The shafts of light formed a luminous triangle above the darkened beach, drawing curious onlookers from the terrace of the Cardozo Hotel and stirring the population of senior citizens from ancient contemplations. As a crowd gathered, light artist Sidney Smith set his work in motion. Beams ricocheted off mirrors angled in the sand and bounced off a glass door over which poured sheets of water. Two figures in flowing, translucent costumes pantomimed images of rebirth.
People who witnessed the work, performed April 1, 1983, remember its shamanistic quality and the transcendental mood created by the beams of light and the silence. They frequently invoke Smith's performance piece as an example of the spirit of enchantment that wafted through South Beach prior to its metamorphosis into a tourist playground and commercial gold mine.
It took a special sort of imagination to perceive possibility among the deteriorating Art Deco hotels that lined Ocean Drive at that time. Although the area had won designation in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, only the Cardozo and Carlyle hotels, repainted in soft pastels and containing the first Deco-themed cafe and restaurant, intimated the promise of renewal among the grime-encrusted, three-story retirement lodgings that proliferated along the street. A motley crowd of artists, writers, and performers attracted by low oceanfront rents and the free-wheeling atmosphere at the Cardozo were among the few who dreamed of reviving the area.
Whiling away the days outside the Cardozo, chatting with the late preservationist Barbara Capitman and her son Andrew, who was part-owner of the hotel, members of the group and passersby who joined them would turn to an aged palm-reader who frequented the hotel's front porch and ask her to predict the future. Although Marie Zimmer's readings were at times suspect --early every unattached woman in South Beach was advised she would be married by Christmas --he 83-year-old soon became a touchstone for believers in the spell cast by South Beach.
"She had this magical twinkle in her eye," recalls artist Sidney Smith, who met Zimmer when he began renting a room in the nearby Oceanfront Apartments in February 1983. Although Smith had originally come to Miami to work on a short-term project, he found himself seduced by the area's decrepit charm, and was inspired to compose a trio of public light sculptures to be presented April 1, May 1, and June 1. While hanging out at the Cardozo, he also hooked up with Bulgarian-born sculptor Christo Javacheff and agreed to organize nighttime security for Christo's scheme to drape Biscayne Bay's mangrove islands in pink polypropylene.
Now the technical director of the Miami Film Festival, Smith recalls that while considering the site of the third and final sculpture, a rainbow directed him to the appropriate location. Then, just as the performance got under way, a thunderstorm struck, surrounding the area with lightning on three sides but withholding its downpour. As the performers finished, the moon rose out of the water behind them. "Because of the response to that piece, I decided to stay," Smith says, wonderment creeping back into his voice nearly twelve years later.
Such portentous interpretations of natural phenomena and historical incident are common among the original circle of Cardozo regulars, who united around their passion for Deco architecture and a romanticized vision of life. But no story is so strange, nor so closely aligned with the rebirth of the Art Deco district itself, as that of palm-reader Marie Zimmer.
Initially pitied as a poverty-stricken eccentric who eked out a living by interpreting the fates for the young and hip, Zimmer took pains to project an image of decayed elegance, adorning herself in moth-eaten raiment evoking bygone glamour. But in the same way that declining Art Deco hotels concealed untold riches in real estate profits, Zimmer's rags camouflaged her personal financial fortune. Not that it would have mattered to the starry-eyed dreamers on the porch of the Cardozo. They were looking for romance, and they found it in equal measure among the surrounding architectural fantasies and in Zimmer's mystical readings.
Then developers began to pick up on their enthusiasm and a different sensibility emerged on Ocean Drive. Investors from Pennsylvania, rumored to have vague links to the Philadelphia mob, bought the Cardozo and the Carlyle, and interest in illusion shifted from oceanfront terraces to businessmen's backrooms, where accounts might be juggled and bankruptcies made to disappear. Ocean Drive became the funhouse and Zimmer an attraction.
Born in 1900 in Russia, the daughter of devout Jews, Zimmer and her family later settled in New London, Connecticut. She rebelled against her tradition-bound father, who wanted her to marry a Talmudic scholar, and ran off to New York City when she was a teenager. According to friends and family members, Zimmer was trained as a nurse and worked in the employ of a series of wealthy New York families until her retirement, when she moved to Miami to care for her ailing mother and father.
