Seventy-four-year-old antique dealer Billy Herrero vowed he wouldn't walk away from his "friends" -- his sprawling array of period furniture, Oriental vases, vintage clothing, Art Deco trinkets, and unadulterated junk collected over six decades. And in the end, he didn't. Early Christmas Eve, a few hours before he was to be evicted and his worldly possessions seized by order of a federal bankruptcy judge, Herrero set fire to his Coconut Grove home and hobbled upstairs to a rear bedroom. There he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
It was a tragic end to a flamboyant and fiercely independent life overwhelmed by battling attorneys, an impatient bank, and nearly $500,000 in debts. To the aging and infirm Herrero, the court action stripping him of his home and his beloved collection was an indignity he could not endure.
The abandoned son of a Spanish mother and an Irish father, a young Herrero struggled through several orphanages and the Great Depression. He emerged in the late Thirties and early Forties as one of America's top female impersonators, and lived a colorful life of decadence and fame. "I've enjoyed the company of dignitaries and degenerates," he told New Times as part of a profile published three weeks ago ("Billy's Last Stand," December 9). "I have had an amazing life." He may have earned more than a million dollars during his years on stage, but he had no way of knowing. He spent it all on parties, cars, and other assorted luxuries.
As the nightclub performance circuit faded in the Fifties, Herrero turned his attention to the dozens of trunks filled with costumes and cheap jewelry he had stored all over the United States. Eventually he parlayed these belongings into a treasure trove of antiques and collectibles with an estimated value of more than one million dollars. He called his store (which was also his home) near the corner of U.S. 1 and 27th Avenue "The Best Little Hoardhouse in Miami."
Herrero marked 1984 as the beginning of his downward spiral. At that time a city-sponsored redevelopment project was scheduled to transform 27th Avenue into a busy commercial district. Herrero claimed that a banker from Totalbank seduced him into borrowing $300,000 to improve his property in anticipation of a revitalized neighborhood, and assured him he'd be able to refinance the debt in the future if he had difficulty paying back the money. (Herrero already had nearly paid off the mortgage on his property.)
Soon after Herrero borrowed the money, the redevelopment project began to fall apart. But rather than quickly repay the loan, Herrero used some of the money to repair his shop and to pay medical bills. He said the banker then advised him to reinvest the remainder with Totalbank. The money he earned from those investments, however, was not enough to cover the interest payments on his loan. "I was a fool," Herrero said recently. "Like a lot of old people, I was flattered that these strangers were paying attention to me, spending time with me. I signed whatever papers they put in front of me. I let them get close to me, and today I'm all fucked up because of it."
In 1989, after paying back about two-thirds of the Totalbank loan, Herrero defaulted on the rest. On March 5 of this year, Circuit Court Judge Jon Gordon ordered the sale of Herrero's property, but a few hours before the sale was to take place, Herrero's attorney, Richard Siegmeister, blocked it by helping Herrero file for bankruptcy.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge A. Jay Cristol permitted Herrero to hold a series of auctions, giving the collector a final chance to raise money to pay back his debt. The auctions -- one in late November and another two weeks ago -- were financial failures, in part because of Herrero's stubborn refusal to cooperate with auctioneer Jay Sugarman, who says Herrero held back merchandise intended for sale and insulted prospective bidders.
This past Wednesday Judge Cristol appointed a trustee to seize Herrero's property, and attorney Siegmeister agreed to accept a five-day, temporary eviction while Herrero's merchandise was moved to a warehouse in preparation for a court-mandated sale. Siegmeister, who said at the time he was pleased with the judge's decision, called Herrero to inform him that he would have to leave his home that evening; informal plans had been made for him to stay with a friend.
But the cantankerous Herrero had no plans to go quietly. He immediately barricaded himself in his cluttered shop and began making phone calls to acquaintances and confidants in a desperate bid for help. When Siegmeister arrived at the store that evening, Herrero brandished an antique two-shot derringer and refused to allow him inside. "That's when I decided we should have some professionals here to mediate the situation," Siegmeister said. Miami police were summoned and surrounded the building. Herrero still refused to emerge, but because the court order did not specifically authorize forcible entry, the police eventually departed.
Siegmeister, two Totalbank representatives, and the court-appointed trustee and his assistants then retreated to a parking lot across the street from Herrero's fortress. Using a cellular phone, Siegmeister reached Judge Cristol and together they composed a revised court order that would allow law enforcement authorities to break and enter if necessary. "I feel a little unusual drafting an order evicting my client," Siegmeister noted.
