Bankruptcy, Butchery, Buzz-Sawed Palms
Dim evening light streams through towering clusters of gray-blue Chinese bamboo, green spikes of Colombian guadua, and snaking tomato vines that bloom with quarter-size blue petals.
De Hull walks stiffly through his front yard, wide belly leading the way. The 62-year-old, whose first name is pronounced Dee, rubs his gray mustache and fingers a thin emerald lady palm frond that hangs over a waterlogged concrete path. "I found this one in southern Thailand," he says, shaking his head ruefully. "Grows too slowly to ever take off as an ornamental."
Untamed tangles of plant life seem to run amok on the land surrounding Hull's L-shaped ranch home. But the garden is a carefully composed safe haven for some of the most rare and exotic greenery on Earth, a place where a lone talipot palm — a Sri Lankan tree that flowers only once a century and then dies — towers over a leafy kentiopsis, cultivated from one of only two left in New Caledonia's wilds.
A muffled cacophony of squawks, chirps, and caterwauls sounds from a homemade aviary that surrounds a derelict in-ground pool behind Hull's house. Just a few years ago, the mammoth cage housed one of America's largest collections of lories, threatened parrots from the jungle canopies of Southeast Asia.
But that was before the disastrous summer and fall of 2005, when four hurricanes tore through his land, a tornado ripped a half-dozen palms in half, and a career criminal murdered dozens of Hull's priceless birds.
Even more catastrophically, it was the time Hull challenged his neighbor, Benjamin León Jr., in court.
León, in case you are not a member of the Republican cognoscenti, is a scion of a Cuban-American-owned healthcare empire and an influential donor to conservative causes. His apparent wrath, along with that of county code enforcers and banks, has been no less devastating to Hull and his precious flora than a Category 5 storm.
Hull stands with his hands on his hips in the dull dusk glow, staring at the jungle-like result of 35 years of gardening, of decades spent trudging through rain forests in New Guinea and up Panamanian mountainsides collecting seeds that now have sprouted into more than 500 species of palms. Thirty-five years spent turning one acre on a residential block — just a mile from traffic pouring down South Dixie Highway — into a refuge for the most threatened plants on the planet.
He will learn in a few weeks whether he will lose it all.
Hull was six years old when his passion for tropical plants first led him afoul of authority. He was a quiet boy, living on an 80-acre farm of rolling prairie five miles from Mason City, in the wheat-pregnant heart of central Illinois. Intrigued by the slick white seeds he had found inside an orange, he filled his metal lunch pail with fertile soil and planted them. By the time early summer began baking the region, the first green sprouts of an orange tree poked through the dark loam.
Hull covers his mouth with a dirt-stained hand and stares at a dusty living room bookshelf as he remembers his mother's reaction. "She was upset because it ruined the lunch pail," he says in his unique nasal pitch. "But I just thought it was great that something so exotic could come from a tiny seed like that."
If there's a green thumb gene encoded in human DNA, it was likely passed down to De Hull from birth. His mother and both grandmothers spent farms. His dad Walter and nearly every male relative devoted their lives to cultivating and harvesting winter wheat, oats, and corn.
Virtually everything the Hulls ate originated either on Walter's 80 acres or his brother Albert's plot a mile down the road. De was the oldest of four sisters and two brothers who helped their parents smoke their own hams, gather fruit and nuts from an orchard and a walnut grove, and can vegetables and strawberries. The family didn't install indoor plumbing in the weathered two-story farmhouse until De was in high school.
Through droughts and spoiled harvests, the family's pillar and De's emotional inspiration was Walter. "What I said about my dad at his funeral — he was almost 90 when he died — is that ... he was the most stubborn person I ever met in my life," Hull says. "But that was the key to his success."
Walter farmed both his own land and that of his brother, who suffered from severe asthma. To top it off, the elder Hull served 20 years as his county's roads commissioner, rising at 3 a.m. during blizzards to plow the dirt and gravel roads that crisscrossed the farmland. When he got home, he'd milk the cows.
Hull was an energetic kid. He served as president of both the local chapters of the Future Farmers of America and the Christian Youth Association.
But he was far from typical.
For one, his initial interest in that orange seedling had blossomed into a full-on obsession with tropical foliage. When he found a small palm from Mexico on sale at the local dime store, he snapped it up and kept it on the family's sun porch. He bought another from a florist in Mason City, and a third from a shop in Chicago on a school trip. Soon he had 13 palms growing behind the farmhouse. "I loved them because they were exotic," Hull says. "But it was just horrible.... I was considered different because I liked plants and flowers so much."
