Six days a week, the curse follows Rick Stembridge. On any one of those days, he's liable to receive a nasty letter demanding payment or else. He may be compelled to appear at a hearing or sit for a deposition across a table from a snarling attorney. And one of these days, he's sure, he'll be hauled off to jail.
But the Sabbath is sacred. For one day, Stembridge, 54, feels blessed. On Sunday mornings, he makes the short drive from his Davie home to the Calvary Chapel campus in Plantation, where he gives a weekly sermon to children.
Stembridge, a slightly overweight man of medium height, with a typically cheerful demeanor, is an unpaid pastor at the campus, which is a satellite of the sprawling Calvary Chapel congregation. His task is to distill the Bible into easy-to-follow stories. Stembridge adds his own fist-pumping enthusiasm, aiming to make God mysterious and magical in ways that will make Harry Potter easy to forget.
On an October Sunday, the theme of Stembridge's sermon is "love your enemies." Here, he could speak from his own experience — surely no one in the room has enemies like Stembridge's — but instead, he folds the message into the story of King Saul, who finally reconciled with his mortal enemy, David, earning God's blessing for their people.
Around 10 a.m., Stembridge and a group of volunteers lead the children across the parking lot for the conclusion of the morning's Calvary Chapel service. There, the Rev. Bob Coy delivers a televised sermon that seems to speak directly to Stembridge:
"Lately, you've been thinking about quitting," begins the man known to his flock as Pastor Bob. "Not quitting your marriage. Not quitting your job. Not quitting school. Lately, you've been thinking about quitting at life."
Stembridge claims that over the past several years, he has learned a new empathy for the Bible's most tragic figures. In that time, it seems that God has been stingy with blessings. When Stembridge has trusted his fellow man, he's been betrayed. When he's trusted his own sense of righteousness, he's been assailed by friends. He alleges he's had his identity stolen and his credit destroyed. He's lost the business he built with his own hands; he labors just to pay a debt he insists he never incurred. And now that he's fallen behind on those debt payments, he faces incarceration. He feels cursed.
"When you came to Jesus Christ, what did you expect?" Coy preaches. "One of the parts that comes with this relationship is that the world will hate you. When you make friends with God, you make enemies out of another constituency."
Stembridge seems to have made enemies of the entire justice system. He's a man of "extremely strong faith," he says, but his faith does not run to the lawyers and judges who hold his future in their hands. Stembridge blames them for his misfortunes. They say he has only himself to blame.
"I believe God has gotten me into this," Stembridge says, with a patient, tranquil smile.
"There's something for me to learn in this," he says, his voice trailing off. Then he catches himself, perhaps pulling back from the verge of self-pity:
" 'As I walk into the valley of the shadow of death...' I have no fear."
Exactly what a biblical hero would say. But for all Stembridge's Christian good works, not everyone believes he's one of God's sympathetic creatures. Some who have done business with him, and nearly everyone who has encountered him in court, says that if Stembridge is cursed, he's brought it all on himself.
Rick Stembridge is a craftsman. He builds furniture; beds are his specialty. He ran a wholesale shop in Fort Lauderdale, National Furniture.
Around 2000, he and his wife, Nancy, considered a bold venture: a new store in Miami that would position them to seize a bigger share of South Florida's wholesale furniture market in a location where they could capitalize on cheap Latino labor. The couple bought a piece of property on NW 54th Street, in Miami's Sun-Tan Village. They just needed an energetic salesman who could market their products to big buyers like hotel chains, cruise ships, and nightclubs.
This is where a furniture salesman, Mark Greenberg, offered help. Greenberg's charm made it evident he could be a hit on the sales circuit, Stembridge says.
Greenberg lugged considerable baggage to his interview with Stembridge: He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the last manufacturing company he worked for. But he didn't try to conceal this, Stembridge says; rather, he explained how it was a misunderstanding, how the company had been trying to cheat him. "He wanted a new life," Stembridge remembers thinking. "He wanted to start over."
Greenberg clinched the job at a business dinner. "He did something very smart," Stembridge says. "He brought his wife of 37 years and his parents, who had been married for over 50 years. We talked about family values...
"I thought Mark had turned over a new leaf," Stembridge continues. "And hanging out with a Christian might have helped out — but it didn't."
According to Stembridge, Greenberg used his position in Stembridge's company to seize Stembridge's Social Security number. With the help of Stembridge's A1 credit rating, Greenberg applied for eight credit cards, Stembridge alleges.
