Update: Phillip Bleicher, owner of CocoDorm.com, has confirmed Angel Barrios' claims that he had no direct involvement in the gay porn site.
Gray-haired abuelas roll creaky carts stacked with clothes inside Wash Time Coin Laundry, a bustling Little Havana storefront a mile west of Marlins Park. Angel Barrios, the owner, folds his arms across his chest and laments his bad luck that a kid he was arrested with 26 years ago has grown up to become a leading light of the Republican Party.
“I’m sorry for Marco that [this arrest] has come up, but I’m more sorry for me and my family,” says Barrios, a solidly built man in a bright-blue polo shirt and mirrored wrap-around shades. “I’m not the one running for president.”
Barrios suddenly found his long-forgotten after-hours police stop in a Brickell park thrust into national headlines last week, when the Washington Post dredged up the 1990 incident. But the Post missed the crime’s most eye-opening tie to Florida’s junior senator.
Decades after his legal run-in with Rubio, Barrios was associated with perhaps the most notorious gay porn ring in Miami history, an Edgewater house full of models with names like “Khali Kreme” and “Sincere Luv” who had sex all day in front of dozens of webcams. Couple that with the fact that the park where Rubio was arrested was a well-known gay cruising spot and lurid rumors — with no basis in documented fact — have blown up all this week on the internet, eagerly stoked by Donald Trump supporters casting Rubio as a closeted homosexual. Right-wing conspiracy monger Alex Jones devoted a five-minute segment to the allegations yesterday, while posts on the claims have been heavily upvoted on a Reddit page for Trump supporters.
“I have nothing against gay people, but this is just so far from the truth,” says Barrios, who laughs out loud at the idea of having had a sexual relationship with Rubio. “I have kids, and now they’re reading all this garbage online. It’s insane.”
Yet the story does add to a trend for Rubio, who has dealt with multiple news cycles about shady connections and sketchy choices back in his hometown, from a pile of traffic citations to mountains of questionable credit card debt to a brother-in-law convicted of dealing cocaine. Now Rubio can add to the mix a childhood buddy wrapped up in a years-long legal war over gay porn.
Barrios and Rubio were born a year apart, in 1970 and '71, respectively, and grew up in West Miami, a blue-collar town of 5,000 just north of more affluent Coral Gables. By summer 1990, an 18-year-old Rubio returned home after washing out of low-level college football. He had played one season at Tarkio College in Missouri before injuries and bad grades forced him to rethink his plans.
He spent that summer working as a courier for Brickell legal firms, earning extra cash by driving documents around in a 1983 Pontiac Firebird his dad had bought him. In the fall, he planned to head to a junior college in Gainesville.
On May 23, 1990, Rubio and Barrios were with another friend, 18-year-old Derek Preston Wilson, after dark at Alice C. Wainwright Park, a leafy Brickell public space then infamous as a late-night trouble spot. (“People went out there to smoke illegal substances, have sex, drink,” a police spokesman told the Post in its story published last Friday.) At 9:37 p.m., the three teens were booked.
A report obtained by New Times casts little light on why they were arrested, though; an officer notes only that they were “located in main... park after hours.” (The cop does note that Rubio was “calm” and “clean shaven” and that his teeth were “very white.”) Rubio’s spokesperson suggested to the Post that the teens were drinking beer in the park. (The senator’s office didn’t respond to New Times' emails seeking comment for this story.)
Either way, the misdemeanor charges against all three teens were later dropped, and Rubio went on with his life. Barrios and Rubio shared a townhouse in Gainesville while Rubio attended Santa Fe Community College, according to the Post, but the two later drifted apart, Barrios says. After graduating from the University of Florida, Rubio earned a law degree at the University of Miami and then began a rocket-fueled political ascent after winning a West Miami city council seat as a 26-year-old and quickly moving on to the Florida House. Barrios, who started a property management company and a family, says he and Rubio lost touch, though he’d occasionally see the GOP golden boy around town and share a quick laugh.
Just two years after his childhood friend was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House — accepting a ceremonial sword from his then-mentor Jeb Bush as cameras clicked away — Barrios had his own brush with media infamy.
It was May 9, 2007, when an NBC 6 investigative TV crew swarmed a sedate, two-story brick house that Barrios’ father owned on NE 27th Street just east of Biscayne Boulevard. In a special report ominously titled “The House Next Door,” reporters breathlessly revealed that a website called CocoDorm.com had set up dozens of webcams inside the home.
