not on guard," muses Permanent Secretary Earl Huntley, the top aide at St. Lucia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Years ago he claims Braithwaite tried to convince him they attended school together. Huntley adds that the foreign ministry recently received a strange pamphlet outlining proposals for the island's banana industry. Inside is a photograph of the author -- Vernon Braithwaite. "I have to conclude that he's probably unwell," Huntley sighs.