Charlie Klar crossed NE 10th Avenue with his weed whacker. He approached the six-foot wooden fence surrounding the overgrown lot on the corner of 139th Street, cranked up the trimmer, and went to work.
A moment later, he turned it off. "I'm the gardener," he said as he walked back to his van and retrieved a 24-ounce bottle of Miller High Life. Klar, dressed in a white polo, cut-off jeans, and deck shoes, tucked the beer into a coozy and offered one to Riptide, who declined. "I drink American beer. It's the best beer in the world," said the 70-year-old Swissman, narrowing his smoky blue-gray eyes.
As he spoke, a perfume of alcohol gave way to the scent of waste, decay, and death that emanated from behind the fence.
The previous day, June 16, North Miami Police and Miami-Dade animal control officers had removed 58 dogs and 20 cats from the three-bedroom house at 990 NE 139th St. It had no running water or electricity, no appliances, sinks, or bathroom fixtures. The floor had rotted through. There was no bed inside — just a chair and a TV set. According to the police report, "three to four" animals were found dead, and many had broken or missing limbs. The owner and occupant of the house, Beverly Prady, was arrested and taken to county jail, charged with felony animal cruelty.
Local media dutifully arrived that afternoon. North Miami Police spokesman Neal Cuevas told the Miami Herald: "This is by far the worst case I have ever seen in my 34 years here." News stations availed themselves of footage shot inside the "house of horrors" (so named by WFOR Channel 4) by North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns, who entered wearing sanitary booties, a mask, and gloves. The video showed a dark, dank house in the advanced stages of rotting from the inside out.
Television news cameras showed animal control officers leading captured dogs off the property; the stiff, injured, and paralyzed ones had to be carried. The TV media nabbed interviews with Prady before she was put in the back of a squad car. "These are like my babies. I don't want people to think I'm crazy," she calmly stated. "People who love animals, this is how we feel." That night, 70 of the animals were euthanized.
WPLG Channel 10 interviewed Charlie Klar, who holds the mortgage on the property. He obtained a $60,000 judgment in foreclosure proceedings against Prady in February, and says he has loaned her a total of $147,000 but hasn't seen any of the money. He was asked: Why did he lend it?
"I basically like to lose money, I've made so much of it," he declared, wild-eyed, into the camera.
And that's where the story was left. But there's more to it. When Riptide caught up with him, Klar said, "I told her: 'Bev, you're in denial'" — not about the animals, but about her hope of selling the property for $250,000. The house, which has been condemned, was to be auctioned June 25. It's difficult to imagine it fetching anywhere near its $247,000 estimated market value. "That's okay," said Klar. "I don't mind taking a $25,000 loss. I'm generous."
Asked whether he knew about the living conditions behind the privacy fence, Klar didn't hesitate. "Sure, sure," he said.
So why didn't he tell anyone?
"You know why Switzerland is famous? We live and let live. You have to see things as they are. You see," he added, "Americans are extremely judgmental."
A self-described lender of last resort, Klar also appears every bit the "eccentric millionaire" he claims to be, according to public records. Through his Katline Realty Corp., he owns more than $5 million worth of property in South Florida, including homes, vacant lots, and condominiums, and another $50,000 worth of land in Citrus County. His primary residence — a stout two-story house on a quarter-acre canal-front lot near Naples Bay in Collier County — is valued at $1.1 million.
Klar said he tried to persuade Prady to move, with her dogs, to a parcel he owns in Homosassa Springs, in Central Florida, but she was too suspicious to accept the offer.
Unlike Charlie Klar, Beverly Prady never ventured far from the neighborhood where she grew up. She attended North Miami Senior High and lived most of her 55 years in the house on 139th Street. She inherited the place from her mother, who died in 1996.
Neighbors said Prady, who stands at four feet eleven inches, worked on and off as a home healthcare aide but survived largely on a low-six-figure settlement she was awarded in a negligence suit against the North Miami nursing home where her mother died.
She took out her first mortgage on the property in 2005, for $25,000, and subsequently borrowed more than $177,000 from different lenders, including Katline, over the next two years, according to county records. Prady also began taking in more and more stray animals.
She was sometimes seen on the block walking a Chihuahua. But behind the fence, the animals multiplied. The dogs barked constantly, and howled whenever a siren sounded. Although most neighbors knew Prady had too many pets, none had any idea of the scope of the problem. But there was one telltale sign that something wasn't right.
"At around 4 or 5 p.m. every day, when it really got hot, you would smell it," said a neighbor, who declined to give her name. After Prady's arrest, next-door neighbor Ronald Joyce told his wife: "Won't you be glad to open the windows now?"
Still, neighbors believe Prady didn't know she was harming the animals. "It just would not enter in her head that she was doing something wrong," said Sandy Leino, who has known Prady for 10 years and recently helped her obtain food stamps.
"She told me: 'I've done the best I can. I'm taking care of my animals, I'm not mistreating them,'" said Burns. "Putting her in jail for five years isn't going to do anything for her."
Burns said North Miami has an obligation to rehabilitate Prady's property, and he wants the city's Community Redevelopment Agency "to look at it" for potential purchase. "Ideally she gets her house back, but I don't think it's going to work out that way." In the meantime, Burns has adopted one of four Chihuahua puppies removed from the home.
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Reached on the phone, Klar said he remains unconcerned about the prospect of selling Prady's house. "Basically there's more than one way to skin a cat," he said, and Riptide let the unfortunate choice of metaphor slide. "I don't know what you guys are looking for, but reality is very banal in this case." As if.
Late last week, Prady's white GMC Sierra pickup remained parked in front of her gate. In the bed of the truck was a small opened bag of Beneful dog food; several large bags of Pedigree and Purina One sat in the back seat.
Riptide peeked through the latticework that topped the fence along 139th Street.
A ghostly stillness clung to the yard, which was bloated with tall weeds and foliage that sagged under the weight of the week's downpours. As a car whooshed through puddles on the street, the calm was broken by a black dog, which scampered out of the bushes before disappearing back into the overgrowth.