Her parents died in the early 1960s, and little is known about Zimmer's life in Miami for the next twenty years. But as the Eighties dawned, she began appearing at meetings organized by local preservationists seeking to safeguard the area's historic status.
She was befriended by Deco enthusiasts Barbara Capitman and Dona Zemo, who invited her to read palms at the Cardozo Cafe, which Zemo was managing at the time. "When I first met Marie, I thought she was a bag lady," Zemo laughs, recalling the evening when Capitman asked her to drive the old woman home to her Jefferson Avenue apartment. A petite, disheveled brunette with an intense gaze, Zemo remembers being drawn to what she fondly describes as Zimmer's bewitching vitality. "I just loved her," she says. "She was different from all the rest of the senior citizens living down here. That's what captured me -- her aliveness."
Jane Dee, one of Zemo's best friends who moved to South Beach from Connecticut after becoming infatuated by Art Deco in the early Eighties, had a similar reaction. She ran into Zimmer in the spring of 1983 at one of the first gatherings of the Washington Avenue Merchants Association, and almost tossed her out, believing she was a shoplifter. "We had food out, folding chairs, stuff from the Miami Beach Preservation League. I mean, we really planned for this and only five people came, and she was one of the people -- with her little plastic shopping bag." As the organizers went through their spiel, Dee watched as Zimmer began to swipe food from the table and stow it in her bag. "I said, 'Excuse me, ma'am, but you can't do this,'" Dee chuckles at the memory. "I thought she was a poor old lady who had to steal food."
Zemo and Dee took Zimmer under their wings, driving her to doctors' appointments, to the market, and indulging her peculiar banking practices. While apparently penniless, Zimmer delighted in opening new bank accounts and collecting complimentary household appliances being offered to lure new customers. During one promotion, a bank promised free family portraits to anyone opening an account. Zimmer beseeched Zemo and Dee to pose with her, and for years she kept the portrait in a scrapbook in her apartment, along with her free toasters and blenders.
Dee recalls how the place overflowed with clutter. Hoarded freebies, piles of magazines, and composting mounds of moldy newspaper clippings seemed to metastasize until the only place left to sit was a small spot on the bed. But most amazing to Dee was the copious collection of exotic clothing Zimmer said she had inherited from her wealthy New York employers. As word spread about South Beach's new-found chic, and Zimmer's notoriety as a palmist grew, her costumes became more flamboyant. Her favorite outfit was a straight-knit gold lame gown from the early Sixties, which she would wear with a gypsy scarf wrapped around her hair and a monkey doll draped over her shoulders.
Zimmer's apparel may have appeared shabby and stained under the harsh subtropical sunlight, but by night she cut a striking figure. "She was a little bit of a woman," Dee elaborates, "and the clothing was from all different-size people, but somehow she'd put them on. She looked wonderful. She had an unstoppable supply of dramatic, Hedy Lamarr-type costumes."
Zemo says that Zimmer was one of the characters who helped catapult the offbeat artistic gatherings on Ocean Drive into the cultural fast lane, and attracted national stars such as singers Patti LaBelle and Della Reese, who gave intimate impromptu performances in the Carlyle Bar & Grill while they were in town for other concerts. "Marie was a plus for the area," Zemo recalls. "She brought this energy here. People actually came just to see her. She was 83 years old and she was a trip."
Eventually Zimmer outgrew her apartment on Jefferson Avenue; belongings had spilled over into three storage closets. Zemo and Dee helped her move out in early 1983 at the management's request. She moved into a room at the Tides Hotel, one of the Ocean Drive properties owned by Art Deco Hotels, Inc. Founded by Andrew Capitman and Mark Shantzis, the company had purchased seven flagship Deco hotels in 1981, hoping to precipitate a revival of the district and create a tropical French Quarter. But after completing initial renovations on three hotels, including the Cardozo and the Carlyle, Capitman and Shantzis ran out of money.
