Crazy Like a Henn
Preston Henn's mug shot shows a thin, older man with deep-set, pale-blue eyes. His head, with thinning hair on top, is cocked a bit to one side. His lips are pursed; a worry line creases his chin.
He could be your grandfather on a bad day.
After the shot was snapped, Henn was involuntarily committed to a mental ward for observation. He'd flown into a rage and allegedly assaulted a Broward Sheriff's Office chief and was Tasered into submission by deputies. Before he can stand trial, he's been ordered to be evaluated by two psychologists to gauge his mental fitness.
If police and prosecutors have their doubts about Henn's sanity, so do some of the people who deal with him on a daily basis and have witnessed his increasingly bizarre behavior since his arrest in May.
Just weeks after being Tasered and battling with cops, Henn evicted the Hanneford Family Circus, a mainstay at his Swap Shop for the past two decades. Many vendors considered the circus the venerable flea market's biggest draw, and the eviction has generated a breach-of-contract lawsuit.
Vendors at the Swap Shop are also scratching their heads over Henn's sudden decision to issue them exorbitant fines over infractions that previously were hardly worth bothering about. It's as if, they say, Henn is trying to drive everyone away not just the elephants and acrobats but also the flea market's life blood, its merchants.
This Henn, they say, bears little resemblance to the flashy South Florida institution they once knew, the power broker who drove Porsches in grueling endurance races, who built a drive-in theater into a swap-meet gold mine, and who regularly flew to Europe on his private jet to play the high roller in the world's most luxurious casinos.
Henn, they say, is losing it.
But when he arrives at the Swap Shop at 5 a.m. as he has almost every morning for 40 years driving a gleaming new Ferrari, he does not seem off his nut. He still governs even the minutest details of the 88-acre market's day-to-day operations, from the volume of music to disputes between vendors.
He's still a lucky gambler, having recently won a Hummer and a PT Cruiser at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
And Henn's biggest windfall may be yet to come. The largest public park in central Broward County 109 acres of green space with a sports and entertainment complex, swimming pool, lake, and cultural center is being constructed on the western border of the Swap Shop, making Henn's land even more attractive to potential buyers.
Rumors abound, especially among Swap Shop vendors who worry about their livelihoods evaporating, that Henn has taken huge offers from condo developers, the county government, and even the Seminole Indians who own the Hard Rock.
Crazy? Perhaps. But maybe Preston's just crazy like a Henn.
Preston Henn is not a small man, but he's slight in the extremities, with thin legs and long arms. On his wrist is a gold Ferrari watch with a brown, ostrich-skin band. He acknowledges the vendors who call his name with a tilt of his head or a hand raised from the steering wheel on the golf cart he rides for hours through the Swap Shop, micromanaging his empire.
He almost always wears a hat. Often, he sports a beat-up straw Stetson with a leather band and a bushy tuft of feathers stuck in the front, a beaded cord hanging from them. A small, horseshoe-shaped burn mark is on the side.
Henn talks country. His speech flows in the steady cadence of his western North Carolina roots. He "cain't" do something or "waddn't" there at the time. If something is true, it "ak-choo-ah-lee" happened.
And he is emphatic in his denials about selling the Swap Shop. "What would I do without the Swap Shop except drive my wife crazy?" the 74-year-old asks.
While making the rounds in his golf cart on a recent Sunday, Henn is stopped by a longtime vendor.
She's a small woman with a big floppy hat, a thick coat of lipstick, and large sunglasses. Her accent reeks of the Bronx or some other Northeastern locale where Floridians tend to be spawned. On her pinky toe is a gold band engraved with the word Penny.
She seems distraught as she leans into the golf cart and says, "The story is that you sold [the Swap Shop] to the people over at the Indian casino."
"Then you sold it to someone else," Penny insists. "I even got the price."
Now Henn really laughs, his high-pitched, staccato bursts overcoming the chirping din of hundreds of caged parakeets for sale nearby.
"How much?" he asks.
"Twenty-two hundred," she says, giving him a leveling stare. "It's scaring people."
"Twenty-two hundred million?" he says, now soberly. "Good price."
"You're scaring people," Penny counters, sounding actually frightened.
"I never sell anything," Henn replies. "I am not interested in selling this."