He borrowed cash under Stembridge's name on the pretext it would be used to lease business equipment, including a quilting machine essential for making mattresses, Stembridge claims. When leasing companies phoned the office to talk to Stembridge, a secretary hired by Greenberg answered the phone and sent the calls Greenberg's way, according to Stembridge.
It wasn't till late 2001 that Stembridge learned that his business had been ransacked and his identity stolen. That's when he was sued by Court Square Leasing, a Pennsylvania company that he alleged leased Greenberg (posing as Stembridge) the quilting machine. Court Square wanted $21,000.
According to Stembridge, Greenberg declared bankruptcy before Stembridge could sue him. Stembridge went to the Hialeah Police Department, he says, but its economic crimes unit told him that, with 6,000 fraud cases per year, it didn't have the manpower to investigate his case and directed him to the State Attorney's Office, which gave him a similar story.
However, Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina says that the city's police do not refer cases to the State Attorney's Office and that the department would delay investigating a fraud complaint only if there were questions about where the crime took place and how it was perpetrated.
Greenberg, not surprisingly, tells a story in which Stembridge is the villain. It was Stembridge, he says, who leased the quilting machine and Stembridge who then sold the machine for his own gain. "Totally false," Greenberg says of the allegation he took out credit cards in Stembridge's name. "That's ridiculous."
He says that there was no secretary in their office and that he never had dinner with Stembridge. Their business relationship dissolved, Greenberg says, because "once I saw what kind of person [Stembridge] was, I walked away."
Regardless of whose version one believes, Stembridge had a way out. He could hire another attorney to help him prove to Court Square Leasing that the debt belonged to Greenberg, not him. For this service, Stembridge retained Fort Lauderdale attorney James Soule.
Soule contacted the company's attorney to explain the mix-up. "I was there in his office when he made the call," Stembridge says. "And [Court Square Leasing's] attorney was on the other line. He said, 'This sort of thing happens all the time.' " All that Stembridge needed to do, the attorney said, was fax his driver's license, which had his signature. Since it bore no resemblance to the signature Greenberg forged, Stembridge would be off the hook. Stembridge says that Soule made a copy of the license. "I walked out of there thinking, 'Everything is fine.' "
But Soule never sent the fax, Stembridge alleges in a malpractice suit he filed in 2005. Consequently, in March 2002, Miami-Dade County Circuit Court entered a default judgment in favor of Court Square Leasing. Soule would later fess up to his blunder, drafting a motion in which he stated that the Stembridge fax had been misfiled and that this "excusable neglect" ought not reflect on the legitimacy of Stembridge's "meritorious" defense.
Except Soule then failed to properly file that document, Stembridge alleges, meaning that a judge didn't see it, and the case against Stembridge marched on.
Stembridge says Soule did not tell him about his lapses until the statute of limitations made it unlikely Stembridge could sue Soule for legal malpractice.
"The mistake by Jim Soule resulted in a judgment against me — that's part one," Stembridge says. "That fax with my driver's license would have ended it all right there."
Soule, it turned out, had a checkered history of his own. In 2000, he was disciplined by the State Bar of Florida for allegedly neglecting a client and in 2001 for misusing trust funds. In 2002, he was suspended for ten days for "inadequate communication" and admonished for minor misconduct in 2005 when he failed to respond to another bar complaint that had been filed against him.
In his 2005 suit, Stembridge claims that Soule failed to appear on his behalf at three straight depositions. On Soule's advice, Stembridge filed for bankruptcy, he says, which further harmed his credit. Soule also persuaded him to sue a towing company, he says; Soule accepted a retainer in that matter but failed to file the motions needed to keep the case from being dismissed.
Stembridge also claims in legal filings that Soule neglected to file a satisfaction of judgment that would have given him credit for paying the debts to Court Square Leasing.
Soule refused to hand over the records Stembridge had given him, Stembridge claims in filings with the bar. Stembridge says Soule told him that all of those documents had been lost in a hurricane.
Mark Guralnick, who filed Stembridge's 2005 malpractice suit against Soule, abandoned the case when he learned that Soule was operating without malpractice insurance, which made a lucrative settlement unlikely, according to Stembridge. Guralnick did not respond to calls for comment.
Soule, reached at his Fort Lauderdale office, will not even say whether he's still practicing law — an important consideration for the bar complaint Stembridge lodged against him. "I don't want to talk to you about Rick Stembridge," he says. "He's a person I want to forget."
