The Doctor and the Rabbits

A Broward dentist saved hundreds of rabbits and became a national celebrity. Why do so many people fear him?

But the last time Agard called Rosen, in 1992, there was no talk about girlfriends. Instead, Rosen told the Georgia native what he already suspected: The dentist was not interested in continuing the partnership.

"That's fine, then," Agard remembers saying. "I'll just work on the solution myself."

That's when Rosen turned nasty, Agard contends, claiming the aspirin-based solution was his invention and his alone. He made a vague threat to Agard, snarling that "he'd see me in Atlanta," the chemist adds.

Bill Cooke
Steve Rosen spent an estimated $50,000 rescuing more than 300 jackrabbits at Miami International Airport. He's pictured here with one of the young ones.
Bill Cooke
Steve Rosen spent an estimated $50,000 rescuing more than 300 jackrabbits at Miami International Airport. He's pictured here with one of the young ones.

Rosen filed suit in 1997 to stop Agard from continuing work on the product. During discovery, the chemist learned from his attorneys that Rosen had hired a private investigator to estimate his financial assets.

"Rosen," Agard says, "knew for a fact that I was in tough financial straits. He thought if this stays in court, I wouldn't be able to pay my lawyers and he'd win by default."

And Agard had his doubts too. He thought, "Jesus can I afford this? We keep going to court, and I have no proverbial pot to piss in."

But then, he decided "Screw it... I'm a 220-pound black man. I am in the right. I'll get through the thousands of dollars in lawyer fees."

When the case closed in 2000, the court ruled that Agard, as a co-inventor of the formula, could continue to sell and manufacture the product. Back in Georgia, a jubilant Agard opened his own retail skin-care company, AJA Inc. Rosen started his firm, Tend Skin, in 1996. Though both companies use the same aspirin-based formula, AJA does not compete with Tend Skin, Agard says, because Rosen targets the general market while he aims for the ethnic one.

Tend Skin's headquarters are tucked away in a small warehouse located off a hard-to-find dirt road in Davie. Once inside, one needs to tread carefully. The bare floor -- the part not covered by newspaper, that is -- is slippery and worn. There are animal droppings strewn about, and one must watch out for miniature claws and little furry creatures. At any one time, the dank office may be sheltering a dog, a hamster, a bird, and a cat. This is not the calm before the storm. This is the storm.

Rosen's personal office is not much better. It's disheveled and disorganized. His desk chair, which looks as if it were once a throne-like monument, now appears to have been through a shredder a few times. On his desk, papers are stacked willy-nilly, their edges yellowing, the top sheets threatening to tip over. The walls have a grayish tint, and the desk is battered.

But the most noticeable thing in the room is not the furnishing; it's the bird. Bella, Rosen's white-tailed cockatoo, dominates the place. She puffs her chest, struts her feathers, and claims her place on the dentist's arm. She also bites. And we're not just talking about an innocent little love peck either. When the bird flies off Rosen, lands on my shoulder, and gnaws at the inside of my arm, Rosen laughs. "She's protecting me," he says. "Aren't you, Bella?" Then he kisses the bird's head.

Bella squawks in response.

Rosen's office is run by a team that Rosen says he plucked from jobs as check-out girls, salespeople, and bank tellers. He boosted their salaries and benefits. Loyalty, he adds, is important.

But one employee apparently wasn't faithful, at least in Rosen's view. Her name was Marisa Zeppieri. She was a part-time student when she started work at Tend Skin in 1997.

Neither Zeppieri nor Rosen would comment on their relationship to New Times, but, according to Lori Ann Nicolini, another former Tend Skin employee, the pair was friendly at first. They'd hang out, see movies, and attend trade shows together. Sometimes, they'd go with Alan Pokotilow, Rosen's close friend and former employee. But it became increasingly clear to Nicolini that Rosen, who has never married, had a crush on Zeppieri that some thought bordered on obsession.

It didn't help matters that the then-22 year-old liked to strut around the office in teeny cute tanks, sans bra, and butt-clinging jeans, Nicolini says. Indeed, the underdressed woman "appeared to lead Rosen around like a carrot," Bloch, the comptroller, said in a sworn statement last January.

Both Bloch and Nicolini contend that Rosen treated Zeppieri better than other employees. He paid for her lunches, offered to help finance her college tuition, chauffeured her around the set of Lethal Weapon 4 in California, and lent her money for a dog. Although Zeppieri accepted his offers, she claims in multiple court documents that she did not think of Rosen romantically.

Indeed, in October 2001, she requested a restraining order against the doctor. "Steven Rosen has continually made sexual remarks to me for the past several months," she wrote. "In fear of losing my job, I have said nothing. When he realized I was not interested, he made it a point to make my life miserable." A judge denied her first request, but a later one was accepted.

According to Zeppieri's written account of the event, Rosen started going crazy when she did not return his affection. Zeppieri claims the dentist started moping around the office, calling her a "cunt" and a "bitch" in front of her coworkers. "My fellow workers began telling me that [Rosen] would ask questions on a daily basis of where I was, who I was dating, what that person did," she recalled. "I was told that he would *69 [call back] my phone calls and if the caller was a man... would write the [number] down. He asked me numerous times in front of co-workers to go on a cruise with him, even after continually being told no."

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