Help for His Friends
Four years ago a husband and wife named Jonada and Angela Campos sold jewelry in stall N-30 at the Opa-locka/Hialeah Flea Market. On the morning of May 27, 2003, their son Marlon began removing merchandise from a safe in the rear and setting it out for display. A trio of thugs pistol-whipped the 22-year-old from behind and began emptying the safe. Angela ran to her son's aid and took a bullet in the chest. She staggered back toward Jonada, who rushed the masked gunmen with a crowbar. They shot him, too, and as he struggled to get up, they plugged him again. When Marlon came to, his parents were dead.
Fast-forward to last week. In the same stall, a vendor with tired eyes and a shaved head stares at a laptop computer screen. The glass display counters — once packed with gold — are filled with flashy cell phones. N-30's new inhabitant doesn't want to be named for fear of retaliation.
Does he feel safe here?
"Hell no," he says.
"There's no security," he says, shrugging. "There's flea market people," he adds, referring to a scant crew patrolling the grounds in carts. "But they're not armed."
The 22-year-old flea market's fading yellow towers and crimson arabesque cupolas signal opportunity for hard-working immigrants and Opa-locka's poor. Just off LeJeune Road, the commercial tent city offers a place where the average Joe can find everything from an affordable bedroom set to an eyebrow razor. But there's another side to the place: one of controversy, scandal, and political intrigue involving the Israeli mob, a former mayor, a city commissioner, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees. Matters of safety will likely return to the public eye when three men accused of killing the Camposes go on trial in November.
Flea market manager Scott Miller has worked under the market's threadbare tarps since it was converted from a landfill in January 1985. When he began, the place consisted of only a convergence of trucks. Several men with alleged connections to the Israeli Mafia owned it. (The man who built the market, Ezra Tisona, later fled to Israel, where he schemed to build a casino. His brother Eli was convicted of laundering $43 million of Colombian drug money and sentenced to 19 years in federal prison.)
In 1986 John Riley, Opa-locka's then-mayor, was accused of taking kickbacks from Alberto "The Great Corruptor" San Pedro in a plot to shut down Hialeah's swap meet and move the action to Opa-locka. Police informants said Riley was present when the market's principals stole one million dollars of county-owned fill to build the place. Riley successfully battled the charges but ended up owing more than $23,000 in legal fees to a local bank. He worked for the flea market as operations manager on and off until 2001, he explains. Riley, who drives a gold Cadillac, says he now lives off Social Security.
Then there's the case of Miller's predecessor, Joseph Lazar. On April 5, 1990, soon after leaving his job as flea market manager, Lazar was dragged from his car by assassins disguised as police officers and shot in the head. He died just one day before he was supposed to meet with FBI agents, according to a 1998 story published in the Miami Herald.
This history does not interest Miller. It's unimportant, he says. The listed owner of the 72-acre property, S.L. Huang, is equally unimportant. To Miller it's all about the tenants.
With godfatherly charm, he whizzes among the stalls in a golf cart. Stooping women and sweaty men wave and smile as they pack up their wares under the soft light of late afternoon. A man in a sleeveless shirt and studded belt buckle wants to know if his wife can open a restaurant in the parking lot. An elderly Haitian clothing merchant recalls Miller paying for her nephew's funeral after he caught a stray bullet on Biscayne Boulevard. Another vendor admits she put her two kids through college with money made from selling pots and dresses. When the city recently lost a Parks and Recreation trailer to a fire, Miller bought the football team new uniforms and gear.
He's the largest taxpayer in the city of Opa-locka, and, he says, "I help everyone."
Miller helped Ofcr. Gerardo De Los Rios. According to property records, last summer De Los Rios, one of several Opa-locka cops who have worked at the market as off-duty security guards, bought from Miller a house on Arabia Avenue for $100,000. It's now worth $280,000. Miller says he'd heard the cop complain he'd lost his previous home to foreclosure, so he allowed him to move in right away. A corporation the flea market owner controls holds just one mortgage, which belongs to De Los Rios. Miller says the cop is behind on payments. "I don't see it as a conflict of interest," Miller says. De Los Rios insists the house and the flea market have nothing to do with one another. "My wife and I were looking for a house, and he happened to have one for sale," he explains.
After the Campos shooting, Miller also helped flea market customers by adding more golf cart patrols and cameras. He pondered installing metal detectors, but it was "impractical."
That help didn't do much for Tony Steen. In June 2006 the welder and maintenance man was shot at point-blank range while trying to stop an armed robbery in the flea market parking lot. The Opa-locka Police officer who responded to the scene botched the investigation, according to Steen — no evidence was gathered, and paperwork had to be rewritten. Steen, who says conditions haven't improved since the Campos murders, is left with a scar that stretches from his navel to his sternum. "The police they have stay in the office all the time," Steen says. "No one controls the points where you go in and out." On a recent Sunday visit, no officers were in the market's office — none had come in for the day.
"You have 800 families here," Miller says, zipping through the stalls while drinking a bottle of water. "You have little children that are literally raised here. You have customers coming here and getting separated from their children." Miller enters a meat market and points to a crib behind a large cold display unit. "Look right here! Two young women and a baby."
The women agree, in broken English, that they feel safe.
And Miller helped Timothy Holmes, who, the flea market manager says, worked at the market five days a week from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. as a security guard for a year or two. Some of that time Holmes was serving as a city commissioner. Ethical concerns and an injury to the politician put a stop to the arrangement, Miller says. (The commissioner did not return two phone calls seeking comment.)
Holmes helped Miller too. When the flea market manager attended an April 19 public hearing to appeal citations for having an unsafe structure, unsanitary public bathrooms, and litter at the market, "Mr. Miller got upset with the judgments," wrote Special Master Lisa Hodapp. "And he barged out of the hearing."
Miller claims he ran into Holmes outside.
"[Mr. Miller] later came back with Commissioner Holmes, who happened to be in the area," wrote Special Master Hodapp. Holmes urged the mediator to give his former boss an additional six days to pay the $1235 in fines and correct the infractions.
It's clear Miller also helps Opa-locka's city coffers. He says he has paid every fine he's aware of. "If we owe the city money for some code violation, we will take care it," he says. "More importantly, if there's a problem, we'll fix it." Miller doesn't see any conflict of interest in a sitting city commissioner — whose salary he once paid — advocating for the market before the special master.
Despite Miller's claims, there is one outstanding fine. Last year Commissioner Dottie Johnson ran for office, pledging to collect $261,000 in back licensing fees from the market. Though current records show it owes the city a balance of $262,248, Miller says he is paying off the debt at about $25,000 per year.
Finally, Miller helped embattled former Opa-locka Commissioner Terence Pinder. More than a year ago, he gave Pinder a TV set that a flea market tenant named Pierre had repaired. About two weeks ago Miller received a subpoena to stand by for a trial in Pinder's pending corruption case. The commish is charged with official misconduct, petty theft, and solicitation of a gift. "If the State Attorney's Office is building a case around broken televisions," Miller quips, "then they must really be desperate."
Miller does not help Opa-locka's crooks. He protects the flea market as if each stall were his own. Last week a band of six thugs plowed a truck into the place's fence, slamming the fortifying layer of concrete barriers. After penetrating the perimeter with bolt cutters, the bandits headed for a container full of motorcycles. Alarms went off, alerting Miller and a pair of Opa-locka cops, who laid chase. Officers arrested three of the suspects just down the road. One got away after carjacking a motorist at a nearby Mobil station. Two vanished into the night.
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