In letters responding to bar complaints, Soule says that Stembridge's cases hit snags only because Stembridge failed to pay for legal services.
Since Stembridge's suit against Soule hit a dead end, it's not clear which of his legal losses were attributable to Soule and which were the fault of Stembridge himself. Even if Soule had failed to file the satisfaction of judgment, for example, Stembridge had other legal remedies for getting credit toward the debt. And if Greenberg really had stolen Stembridge's identity, Stembridge ought to have sued Greenberg – bankruptcy or not – because then Stembridge could have claimed that suit as another asset against his many debts.
Instead, it seems Stembridge focused on punitive measures, such as his effort to have Soule disbarred. That was another dead end. In a June letter, a bar attorney wrote Stembridge informing him that investigators "did not find compelling evidence that James I. Soule violated any of the rules regulating the Florida Bar."
Stembridge immediately dashed off a letter of his own. "Only God knows why you want to protect Mr. Soule," he wrote to the bar. "But why don't you care about the public? [Soule's] unethical misconduct is sending me to jail. Don't let anyone else suffer."
In 2002, when Soule allegedly failed to send the fax that would have shown Stembridge to be a victim of identity theft, in Stembridge's telling, it meant that Stembridge's file was tossed into the same heap as all the other scofflaws. This is ragged company, full of spendthrifts, inveterate gamblers, and sick people who can no longer pay their medical bills.
What set Stembridge apart is that he had assets, the kind that come with being a devout man making an honest living for his family. He had a home in Davie; his furniture business, with computers and equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars; a nearly new truck; and a clean credit history. He had something to lose. To a collections attorney who scans public records looking for judgments, he had something that could be taken.
Stuart Kalb of Miami bought the judgment from Court Square Leasing for about $10,000, he says. But Stembridge would deal entirely with Michael Rose, an attorney whose downtown Miami office is across the hall from Kalb's and who partners with him in debt collection.
Typically, a debt such as Stembridge's can mushroom far beyond the original amount because whoever holds the debt can keep charging legal fees and interest.
Rose took the huge sewing machines that Stembridge used for upholstering furniture as well as the machines for stapling fabric and cutting wood to make furniture frames and the two computers that Stembridge depended on for his furniture store's accounting. Stembridge has affidavits that place the value of those assets at $100,000 to $150,000. But legally, he gets credit only for the price they fetched at the sheriff's auction. Since no one showed up to bid, Kalb purchased the equipment for $10, the minimum price.
Rose also seized a Toyota Tundra that Stembridge bought for $24,000 just nine months before, he says, and sold it at auction for $5,100.
When a court-imposed deadline to make a further payment toward his debt loomed, Stembridge borrowed $9,000 against the equity of his home, which allowed him to write a check for $8,100. Rose disputes Stembridge's accounting, however, here and elsewhere.
But what is most outrageous to Stembridge is that he believes Rose knows that the debt never belonged to Stembridge in the first place — after all, Rose has access to all the case filings and has heard Stembridge tell the Greenberg story during depositions. And Rose must know about how Soule failed Stembridge.
Yet Rose still pursues him, not just for the original debt but for everything of monetary value that Stembridge still has left. He thinks Rose is misleading the judges who have presided over the case. How else can one explain how a $21,000 debt has cost Stembridge — according to his own estimates — $300,000 and counting?
"Rose has never shown a legal document that accounts for payment toward debt," Stembridge says. "I could get that from the discovery process, but I can't afford to hire a lawyer."
It seems, however, that Stembridge has more control over his case than he claims. For instance, if Stembridge's equipment really held so much value, he ought to have sold it himself in advance of the default judgment, then used that money to pay off his debt, rather than let the equipment be sold at sheriff's auction.
What's more, the court docket in his case shows that Rose has filed documents noting Stembridge's payment toward the debt. If Rose has collected more than the original judgment, that appears largely due to Stembridge's resistance to paying it off – as his case stalls, it generates legal fees and court costs, as well as interest.
On the Friday in August 2005 that his daughter was married, Stembridge was scheduled to be deposed by Rose. He recalls how in advance of the wedding, Rose had threatened to have Stembridge arrested during the ceremony. It made a happy occasion miserable, says Stembridge, who stationed one of his friends in the parking lot to warn him in case the police or one of Rose's underlings came to make a scene.