A few years later, as an undergraduate studying horticulture at the University of Illinois, he was wrapping flower cuttings in newspaper one day when he noticed a "Dear Abby" column. "It was the first time I'd ever even heard the words gay and homosexual," Hull recalls. "I started reading up on it, and you can imagine the books they had on the subject at that time. I thought, Jesus, I don't want anything to do with this!"
In 1968, he earned a fellowship to study palms at Longwood Gardens, just outside Philadelphia. There he met for the first time a group of gay men and began to come to terms with his sexuality. Then he told his family. "When I finally came out," Hull says, "it destroyed Mom, and my dad just didn't talk about it."
His passion for all things green and exotic also bloomed at Longwood. When he successfully demonstrated that a tropical needle palm could survive a frigid Northeast winter by nestling inside a bamboo cluster near a waterfall, the garden's director "couldn't believe it.... He said, 'Kid, you've convinced me. Study whatever you want,'" Hull says.
Soon he got his first taste of the exotic travel that would become his niche as an international palm expert. Between 1968 and 1971, he collected seeds and studied germination in Costa Rica and Jamaica as well as at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables.
Miami, he recalls, seemed too good to be real. In 1969, before a disease killed most of the coconut palm population in the early Seventies, the towering trees lined nearly every street. "It was just like coming to paradise," Hull says.
After earning a master's degree in 1971, he moved here and enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Miami. But soon thereafter, Dr. Cal Dodson, the expert he planned to study under, departed and Hull in turn quit school. A few months later, he took an $11,000-a-year position as an agent in the Miami-Dade extension office of the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), where he taught farmers how to improve growing techniques and deal with rare diseases and pests.
"De brought an unmatched knowledge of palms and ornamental horticulture to our region," says Don Pybas, director of the extension office and one of Hull's colleagues since the early Eighties. "He really played a key role in getting that industry going."
Hull moved to Miami just as a new superindustry was exploding, says Dr. Alan Hodges, a University of Florida economist. A few large nurseries had operated near the city since the Fifties without much growth, but as more Americans moved to the suburbs and bought homes, they developed a voracious appetite for palm trees, elephant ears, and other tropical plants. South Florida's wet, moderate climate proved the best in the country for growing them. By the Eighties and Nineties, the industry blew up. Today Florida produces two-thirds of the tropical foliage sold in the United States, accounting for $15.2 billion in sales in 2005, the last year statistics were compiled.
Hull imported new, exotic palms from around the world and helped teach nurseries to grow and sell them. "It was thrilling to be a part of the horticulture industry at that time," Hull says. "Those were great years."
Benjamin León Jr. reclines comfortably behind a wide glossy desk, sipping a tiny cup of fragrant café cubano. Through a long window on one side of his corner office, he can watch elderly patients sitting in a plush lounge, waiting for doctors. Through another, two waterfalls pour silently down granite walls, bracketing the front entrance to one of his healthcare clinics in West Miami-Dade.
"I was a dishwasher when I was 16 years old. I worked at Winn-Dixie. I'm a self-made guy," says León, age 63, a stocky man with a puffy gray mane circling his face and droopy Marlon Brando eyes. He gestures vaguely when speaking of his experience living next door to Hull: "I never wanted to hurt that guy."
León's family fled eastern Cuba for Miami in 1961. His father, an accountant on the island, opened a small clinic in Little Havana. Nearly 40 years later, the company born of that operation — Leon Medical Centers — is run by the younger León and operates five Medicare-only centers in the Miami metro area that serve 28,000 mostly Hispanic patients. León Jr. sold the company's HMO last year to a national group for $400 million.
As his wealth multiplied, the healthcare magnate looked for a new home, a quiet idyll away from the bustle of everyday Miami. He thought he'd found it in 2001 when he bought three acres and a home on SW 90th Avenue just off Killian Drive in South Miami-Dade.
But that respite was soon shattered, he says, by the eccentric gardener next door, a man who — in León's telling — refused to listen to reason, act neighborly, or behave sanely. "I think at one point he just kind of lost it. Because it made no sense, his actions made no sense," León says, his voice tinged with confusion. "At some point, I just said, 'I don't need this.' And we left."
León sold his home at the peak of the housing bubble for an eye-popping $4.7 million and moved into a $9.8 million mansion in Coral Gables in late 2005. He couldn't deal with Hull's stubbornness, he says, drumming his fingers rhythmically on his desk. "That guy caused me all kinds of aggravation."
One should not aggravate a man with León's money or political clout. Consider this: In the name of his company and family, he has funneled nearly $300,000 to Republican candidates and political action committees since 1999. This year alone, he has given $53,100 to two John McCain PACs. Locally he has donated the maximum $500 to three members of the county commission and to county Mayor Carlos Alvarez. Three other commissioners received smaller donations, from $250 to $300. Leon Medical Centers, in fact, is the top donor this year to both Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balarts' campaigns for re-election. León Jr.'s company has given $27,600 to Lincoln and $26,800 to Mario. The company is also the second-largest donor to Kendrick Meeks's campaign — with $12,500 this year — and the fourth-largest contributor to that of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen campaign, with $10,000 in the books.
