Martin Siskind Feature
In the week leading up to Sunday, April 21 last year, a tiny notice appeared in the Miami Herald's classified pages: "ESTATE SALE!" the ad read, "Furniture, Bric-a-brac, Clothing. 7701 Biscayne Blvd."
The address was instantly recognizable to any old-time Miamian, particularly if he were male, heterosexual, and past 50. The site was the defunct Playboy Club, a vacant three-story edifice set next to the Little River at the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and NE 77th Street. Since July 1985, when flamboyant Miami defense lawyer Ellis Rubin acquired the building, it has served as little more than a ramshackle roost for birds and bums. But throughout the Fifties and Sixties, the club was a wildly popular nightspot, a glittery beacon on a much-less-seedy boulevard.
Those who showed up for the estate sale at the old Playboy Club this past spring bore witness to an unexpected piece of theater. Minutes after noon a handful of customers was pawing through merchandise inside the building and outdoors in the parking lot. Amid this tranquil scene a big, fat man with a beard was running back and forth chatting with the browsers, shouting orders at workers, and generally acting important.
Suddenly a pair of squad cars screeched to a halt in the parking lot. Three uniformed Miami police officers emerged from the cruisers. With them was an intense-looking woman with raven-black hair. The woman, a neighborhood activist named Jennifer Clark, began filming the scene with a hand-held Quasar SVHS video recorder.
After five hours of indecision, police arrested the fat man and his four assistants and took them to jail in handcuffs. The fat man was charged with grand theft, dealing in stolen property, and resisting arrest without violence. The estate sale ended abruptly.
As it turned out, the owners of the "estate" were very much alive. They reside in a suburb of Montreal, Canada. Madeleine Rodden and Yolande Thibeault are expected to fly to Miami in April courtesy of the Dade State Attorney's Office to testify in court against the fat man with the beard.
The two elderly Canadian sisters say the portly manager of the estate sale, Martin Siskind, moved into a broken-down mansion they owned on NE 72nd Street, refused for a year to move out, collected rent from a series of tenants, then stole truckloads of valuable furnishings from the house before being evicted on April 10, 1991. Police say Thibeault and Rodden have identified their belongings from photographs and Jennifer Clark's videotape of the merchandise present at the sale.
It is doubtful that testimony in Siskind's upcoming April 27 trial will address why it took police five hours to arrest him at the Playboy Club. But witnesses say the delay was due in no small part to the intervention of Guy and Mark Rubin, the sons and law partners of Ellis Rubin. At one point during the estate sale, says Sgt. Ardell Jezierski, Mark Rubin ordered officers off the premises and threatened to sue the Miami Police Department, at first claiming that the property being sold in the parking lot belonged to his family, then retracting his assertion. Later, Guy Rubin appeared at the old Playboy Club, whisked the estate sale cash box into his car, and demanded that police remove Clark and her video camera from the scene.
In sworn statements given to Assistant State Attorney Tracey Geffin, two Chilean immigrants, Alex Carrera and Vanessa Avendano, say they were hired by Siskind to move several loads of belongings from the house on NE 72nd Street into the old Playboy Club several blocks away. They say Guy and Mark Rubin appeared at the club more than fifteen times while they were working there. Another laborer, Clarence Turner, confirms the Chileans' story and says one of the Rubin sons also visited the house one day to confer with Siskind. At the time, Turner was busy ripping the water heater from the kitchen floor and loading it into a van with the stove, refrigerator, washing machine, and air-conditioning units, he says.
Siskind initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but last week changed his mind and declined, citing the advice of an attorney.
Especially for denizens of Miami's Bayshore neighborhood, the Rubins' role in the illicit estate sale raised disturbing questions about South Florida's best-known legal clan, a family that has sought for decades to associate its name with hope in the face of injustice, and salvation through the sanctity of law. In a June 10, 1991, memorandum marked "Personal and Confidential," Jennifer Clark's husband, attorney Bret Clark, wrote to Dade State Attorney Janet Reno: "You may feel that this matter, particularly as it relates to the Rubins and their involvement with the possession and sale of stolen property, and the attempt to remove evidence, is a proper one to present to the grand jury."
But the unpublicized arrests were only one chip in a bizarre mosaic connecting the Rubins to Martin Siskind, and involving a French surrealist painter, a Broward bagel czar, bitter accusations of police payola, a German cafe owner, alleged political chicanery, midnight burglaries, death threats, and the wife of a wealthy Wisconsin cardiologist.
Today, months after police served two separate search warrants on the old Playboy Club, current and former Bayshore residents believe that a small mountain of stolen paintings, restaurant equipment, household and office furnishings, and 3000 cases of Yugoslavian mineral water have ended up inside the cavernous building, wrongfully gathered by Siskind from a half-dozen different sources and stored with the apparent knowledge and consent of the Rubins.
By contrast, the Rubins insist their dealings with Siskind amounted to "strictly a lessee-lessor relationship" that turned sour almost as soon as it began. Siskind approached them, they say, with plans to turn the languishing Playboy Club property into a restaurant, a nightclub, a flea market, a newsstand, and a paid-parking lot, and Mark Rubin says he gave Siskind a set of keys "in order to get estimates from various contractors. There was never a formal lease." The brothers say they broke off their relationship with Siskind when they discovered he had moved large amounts of merchandise into the club without their permission, and was obviously failing to follow through on any development plans.
