Murphy's Laws

Harry Murphy's living room is more a mausoleum than a place to live. Nothing with a heartbeat sets foot there except for Murphy, and then only to water his plants. The room isn't for human beings; it's for toys. Dozens of dolls, stuffed animals, and action figures are stacked on two couches at opposite ends of the room. With their perpetual plastic gazes, the dolls seem to stare at each other day and night in the unchanging diorama.

"These are my babies," Murphy says of his toy collection. "It's a hobby. It's just something to do. I don't have no company, no visitors."

Murphy walks to his bedroom, where he keeps the television. Each night he watches hours of nature shows. His favorite is The Wild World of Animals on the Discovery Channel. On cable TV, Murphy says, he can watch God work.

Outside his front door is the wild world of Oakland Forest Club condos; Murphy is as close to a god of the sprawling 260-unit complex as one can be. For much of the past decade, the condo president has dedicated his life to making the place like his living room: static, immaculate, and deathly quiet. Murphy has beautified the condo and restored order to it. He's achieved the two golden ambitions of condo life -- uniformity and silence -- in the working-class community, where a two-bedroom, two-bath unit goes for $65,000 to $70,000. The only remaining problem, say some tenants, is Murphy.

Murphy tries not to care what people say about him. Friendship is his bane, the condo rule book his Rock of Gibraltar. He runs the place with a shaking iron fist, showering fines and curses on rule-breaking tenants. He often patrols the grounds, shining a flashlight into bushes and cars. He enrages some tenants by ordering their cars to be towed without warning. A clothesline on a patio can send Murphy into a tizzy. Children playing outside might prompt him to call police, especially if they call him a name.

Murphy is a hero to some tenants, boldly enforcing rules that no other board member has enforced before. That admiration hasn't come without a cost. He alleges three tenants have physically attacked him, and he has convinced prosecutors to file criminal charges against two of them. It's courtroom brawling, however, that may do the most damage to condominium owners. The condo association has already spent tens of thousands of dollars on lawsuits, and the bills are rising as fast as Murphy's blood pressure. Lawyer Blane Carneal represents a half-dozen tenants who are involved in litigation with Oakland Forest Club. If Carneal is successful, each Oakland Forest condo owner, blissfully ignorant of the problem, could be assessed thousands of dollars to pay damages and attorney's fees.

The courts, which can be extraordinarily expensive, provide the only viable venue for settling condo disputes in Florida. Both Murphy and Carneal have complained to the state's Bureau of Condominiums, but the agency has been powerless to help. Murphy is quick to point out another method of dispute resolution. "I believe in killing," he says. "I believe in the law, too, but that's not working." Murphy, who is black, says he's the victim of racists working in a racist system, and he's planning to file another rash of lawsuits. "I'm gonna sue whatever moves," he proclaims. If he fails in court, Murphy says he'll take matters into his own hands. Talk of knocking people's heads and mass bloodshed ensues.

Those problems, however, lurk below the surface; the complex has a neatly manicured and rule-abiding façade. For that residents can thank Harry Murphy.

A splash of vibrant colors greets visitors to Oakland Forest Club, which lies on a curving road near Oakland Park Boulevard east of State Road 7. Orange, white, red, and purple impatiens grow on an island at the entrance. There is no gate; it's an open community. Murphy planted the flowers a few years ago, just as he planted the half-dozen signs nearby that set the tone for the community: "PRIVATE PROPERTY. NO COMMERCIAL VEHICLES, BIKE RIDING, SKATING"; "NO TRESPASSING, NO LOITERING, NO SOLICITING"; "HEAD-IN PARKING ONLY"; "TOW AWAY ZONE."

On a warm and sunny morning, Murphy stands over the flowers in his baseball cap, T-shirt, worn gray jeans, black sneakers, and light blue blazer. He's five feet ten inches tall, thin, and stands slightly stooped, with his shoulders jutting back and upward, his head nestled between them. A diamond earring adorns his left ear, and a pencil-thin mustache lines his lip. His face is stony and coarse, betraying a rough 54 years.

"We just keep putting the flowers in there, because this front is very important to me," he says with pride. "Before there was nothing out here but bushes and weeds all around the buildings."  

Murphy earned his appreciation for pretty landscaping the hard way. He grew up in poverty in Marion, South Carolina, during the years following World War II. His life, from the beginning, has been steeped in contradiction, in liquor and Jesus, in hard work and womanizing. His father, Harry Murphy Sr., was a gospel singer who, on the side, owned a nightclub. Young Harry never saw much of his dad. "My father, well, you know how entertainers are, that's it Jack, they be gone," he says.