"The rumor is flying this year," she says. "I've been coming here for 35 years. It's like my life."
Henn manages to calm her down, eventually convincing her that he isn't, "ak-choo-ah-lee" selling. She isn't the only vendor he will have to convince.
He seems to mean it, however, when he says that he expects nothing to change at the Swap Shop in his lifetime. "There's no more property to buy because I'm surrounded by the county park. The only option for me is exactly what I'm doing now, and I'm enjoying every minute of it. I'll be riding around on a golf cart until they carry me away in a stretcher."
It wasn't a stretcher they used to carry Henn away on May 20.
That day, for reasons that are still unclear, Henn tried to evict Swap Shop merchant Joel Leibovitch from the food stand he operated. Described as an easygoing, peaceful person by other vendors, Leibovitch and his family had been selling goods at the flea market for 20 years. But then, suddenly, Henn ordered him to leave and threatened to confiscate the equipment at his stall.
Leibovitch wouldn't budge, however, claiming that he'd done nothing wrong. He called the BSO.
"I guess that made Preston mad," BSO Officer Louis Bautista testified in a deposition after the event. Bautista worked off-duty as a security guard at the Swap Shop, and his daughter until recently operated an Italian ice stand at the market.
According to police reports, Henn reacted to Leibovitch's calling BSO by pushing him to the ground, injuring the vendor's head, neck, and back.
"Preston was completely out of control," Bautista testified. The cop had spoken with Ed Levrett, Henn's business lieutenant, who witnessed the confrontation and decided to quit then and there in protest of his boss' actions. "Levrett said that when Henn pushed Joel to the ground, [Levrett] wasn't going to have it any more... [Levrett] took his keys, his cell phone, put them on the table, called his wife, and left."
Levrett never came back, eventually leaving the state altogether. He could not be contacted for this article.
By the time BSO Deputy Robert Kelleher arrived, Henn was in a rage.
Kelleher, a rookie who had been on the force just a few weeks, arrived in time to see Henn reach into BSO Chief George Jarboe's patrol car and attack him while he was in the driver's seat talking on his cell phone.
"I saw that Mr. Henn was actually reaching into [Chief Jarboe's] car... and I saw his elbows going back and forth," Kelleher said in a deposition.
Kelleher and another deputy restrained the septuagenarian, handcuffing Henn for at least a few minutes, until Jarboe told them to remove the cuffs, because, according to Kelleher, "I guess he calmed down."
The calm was short-lived. Henn soon began yelling, and the cuffs went right back on.
That's when Bautista arrived.
Bautista has spent a lot of time at the Swap Shop. In his 26years as a police officer, he has spent 12years moonlighting as security for the flea market on weekends. It's not an unusual arrangement. Rather than call the BSO every time there's a disturbance there were more than 1,000 incidents requiring police attention at the Swap Shop in the past two years alone, according to BSO documents Henn pays the Sheriff's Office about $200,000 a year to supply him with off-duty officers to patrol his vast and bustling business.
It's not an easy detail. According to the deposition that Bautista gave in September, BSO officers call Swap Shop duty "blood money" because of the amount of actual crime fighting it requires.
"You have to run from call to call breaking up fights," Bautista said in his deposition. "It was definitely harder than my shift."
Bautista testified that he had a good relationship with Henn, who rented a prime Swap Shop space to Bautista's wife, Dana, for a beauty salon. When Bautista's daughter Jennifer needed a job while attending college, Henn rented her a spot so she could vend Italian ices.
When he tried to evict Leibovitch, however, things turned ugly. Bautista testified that Henn telephoned him four or five times after Leibovitch summoned the BSO, asking Bautista to get his law enforcement colleagues off his property. In the final call, Henn made a threat. "If you don't take care of this, I'm going to take you down," Bautista recalled Henn saying. "I'm going to call internal affairs and tell them that you, Joel [Leibovitch], and Ed [Levrett] have a business together behind my back."
A short while later, Bautista got a call from Jeff Henn, Preston's son, asking him to come intercede on his father's behalf. When he arrived, Bautista asked Henn what was going on.
"I want these fucking deputies out of my property now," Bautista says Henn answered.
Bautista then uncuffed Henn and tried to calm him down. Henn, still furious, pulled out his cell phone and began dialing.