Both Mark and Guy Rubin strongly deny they ever witnessed Siskind moving furnishings or any other property into the Playboy Club, and claim that the statements of three former Siskind employees are simply wrong on that score. Mark Rubin acknowledges that he may have threatened to sue police when they showed up to arrest Siskind at the April 21 estate sale, but says it was because he feared officers were wrongly removing family belongings stored in the Playboy Club. He never told Sergeant Jezierski he owned the merchandise in the parking lot, he says, and was only vaguely aware of Siskind's plans to hold the sale. "At no time did I think that any of that property was stolen," says Mark Rubin. "Categorically I did not participate, supervise, or otherwise engage in moving any of those things."
In the latest chapter of a protracted legal feud, Mark Rubin has won an emergency restraining order against the most energetic member of the Bayshore coterie, a self-described ex-CIA operative and former tennis star named John Lowther, who Rubin says is obsessed with destroying him. Besides filing a "scandalous" complaint against him with the Florida Bar and frivolously suing under the state's 1977 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, Mark Rubin says Lowther has run around town badmouthing the Rubins to reporters and leaving cryptic gifts affixed to his automobile windshield - including a hollow-point rifle bullet.
Guy Rubin describes Lowther as "probably psychotic" and blames him for trying to taint his family with the appearance of participation in illegal criminal activity. He points out that no Rubin is known to be the target of police investigation as a result of the April 21 estate sale. "I have never known that anything that was in our building was stolen," he emphasizes.
While acknowledging his presence at the sale, Guy Rubin says he only went there after being summoned by a panicked Siskind employee. As for the cash box, grabbing it was an instinctive reaction: "There was a box with, I believe, eight one-dollar bills," Rubin says. "I would not call that `proceeds from the sale.' I think they were using it to make change. All I did, and believe me it was not a fun task, was to put everything back in the building and secure it. I put the box in my car for safekeeping."
Summing up his relationship with Siskind, Mark Rubin interrogates himself: "Why are there all these ties between me and Siskind? It's a good question. You know what the answer is? It's because I was too nice a guy. If you want to paint me and my family as suckers, then we would plead guilty. But I can assure you we would not risk everything we have to be involved in any criminal enterprise, especially one as contrived and minuscule as the one alleged by Lowther and his cohorts."
Guy Rubin has this to say about Siskind: "We rightfully or wrongfully believed he would follow through on some of the things he said he planned to do. We want to make that piece of property a cornerstone for the redevelopment of the neighborhood. We are disappointed that things didn't work out better. But it's not in our inclination or interest to say anything bad about anyone unless we have to."
From Coral Springs to Coconut Grove, dozens of people from Siskind's past are considerably less kind in their criticism.
By the time he moved into the crime-plagued Bayshore neighborhood in northeast Miami, Martin Siskind had already developed quite a name in South Florida. Unfortunately for his new and unwitting friends, it was a name that did not precede him.
Since he appeared in Coconut Grove in 1985 and took up residence in the Mutiny Hotel, the New York-born Siskind spelled his name variously as Martin Siskind, Martyn Siskin, and Martin Susskind. Sometimes he spoke with an English accent, sometimes with the thick patois of Brooklyn. But if his accent and his name changed often, his message was always the same. By turns dapper and bedraggled, bombastically eloquent and gruffly profane, the swarthy, 280-pound Siskind talked energetically and often about his visions of commercial renaissance, hinting he had the investment capital to make a host of giddy business dreams come true.
To some the 50-year-old Siskind mentioned his large and elegantly appointed yacht anchored at Dinner Key Marina, a vessel no one ever actually seemed to see. Others say Siskind claimed to own a castle in England, and a stable of thoroughbreds. (Siskind did live in England for more than a decade before coming to Miami. In November 1984, a court there sentenced him to two and a half years in prison on six counts of "obtaining services by deception," "obtaining property by deception," and "evading liability by deception." The court also recommended he be deported.) Like a busy bombardier, Siskind dropped the names of powerful and celebrated men whom he called his closest friends: Miami Commissioner Victor DeYurre, former Miami Police Chief Perry Anderson, millionaire developer Manny Medina, actor Philip Michael Thomas, and former U.S. secretary of state and current Knight-Ridder board member Clark Clifford.
In some cases there were real relationships where Siskind claimed intimacies. A glossy photograph shows a uniformed Chief Anderson awarding Siskind a certificate of appreciation. Today Anderson, head of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police force, says he doesn't remember the occasion: "Hmmm. The name sounds vaguely familiar. I had heard of the guy, but I never really knew him." Medina's response is more typical. Reached overseas by an assistant, the president of Terremark Inc. expressed concern that Siskind had allegedly decribed him as a business partner in a recent development venture. "Mr. Medina has never even heard of Martin Siskind," the assistant noted. "He has no idea who this guy is."