His mother was gone, too. She moved to Liberty City, a rough slum in Miami-Dade, when Harry was a little boy, leaving her son in the custody of his aunt and grandmother. Little Harry went to church on Sundays and joined the school band, playing the drums. At about age 15, he traveled south to Miami to join his mother, little brothers, and sisters. He worked a paper route and never made it to high school. In 1967, when he was drafted into the Army, he tried to run. "I hauled ass to Baltimore," he says.

Ultimately he decided Vietnam might be preferable to prison at Leavenworth, so he signed up. He was stationed stateside but nevertheless went AWOL. After a short time away, he returned to his base, avoided a dishonorable discharge, then left the military after three years. Despite his rather spotty Army record, Murphy says the service made him a man and taught him the importance of rules and discipline, which characterize his reign at Oakland Forest Club.

But Murphy didn't always follow rules, nor did he have much discipline when he returned to South Florida. "I was buck wild," he says. While holding a day job as a baker, he caroused at night, drinking and dabbling in the promotion of local bands. "I had my day," he explains. "Everything is an experience in life. A shot of liquor wasn't enough for me, so I bought a fifth. Why spend five dollars for a shot full of ice and soda? You're getting cheated. If you're gonna drink, drink. And I smoked cigarettes because I couldn't stand the taste of alcohol. Cigarettes would take the taste out of my mouth. There was many, many, many women. Somebody's got to get them."

Echoing the behavior of his stray father, Murphy had three daughters by two women whom he didn't marry. He tied the knot in the late 1970s, but the marriage didn't last. "She was a nice person, but I was wild," he recalls. "A habit is hard to break."

He turned to religion but still couldn't quit the bottle.

"I was tired of drinking, smoking weed," he says. "I was born again. I'd say, "Lord, I definitely want to change my life.' I thought I was ready, but God only knows when you're ready. In two months I'd be out there drinking again and shutting the Lord out.

"God took the taste away from me. I went to the store and got a beer and a pack of cigarettes, and a friend of mine asked for a cigarette, and I said, "You can have the whole pack and the beer, too.' That's the last time I ever touched it. God stopped me."

Murphy's newfound faith didn't keep him out of trouble, though. In 1990 Wilton Manors police charged Murphy with aggravated battery and carrying a concealed knife after a fight with a girlfriend. She accused him of hitting and threatening her. He denies that it happened but pleaded no contest and was sentenced to six months' probation.

The next year he married his second wife, Shirley, who worked at a rental car company. They met at Emmanuel Church of Christ in Fort Lauderdale, which Murphy attended seven days a week, twice on Sundays. "I was overjoyed to do the work of the Lord," he says. But his relationship with the church lasted about as long as his first marriage. "They want to run your life," he says of ministers. "They want to know it all. I'm an instrument of God, not of a preacher."

In 1992 the Murphys bought the condo in Oakland Forest Club for $60,000. He says he was ready to lead a quiet and peaceful life and liked the idea of a controlled environment. A few years later, Shirley began suffering from dementia. She would get lost on her way to work and put on several layers of clothing on summer days, Murphy says.

When he decided he could no longer care for her, he put her on a plane to Virginia, where she remains with family. "She's like a baby," says Murphy, who hasn't seen her since then but gets updates on her condition from relatives. "Like a vegetable."  

During that painful period, which he says was the worst of his life, Murphy put most of his energy into Oakland Forest Club. He was disturbed by the absence of nighttime security and enraged by rashes of car burglaries and other crimes. So he volunteered a couple of hours each evening to patrol the condo grounds. "They were stealing seven, eight cars a night," he exaggerates. "When the helicopters weren't over here, the police were running through with dogs. I was mad as hell, and I raised hell, because I don't take no shit."

Soon he was clashing with the condo board, which had become, according to Murphy, more social club than rule enforcer. "When I came out here, first thing that came out of their mouths was, "We're friendly with people,'" he recalls. "Friendly my ass. That book ain't got nothing about friends. It's about rules."

The book in question, which is lime green in color and precisely one inch thick, includes all the condo's bylaws, rules, and regulations. Without strict adherence to the book, the condo is worthless and will be destroyed, Murphy says. The board, he adds, routinely overlooked things that should have been prohibited -- cars parked for days in guest spots, commercial vehicles, broken-down vehicles, cluttered patios, playing children, unleashed pets.