Even the successful opening of the newly renovated Carlyle in January 1983, the first bar and restaurant to test the district's renaissance, failed to staunch the company's financial hemorrhaging. That summer the hotels were sold to Cavanagh Communities Corp. (later renamed the Royale Group Ltd.), headed by the now-notorious Leonard Pelullo. The 33-year-old Philadelphia contractor agreed to assume the $5.6 million mortgage and to give the former owners stock in Royale.
An imposing dark-haired man who favored well-tailored suits and monogrammed shirts, Pelullo won the confidence of bankers from Miami to California. Within three years, he had borrowed more than $25 million to refurbish the Art Deco hotels. Renovations took about a year to get under way, but the mere suggestion of such huge amounts of nurturing cash created a near-delirious atmosphere of expectation.
Cultural activity coalesced at the aqua and pink Carlyle, attracting bohemian artists from the Cardozo as well as local politicians and visiting celebrities. Pelullo offered free venues to local performance artists, mimes, and comedians, who in turn voluntarily produced dozens of events in a giddy celebration of the Deco district. "We did it because we wanted to; there was no pay involved," says Darby Hays, a mime and producer-director who now lives in Coconut Grove. "Those were the greatest days of my career because it was free; there were no expectations or demands on us to fit ourselves to a notion of what art should be."
None of this activity escaped the watchful eye of Marie Zimmer, who started nudging Zemo to help her begin reading palms at the Carlyle. With some reluctance, Zemo agreed. "I thought, 'Oh God, these people are going to think I'm loony,' because Marie was a palmist and into magic." But to Zemo's surprise, both Pelullo and Jacob "Jake" der Hagopian, Jr., executive vice president of the Royale Group, agreed to let Zimmer set up shop on the Carlyle's porch.
Zimmer reveled in the spirit of illicit decadence Pelullo and his friends lent to the district. "She had people arriving in limos, with the driver waiting," Jane Dee recalls. "They would come in and ask Marie what was going to happen that night. The Royale Group, as bad as some people say they were, they took crime off the streets and made the district a glamorous place for people to come." Dee recalls visits from the former mayor of South Philadelphia, as well as elegantly dressed friends of Pelullo. "There were all these old guys with cigars, but that was part of the Deco era."
While some of the original dreamers grumbled that the Deco district was losing its soul before it even received a fresh coat of paint, others clearly benefited from occasional generosity of the boys from Philly. Hagopian, in particular, took a liking to Zimmer. He quickly provided her with her own table, adorned it with glowing candles, and strategically placed it near the restaurant entrance.
The tiny woman in the extravagant gypsy outfits became a fixture at the Carlyle. Then-city commissioner William Shockett was so impressed with her that he gave her a key to the city; others were also prompted to demonstrate their appreciation for the zest Zimmer brought to an evening. "Jake's [Hagopian] friends were very good to her," admits Zemo, who worked as marketing and sales director for the Royale Group for about three years. "They would give her $100 for a reading." Hagopian himself felt compelled to look out for Zimmer. He began ordering the kitchen staff to prepare meals for her, which she took back to her room at the Tides, one of the Royale Group's hotels. He also made sure that someone was around to walk her home after she had stayed late reading palms at the Carlyle. "He fell in love with her," Zemo explains. "He fell in love with her the way we did. There was something about her.
"She loved Jake, too," Zemo continues, even while pointing out that Zimmer had a way of charming people into doing her favors. "She got more and more out of him each time. The more he did, the more she wanted, and the more she got." After persuading the 33-year-old Hagopian to provide her with dinner each night, Zimmer eventually arranged to live rent-free at the Tides. "He just took care of her because he felt she had no family and no money and that was his way of helping," Zemo says.
"She was a crusty old girl, and I guess she spoke Jake's language," comments Martin Margulies, a mime who worked as a bartender at the Carlyle for four years. "He was real nice to her." Margulies himself was one of Zimmer's most reliable friends. Standing behind the black lacquer bar night after night, he came to expect a phone call from her requesting that someone accompany her to the Carlyle from the Tides, two buildings away. "She was very direct," Margulies remembers. "She wouldn't beat around the bush." Although Margulies, who now lives in San Francisco, believes that Zimmer was psychic, he doesn't confuse her personal charm with the magic of the era. But then again, according to Margulies and other denizens of the district, much of the stardust that had accompanied the early days of the Art Deco revival ceased to be golden soon after the Royale Group took control.