According to Bautista one of the first calls Henn made was to Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish. When she didn't answer, Henn began screaming into her voice mail that deputies were on his property and that she should call him right back. Parrish was formerly vice president of operations at the Swap Shop. After a public falling out, however, the two have remained estranged.
After the fruitless call to Parrish, Henn pleaded with Bautista to send the other deputies away. But when Bautista made it clear that he couldn't do that, Henn turned and ran.
Henn made a getaway in one of his golf carts. BSO deputies commandeered another golf cart and followed him. The resulting low-speed chase through Swap Shop stalls ended at a stairway below the main office. There, Henn sprinted up the stairs and barricaded himself in his inner sanctum, a large and cluttered office with windows overlooking the Swap Shop's north lot.
The most important feature of this office is a large bank of television screens. The screens are connected to hundreds of video cameras placed throughout the Swap Shop. They're also connected to a server that allows Henn to monitor his flea market from anywhere in the world via the Internet.
"He is always watching," says one employee who has an office near Henn's. "No matter where he is in the world, he will always call in and ask about his Swap Shop."
On this day, he must have been watching those screens with a growing sense of unease. Just outside his door, half-a-dozen BSO deputies and detectives were gathering, along with his wife, Betty; his granddaughter Daphne; and his son Jeff.
According to the BSO depositions, Henn's family tried to coax him out. These efforts where met with shouting and cursing. Henn would not be moved.
About 45 minutes later, however, Henn left his office. His attorneys suggested in depositions that Henn had waited until local media had arrived, then finally came down to make some sort of public statement.
Security-camera images, which Henn released to the media, show him taking long, purposeful strides down the narrow hallway outside his office, not looking particularly threatening. But the BSO officers who were present didn't see it that way.
"He barges out," Bautista recalled. "He looked like a raging pit bull coming out of the cage ready for a fight. There was no stopping him. There was nothing you could do to stop him... I thought he was just going to knock [Jarboe] down."
Although the footage is unclear, the officers claim that Henn appeared to lunge at Jarboe, so Deputy Christopher Labarbera Tasered Henn, sending 50,000 volts of electricity into him.
Henn screamed in agony and fell to the floor.
Deputies transported Henn to a BSO squad car, where he kicked a window out of its frame. Henn was taken to a police station and then to the psychiatric ward at Plantation Generalfor a mandatory and involuntary 72-hour evaluation. Those 72 hours turned into ten days. He would later be charged with two counts of battery on a law enforcement officer one for attacking Jarboe in his car and one just before he was Tasered outside the Swap Shop office a misdemeanor battery charge against Leibovitch, and one count of criminal mischief for his run-in with the patrol car window.
Henn refused to talk about the specifics of the incident with Leibovitch except to say that "it's all gonna come out during the case." Leibovitch, meanwhile, has filed an injunction against the Swap Shop and Henn.
"I fell when they Tasered me... I collapsed and fell into the arms of the chief, so they charged me for assaulting the chief."
As for the window in the squad car, Henn claims that he was only barely conscious and didn't have full control of his muscles.
On the day he was released, Henn told Swap Shop employees to evict Officer Bautista's wife and daughter from their spaces in the Swap Shop, confiscating hundreds of dollars' worth of their personal property.
Henn claims that Bautista was running a scam involving the renting of Swap Shop spaces to other BSO officers.
"He had these other BSO's in different spaces that I didn't know about because they were in plainclothes," Henn claims. "I can't prove it, but they were up to something or they wouldn't have been so upset."
The Bautistas didn't return phone calls and, unlike Leibovitch, haven't filed legal challenges to Henn's eviction of their businesses.
But the notion seems absurd: that Henn, the micromanager who kept such an obsessive watch over his Swap Shop, could have been unwittingly renting stalls to a conspiracy of off-duty cops.
You expect a battler like Preston Henn to react to his arrest by fighting back against the police.
But evicting elephants?
For the better part of two decades, the Hanneford Family Circus was nearly synonymous with the Swap Shop itself. The Hannefords are a performing clan that can trace its roots back three centuries and is one of the largest circus groups in the country. The Hannefords entertained shoppers with free performances in return for a weekly $12,500 payment from Henn that increased to $20,000 during the high season. The circus was a big draw for families, vendors say, and helped keep business going during the slow summer months.