When Murphy moved into Oakland Forest Club, about half the residents were black or Hispanic. (The ratio is even greater today.) Yet there had never been a single black person on the condo board, a fact that Murphy attributes to racism. In 1994 Murphy joined the board, which was then anchored by a white tenant named Sallie Carney. Two years later, as Murphy crusaded to crack down on rule breakers, Carney and other members of the old guard set out to vote him off the board. They were successful.

"They was just a bunch of alcoholics and rednecks on the board," Murphy says.

So began a feud that still rages today.

Carney, who works as a State Farm insurance agent, takes glee in remembering Murphy's loss in the condo board election. "Boy, he really went bananas that time," she says.

But that's about all Carney remembers fondly these days. She recently sold her condo and says she moved out to get away from Murphy. "He claims I'm a white supremacist. He says I'm a lesbian who lays up in bed all day drinking Jack Daniels," she says. "He says awful things to people and curses in front of children. At a meeting he once called me a "menopausal snake.' He gets ahold of you, he gets his teeth in your throat, and he won't let go."

As for the allegations of racism, Carney says there was no black person on the board because none volunteered. "He's the only racist out there," she comments. "We all got along wonderfully until he got there. We never had any problems except him."

Since 1997 Oakland Forest Club has been divided into three camps: those who like Murphy, those who hate him, and those who don't care. Murphy's dedication inspires a loyal following. One of his many allies is Mary Ann Hartwell, the first person to move into Oakland Forest Club 15 years ago. "Murphy does more than anyone could imagine," says Hartwell, a teacher. "If they don't like the personality, too bad. He's doing the job. They don't know what he goes through. They don't know about people that leave their garbage on the third floor for days and days. Murphy goes over there and takes care of it."

In 1998 the petty political battles turned ugly; nasty allegations were spread in anonymous letters. Carney was elected president of a board otherwise dominated by Murphy allies. She didn't last long in the position. A few months later, the board appointed Murphy as treasurer and ousted Carney, citing lack of attendance. (Carney says she was never told of meetings.) Then the new board changed the locks on the office. Murphy has held the keys to the association ever since.

At the beginning of 2000, Murphy's supporters appointed him condo president. Last year's election promised to be competitive; six people were running for the five seats. Carney was back and campaigning on a strictly anti-Murphy platform. She pledged not to tow cars without notice and swore she would never fine families whose children played on the grounds. She also promised tenants she wouldn't "scream at you in the parking lot or otherwise humiliate you."

Murphy says Carney was behind an anonymous letter that accused him of "stealing our money and destroying our homes" and turning "blacks against whites [to] destroy Oakland Forest Club from within." The letter claimed that Murphy "stalks our women, tries to bully and intimidate our men, and even bothers our children." Carney swears she didn't write or distribute the missive, but that didn't stop Murphy from suing her for slander. (The suit was recently dismissed.) Perhaps the anti-Murphy letters had their desired effect: He was voted off the board and Carney was elected. But then the Murphy-dominated board declared the election void, saying two votes were cast illegally. Carney was again unceremoniously dumped, and Murphy was appointed president. Amazingly the Napoleon of Oakland Forest has never actually been elected to the board.  

Murphy says his only objective as condo president has been to create order. The result: Police are called to the complex with extraordinary frequency. Last year, for instance, during a five-month period from January to May, the cops received 124 calls from Oakland Forest Club, nearly one per day. The reports included false alarms, vandalisms, and burglaries. Murphy routinely called to complain about tenants, who in turn often phoned to complain about him.

A sampling of reports to Oakland Forest Police Department (which has since been taken over by the Broward Sheriff's Office) reveals two involving former condo president William Treneer, a Carney partisan, and tenant Viviene Myrtil-Brown. Murphy says both have assaulted him. (Treneer was acquitted, and Myrtil-Brown has not been charged). Other incidents include:

January 12: Treneer complains to police that Murphy approached him and said, "This thing is not over."

January 16: Murphy reports a disturbance. Police arrive and find that it was just kids playing.

February 1: A visitor protests that Murphy rudely confronted her about a campaign sign on her car.

March 15: Murphy alleges that tenant Maria Ossa threatened him.

April 19: Murphy claims a 13-year-old boy called him a "fag."

May 3: Tenant Carol Price, embroiled in a dispute with the board over maintenance fees, asserts Murphy is harassing her and will not let her son park on the property.

May 6: Murphy says kids are ringing doorbells.

May 14: Tenant Linda Rodriguez, who has feuded with Murphy, reports her suspicion that the condo president sabotaged her car's gas tank.

May 16: Murphy complains a female tenant called him a "blood clot."

June 22: Myrtil-Brown requests a restraining order so Murphy won't harass her.

June 24: Murphy alleges someone is watching him.