In late 1985, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation published a report entitled "Organized Crime in Boxing," which described Pelullo as a "key organized crime associate." According to the report, Pelullo's brother Arthur, alleged to have an "unusually close rapport" with key members of the Angelo Bruno crime family in Philadelphia, received money from the Royale Group to finance a boxing promotion business. While Pelullo repeatedly denied links to organized crime, he had more immediate problems in South Beach. The Royale Group's aggressive borrowing was leading to difficulties as seven Miami banks struggled to collect on $13 million in defaulted loans. Renovation plans for the Deco hotels stalled. By the fall of 1986, only two of the original seven were operating.
Sometime in the mid-Eighties, Zimmer's health began to fail. Jane Dee recalls that Zimmer showed up at her real estate office complaining of chest pains. "She couldn't even walk up the stairs," Dee remembers. "I mean, she wasn't Marie. She was pale, and she said, 'I have to go home and sleep. I can't go to the doctor.' And I said, 'Well, it's even more important that we go today.'"
Dee took her to see a cardiologist, who sent the palmist to the hospital. Zimmer was diagnosed with heart disease and had a pacemaker installed. While she was in the hospital, she entrusted Dee with her financial papers. Dee happened to glance at some of the tax returns and noticed that her friend -- who she had believed to be penniless -- had earned an income of almost $100,000 in dividends alone the previous year. Zimmer the bag lady was actually Marie the millionairess.
For a while Dee kept her discovery to herself. By the time she told Zemo and Margulies, she had convinced herself that the money didn't really matter. Both she and Zemo made it a point to tell Zimmer that they weren't interested in her wealth. "We both said, 'We don't care, just keep it in your pants. Don't tell people you're so rich,'" Dee recalls.
Neither Dee nor Zemo ever discovered how Zimmer, who never married, became so wealthy on a nurse's salary. Based on conversations she had with Zimmer, Dee speculates that part of the fortune may have originated in hush money paid by wealthy former employers. According to Dee, Zimmer told her she had specialized in working as a live-in attendant to wealthy people who were either sick or had drug problems. "I thought she was an angel, but she was really very devious because she would extort money, in a sense, from these families," Dee surmises. Zemo proposes a less insidious scenario: "Maybe her parents left her money and it accumulated."
Interviews with Zimmer's relatives only deepen the mystery. Dorothy Verikios, a niece, says Zimmer was a miser and simply saved every penny she made. Other relatives say they were simply baffled by Zimmer's wealth.
The older woman's eccentricity continued to amuse her friends, who saw in Zimmer's newly revealed riches a mirror of the rising affluence of the Art Deco district itself. Even Zimmer's palm readings began to reflect the new value placed on crowd-pleasing flimflam. "After a while, you'd see that a lot of men would bring their dates to Marie," Dee remembers. "The comical part was that you could see the guy was giving Marie a $100 bill so that she would tell the woman that she was going to sleep with him that night or something.... The men would pay, so Marie would help them out." Some nights Dee would accompany Zimmer back to the Tides and the palmist would show her several hundred-dollar bills she had earned that evening. "She was so proud of herself," Dee laughs.
The curtain began to fall on both Zimmer and the hotel owners in 1989. In late summer the Royale Group's precarious finances caught up with the company; by September it had landed in bankruptcy court.
In a rare conversation with her New York relatives, Zimmer told her nephew Steven Verikios that she was experiencing "a little Alzheimer's." She had become forgetful and had misplaced several savings bonds she had set aside for Steven's mother Dorothy. Then on December 30 or 31, she suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and largely incoherent, according to court papers.
Zemo and Dee visited Zimmer in the hospital after her stroke, and then later at the Hebrew Home for the Aged on lower Collins Avenue. "She was gobbledygook," Zemo says matter-of-factly, recalling that the palmist had a hard time recognizing old friends. Dee was so upset by her condition that she refused to return for a second visit. "I handled it better," Zemo says. "I went back another time and I just sat with her. But she was really weird. She was almost nasty, yelling at the nurses. It wasn't like her. It was as if another being had taken over her body. Really, it was unbelievable."