Despite the prospect of a Christmas Eve eviction, the bank's representatives were unremitting Wednesday night. "Billy Herrero tried to use the bankruptcy court as a shield against Totalbank," snapped David Schlosberg, in-house counsel for the bank. "The judge said the bank had waited long enough and Billy Herrero caused his own problems and it was time for him to get out." With the revised court order signed, the bankruptcy trustee made plans to return to Herrero's house in the morning and begin carting away his antiques.
On several recent occasions, Herrero had threatened to kill himself if his possessions were seized and if he were forced to leave his home. He repeated that threat to Siegmeister Wednesday evening when he barred the attorney from entering his store. But Siegmeister was doubtful. "I still think he has it in his mind that this thing is going to work itself out," Siegmeister said after his call to Judge Cristol. "I don't believe that his intentions are to take his own life. It's never been established that he's a threat to himself or anyone else." When asked by reporters at the scene for comment regarding the potential danger of a desperate, armed man being confronted by gun-toting police officers, Siegmeister sarcastically replied, "And it's also a dark and stormy night at the same time?"
Later that night an exhausted Herrero telephoned New Times, his ribald wit and feisty demeanor drained by a lack of sleep. In a rambling and sometimes incoherent monologue, he suggested he would obey the court order. "I'm so independent," he sighed. "What I would like to do is to tell them [the police], 'Stay out of my way and let me go on my own.'" But he worried about the fragile state of his health and the inconvenience of temporary living arrangements away from his home.
Herrero also expressed concern over the fate of his collection, and said he wanted an independent overseer knowledgeable about antiques to catalogue and appraise the objects as they were being removed by the trustee. He also asked that a photographer be present to document the process.
According to Herrero, Siegmeister was expected to arrive the next morning in advance of the trustee and police. "I hope it's not too early," he said wearily, "because I'm dead. I'm dead."
A security guard, hired by the bank and posted in front of Herrero's house, placed the emergency call a little past 5:30 a.m., Christmas Eve. Firefighters soon brought the blaze under control and discovered Herrero's body.
"He wasn't kidding apparently, was he?" remarked Richard Siegmeister as he approached the house later that morning. The attorney said he had talked to Herrero after the stand-off the night before and they had reached an agreement: "He was going to give up this morning. He was calm, he was rational, as far as I could see." As for the gun, Siegmeister said Herrero had received it 30 years ago as a gift from a retired police officer. "He's never looked at it, never done anything with it," Siegmeister said. "I asked him what kind of bullets he had in it. He didn't even know if there were bullets in it. I guess he found out."
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Bankruptcy trustee Kenneth Welt and auctioneer Jay Sugarman arrived still later. Together with their associates, the men wandered around the building, surveying the damage and making calls on their cellular phones. "Well, it doesn't look like a total loss," Sugarman observed without irony.
According to Welt, the salable contents of the building will be moved to storage and an auction will proceed as planned, including Herrero's home and property. "We're going to take as much money as we can and the creditors will have to prorate it amongst themselves, whatever they can," he said. "That hasn't changed even though it's a tragic situation."
Throughout the morning of Christmas Eve, firefighters disemboweled the charred insides of Billy Herrero's house. They ran 40-foot ladders up the side of the building, shattered windows, and broke holes through the roof to allow smoke to escape. Debris hurled from the second floor began to form in a pile, its contents a fair representation of the joy of Herrero's life: his possessions, his "friends." An antique silver picture frame, an Oriental vase, the metal skeleton of an ornate lampshade, a yellowing piece of piano sheet music, crystal wrapped in an edition of the Miami Herald from June 11, 1966, a century-old leather hatbox. Amid these remains lay a book seemingly untouched by fire or water. Its title: How to Live a Victorious Life.
Cremation of Herrero's body was scheduled for this week. There will be no memorial service, but mourners are invited to attend this Friday's 8:30 p.m. performance of La Cage at Les Violins Supper Club, 1751 Biscayne Blvd., in tribute to Herrero. Dr. Adair Alspach, one of a group of Herrero acquaintances underwriting the cremation, says Herrero never saw the show, which features female impersonators. But Alspach adds: "I'm sure he would've thought he was much superior to them.