"That's a lot of money," says Ben Wilcox, director of the Florida chapter of the public advocacy group Common Cause. "It's definitely for a purpose. And I don't think the purpose is in the interest of good government as much as it's in the interest of the government being good to that donor."
León responds that he expects nothing from his contributions. "Never, never have I received any favors or asked for any favors from any politicians," he says. "My parents worked very hard for what they had, and I saw them lose everything because the wrong people came to power, simply because they didn't get involved. I believe in helping people who believe in free enterprise and in keeping this country strong."
Hull bought his acre of land at 10815 SW 90th Ave. in 1975 for $65,500. It sat on a block bracketed by horse farms and mango groves, and abutted a deserted, overgrown lot. The simple ranch house stood on a high coral ridge, so it would never flood or freeze. "My father told me I was insane to spend that much on a house here," Hull says. "He said, 'You could have bought three farms here for that much!'"
Hull's vision of a tropical refuge received a key boost in 1971 when Watana Sumawong — a member of the Thai royal family who oversaw the queen's garden in Bangkok — visited South Florida. "He came to see me and said, 'De, I believe in what you're doing. We need to get these palms into cultivation before they're gone,'" Hull recalls.
Sumawong asked Hull to collect rare species' seeds and distribute them to botanical gardens around the world. "He said, 'I won't pay you a salary, but if you figure out when these species are fruiting and how to germinate them, I will pay your travel costs and you can keep half of the seeds.'"
Between 1971 and 2006, Hull traveled to dozens of countries with threatened palm species, including New Guinea, Mauritius, Thailand, Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. Along the way, he picked up two other wealthy patrons, David and Pat Coutts, an Australian couple interested in raising palms in their garden outside Cairns. Overall he collected the seeds for some 3,000 species in his decades of travel.
In the late Eighties, Hull went to the Mascarenes, a chain of volcanic islands east of Madagascar. He spent days collecting the seeds of the hyophorbe amaricaulis, a tree that was the only remaining member of its kind. The species had died out because it had depended on an ungainly flightless bird, a relative of the dodo, to digest its seeds before germination. When visiting explorers killed off the dodo and its close relatives, they inadvertently destroyed the entire species — except for this single specimen.
"I still think about visiting that plant," Hull says.
As his international reputation grew, he earned commissions from Kew Gardens in London and a botanical garden in Guatemala.
"He truly is a legend in his own time," says Tim Anderson, a former colleague from the extension office who now operates an exotic plant nursery in Miami. "When it comes to exotic palms and bromeliads, he's really unmatched."
Hull also became one of the largest donors in the history of the acclaimed Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, on Old Cutler Road. To date, he has given 675 different kinds of seeds, says Mary Collins, a senior horticulturist at Fairchild. "He's one of the largest donors we've ever had," she says. "These kind of donations from distant locations are key. You don't have to go to all the trouble and expense of going to places like Borneo — you can just study them here."
On his first trip to Australia, in 1980, Hull's second great passion took shape. While traveling in Queensland, he encountered lories for the first time. A relative of the parrot, the species sports some of the most shockingly bright pigment in the world, with blues, reds, and greens spread chaotically over its feathers.
Mostly native to the jungles of Southeast Asia, the birds are threatened by deforestation. When he returned to South Florida, Hull began buying any captive lories he could find and set about learning to breed them. He soon started building an aviary behind his home.
"I don't believe in capturing birds from the wild, but I thought that if I could learn to breed lories that were already captive, I could really make a difference in a declining population," he says.
Hull would eventually gather 200 pairs in his aviary. He sold the birds only to zoos, including Miami's Parrot Jungle and Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo, fearing that private collectors lacked the resources to properly care for the rare creatures.
"If there was a bigger breeder of lories in the country, I don't know them," says Dr. Don Harris, a Miami veterinarian specializing in exotic animals who has worked with Hull's birds for more than 20 years.
By the Nineties, Hull's vision of constructing a tropical paradise in unincorporated Miami-Dade County had become a reality. More than 500 varieties of palm grew on the land, shading his home and pets.
In 1995, he retired from the extension office, planning to devote himself full-time to his world travels, his palm nursery, and his birds. "I always imagined my life in three parts," Hull says. "The first third was about education, learning about plants. The second third was about public service. And the last part was going to be mine, to pursue my passions.
"I never thought anyone could take that from me."