After Zimmer's stroke, Jake Hagopian continued to look after the palmist. He contacted her 60-year-old niece, Lois Rosenzweig, a doctor's wife who lived in Highland Park, Illinois, and he volunteered to pay for private-duty nurses not included in Zimmer's Medicare coverage.
Though the motives behind Hagopian's kindness would later be questioned by Zimmer's relatives, South Beach friends who knew them both were not surprised to learn that she had arranged to leave him an inheritance as a way of thanking him for taking care of her over the years. Court documents also clearly indicate that Zimmer intended to make Hagopian the most favored beneficiary of her estate by leaving him nearly $400,000.
Among those old-time friends is David Wallach, who owned the Eastern Sun, an adult congregate living facility at 900 Ocean Dr. (Wallach has since transformed the property into Mango's Tropical Cafe.) Around the time of Zimmer's stroke, Wallach recalls that Hagopian revealed to him the existence of an inheritance, and in his mind, it made perfect sense. "She wasn't close to any of her relatives," Wallach says. Zimmer usually spent Jewish holidays with Wallach at the Eastern Sun, and he remembers listening to her complain that her relatives were "vultures" who wanted her money. Wallach pauses in the midst of his recollection. "Then again," he adds, "Marie could call a lot of people vultures."
Totaling more than two million dollars at the time of her stroke, Zimmer's estate was a likely target for anyone in search of riches. Her will, written in 1965, left a substantial portion of her wealth to her four deceased brothers; it was just one of several inviting opportunities waiting to be exploited.
Then there were her trusts. Tucked away in more than 50 bank and brokerage accounts scattered around Miami Beach, these trusts held most of Zimmer's assets for preassigned beneficiaries. While this would ordinarily simplify the process of distributing an estate, these particular trusts further muddled the question of who was entitled to what. Consisting of savings accounts, certificates of deposit, and money-market funds, the trusts held Zimmer's fortune for dead family members, for one or more feuding relatives who were listed on the same account, and in the case of two Citibank accounts worth $90,000, for her niece Dorothy Verikios and Jake Hagopian, who were designated as co-beneficiaries.
Like a gale slowly gathering force, more and more people became preoccupied with Zimmer's estate during the four years following her stroke and leading up to her death in May 1994. Between relatives, friends, accountants, attorneys, and health-care providers, Zimmer was attracting attention from more people than ever gathered around her at the Carlyle. The first to show interest was her niece, Lois Rosenzweig, who, according to court documents, flew to Florida after her aunt's stroke and stayed for three weeks. It wasn't long before she reportedly grew suspicious of Jake Hagopian's relationship with Zimmer.
Rosenzweig's concerns apparently were fueled by an examination of her aunt's investments, among them a joint brokerage account Zimmer had established with Hagopian at Smith Barney in September 1989 containing $285,262, the two Citibank accounts of which Verikios and Hagopian were co-beneficiaries, and another joint account between Zimmer and Hagopian created at Value Line Mutual.
A lawsuit filed by Rosenzweig against Hagopian in April of last year, shortly before Zimmer's death, alleges that these accounts resulted from Hagopian's "undue influence" over Zimmer. (That case is currently being heard in court. Both Lois Rosenzweig and Jake Hagopian refused to be interviewed for this article.) As one example, Rosenzweig pointed to the joint account at Value Line Mutual. Though it contained less than $1500, it was opened on January 8, 1990, about one week after Zimmer's stroke and the very day she was transferred from the hospital to the Hebrew Home. In her lawsuit, Rosenzweig alleged that Zimmer "was 90 years old and was in a weakened and frail physical and mental condition. In fact, Marie Zimmer lacked the necessary mental capacity to make a gift or to otherwise understand the transactions at the times that the accounts were created."
But about a month after Zimmer and Hagopian opened the allegedly suspect Value Line joint account, and despite Rosenzweig's contention that her aunt lacked sufficient mental capacity, the wheelchair-bound palmist met Rosenzweig and an attorney at the old Miami Savings Bank on Washington Avenue. During the February 15 meeting, Rosenzweig's lawyer, Derek Aronovitz, asked Zimmer to sign a document giving Rosenzweig power of attorney and to approve a new will making Rosenzweig the executor of her estate, which gave Rosenzweig authority to divide Zimmer's assets among surviving relatives. Zimmer's signatures on the documents are utterly illegible.