Another telling incident occurred last summer, when Murphy tangled with Waymon Gresham, a 31-year-old full-time student and a teacher of disabled children. The conflict began last summer, when the rear-view mirror fell from its mounting inside Gresham's Ford Explorer. Gresham says he still can't believe the toll that mundane event has taken on his life.

The condo parking permit sticker was on the mirror, so he laid the mirror on his dashboard. He says he told Murphy about the problem and was assured it wouldn't be towed. On the morning of August 2, the Explorer was towed anyway, and Gresham went to the clubhouse to confront Murphy.

Murphy claims Gresham went berserk, broke the security chain off the clubhouse door, and nearly wrenched Murphy's arm from its socket. "He said he was gonna kill me," Murphy says. "I was standing next to a drawer. There's razors and knives in there. I could have cut that man from one ear to the other one. Took his eyes out of his head."

Prosecutors, at Murphy's urging, charged Gresham with misdemeanor battery. A week after the incident, Murphy went to the doctor to complain about numbness and "tingling" on his left side, which he says was caused by Gresham, who steadfastly denies he ever touched Murphy.

"This guy has lost his mind," Gresham says. "He knows I didn't do that. My record is spotless. Murphy is the common denominator here. Whenever there's a problem, it's always somebody and Harry Murphy."

Blane Carneal is a tall man, a former star pitcher at a rural high school in Kentucky who has a pronounced belly and walks with a heavy limp. He practices law in a renovated Fort Lauderdale bungalow, where he keeps his tobacco pipe, pictures of his wife and kids, and stacks of papers on his cluttered desk. "I'm a one-man operation," he likes to say.

In the bungalow's conference room, Carneal keeps his Civil War memorabilia, which include pictures of Confederate heroes like Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson. Asked whether he's partial to the Confederacy, Carneal demurs. "I'm just a student of history," he bristles.

Carneal also is a student of condo law, and he's on a self-proclaimed crusade to protect homeowners and tenants from oppressive neighborhood and condo associations. During the last few years, he has filed dozens of suits in Broward County on behalf of homeowners, usually working on a contingency. Today his sights are set squarely on Harry Murphy and Oakland Forest Club. He's defended six or seven Oakland Forest Club tenants and filed counterclaims in several other cases. Sallie Carney, livid at being ousted from the board, rounded up the angriest tenants and referred them to Carneal. In most instances, Carneal's clients are seeking only to recover costs from fines or tows. Their lawyer, meanwhile, stands to win thousands of dollars in fees should he prevail.  

A typical case involves Maria Ossa, a recently widowed Chilean immigrant. Last year Ossa had to have her broken-down rental car towed to a guest space. The tow truck left the car backed into the spot, which is not only against the rules but a cardinal sin in Murphy's book. The practice allows car thieves to conceal license plate numbers and leaves exhaust stains on bumper stops. Ossa contends she explained her dilemma to the night security guard and was assured the car would be left alone. The next morning it was gone. Carneal filed suit against the condo association for the $132 cost of the tow. The case has yet to be resolved.

While the Ossa lawsuit likely won't cost the condo association much, a case involving real-estate agent Rick Partosan might. Partosan is a former Oakland Forest Club resident and board member who has sold many condos at the complex. Last year Murphy decreed that Partosan was barred from doing business at Oakland Forest Club because he had failed to adhere to the tenant-approval process and pay the $50 application fees. Carneal has filed a suit on Partosan's behalf requesting undetermined damages. "He can't kick me off the property," Partosan says. "Who is he, God? He runs that place by terrorizing people."

Carneal also defends tenants who have been sued by the association. One case last year involved a man named Alva Reid, who lives directly beneath Murphy. Reid is paralyzed, and his girlfriend, Vivian Brown (no relation to Myrtil-Brown), stays with him and helps care for him. Brown's five children also live in the condo, which Murphy says violates the rules, because only Reid was approved by the board.

"He calls us niggers and bitches," says Brown, who is black and works at a bank. "I hear him on the phone yelling and cursing. This man is a racist against blacks and whites. He's antigay and antifemale. He told neighbors that we're drug dealers and prostitutes. He said we were all on parole. I've never been arrested in my life.

"It's like tyranny," she says of Murphy's rule. "You feel like you're in prison. Whatever he wants, he does it, like he's king of the manor. I can't describe the feeling that comes over me when I pull in here. You feel like you are driving into a foreign country, because you don't know what he's going to do next. He's unreal."