At the ceremony's end, Stembridge didn't go to the reception. He went to a deposition and for four-and-a-half hours, he says, he answered Rose's questions about his financial earnings and assets.
Now Stembridge lives in constant fear that he'll be arrested, if only because Rose has convinced judges that Stembridge is hiding his assets and that he ought to be found in contempt of court, a ruling that is grounds for incarceration. "I used to walk around with my little New Testament," says Stembridge, patting his breast pocket, "just in case they arrested me that day."
As his legal prospects grow dimmer, he finds new purpose and meaning in the sermons he gives to Calvary Chapel's next generation. "My true love is ministering to children and teenagers," he says. "If I had to give that up because of what these lawyers are doing to me, I'm not sure there would be much reason to hold on."
Still, Stembridge, who also preaches during the week to adults, knows that his megachurch is extremely image-conscious and that it holds its leadership to high moral standards. Stembridge worries that no matter the origin of his legal entanglements, they might still lead him to be arrested and that perhaps Calvary Chapel would suffer from its association with him. "I scheduled a meeting with the head pastor to explain," Stembridge says. "I'm willing to give up the greatest part of my life, which is serving. I'll give you my resignation, take another kick to the side of my head."
But the pastor, the Rev. Steven Turner, told Stembridge that the church would stand by him, that his case contained no sin that would lead Calvary to sever its ties with him. Stembridge also has "prayer warriors" who remember him on the eve of depositions and court appearances. A retired Miami-Dade County judge who is a family friend has been giving Stembridge legal advice. And while the case has been a huge strain on the Stembridge family, he says his wife and kids have faith both in his innocence and in his ability to prove it in court.
Still, even the most patient Christians have a breaking point. And if Stembridge hasn't reached his, then he's at least starting to crack.
After Soule had missed two of Stembridge's depositions in a row and phoned to say he would be late showing up for the third, Rose expressed his frustration to Stembridge, according to the transcript. Though Stembridge had the right to wait for Soule's arrival before answering Rose's questions, he charged ahead anyway.
When asked by Rose about his work, Stembridge claimed to be self-employed as a consultant, calling on old accounts he knew from his time in the furniture business. When asked whether these old accounts paid him, Stembridge said, "Sometimes. It depends on the situation. You know, there wouldn't be 1099s or anything like that."
When Rose asked why there wouldn't be tax documentation, Stembridge answered, "I don't want any records of me working for anybody." Asked why, Stembridge erupted, saying, "Because I don't want any assets. In case you don't — one more time: I have done nothing wrong. I have to protect myself at this point. I have done nothing wrong."
Later, Stembridge delivered a statement that, in the typically dreary world of debt collection attorneys, was suitable for framing: "I have been doing my darnedest to make sure I have no assets."
With that, Stembridge's case — particularly his claim to innocence — became murky.
Michael Rose's law office is on the 15th floor of the Bank of America building, the downtown Miami skyscraper that holds a mirror east toward a panorama of half-built condo towers. That's the view from behind the fiberglass boomerang that is Rose's desk. His shock of white hair is combed back, and with his untucked shirttails, black jeans, and red vinyl high-tops, he looks more hipster than barrister.
"Should I wear my devil outfit?" he asks in reply to the question of having his picture taken for this article.
Rose calls Stembridge "one of my most unforgettable characters." Amid a caseload that consists largely of what he calls "complex commercial litigation," Rose originally took the Stembridge case because it appeared to be a slam dunk.
"This is a very simple matter," Rose says. "There was a judgment. Mr. Stembridge was offered on numerous occasions to pay this judgment off."
What's made this case extraordinary, Rose says, is Stembridge's brazen way of concealing his assets from the courts. Where the threat of jail persuades other scofflaws to capitulate, Stembridge has only dug his heels in deeper. If Stembridge has paid far more than the original judgment, Rose says, it's largely because his efforts to escape the debt have generated more legal hours, and as the debtor, Stembridge is responsible for most of those costs.
If it weren't for Stembridge's testimony about being guided by faith, Rose says he'd never know his adversary had a Christian conscience. By way of example, he describes how Stembridge bought an Isuzu truck from a doctor, then neglected to transfer the title. This made it hard for the court to discover this asset, Rose says, but it also exposed the unwitting doctor to an array of legal dangers in the event Stembridge had an accident or tried to sell the truck himself. (Stembridge says the paperwork was bungled by the bank.)
