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Jack Horkeimer, besieged by sex complaint, dies

Horkheimer dressed as an elephant to promote a 1991 laser show of The Wall.
Courtesy of Vasko Jontschev

On a sweltering June afternoon, the sun beats down on a dingy faux-Frank Lloyd Wright house in upscale Pinecrest. A jungle of untrimmed trees and plants chokes the yard. Inside, half-packed boxes clog the rooms and hallways. Ancient Etruscan statues and Greek artifacts that once lined the walls are gone. The main bedroom is pitch black, the curtains pulled tight. In the darkness, the only sound is a long, painful wheeze.

Aside from his famous mustache, Jack Horkheimer is nearly unrecognizable. The 72-year-old astronomer from Star Gazer — a weekly TV series watched by millions of viewers for decades — lies on an inclined electric bed in nothing but a soiled diaper. The room stinks. Dirty tissues cover the floor. Slowly, he fumbles for the phone and dials a friend. "Save me," he pleads. "Save me."

When help arrives an hour later, Horkheimer mumbles about Satan and past sins. He screams that nobody should open the curtains because "neighbors will throw stones through the window." The man who spent his life telling children to "keep looking up" at the stars is now afraid of the outside world.

But Horkheimer's hellish last months were just beginning. Three weeks later, a man claiming he was forced to receive oral sex from Horkheimer as a 15-year-old sued in Miami-Dade County court, demanding $5 million. A process server chased the ailing astronomer through five hospitals and assisted living centers. Even when Horkheimer died on August 20 in Homestead of lifelong lung problems, the drama didn't end. Friends, family, and lawyers are now battling over a will signed on June 21 — the day a doctor declared Horkheimer mentally impaired.

"These thieves pretended to be Jack's friend in order to get his money," protests close friend and one-time lover Vasko Jontschev. "It's disgusting."

Horkheimer was the face of the Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium for 44 years. His zippy five-minute Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer TV spots were seen across America from 1976 until last summer. But a New Times investigation paints a much different picture of the renowned astronomer. For the first time, interviews with family and friends reveal an agonizing end to Horkheimer's highly publicized life. Meanwhile, audio recordings never before made public suggest the gregarious showman had grown so distraught and suspicious of everyone around him that he was illegally recording scores of phone calls. He died paranoid and lonely. (See "Audio: Jack Horkheimer Admits to Taping Phone Calls, Offers to 'Help' Alleged Sexual Abuse Victim 'Out of This Trouble.'")

Foley Arthur Horkheimer was born in Randolph, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee, in the summer of 1938. Jack, as he was called, was so crippled with severe asthma that his parents took him to Oklahoma City when he was 10 for radical 45-minute x-ray sessions. Instead of healing him, the therapy nearly killed Horkheimer. He vomited and lost his hair, then contracted pneumonia. By age 18, Horkheimer was suicidal: His health was failing and he had abandoned Catholicism. Finally, while in college, doctors correctly diagnosed his lung problems as bronchiectasis, a degenerative genetic disorder. After graduating with a drama degree from Purdue, Horkheimer moved to Miami in 1964. Doctors told him the warm, humid air would give him a couple extra years to live.

Horkheimer found a job at the newly built Space Transit planetarium. There, he designed surreal laser shows, adding loud music and special effects beloved by children and stoned teenagers alike. Soon the planetarium was drawing huge crowds, stoked by Horkheimer's strange publicity stunts. He was more showman than scientist, once appearing in a bright pink elephant costume for the debut of a laser show to the tune of Pink Floyd's The Wall. In 1976, Horkheimer turned his planetarium popularity into five-minute videos on WPBT-TV (Channel 2), in which he taught viewers about the stars and planets in his distinct, nasal voice. By the time he taped his final show this past summer, Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer was broadcast on PBS stations from Alaska to Hawaii.

"He came across as sincere and honest, that's why people liked him," says cousin Mark Cody, a prison social worker in Wisconsin. He says Horkheimer was a favorite among inmates. "They were locked up in their cells but they had little windows. They could still see the stars. His show opened up the sky to them."

But with fame, Horkheimer also became a target. A thief robbed him at knifepoint in his home in 1981. A year later, a late-night astronomy event turned into a violent riot. He also gave shelter and money to people — often young men — in need, says Vasko Jontschev, who moved to Miami from Bulgaria in 1976; Horkheimer found him a job selling snacks at the planetarium.

Horkheimer stepped down from his job at the planetarium in January 2010 but kept producing the TV program from home. His health remained fragile. Then last spring, a 50-year-old man allegedly recovered repressed memories of Horkheimer forcing oral sex upon him 35 years before. Attorney Adam Horowitz sent Horkheimer a letter on April 29 describing the intended lawsuit.