July 20, 2005, was a sweltering summer Wednesday, and Hull awoke early to feed the approximately 200 lories, exotic hens, and parrots that could usually be heard chirping from their aviary, an L-shaped, 10-foot-high structure next to Hull's patio.
But something was wrong. It was just too quiet.
Perhaps it had something to do with another break-in earlier that week, Hull thought. Someone had cut through his exterior fence and climbed over the spiny plants that lined the perimeter of his home. In 2000, he recalls, a thief had made off with 20 pairs of lories and albino Indian ringnecks.
Then he walked into the aviary. Dozens of birds lay dead on the ground, their necks broken and wings snapped. Babies with crushed heads were splayed next to stomped-on shards of eggs. Terrified birds shrieked and flew around the aviary, their cage doors wrenched open. Dozens of others were missing.
"You have to understand, a lot of these birds, De bought their parents and raised their whole family for 20 years. He knew them like children," says Harris, the vet and exotic bird expert. "He was crushed."
"I was spiritually, emotionally, and physically destroyed," Hull says.
The theft and murder of Hull's birds was the emotional nadir in a nosedive that traces to 1975, when Hull cleaned up part of a vacant acre behind his property and began growing palms there. He didn't own the parcel but thought there wouldn't be a problem because the lot was empty. When a real estate developer bought the land in the early Eighties and built a home, Hull struck an informal deal to keep using the small patch. For two decades, he never gave it a second thought. When León purchased the land in 2001, the new neighbors signed a formal agreement allowing Hull to continue using the parcel until 2005.
Beginning on April 8, 2004, misfortune rained down like a monsoon. That day a distracted University of Miami student slammed into the back of Hull's car in a traffic jam near South Dixie Highway and Killian Drive. The palm expert's tailbone was shattered. Soon he began suffering from bone spurs in his feet, as well as fibromyalgia, a condition related to the nervous system that causes body-wide pain. Years ealier, he had also developed diabetes, which complicated matters.
In August, while still recovering from the accident, Tropical Storm Bonnie knocked down trees and damaged his beloved garden. Hurricanes Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne followed.
The next summer would prove even worse.
When the signed agreement between León and Hull expired, tensions flared. Hull had never considered that León would want the land back. He had used it for nearly 25 years, growing a wide array of palm germplasms — basically small experiments in breeding the palms he'd collected from around the world. The tiny parcel of land contained 100,000 plants, including rare trees such as veitchias from Fiji and ptychosperma from New Guinea.
"I made it very clear to León that I would want to keep using that land after 2005," Hull recalls. "He never indicated that would be a problem."
Responds León: "I gave him three years, really four because we didn't sign the deal until 2002, for nothing."
As the spat over the land escalated, Hull made a serious mistake. Based only on hearsay, he started a neighborhood petition accusing León of planning to build a golf course and helipad — and of doing construction without permits. Dozens of neighbors signed and Hull sent it to county commissioners and code enforcers.
"I signed," recalls neighbor Patricia Scott. "I wouldn't want a golf course down the street, and there were a lot of trucks coming in and out."
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.
On a recent weekday, clad in the same sweat-stained work clothes he wears every day — a turquoise "River Kwai Thailand" T-shirt, brown slacks, and white tennis shoes — Hull sits in front of a humming box fan in his humid, musty living room. He hasn't been able to afford air conditioning since everything spiraled out of control.
The home is packed with extraordinary — and extraordinarily dusty — antiques: wooden Thai birdcages with fantastical spires; Tiffany lamps; bird sculptures hewn from chunks of quartz and granite. Most of it belongs to his partner of nearly 30 years, a man who asked not to be named for fear of losing his job over his sexual orientation.
The bizarre episode with the police helicopter was just one of more than a dozen visits by authorities after León headed for more expensive digs in the Gables last year, Hull says. He blames León for the code enforcement spree. "I've been here 35 years and never had a single issue. I just don't understand why else it would start now," Hull says. León refutes the accusations. "Why would you even consider anything this man says about me?" he questions New Times. "He lied before, and it's in writing. I'm not interested in Mr. Hull. I didn't even remember that he existed until you asked me about him."
Hull says he is doing better. He is well medicated and is trying to return to both physical and financial health. He will find out after a hearing in December whether he can keep his house. In the meantime, Hull looks to his father's example for inspiration in these dry times. "I'm a farmer. You go through droughts, through bad harvests and bad crops," he says. "You tighten your belt and move on."
León, meanwhile, made national news earlier this year by giving Florida International University a $10 million gift — one of the largest in the state's history — to help establish a geriatric research center at the new medical school. He wishes his former neighbor no further ill will. "In life, you get back what you put into it," León says, gesturing at his office wall like he's throwing a tennis ball. "It's like throwing a rubber ball against the wall — it comes right back at you. Only faster."
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