"This is a bad boy," says Rose, who pulls a fistful of tax returns out of a file. He shows how Stembridge tried to write off the majority of his income in legal fees in the same year that he had no attorney, then again in a year when — according to Rose — Stembridge had actually paid his legal fees through barter, crafting beds and mattresses for his attorney in lieu of cash.
The courts have taken Rose's view of Stembridge. The tax returns Stembridge has filed appear to be inconsistent with his deposition statements about earnings. In one instance, he claimed $1,800 in advertising costs for a business that, according to his sworn testimony, did not exist. He did not produce invoices or receipts for some $30,000 in goods that he sold in 2003 or for another $30,000 in transactions that occurred in 2004. In one tax return, Stembridge claims that he and his wife make charitable contributions of $500 per month, even though factoring that sum with other household expenses means the couple are spending more per month than they earn.
In depositions, Stembridge has claimed to be self-employed as a consultant, but he's refused to elaborate on that work. Rose says that when he asked for an accounting, Stembridge produced only a handwritten list of names: no addresses, invoices, or receipts.
This is the basis upon which Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Leon M. Firtel in January 2006 declared Stembridge to be in contempt of court. The day before Stembridge was to be jailed on that charge, he filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. And though this protected Stembridge from handcuffs, it only brought the case before a new judge, who came to the same conclusions.
In a June 11, 2007, ruling, Federal Bankruptcy Court Judge John K. Olsen writes that the contradictions in Stembridge's tax filings were "not innocent." Rather, "his intent was instead to deceive this court as part of a deliberate pattern of evasion." Taken together, the evidence in the case suggests to Olsen "the aroma of fraud" and that "the debtor's effort to pay his creditors has been wholly overcome by his effort to thwart them."
Rose doesn't know what happened between Stembridge and Mark Greenberg: "That doesn't have anything to do with me," he says. Nor does he have an opinion on whether Stembridge was betrayed by his next attorney, James Soule. Rose just knows that the system he swears by — American justice — is also qualified to measure a person's character. And by this standard, Stembridge is a sinner.
"All these judges can't be wrong," Rose says. "They can't all be misjudging him."
Stembridge says Rose has taken his deposition statements out of context. Whatever victories Rose has enjoyed in court, he says, are due to Rose's being better-equipped for battle in that venue. Stembridge claims to have either suffered from the shortcomings of his own attorney or for not having the legal background to know how to make his case to the judge. In court, Stembridge says, Rose objects every time he tries to give the judge a candid explanation.
As of this date, Stembridge owes about $30,000, which is nearly all legal fees and court costs. By paying it, Stembridge could settle the case, but he says that he doesn't have the money and that Rose has already collected the debt.
Instead, Stembridge hopes to file a motion that will require Rose to disclose the assets he has seized over the case's last five years. That, Stembridge believes, will prove Rose has collected assets in excess of the original judgment, paving the way for Stembridge to file a motion written in September 2005 explaining that the case has no foundation — that it persists only because of Soule's negligence in 2002. No judge has seen this motion, Stembridge says, and that's why the judges have ruled against him.
If this gambit fails — and Stembridge expects it will — there is no fallback plan. Stembridge will be arrested, a course that will give Rose and Kalb legal grounds for seizing the few assets Stembridge has left.
"They know that if they can put me in jail, my wife will mortgage the house to get me out," Stembridge says. "And that's their game plan."
Rose says that his and Kalb's goal is to collect the amount the courts say Stembridge owes — nothing more.
On the day of an interview with New Times, Stembridge calls from the hospital. He had shortness of breath that led his wife, a nurse, to have him hospitalized for a possible stroke. She worries about the case's effect on his health.
It is not a stroke, but on the following day, Stembridge betrays a smile as he envisions another scenario:
"If yesterday I had a stroke and died, my wife would have gotten the thrill of walking into [Rose's] office and saying, 'You're not going to get a dime because Rick is dead.'
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"That would have been the highlight of the day."
But as in the story of Job, the godly man whose family is killed and wealth revoked, the man is spared death. He must live to prove his faith.
Stembridge has heard that analogy before and seems to take comfort in it. He can remember days when his wife has sounded like Job's wife, when his friends sounded like Job's friends. "They say, 'Why didn't you just cut a deal?' But that would have been me doing things my way as opposed to trusting in my faith that right would win."
Stembridge points out that Job's faith was rewarded, that God restored all that Job had lost and then some. He is banking on the same payoff. He just doesn't know what form it will take.