As the sun rose on Thursday, August 11, however, that happy arrangement came to a screeching halt.
Victoria Hanneford says that on that day, at 6 a.m., she and her employees were awakened by an irate Henn banging on their trailer doors and demanding that they get off his property or face fines. Other circus employees said that "his goons" were beating their trucks and motor homes with sticks in an effort to hasten the Hannefords' departure.
By midafternoon, every piece of Hanneford property remaining at the Swap Shop was covered in bright pink and orange tow-away stickers, and many of the Hanneford vehicles had been booted.
Meanwhile, a circus of a different kind materialized. Television news vans descended on the Swap Shop as dark thunderheads gathered in the late summer sky.
The trouble had started two weeks earlier, when Henn stopped paying the circus for its services. Henn says that he stopped paying because the Hannefords' workers' compensation insurance had expired in May and his contract with them required such coverage. According to Henn, this requirement stems from an incident ten years ago when one of the Hanneford acrobats was seriously injured during a performance. He says he had to foot a $100,000 medical bill because the circus didn't have coverage, and soon after, he altered the contract to require insurance.
When the coverage ran out, Henn says, he repeatedly demanded that the circus find new coverage, and when it didn't, he had no choice but to evict the performers and their elephants, tigers, and horses.
Hanneford attorney David Bercuson, one of Miami's more prominent entertainment lawyers, doesn't dispute that the Hannefords' workers' compensation insurance had run out. But he says renewing it made no sense because of a change in state law. A new statute changed the definition of which independent contractors are eligible for workers' compensation, and circus performers were left out of the definition. Bob Lotane, spokesman for the Florida State Department of Financial Services, confirms that circus performers are no longer eligible under the new definition.
But Bercuson is quick to point out that the circus performers are more than adequately covered by insurance provided by an independent circus producers association. He claims that this coverage gives the Hanneford performers "better coverage than workers' compensation gives them."
The Hannefords are suing Henn for the balance of their contract, which runs through November, as well as for damage to some of their vehicles and property that occurred during the eviction.
Regardless of the legal outcome, Henn says he is "tickled to death" that the circus is gone and has no interest in finding a new one.
"I get bullshit letters every day," Henn says of the activists, "saying 'Thank you, thank you for getting rid of the circus now we can come to the Swap Shop,' which is all bullshit. I hated them, still do."
The Hannefords have taken their act on the road and were recently performing with their elephants in Pennsylvania. They plan to return to Florida soon, however, to take their place in the Winterfest Christmas boat parade, which they used to participate in at their own expense on behalf of the Swap Shop. This time, they'll float on a barge sponsored by a Broward roofing contractor while their acrobats, clowns, and jugglers gyrate for the masses.
On a recent Saturday while piloting a golf cart through his flea market empire, Henn acted incredulous when asked if the loss of the circus had affected business. He turned the cart around and headed straight for his office, where he produced a giant color photo of the Swap Shop dated 1975, well before the circus came to town.
The photo was taken from a helicopter looking straight down on the sprawling mass of sun-baked commerce. The place was packed. Thousands of people, cars, and vendor stalls jammed nearly every available foot of cement.
"You see?" he asked, an impish smile playing under his thin white beard. "We just don't need them to bring people in here. Never have."
Many of the hundreds of vendors who depend on the Swap Shop for their livelihoods disagree. A constant refrain among them from the single-table video and CD sellers to the comparatively large jewelry and electronics dealers is that this is one of the worst years in Swap Shop history and that the departure of the circus has made things worse. Much worse.
"It's been so slow since the circus left," said a woman who, like dozens of other vendors interviewed for this article, didn't want her name used, mostly out of fear of retaliation by Henn. As she spoke, she stood under a large tent where she sells T-shirts, three for $10. "Those people were such a big draw. Now?" she shrugged. "It's been dead."
The vendors also complain of a marked increase in the number and size of fines levied against them by Henn's Swap Shop employees. The fines have always been a way to make sure that vendors comply with certain rules so that the free-market jumble that is the Swap Shop can remain functional.
A vendor can be fined for not opening by a certain time or for parking a delivery truck or car in the wrong place or for leaving piles of trash, boxes, or merchandise where they shouldn't be.