A few weeks later, in March 1990, niece Dorothy Verikios recalls receiving a "frantic" telephone call from Rosenzweig. Verikios says her cousin told her for the first time about Zimmer's stroke, and also revealed her doubts about Hagopian. According to Verikios and court documents, Rosenzweig hinted that Hagopian may have swindled their aunt out of $100,000. She also expressed alarm about Hagopian's possession of certain financial papers Zimmer had stored in his office. In order to protect the family's inheritance, Rosenzweig reportedly told Verikios, she needed to be appointed as Zimmer's guardian, which would give her control of their ailing aunt's financial affairs.
Verikios claims that while Rosenzweig stressed the urgency of having Zimmer declared "incapacitated," her cousin neglected to mention that Zimmer had already signed a new will. Nonetheless, with Verikios's support, Rosenzweig successfully petitioned the courts to become guardian. The appointment was approved in late May 1990 and officially took effect in July.
As Verikios later mulled over her conversations with her cousin, she became convinced that Rosenzweig had not been telling her the full truth about Zimmer's financial affairs. "Mrs. Rosenzweig manipulated and duped me into not challenging her fitness to become guardian," Verikios wrote in a June 28, 1990, letter to Dade Circuit Court Judge Robert H. Newman, who had granted the guardianship. "I now find Mrs. Rosenzweig's story to be too incredible to be true. I cannot understand why Mrs. Rosenzweig has not gone to the police and local prosecutor to try and compel Mr. Hagopian into returning Marie's property. I also cannot understand why she waited three months to inform me of Marie's condition and Hagopian's behavior. Obviously, Mrs. Rosenzweig is afraid of something. I believe Mrs. Rosenzweig has committed some sort of financial impropriety."
Verikios claims her fears were confirmed when she and her two sons, Laurence and Steven, requested and received copies of the guardian's financial reports. Court records show that Rosenzweig had used her power of attorney to close two trust accounts and transfer the funds to new accounts controlled jointly by her and Zimmer. The first, containing about $66,000, had been held for Jacqueline Stevens, another niece. The second, containing about $9600, had been held for Dorothy Verikios. At the time the trusts were closed, Zimmer still had at least one account containing more than $20,000 in her name alone, as well as other accounts held in the names of deceased relatives. Why, Verikios wondered, hadn't Rosenzweig closed those accounts first?
A disabled widow who lives in Brooklyn with her two sons, Verikios admits to suffering from bouts of depression that prevent her from working. "Look, I've always been the victim in this family," she laments. "I was not loved, what can I tell you?" She claims other family members ostracized her for marrying a Greek, and that they consider her mentally unstable: "They say, 'She's cuckoo.' Well, I'm not cuckoo. It's an affliction."
Convinced that Rosenzweig was whittling down her inheritance, Verikios and her sons began writing letters to Judge Newman detailing what they claimed was a pattern of improprieties. According to Verikios, Newman dismissed her letters and told her to get a lawyer. (Newman declined to discuss the case, which was recently transferred to a new probate judge.) The Verikioses decided to act on Newman's suggestion regarding legal counsel. In doing so, however, the Marie Zimmer saga began to take some particularly strange turns and revealed the distorting effect large amounts of money can have not only on human behavior, but on the workings of the probate court system itself.
As Laurence Verikios tells it, his family's search for an attorney led them by referral to George Elias, Jr., a veteran Miami probate lawyer. Laurence Verikios (who, along with his brother, has worked as a paralegal in New York) called Elias in mid-March 1991. "I spoke with Elias, asked him specific questions about whether he thought our case against Rosenzweig was worthy or not," he recalls. Elias reportedly expressed doubt about the Verikioses' ability to pay his fees, and asked Laurence to call him again the following day.
