By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
In October 2002, Henning held him in contempt of court for not complying with her orders to fix the house. At the city's behest, the judge then ordered Pelecanos to sell the house. That would seem to be in violation of the homestead exemption, which forbids such forced sales, but soon it would become obvious that the judge in this case had lost touch with the law.
Later that year, Henning granted the city permission to demolish the house — at Pelecanos' expense — even though it had no structural problems. When Pelecanos argued against it, Henning threatened to throw him in jail if he tried to stop the bulldozers.
Pelecanos, meanwhile, was trying to sell the house, listing it "as-is" for $1.2 million. In April 2004, a Russian couple, Sergey and Galina Sachenko, agreed to buy it for the reduced price of $900,000.
By now the city wanted more than just Pelecanos gone — it wanted his equity in the house. Why?
"These people have to be held accountable for their actions," says Mayor Cooper.
The city asked Henning to put an equitable lien on the sale, meaning that any proceeds Pelecanos and his wife received — which amounted to their life savings and nest egg — would go to the city.
Unfortunately for the city, that "loophole" was in the way. The state's homestead exemption narrowly defines the circumstances under which such liens can be placed, and code violations aren't among them.
So the city got creative with a recent Florida Supreme Court opinion that equitable liens could be placed on homes that were purchased with "funds obtained through fraud or egregious conduct."
Nobody ever accused Pelecanos of buying his home with anything other than honest money, yet the city still accused Pelecanos of fraud. It was a ludicrous allegation. It didn't stick.
Failing that, the city claimed Pelecanos had engaged in a pattern of "egregious conduct" by failing to obey the city and the court.
"Egregious conduct?" Pelecanos asks. "I look in the dictionary. What the hell is that? You don't have money to fix the roof or driveway, it's 'egregious conduct'?"
The city was clearly misinterpreting the law, but that didn't stop Henning from granting the city's order for an equitable lien in 2004.
The sacred cow was cooked. Pelecanos and his wife were looking at losing everything because of a vindictive city and a judge who seemed to have run off the tracks.
Cooper was thrilled with the "win."
"I was very proud of our city attorney," she told me.
Pelecanos took the case to the Fourth District of Appeal. A year later, on November 23, 2005, the court reversed Henning's order, finding that it contradicted the law, and adding for good measure that "the courts of this state have long emphasized that the homestead exemption is to be liberally construed in the interest of protecting the family home."
So there is justice in Florida. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to wait until you get to the higher courts to find it.
Mayor Cooper, though, believes the law should be changed. That loophole needs to be closed. "It gets to the point that you have your hands tied," she says.
Told of Pelecanos' troubles, Cooper softens her tone, but she doesn't back down. She still thinks the law should give municipal governments more power over homeowners.
"My pregnant mother, at 42, was out scrubbing the sidewalks and picking the dandelions and she had six kids," Cooper told me. "The American Dream shouldn't be taken for granted."
For Pelecanos, the appellate court decision seemed to end his American Nightmare. The court case was closed. Months passed.
But the city and Henning weren't done. Hallandale reopened the civil case a year after the appellate ruling. Since it couldn't force a sale and take Pelecanos' equity in the house, the city now wanted cash.
Remember those fines? Well, with interest, they totaled $2,807,460 in late 2006. The dead sod alone was costing Pelecanos $439,000. Today the total stands at more than $3 million.
The city, however, never notified Pelecanos of a November 29 hearing on the matter. On that day, only city attorneys and Henning were present when the judge signed a final judgment against Pelecanos and his wife: in the amount of $2.8 million.
Talk about egregious conduct.
"Judge Henning doesn't even let me defend myself," says Pelecanos. "They don't even call me and tell me."
His new lawyer, Michael Reppas, says it's one of the most outrageous things he's witnessed as an attorney. "The city never notified Pelecanos that they had reopened the case," he says. "And the city got a $2.8 million judgment without opposition. That's Due Process 101. That's the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution out the window."
As if he didn't have enough trouble, Pelecanos was dealing with another lawsuit aimed at taking the house. Remember the Russian couple, Sergey and Galina Sachenko? Well, they missed the deadline to close on the purchase of the house. But after Pelecanos won his appeal, they sued Pelecanos and his wife, trying to force him to sell the house to them for the original $900,000.
The Sachenkos claim in their suit that Pelecanos signed a document that extended the contract until the appellate court made its ruling. But the extension is nothing more than a scrawled-on piece of fax paper that Pelecanos says is forged.