Edith Pearce has very vivid memories of Siskind, whom she met when she was in deep trouble. By March 1987, the cafe she had opened at 3176 Commodore Plaza in Coconut Grove, the Bread Station, was fast becoming a casualty of competition. "It was going downhill fast," recalls a close business acquaintance of Pearce's. "The next thing I knew, Siskind showed up and promised to pay her back-taxes and rent. Edith loaned him a lot of money and let him put his name on the checking account. In return, he promised to let her continue on as an operating partner. He told everyone he was a retired race-car driver and a famous international lawyer, and he was going to bring his personal chef over from England and totally redo the Grove."
Pearce, who now lives in her native Germany and works as a shop clerk, says Siskind agreed to pay her $11,000 for the Bread Station's equipment, $5000 for the existing inventory, and another $4000 for back wages. Not only did she not get paid, Pearce claims, Siskind refused to return $1500 in water and electric deposits, and ran up a $2000 phone bill in her name. "You have to understand - I had a partner, and he left me high and dry," Pearce recalls. "I was working seven days a week, sixteen hours a day. I was mentally and physically exhausted when Siskind walked into my life. I thought he was going to be my knight in shining armor. He turned out to be my worst nightmare. I'm still getting my life back together."
In July 1987, Siskind formed Revelopments International Inc. and took control of the Bread Station, renaming it La Bread Station. Almost immediately he began a war with city code enforcement officials, who cited him fourteen times in as many months for various infractions, including operating the cafe without a permit, and failing to show proper proof of workman's compensation insurance. Mostly, though, it was Siskind's habit of clogging the busy sidewalk with tables, chairs, and musicians that drew the city's and his neighbors' ire. By law the cafe was permitted four outdoor tables; inspectors often found as many as two dozen.
Inspectors say that on the many occasions when they delivered citations to Siskind at La Bread Station, they were required to take a pair of police officers with them, since Siskind routinely refused to accept the notices of violation, and then claimed they had never been delivered. (One of Siskind's responses to the citations was to sue the City of Miami on August 15, 1989. In court, he called the use of cops as witnesses "an extraordinary show of city might," and claimed he was the target of a "socialist" plot to squelch his and other Grove businessmen's constitutional rights. A Dade circuit court judge icily rejected Siskind's plea to keep the cafe open.) In mid-July 1989, after first suspending and then reinstating Siskind's sidewalk cafe permit, the city finally refused to renew the license. Siskind, who had bragged to inspectors of his close ties to Commissioner Victor DeYurre, vowed to prevail at a September 14, 1989 appeal before the Miami City Commission. He didn't. (DeYurre says he vaguely remembers meeting Siskind on one occasion at La Bread Station in 1988.)
While it raged, Siskind's battle with the city drew a number of civilians into the fray. One was Mike Hendrix, owner of a Coconut Grove gallery specializing in Southwestern-style jewelry and artwork. Hendrix, whose shop was next door to La Bread Station, says he tried repeatedly to stop Siskind from monopolizing the sidewalk in front of his store, fearing insurance liabilities in the event of an accident. In response, the merchant claims, Siskind threatened to see him "wind up floating in Biscayne Bay."
"I have done everything humanly possible to stop this problem," Hendrix wrote to city officials in 1988. "Siskind has physically threatened me several times.... My alarms have gone off at all hours of the night due to someone hitting the windows while [La Bread Station] is open. Please help all of us in the Grove who want him out of business."
During his dispute with the city over La Bread Station, Siskind's case sparked a new, unofficial policy within the Miami code enforcement division. According to a senior city inspector, the three thick
files that held thousands of pages of documentation on La Bread Station vanished in 1989 from a file cabinet on the third floor of city hall. City workers were able to painstakingly reconstruct the files, but from that day forward some inspectors began keeping duplicate personal copies of all their reports.
While some of Siskind's neighbors were glad to see him vacate the cafe on Commodore Plaza, Carolyn Russ and Felippe DeAlba weren't. DeAlba, a Spanish investor who lives in New York, and Russ, the wife of a wealthy doctor from Marshbrook, Wisconsin, say they gave Siskind more than $30,000 to open an art gallery at La Bread Station. The plan never materialized, and the idea evaporated when the city ousted Siskind from the cafe and he disappeared from the Coconut Grove business scene. Russ and DeAlba claim Siskind simply took their money and vanished.
"Martin was so charming," Russ recalls. "He introduced me to all these local artists. He said we would sell their paintings and make them famous, and make a lot of money on commissions, too. I could see it happening. I almost had tears in my eyes from the artists I met in Miami - they were so poor and had nowhere to show their work. Being an orphan myself, I felt sorry for them. At first I gave [Siskind] $5000. I said I expected ten to twelve percent return on it, with payments monthly.
"He sent me a bunch of newspaper clips about the success of the Bread Station, but stalled on the payments," Russ says. "Then he called me when that was gone and said he needed another $5000. He threatened me: `If you don't send more money fast, you'll lose what you've put in.' He did that several times. Finally I flew to Miami and just showed up at the cafe. There was no art gallery at all. Where the art gallery was supposed to be, there was nothing but a pile of debris."