According to Dorothy Verikios, early the next morning she received a phone call from Elias. "He said he had spoken to the judge and been appointed guardian ad litem, that this thing will be taken care of and 'it won't cost you a thing,'" she recalls. Her son Laurence adds that in subsequent conversations, Elias stressed that "Judge Newman knows me, Judge Newman likes me, the judge has confidence in me." Dorothy Verikios was elated that Elias had taken up their cause: "I said, 'Bless your heart.'"
According to court records, Judge Newman appointed Elias "guardian ad litem, attorney ad litem, and monitor" on April 4, 1991. His task was to "review, investigate, and report on the activities as to possible nonfeasance, malfeasance, or misfeasance of the guardian for Marie Zimmer, Incompetent." Although the judge gave Elias 120 days to probe Rosenzweig's actions, almost two years passed before he produced his report. In the meantime, the Verikioses' elation deflated and turned into desperation. They continued to bombard Newman with letters, and they also contacted politicians and the Dade State Attorney's Office. "We have written the judge assigned to Marie's guardianship proceedings repeatedly," states a January 30, 1992, letter from Laurence Verikios to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "We have given him written proof of the guardian's improprieties and illegal conduct. Through indifference, apathy, incompetence, or worse, the judge has not removed the guardian. The judge has actually served to encourage the pilfering. The court has become the ultimate accomplice to a complex web of deception that aims to rob my great-aunt of her fortune."
In September 1992, Assistant State Attorney Fred Kerstein had become sufficiently interested in Zimmer's guardianship to write to Judge Newman and ask about the status of Elias's report. When contacted last month, the State Attorney's Office would not comment about the letter or whether the Verikioses' complaints are under investigation.
Laurence Verikios says he doesn't have factual problems with the 71-page report eventually produced by Elias in February 1993; he concedes that Elias reproduced A in some instances verbatim A the allegations detailed by the Verikios family in their letters to the judge. The Verikioses are upset, however, by the bill for $100,348 Elias submitted to the Zimmer estate for his work. Of that, Judge Newman has approved payment of $77,923. The amount is especially galling to the Verikios brothers, who claim they themselves did the bulk of the work analyzing financial records. "But even our review couldn't answer all the questions about what Rosenzweig had done with Marie's money," Laurence Verikios says. "We pleaded with Elias to subpoena records to answer the questions we raised.... He ignored us." (Reached by phone at his Brickell Avenue office, Elias declined to comment about the Zimmer guardianship or the Verikioses' statements.)
In an order dated May 26, 1993, Newman ruled that Elias should receive immediate payment of $40,000 taken from the Smith Barney brokerage account held jointly by Zimmer and Jake Hagopian, who has appealed the order on the grounds that he was not notified in advance.
The Verikioses say Elias's fees might have been worth it had the judge acted on Elias's recommendations, which included replacing Rosenzweig as guardian. His report alleges that Rosenzweig violated the Florida Guardianship Law in several ways, among them "failure to discharge her duties, abuse of her powers, failure to comply with the orders of the court, [and] the wasting, embezzlement, or other mismanagement of the Ward's property." Nevertheless, for almost two years Newman declined to act on the report, and Elias continued to submit new bills for additional work and expenses. His most recent, submitted in January 1994, is for more than $122,000.
Michael Goldberg, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who is now representing the Verikioses, this past July asked Newman to rule on Elias's recommendations. Elias responded unexpectedly by requesting that the judge postpone indefinitely any action on his report. At a hearing this past September 21, Elias argued that Zimmer's death made his report irrelevant because there was no longer any need for a guardian and thus no need for her removal. Goldberg objected, contending that if the report is accurate, then the estate has been damaged and the beneficiaries deserve to be compensated. Goldberg also added that a ruling could affect the size of fees Elias might eventually collect. "This has been a lawyer feeding frenzy," Goldberg says, noting that the original estate, which is now valued at about $1.5 million, has been reduced by 25 percent. "The professional fees have been astronomical." (Any decision regarding Elias's report and his fees will be made by Martin Greenbaum, the judge who now has the case.)
Experts on probate law and legal ethics agree that various aspects of the Marie Zimmer guardianship case -- from Elias's private conference with Judge Newman that led to his appointment as monitor to his request that his report be ignored -- are worthy of scrutiny. Professor Richard Mendales, who teaches legal ethics at the University of Miami School of Law, points out that the Florida Bar prohibits such "ex parte" conferences except in emergency circumstances. "The rules are intended to preclude not only actual improper influence," he says, "but the risk that the general public will suspect there's improper influence."