Scores of ripped, young Hispanic and black male models had been hired at a $1,200 monthly fee, plus free room and board, to live inside, where the cameras caught their every move — including regularly scheduled orgies. (An ad on the site revealed CocoDorm's recruiting tactics, offering to fly in young models for “30 days of nonstop fucking, sucking, licking, and more with other hot Black and Latin boys.”)
Today Barrios strongly denies he knew anything about the gay smut business. He says his property management company rented the house to Flava Works, the firm behind CocoDorm, with the understanding it was a “digital media” company. He didn’t know the truth, he says, until Channel 6’s report; the next day, Barrios recalls, a Miami Herald reporter knocked on his elderly father’s door to ask about the website.
“We are not in the gay porn business. We are not in the straight porn business. We are not in the porn business,” Barrios says. “My poor father, he had no idea what was going on in there."
Barrios should have done a better background check on Flava Works' owner, Phillip Bleicher. As the Herald later reported, just before renting Barrios’ house, Bleicher left Chicago while prosecutors were investigating allegations that a student charity he had helped run had been bilked of $3 million that had been used for everything from liposuction procedures to flights to Brazil. (No charges were ever filed in that case; Bleicher’s last known address in Miami is now vacant.)
Barrios also should have had warnings that something was amiss at the house. Police were called there at least twice the year before Channel 6’s story aired. Once, an irate, drunken housemate began throwing rocks through windows; on another occasion, police showed up after a resident known only as “Twerk” became enraged when housemates told him he couldn’t sleep with a new arrival. Twerk then punched another man repeatedly in the face.
Shortly after the TV report, the City of Miami Code Enforcement Board hit CocoDorm and Barrios with multiple citations for illegally running an adult business in a residential area. In August 2007, the city sued Barrios and his investment group in Miami-Dade civil court.
Barrios says that he moved quickly to force the business out and that the gay porn site was gone within six months. But that wasn’t the end of his association with CocoDorm. In September 2007, Barrios sued the city in federal court — with the porn company as a co-plaintiff.
They argued that the business was protected by the First Amendment and that CocoDorm wasn’t an adult business because the webcam footage was consumed elsewhere — not at the Edgewater house.
Why would Barrios go to court with the gay-porn producers if he was so horrified to learn what they were up to?
“They offered to pay all the attorneys' fees if we sued the city,” Barrios explains. “I was looking at these huge civil citation fines from the city for something I had nothing to do with. So I was happy to let them go to court to try to get rid of these fines.”
The case was groundbreaking for Miami-Dade County, helping to settle the legal gray zone occupied by the booming South Florida amateur porn business. Was CocoDorm a smut factory that didn’t belong in a residential neighborhood, as the city argued? Or was it simply a house full of men who liked to have sex all the time, with the footage of that sex later sold from a warehouse a few miles away in Wynwood, as Barrios’ lawyers claimed?
The courts couldn’t decide, with CocoDorm first winning a summary judgment and then the city prevailing on appeal. In the end, the feds sided with the city — regardless of whether CocoDorm was producing oily sex videos or T-shirts, it was clearly a business on a block zoned only for residences. By 2012, they’d lost their final appeals. But Barrios got what he wanted: Miami’s city attorney waived all of his code enforcement fines and dropped a lien on the Edgewater house the next year.
While the courts battled it out, Barrios dropped out of the property management game — perhaps scarred by his brush with porn infamy — and opened a chain of coin laundromats, with two in Little Havana and a new outlet in Homestead.
He never expected to find a reporter banging on his door again, until the Washington Post came calling last week. Rubio has so far brushed off that report, even turning it into campaign ad fodder. In a video titled “Rubio’s Crime Spree,” ominous music plays as people wearing Christie and Bush T-shirts complain of the former Florida House speaker’s other vicious lapses: “As a kid, Marco routinely colored outside the lines,” one woman says. “Marco Rubio double-dips potato chips,” a young lady warns.
In the parking lot outside Wash Time Coin Laundry, Barrios also laughs off the old arrest. But he says the rumor-mongering about his CocoDorm ties has been less amusing. Ending up the source of Trump followers’ hit pieces was never part of his life plan.
“This whole thing is just crazy,” Barrios says. “I wish Marco good luck, but I’m ready to move on.”