In August 1989, Dade Circuit Court Judge Mary Ann MacKenzie ordered Siskind's Revelopments International to pay Russ more than $33,000. Russ's Miami lawyer, Lance Gerlin, says he has been unable to collect the judgment against Revelopments International and is now planning to sue Siskind personally - if he can find him. "What can I say?" Gerlin shrugs. "Florida is a debtor's haven. We don't know if we'll ever be able to collect from this guy."
Jack King, publisher of the monthly Coconut Grover, was introduced to Siskind in 1988. The owner of La Bread Station glibly agreed to invest from $50,000 to $100,000 in the fledgling publication, then failed to pay for an $80 restaurant ad, according to King. "Martin was one in a long line of people who came blowing into town saying he had $40 million and was going to show us how things were done," King says with a laugh. "He was going to save the Grove from itself. It turns out that like so many of them, he was full of just a tremendous amount of shit.
"I think he went through about 60 employees, poor young black kids who would work for him a couple weeks and never get paid," King adds, echoing statements by a half dozen former employees. "I remember one night I was walking down Commodore and there was this young black guy who had worked for him three weeks. They were out on the sidewalk, arguing. The kid wanted his money, and finally he just popped Siskind a good one, knocked him flat on his ass. The cops showed up right away, but they were hesitant to get involved. They knew Siskind and they hated his guts. One day he finally just disappeared."
Except that he didn't. Siskind showed up in Broward County, where he now also faces grand theft charges.
In 1989 a successful hard-driving businessman named Lewis Flakowitz sold his Coral Springs restaurant to Bernard Sammon, an Englishman who had come to the United States for his retirement and then grown restless. The Golden Bagel, tucked into a strip mall at 10299 Royal Palm Blvd., was a popular breakfast spot and a lucrative wholesale bagel producer, but under Sammon's husbandry things began to slip. Former employees suggest Sammon underestimated the amount of energy and expertise the enterprise would require.
By the summer of 1990, when his daughter introduced him to a man named Martin Siskind, Sammon was in serious financial straits. The unexpected pressures of the business were beginning to take a toll on him emotionally. (Sammon later disappeared "off the face of the earth," according to Flakowitz; he was rumored by former employees to have suffered an exhaustive collapse and returned to England.)
At the time Siskind seemed like the answer to Sammon's prayers. According to one employee, Siskind represented himself as the owner of a management company with years of experience in the restaurant industry. He was given power of attorney and $25,000 operating money by Sammon's daughter, the employee says. Besides energy and new ideas - opening the restaurant at night, bringing in live entertainers - Siskind seemed to have an amazing talent for self-promotion. In a June 1990 article ghost-written by Siskind himself, Entertainment News and Views publisher Howard Salus described the Golden Bagel's new manager in breathless detail.
After calling Siskind "a rather unique, very intelligent, off-the-wall kind of guy who is, to put it mildly, easily remembered," the article went on to coo some more: "Martin is the type of gent that tempts you to prove him wrong...and it rarely happens. He's got a lot of background behind that self-assuredness, including various entertainment-oriented enterprises in Europe, [and] ownership of La Bread Station here in the Grove.... The fact of the matter is that this winning attitude has to emanate from the top, and it does with the unpredictable, cherubic, phony-tailed [sic], youthfully middle-aged Martin Siskind."
The truth about Siskind's stewardship of the Coral Springs eatery was much less rosy, according to several who worked for him. "It was a very black day at the Golden Bagel when Siskind walked through the door," says veteran bagel maker Neil Meyerson. "He was going to change it all around, bring in guitar players, make it a `bagel bistro.' But basically all he did was collect the cash out of the register. It was obvious he was milking the place. None of the purveyors were being paid, none of the bills were clearing. All the checks bounced. I smelled the coffee, and as soon as I didn't get my money, I got out of there."
Broward sheriff's deputies evicted Siskind from the Golden Bagel after Lewis Flakowitz foreclosed on his loan to Sammon on December 31, 1990, and regained ownership of the restaurant. The eviction proceedings were protracted, with Siskind represented by members of the prestigious Miami law firm Rubin, Rubin & Rubin. In the days preceding Siskind's departure, Flakowitz posted a private security guard outside the Golden Bagel. But by that time, according to several sources, thousands of dollars in kitchen equipment was missing. Clarence Turner, the laborer who would later strip bare the house on NE 72nd Street in Miami, says he also helped Siskind move several loads of meat cutters, pots and pans, tables, and culinary implements from an apartment a few miles from the Golden Bagel. The equipment's destination: the old Playboy Club.
Flakowitz says he has almost rebuilt his restaurant and wants to forget Martin Siskind: "I don't want to talk about the guy. He cost me over half a million dollars. It's over and done now, and talking about him would be like crying over spilled milk."
On a hot morning in June 1990, two large men swung open the door of a warehouse in the 6800 block of NE Fourth Court in Miami. Inside were more than 3000 cases of Radenska mineral water. There was also a scattering of restaurant equipment - deli pans, three dozen bar stools, a pair of cash registers - worth perhaps $5000.
John Lowther hoped to corner a piece of the market selling on consignment a new brand of imported sparkling water to South Florida yuppies. And thanks to Martin Siskind, he thought he had found a way to cut back on expenses. Lowther had hired on as a computer and business consultant at Siskind's Golden Bagel restaurant, and one day he happened to mention the water to his new boss.