The Florida Bar has already examined another facet of the case: the conduct of attorney Derek Aronovitz when he had Zimmer sign a new will and grant power of attorney to Lois Rosenzweig. In a ten-page complaint to the bar, the Verikioses accused Aronovitz and his father, Alfred Aronovitz (who oversaw his son's work), of having "conducted themselves in an improper, unethical, and illegal fashion.... The Aronovitzes were responsible for engineering and implementing Rosenzweig's grand design to capture what remained of Marie Zimmer's fortune."
In a response filed with the bar in late August 1993, Derek Aronovitz denied participating in any fraud associated with Zimmer's estate or in the signing of the new will. But before bar officials could hold hearings, Aronovitz committed suicide by poisoning himself with carbon monoxide in his Coral Gables garage. He died on his 32nd birthday, June 30, 1994. (Alfred Aronovitz says his son's death had nothing to do with the Verikioses' bar complaint. A police report noted that Derek had been severely depressed, and the medical examiner's report revealed that he had been drinking heavily.)
Four months after the young Aronovitz's suicide, the complaint against his father was heard by the Florida Bar's grievance committee, which found no probable cause to discipline the elder Aronovitz. The committee did, however, find that Alfred Aronovitz's conduct "was not consistent with the high standards of our profession.... The totality of the facts reviewed by the grievance committee indicated that your conduct in assisting the execution of the will came close to violating the rules governing attorneys, although not one particular act was deemed to be violative of any particular rule."
Although Zimmer lived until the spring of last year, she never regained enough coherence to settle the questions raised by her feuding relatives. According to medical records and interviews with the Verikioses, her last years were spent under heavy sedation at the Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged, also known as Douglas Gardens, a large nursing facility in Little Haiti. She died on May 3, 1994, and was cremated, her ashes buried near the graves of her parents in New York.
Zimmer's friends from South Beach had quickly lost touch with her after Lois Rosenzweig moved her to Douglas Gardens and left no forwarding address. Dona Zemo says shortly after her last visit to the Hebrew Home on Collins Avenue, she called and was told that the nursing facility had no record of a Marie Zimmer.
Zemo's last reliable link to Zimmer had vanished when Jake Hagopian left town following the financial collapse of the Royale Group, whose Art Deco hotels were sold at auction in late 1990 and whose chief executive, Leonard Pelullo, was later indicted on federal racketeering and wire-fraud charges. (This past Friday Pelullo was convicted in Philadelphia on one count of racketeering and 46 counts of wire fraud. He also must forfeit more than $1.3 million and a 2000-acre ranch in Montana.) "Every couple of months I would do a search for her," sighs Zemo. "I don't know why I couldn't find her." In 1992 she finally gave up. "I can't believe she was still alive all these years," she says. "I thought she died."
Drinking coffee in the dining room of Jane Dee's Miami Beach home on a breezy December morning, the two old friends discuss Jake Hagopian's relationship with Zimmer and the courtroom efforts to deny him access to the money she left him.
Was Hagopian after Zimmer's assets all along? "Oh, his love for her came long before he knew she had money," Dee says emphatically.
"I'd like to call [her relatives] and give them a piece of my mind," declares Zemo.
"Just to sit them down and tell them," interrupts Dee. "Maybe they don't understand. I'd tell them: 'This man took care of your relative for years when you were nowhere to be found.' It's greed. It's the same thing that happened with Ocean Drive."
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Soon after losing touch with Zimmer, both Dee and Zemo distanced themselves from Ocean Drive. Dee quit her real estate job to have a child, and Zemo started her own company, Tropical Marketing, based on Lincoln Road. Zemo also moved to Coconut Grove. Ocean Drive had finally lost its magic. "I love the area," she says, "but there's too much neon. They're going to lose the character of why people came here in the first place."
Dee is even more blunt: "Now when I go to Ocean Drive, I almost want to cry."
"They've ruined it," says Zemo, softly adding, "It was like paradise.