Some of the violations and their penalties are outlined explicitly in the one-page contracts that vendors must sign to operate at the Swap Shop. Most vendors New Times spoke to said they had no problems with the restrictions, which carried penalties of $25 to $50. But in recent months, Henn began handing out fines of $300 to $500.
Freddy Reyes is just one of the vendors shocked by skyrocketing fines. A 36-year-old Colombian émigré, Reyes has sold toys at the Swap Shop for four years. A few weeks ago, he was stunned when he found that he'd received a $500 fine for opening his store late. The contract that he signed which he keeps folded in the back pocket of his jeans states that the penalty for such a violation is $25.
"Doesn't say anything about $500 on here," he said, smoothing the crumpled piece of paper on a picnic bench at the Swap Shop's western edge. "Only $25."
He is also angered by the fact that he's paid his rent through the end of the month but Swap Shop management won't let him open until he pays his fine.
"If I open, they'll come and close me down," he said. "But I don't want to cave because that's taking money from my kids."
Before this, the largest fine Reyes had received was $100 for not opening on Christmas. "Nobody comes in on December 25, so [Henn] fined us all."
A vendor who keeps shop near Reyes selling porn DVDs seemed equally mystified by the spike in the size of fines. "There were always fines, sure," he said in a soft Trinidadian lilt, a row of solid-gold teeth glinting as he spoke. "Fifty dollar, $75 fines I can understand, but $500, $1,000? We can't afford that."
"Five-hundred-dollar fines for everything!" says another irate vendor of car stereo equipment. "Park in the wrong place, $500 fine. Open a little late, $500 fine. We even had to open the day [Hurricane] Rita hit. It didn't used to be this way."
In addition to the swelling fines, Henn has instituted new parking fees for vendors. Until recently, vendors were required to pay for parking only on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Now it's every day.
The vendors are convinced that Henn is trying to make up for the lost circus revenue by bleeding them dry. Henn dismisses the complaints as the grumbling of malcontents.
"To the vendors, every year is the worst year and business always sucks," he says. "The truth is that we've never had a 'worst year. '"
Henn denies that he's increased fine amounts or their frequency. "We give them fair warning, often giving them three, four chances before we write them up."
For his part, Reyes had had enough and was planning to leave the Swap Shop. He'd already removed the merchandise from his store, saying that Swap Shop management was known for confiscating vendor wares.
"Everybody's too scared to say something, but I don't care anymore."
He nodded toward a reed-thin woman with dark skin standing in a booth surrounded by luggage. "See that lady over there? She paid the $500 and she was crying the day it happened. She's all alone. Look at her now. No customers."
The same week that Henn stopped paying the Hannefords, construction began on the 100-plus-acre park imaginatively named Central Regional Park by the county that will abut his property. A spokesman for property appraiser Parrish denied that construction of the park would have any effect on the value of Henn's land. It's hard to imagine, however, that such an addition to the neighborhood wouldn't have a positive effect.
Former Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Tim Smith, for example, came under fire when investment properties he owned shot up in value after he approved a parks project in the same neighborhood. Critics attributed Smith's personal windfall to the addition of the green spaces.
Citing ethical obligations, no independent property appraiser would comment on the record as to the possible effect the park's construction would have on Henn's property. One such appraiser did say, however, that the addition of a park could increase the Swap Shop's value by as much as 30 percent.
For the short term, at least, it would seem that Henn is staying put. When Hurricane Wilma tore through the Swap Shop, doing more than a million dollars in damage, including wrecking almost all of the drive-in screens, Henn immediately began to rebuild.
Recently, in the northeastern corner of the Swap Shop, a tremendous pile of twisted metal frames, awnings, roofing tiles, and other storm detritus was being sorted by men who had stripped off their shirts in the unseasonable warmth.
In the labyrinth of stalls on the Swap Shop's west side, vendors patched roofs and rearranged merchandise around bent support poles.
Henn, meanwhile, assured New Times that he's often misunderstood by those who underestimate his stamina and smarts. "If I'm buying property or [in] any kind of business deal, people think that I can't think because I talk slow," he says.
"They think they can outsmart me, and I always end up throwing it back in their face."
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