Siskind offered to move the water out of the space Lowther had rented and store it in his own warehouse. Siskind suggested that he and Lowther could dispose of the water within a month, and split the profits, Lowther says.
Siskind's warehouse turned out to be the old Playboy Club. Lowther says Siskind told him he and the Rubin family were renovating the structure and planned to open it as a fashionable restaurant. The scheme also included a newsstand built inside a wing of the club that would front on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and NE 77th Street. There might be a nightclub, too; it remained rather vague. "I laughed at it because I didn't think it would go," Lowther recalls. "Siskind was going to call it the Renaissance Center. He had all these grandoso ideas. It seemed to me he had sold the Rubins on these grandoso ideas."
During Memorial Day weekend 1990, while Lowther worked at the Golden Bagel, Siskind directed a three-man crew to transport the mineral water to the old Playboy Club. The crew also moved the restaurant equipment, which belonged to a friend of Lowther. Siskind told Lowther he was interested in buying the equipment, and reassured him he would store it for free until the sale could be consummated.
Soon, Lowther says, he broke off his relationship with Siskind. After a month's work at the Golden Bagel, Siskind still hadn't paid him. When he moved out of his office at the restaurant, Lowther claims, Siskind appropriated his office furniture -including $2500 in artwork Lowther had hung on the walls. Some weeks later, under escort by the Coral Springs Police Department, Lowther was permitted by the Rubins to retrieve his office furnishings - but not the mineral water - from the Playboy Club. It was the last time Lowther saw the mineral water, he says. It was also the beginning of a legal feud between Lowther and the Rubin family.
At the end of August 1990, the out-of-town owner of the water, Alvin Berwick, wrote to Siskind, care of the Rubins. He asked Siskind to return the water to Lowther, whom Berwick had contracted as his sales agent. Berwick, a retired doctor, says he enclosed a copy of the bill of lading proving his ownership of the mineral water.
On September 10, Mark Rubin wrote back to Berwick, offering to release the water for $3000, and threatened to otherwise "liquidate" the merchandise by November 1. Rubin said he represented Uptown I, Ltd., the company that owned the old Playboy Club. He didn't mention that he is a general partner in the corporation, along with his mother Irene. "Uptown I, Ltd. is not in the business of storage or warehousing," Rubin wrote. "Upon receipt of $3000, we will be happy to make arrangements for access to your property. Please be aware that each additional month that the water remains on the premises will cause an additional $750 charge to be incurred. You are hereby notified that a lien has been placed against the Radenska Water."
Despite having alluded to Berwick's ownership of the mineral water in the September 10 letter, the Rubins would claim in April 1991 court pleadings that they had no idea who the carbonated drink belonged to or how it had appeared on their property. On the other hand, Guy Rubin argued, the firm that owned the old Playboy Club was entitled to thousands of dollars for having "warehoused, stored, cared for and insured the safety and protection of the subject water." And Rubin, Rubin & Rubin should be entitled to court-awarded attorney fees for trying to resolve the matter, Guy Rubin noted.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1991, Martin Siskind was busy dazzling new acquaintances with talk of a vast redevelopment project. Biscayne Boulevard, he said, was primed for an explosion of entrepreneurial activity of the sort seen in South Miami Beach and Coconut Grove. All that was needed was a catalyst. Siskind declared that he would be that spark. "He liked to call himself the Renaissance Man," one businessman recalls. Another, former David's Cafeteria owner Eddie Assad, now calls Siskind "Elmer Gantry," after the fictional smoothie in Sinclair Lewis's 1927 novel of the same name.
Assad says he became hypnotized by Siskind's vision of a boulevard where sidewalk cafes vied with hookers and crackheads, and eventually won out. Within days after walking into David's Cafeteria, a landmark eatery at 8288 Biscayne Blvd., Siskind had installed himself as manager. He urged Assad to attend an April 7 going-out-of business auction at the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove in order to buy a handsome antique bar for the cafeteria.
Assad says he authorized Siskind to spend $500 for the bar. He claims that while he was talking to some friends, Siskind, in a blur of wheeling and dealing, spent approximately $8000 of Assad's money on various items and had them whisked away on a truck - to the cafeteria, and to a large pink-stucco house on NE 72nd Street.
Shortly after Easter 1990, Assad says, he broke off the relationship. When he tried to sell some of the merchandise Siskind had purchased at the Mutiny Hotel auction, Assad was met with a restraining order. Siskind, via his attorney Guy Rubin, first sued Assad for ownership of the auction items, then dropped the action when Assad hired his own lawyer, Bret Clark. (This bit of legal posturing was the first time Clark, or his wife Jennifer, had ever heard of Martin Siskind. But not the last.)
Petra Scipio, executive assistant to actor Philip Michael Thomas, doesn't recall meeting Eddie Assad at the auction, but she definitely remembers Siskind. After engaging Thomas in a lengthy and one-sided conversation about the investment potential of Biscayne Bouleverd, Siskind invited the actor to tour the old Playboy Club. Thomas and Scipio politely agreed to the visit.