In May, Horkheimer left several messages, obtained by New Times, on a mutual friend's answering machine. In them, he desperately attempts to get in touch with the man who accused him of sexual abuse — whose name this newspaper is withholding along with the identity of the mutual friend. If the alleged victim is "distraught," Horkheimer says, he can "help him out of his trouble" by giving him money.

"He was so distraught the last time I talked to him," Horkheimer tells the friend. "I kept calling him back to see if there was any way that I could help him out of this trouble, you know? He thinks I'm worth a lot more than I am... All he had to do was tell me what he needed and I'd have been happy to give as much as I could... "

The attorney, Horowitz, comments: "The recordings sound like bribery to me. At this point there had been no public allegations. The lawsuit hadn't been filed. But Jack had grown increasingly paranoid that my client was going to go public."

Whether upset over the sexual abuse allegation or just generally paranoid, Horkheimer also admitted to illegally taping his phone calls in another message. "I've recorded all phone conversations for years," he says. "And I may need to use parts of some of your phone conversations for something I'll tell you about."

By May, Horkheimer was dying. Family members claim the sexual abuse accusation – which they say is unfounded – sent him into a downward spiral.

"Recovered memory after 35 years? It just doesn't fit," says cousin Ronnie Horkheimer. "That's what [Jack] called me about, really upset, in May. He had unusual anguish over what was going on."

"It was the bogus claim that expedited his death," adds younger cousin Dwight Horkheimer, who flew in from Washington, D.C. to see Jack.

Horowitz and his client are now seeking $5 million from Horkheimer's estate. According to the lawsuit, Horkheimer was "in secret, preying on teenage boys to satisfy his depraved sexual interests." The four-page document claims the alleged victim ran away from home in North Carolina and ended up homeless in Miami. Horkheimer took him in at his Pinecrest house, but "immediately... began making sexual advances toward the 15-year-old" in a bedroom the two shared. The lawsuit alleges the boy "feared being thrown out of Horkheimer's house without a car or place to live" and so "complied with Horkheimer's sexual demands" for several weeks.

Unlike Horkheimer's relatives, Jontschev thinks the lawsuit is largely accurate. But he says Horkheimer didn't know the youngster's age. "Jack was never into young boys," he says. "Sometimes Jack called me drunk, after midnight. He told me the teenager came to him for help, on drugs and Prozac. But Jack loved him. He helped him become an accountant. This guy is obviously conspiring to blackmail."

On June 16 of last year, Jontschev found Horkheimer at home alone, chewing on his fingers and ranting. The next day, Horkheimer was taken to Mercy Hospital, where Dr. Hugo Gonzalez found "a deterioration or loss of intellectual capacity." On June 21, Gonzalez wrote: "His memory is failing. He is becoming more anxious, depressed, and forgetful."

Incredibly, Horkheimer's signature appears on a last will and testament dated the very same day. "He was declared crazy on the same day his will was signed," screams Jontschev. "It's complete bullshit."

"There was some mischief going on [with the will]," echoes Ronnie Horkheimer.

After 18 days at Mercy, Jack Horkheimer was moved to an assisted living center in Aventura. Horowitz filed the sexual abuse lawsuit days later on July 7 but found serving the lawsuit impossible. "We were denied access to the assisted living facility dozens of times," he says.

As Horowitz's office circled, the slowly dying astronomer was shuffled back to Mercy in early August, then to another assisted living center in Homestead. Dwight took to sleeping outside his cousin's door at night. But by August 17, Jack Horkheimer was dying. After three days in Homestead Hospital, pneumonia and bronchiectasis ended his life.

But death didn't solve the legal problems. Jontschev and Ronnie Horkheimer have doubts about the will, which left Jack's $800,000 Pinecrest estate to Dwight and two nieces and awarded everything else — which Jontschev estimates at $5 to $11 million — to William Dishong, Jack's close assistant at the planetarium. And while Dwight Horkheimer says it was the only will, Jontschev and Ronnie believe there were several others.

"Horkheimer changed the will to protect the house against creditors such as my client," argues Horowitz. Because the Pinecrest house has been left to blood relatives, it's protected under Florida law, he explains. But that doesn't mean it's a done deal. "Horkheimer signed it very close to the time he died," he adds. "So there are going to be questions raised about his competence, whether he was coerced."

Jontschev, meanwhile, says the scrawl on the will — witnessed by Dishong and John Davis, the eventual executor of the estate — isn't even Horkheimer's. Jontschev also claims Horkheimer left him two savings accounts worth nearly $600,000, but that they have been divided or frozen since Jack's death. He fears the funds will be used to settle the sexual abuse lawsuit. Neither the witnesses to the will — Davis and Dishong — nor Horkheimer's lawyers would comment for this article.

Jontschev says he plans to contest the will in court, and other friends and family members may soon join the fray. The sexual abuse lawsuit, meanwhile, is still unresolved. Together, the legal battles threaten to eclipse the stargazer's stellar career.

"Jack was a bizarre, beautiful genius," says Jontschev.


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