"The lawyer was there, too, the son of the famous TV lawyer," Scipio recalls, referring to the Rubins. "We looked around inside, and it was incredibly filthy. [Siskind] had put all the furniture and things from the auction into the Playboy Club. He was talking about turning it into some sort of club or restaurant."
Scipio says Thomas backed away from a relationship with Siskind, partly on her advice. "The whole thing felt like a drug deal," Scipio says of her meeting with Siskind. "There were things coming up from all sides that didn't sound right. Everybody uses everybody, but I got the sense [Siskind] wanted to abuse Philip, or Philip's position. I don't think he was particularly interested in money, it was Philip's name he was after. Sometimes you get a strange feeling about people. Some people are hustlers, they talk too much about the people they know. Let's say I got an extremely cautious feeling."
But months after both Assad and Thomas had severed ties with Siskind, Siskind continued to describe himself as the owner of David's Cafeteria. And he told several new acquaintances about his grand plans to redevelop parts of the boulevard with his partner Philip Michael Thomas.
On March 6, 1990, Siskind signed a hand-written contract with Madeleine Rodden and Yolande Thibeault. In it he agreed to buy the sisters' large but broken-down Bayshore mansion for the sum of $55,000. Before the closing of the sale in June, Siskind would move into the 70-year-old house and start repairing a host of code violations. Despite the fact that the residence was literally sinking, Siskind allegedly told the owners the fix-up would be no problem. He was a professional.
What followed, according to Siskind's new neighbors and relatives of the Canadian owners, was a landlord's nightmare. "He offered to buy the house, paid a small deposit, moved in and got control of the place, never made any payments, refused to leave, rented it out, occupied it for over a year, and finally stripped it clean," says Marc Thibeault, Yolande Thibeault's husband. "He tried everything in the book to force my wife and her sister to give up that house."
Before Siskind even moved into the house, he had already alienated the president of the neighborhood homeowners' association, David D'Anthony. A real estate agent, D'Anthony had tried without success to sell the mansion. "I was with clients looking at a house up in Belle Meade one day," D'Anthony recalls. "All of a sudden here's this fat guy in a convertible who slows down to look at the house I was showing. He starts telling me he had just restored a castle in England, he had attended all sorts of parties with the duke and duchess of so-and-so. He says he has a large yacht and he's looking for a waterfront home."
D'Anthony later happened to show Siskind the pink-stucco house on NE 72nd Street. "Next thing I know, the owners in Canada call me up and tell me they want to take the house off the market," D' Anthony recalls. "They said they had found a buyer. I was curious, so I asked the buyer's name. They said it was a man named Martin Siskind. I imagine he went to the county court records and found the names of the owners." D'Anthony says he complained to the Canadians that their selling the house directly to Siskind would amount to cheating him out of his commission, but to no avail.
Siskind also perturbed his neighbor across the street. Fran Born, an Eastern Airlines flight attendant, was moving to Atlanta in August 1990. In a hurry to sell some of her belongings - lobster pots, antique oscillating fans, ceramic ducks, a king-size bed, a 1941 Coca-Cola poster, an arcade coin video game - Born held a yard sale. Soon after the sale began, Born says, Siskind appeared and offered to buy everything for $2000, paid in five installments. They made a deal. His checks bounced. Born says that when she threatened to go to the police, Siskind came through with the first two payments. But she never got the last three, she claims.
"Now I feel lucky when I think of the things he didn't get," Born says. "I had this antique jukebox, and a pair of stainless-steel elevator doors etched with flamingos that he really wanted. He wanted everything he could carry. He sounded really impressive. He seemed so much on the up-and-up. They did an article on him in some kind of restaurant trade magazine one time."
Hugo Sengiali, the tennis pro at the nearby Palm Bay Club, says Siskind showed up one day last spring to inquire about a Volkswagen he had for sale. After giving him a small deposit, Siskind drove away in the car and didn't come back, Sengiali says. The tennis pro claims he later found and confronted Siskind, but Siskind still would not pay him for the car. "He told me that he was going to pay me, and then he didn't," Sengiali explains. "He said he had a money problem."
When the tennis pro went to the police on June 7, 1990, he says they suggested the dispute was a civil matter. Sengiali has since gotten his car back. "I made a promise to the lawyers that if they gave me back the car, I wouldn't do anything to [Siskind], including talk about this," he says. Sengiali says he can't remember the names of the lawyers who represented Siskind in the matter.
Shortly after John Lowther broke off relations with Siskind in August 1990, two burglaries occurred in quick succession at an artist's studio in the 7100 block of Biscayne Boulevard. At the time, Lowther lived behind the studio in a cottage and worked as a caretaker there during the summer months painter Linda Geyer spent in New York and abroad. "At about midnight someone threw a large rock through a plate-glass window," Lowther says. "I called the police. They arrived. Nothing was taken. We cleaned up the mess, we secured it as best we could for that time of the night. And for safety's sake, I put my dog in there. Sometime before dawn someone came in the dark and removed six or eight paintings. The dog never barked.
"During the month or so I was working for Siskind at the Golden Bagel, whenever he would come by my residence he would bring a piece of meat or a big bone for the dog," Lowther adds. "I didn't think anything about it at the time. If you came to my residence and the dog was there, he wouldn't let you in. But if you went in with a piece of meat, over a period of time, it would be okay. You got the picture? It's a big dog."
Clarence Turner, one of the laborers who later moved loads of furnishings from the 72nd Street house into the Playboy Club, says three paintings in Geyer's florid style were among the property he transported. Other witnesses say the videotape shot by Jennifer Clark at the April 21 estate sale shows Geyer's paintings inside the old Playboy Club. (Assistant State Attorney Maria Estevez would not discuss the contents of the videotape nor allow it to be reviewed.) Yet during the execution of a carefully tailored search warrant at the Rubins' property ten days after the estate sale, Miami police found no such paintings.
Geyer, traveling in Italy, says she hopes never to hear of Siskind or her former caretaker again. The $3000 in lost artwork is nothing compared to the psychic havoc wrought on her Miami neighborhood by Siskind's presence, and Lowther's obsessive reaction to it. "I made a bad judgment about both those men," Geyer says. "I resent horribly what I've been through. I was drawn into something that I should have had nothing to do with. It's dreadful. The whole thing is totally out of control."
Yves Martin, a French surrealist painter, says he's convinced Siskind went about trying to line up his next rent-free home months before being evicted from the mansion on 72nd Street. Siskind's new target: the house Martin owned and lived in with his wife Catherine Zimmerman.
The house was one more thing that made the 42-year-old artist believe he led a charmed life. While exploring the city in 1987, Martin had noticed the rambling 1920s-era structure on the Little River, a few blocks west of the Playboy Club. Despite being a stone's throw from Biscayne Boulevard, the house was quiet. And the huge corner lot seemed like a moat against the omnipresent sense of criminal threat. Martin quickly bought the house for $75,000, and with his esthete's eye set to work making it an object of envy.
Martin met Siskind in 1990, during a period of marital difficulty. "It was spring," he says. "Catherine and I were not communicating. I guess she was looking desperately for a way out."
One day while Martin was crossing Biscayne Boulevard with his kids, Siskind hailed him from outside the old Playboy Club. Martin says Siskind insisted that he knew him from Coconut Grove; Martin insisted he had never met Siskind before in his life. "I grew up in Montmartre, in Pigalle," Martin says, recalling the meeting. "I've seen small-time hoods all my life. That's how Siskind struck me. He tried to get me involved with some project he had going at the Playboy Club, but I could tell right away it was some kind of scam. He was a bag of hot air with a thin coat of varnish."
Zimmerman had the opposite reaction, Martin says. She was charmed by Siskind. Soon Siskind showed up at the couple's door and offered Zimmerman a job as a bookkeeper for his new business venture with the Rubins - renovating the Playboy Club. Martin says Siskind quickly started a relationship with his wife, and convinced her to open a checking account to use in paying laborers working on the club.
Suddenly, Martin says, Zimmerman announced she wanted a divorce, and ordered him out of the house. "It's like she was possessed," Martin recalls. "At first I refused to leave. She was on the phone all the time with Siskind, and Guy and Mark Rubin." After briefly moving out, Martin says he was advised by an attorney to move right back in. When he returned, he discovered that a drawing by the renowned American artist Frank Stella, purportedly worth $15,000, was missing. Though the drawing belonged to Zimmerman, Martin says the couple had agreed to eventually sell it to fund the education of their two children. Instead Zimmerman used the artwork as collateral for bail money to get Siskind out of jail after the estate sale arrest.
On June 5, 1990, the day after the couple's divorce, Martin says Zimmerman and Siskind flew to France to inspect a Normandy farmhouse Zimmerman had inherited. According to Martin, Siskind was able to get control of the deed to the farmhouse shortly before Zimmerman dumped him. As a postscript, Martin notes: "Very rarely does shit of this amplitude happen to me."
Mark Rubin says he doesn't know who Yves Martin is. He says he never talked to Catherine Zimmerman about her divorce. Zimmerman, he says, asked his law firm to arrange the sale of the Stella drawing. After Siskind's arrest, she asked the Rubins to suspend any sale because she wanted to use the artwork as collateral on a bond to get Siskind out of jail. Rubin says the firm simply safeguarded the drawing, and did not play any active role in arranging Siskind's release.
Zimmerman, who now lives with her children in a northeast Miami condominium, refuses to answer questions about her involvement in the Playboy Club project or her relationship with Siskind and the Rubins. Yves Martin has remarried.
These days yet another eviction notice has been affixed to Martin Siskind's door.
Helen Ward, a New Jersey retiree, says she rented a modest townhouse she owns on NE 123rd Street to Ellis Rubin's daughter, Kimberly Rubin, on May 28, 1988. A year later Kimberly moved to California. Her name remained on the townhouse lease while her mother, Irene Rubin, paid the rent for another year. According to former Miami police officer Chad Kaye, who lives next door, Ellis Rubin was the principal occupant of the townhouse during that time.
In early 1991, Ward says, she reached an understanding with Irene Rubin that rental of the townhouse would be discontinued. But when Ward arrived from New Jersey for a visit and opened the door of her Miami home, she discovered its current occupant: Martin Siskind. She immediately called the police.
Within days, however, Siskind had persuaded Ward to allow him to stay. He presented her with a copy of a sublease between himself and Kimberly Rubin dated April 13, 1991. Ward pointed out that she hadn't approved the sublease, and she says she also noticed that Kimberly's signature on the sublease bore "no resemblance whatsoever" to the signature on the original lease. Nonetheless, she acquiesced to Siskind's entreaties. "He had a way about him," she recalls.
Ward says Catherine Zimmerman signed checks to pay for Siskind's security deposit and first four months rent. Since August, she says, she's received nothing. Ward figures Siskind now owes more than $2500. She began eviction proceedings a month ago.
Ellis Rubin did not respond to requests for an interview for this story. His two sons say they know nothing about the townhouse at 2025 NE 123rd St. Guy Rubin volunteers: "[Siskind] has absolutely no relationship with my father. I don't think he's ever even seen him. Maybe he's seen him walking down the street, but that's it."
Many who have had business dealings with Martin Siskind want to forget them. But John Lowther wants to tell the world. For months he has deviled law enforcement agencies and reporters throughout South Florida to explore the twists and turns of Siskind's past, and his manifold connections to the Rubin dynasty. After a recent screaming match with one reporter, Lowther delivered a tiny bottle of Radenska mineral water and a note scrawled in a shaky hand: "To you this is just a story. To me, this is my life!"
Lowther was successful in pressing police to arrest Siskind for grand theft in connection with the unauthorized transfer of his office furniture from the Golden Bagel to the Playboy Club. (Those charges are pending in Broward County.) Lowther's bar complaint against Mark Rubin, filed June 11, 1991, is currently being reviewed by Florida Bar officials in Tallahassee. A local committee judged it unworthy of their time, and Lowther promptly complained to the committee members' superiors in the state capital, thereby necessitating the review. Paul Gross, counsel to the local bar but not a member of the committee, says the proper forum for Lowther's grievance is the civil courts. "I'm not saying who's right and wrong, but not every disagreement is an ethics matter," he notes. "We don't want to be like Big Brother, putting lawyers under the microscope every time they look at someone the wrong way."
Lowther's lawsuit against the Rubins - accusing them of theft and trafficking in stolen goods - churns on and on with no end in sight, even as Siskind's grand-theft trials in Dade and Broward draw closer. Both Lowther and the Rubins accuse one another of legalistic trickery, harassment, failing to show up for scheduled depositions, and a host of other sins. Of the thousands of pages of court filings, letters, and manifestos he has generated, Lowther's effort of June 7, 1991, directed at Guy Rubin, shines as one of his more stylish and philosophical, if a little preachy:
"One would expect a respectable person," Lowther wrote, "especially an attorney, who is innocent of any wrongdoing, to immediately rectify the situation by returning stolen property to its owners, cooperating with the authorities in an investigation of this matter, inviting victims into the Playboy Club to identify and reclaim their possessions, apologize to these victims and compensate them for their losses, and otherwise conducting himself with some modicum of human decency and respect for the rights of others.
"Instead," the letter continued, "you and your brother have threatened to sue people, including the police, refused to cooperate in returning stolen property, attempted to prevent people from learning about this sordid affair, and have now even sued victims whose property has been stolen, demanding that they pay you for the pleasure of having you wrongfully withhold their property, all while your father sits back and watches you slowly twist in the wind."
Mark Rubin, writing on behalf of his brother, and in the third person, was equally forceful three days later, and more succinct: "Contrary to your assertion, Martin Siskind is not and has never been an authorized agent of Mark Rubin," he wrote. "Your assertion [that] Mark Rubin has actively aided and abetted criminal activity is libelous per se and actionable under Florida law if said assertion is published to any third party." Rubin ended his letter by putting Lowther "on notice" that any public dissemination of his comments would be "by swift legal action."
After midnight, in a back room near one of Miami's many murky waterways, a man agrees to talk about Martin Siskind, but only anonymously: "I've known Martin for years," he says with a flickering grin. "He's a con man, pure and simple. I've watched all his scams. I've even helped out on a few. But Martin really has a taste for it.
"The thing you have to understand, though, is that all the people he's been fucking lately were asking for it," the man goes on. "They were looking for something for nothing. If you've got ten grand and you want to turn it into twenty overnight, Martin will somehow find you. Did he con the Rubins? We can't figure it out. Who knows what they were doing with that shitball building in the first place? It doesn't make any sense."
Guy Rubin says he doesn't know what will become of the old Playboy Club. As for its former tenant, he has this to say: "The classic definition of a con man is someone who intends to deceive from the beginning. I don't think Martin fits that mold. I don't think that Martin operates with an evil intent. The people who are disappointed or have lost money and time and investment have lost it because Martin perhaps isn't qualified to do all of the things that he thought he was qualified to do."
Clarence Turner, who sleeps in a battered station wagon near Miami Avenue and NE 79th Street, says Siskind still owes him $900 for days of backbreaking labor. He disagrees with the assertion that people get what they deserve when doing business with his ex-boss. "The man worked me like a dog, made me a thief, and never paid me a dime," Turner says. "Look at me: a poor black man. I could have gotten twenty years in prison for moving that furniture. I was a fool. I pray I see Siskind down here some night. I pray God gives me a chance to do him like he done me.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.