Murphy tried to evict Brown and her children, but Carneal successfully defended them. Murphy says Brown and her kids are just using Reid as an excuse to put a roof over their heads. He's especially concerned about a teenager who frequents the condo. "You got people just coming in here, especially young black people. What does he do? Probably sell drugs. He's probably on probation," Murphy says.

Murphy hatred of Carneal is palpable. He doesn't even bother calling the lawyer by his name, instead referring to him, inexplicably, as Cornelius Blane. "Put me in a room with Cornelius Blane and nail the door shut and let me go," Murphy says. "I'll beat his motherfucking ass."

The courtroom conflict between Carneal and Murphy has become personal, Murphy says. Last summer Carneal complained to police sergeant Dan Cucchi that Murphy's wife, Shirley, had disappeared and inferred that Murphy may have harmed her. Cucchi investigated and found she was living in Virginia. Carneal says he approached Cucchi because he wanted to depose Murphy's wife in court. Murphy will have none of that explanation. "That's accusing me of murder," Murphy says. "That's an ignorant, stupid-ass lawyer, and that's racism to the max."

The condo owners may wind up paying for Murphy and Carneal's grudge match. Legal bills are mounting. A former condo association attorney, Leigh Katzman, says the board owes him $36,000 in legal fees, a figure the condo board disputes. The board's new law firm, Becker and Poliakoff, projects future legal costs as high as $50,000. Should Carneal win even a few of his cases, the bill to the condo association could be catastrophic.

"The [tenants] there have no idea what's going on," Sallie Carney says. "They are going to have a rude awakening when they realize that they're going to have to pay thousands of dollars each. It could bankrupt the association."  

If Murphy loses the cases, he says he'll refuse to pay. He promises chaos if the board is hit with expensive court losses. "I'll tell the people to stop paying their maintenance fees altogether," he says. "We don't give a damn. The state would have to come in, and there would be a big investigation. I'm not paying shit, and I don't care what the fuckin' judge say. They don't want the truth in court; they want games. This is racial, it's all racial, and the world is going to find that out."

Broward County alone is home to 200,787 condominium units and hundreds of associations. Florida has more than one million condo units, according to the Bureau of Condominiums, which fields roughly 1200 complaints per year. But the bureau is virtually powerless to settle disputes. Even state bureaucrats concede they can't make much of a difference.

Condo officials investigate complaints and, if wrongdoing is found, they can either send an "educational" letter to the board or fine it up to $5000 per violation of state law. The catch is that fines can be levied only against the association, so all tenants must pay them, not just the guilty ones, says bureau investigator Michael Linder. Thus financial penalties are rarely imposed. "Tenants pay, the association as a whole pays, and that's why we're education-heavy," Linder says. "We conclude basically by telling the association to straighten up and fly right."

If the state had more authority and funding, it could settle many disputes that end up in court, Carneal says. The lawyer points out that Linder investigated complaints against Oakland Forest Club and concluded there was a reasonable basis they were true. But the bureau sent Murphy a letter, and -- perhaps predictably -- it had no effect.

"[Murphy] is an angry man, and we get the feeling he's asking for the kind of investigation we can't do," Linder says. "He's alleging racism of various kinds, and while he may well be right, it's not something we can investigate."

Murphy has garnered support from Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, the commission's only black member. Eggelletion says he plans to assist Murphy. "This is a situation where old board members are getting lawyers to sue the board, and they're hoping that the board will just get tired and give up," Eggelletion says. "It's called condo busting, and the victims end up being the residents, who have to pay for all of this."

Murphy says the past few years have taken a toll on him mentally, physically, and emotionally. "My life is damaged. Sleepless nights, nightmares, nerves, the stroke and heart attack, pressure, lack of appetite. A lot of hate comes into you," he says. "You got to pray. I got a mind just like everybody else; it can snap like everybody else."

One Wednesday morning last month, Mark Lamson stood outside the condo clubhouse at 8 a.m. clad in his Office Depot work shirt and cap. Keys dangled from a chain outside his pocket. On a typical morning, he would have been at work by then, and his seven-year-old son would have been in school. But instead his son was watching television, and he was waiting for Murphy.

A van that Lamson had hired from Budget-Rent-A-Car had been towed overnight. A security guard, who acts on Murphy's orders, deemed it a commercial vehicle, which Murphy will tell you is a no-no. The condo rules seem to change every year, Lamson said. Murphy recently fined him for trash on his patio. "When he comes up and starts hassling you, you just try to ignore him," he added.

After about 15 minutes of waiting, Murphy rode up in the condo golf cart with a maintenance man.

"I ain't got no time for this bullshit," Murphy said as he exited the cart and approached Lamson. "This whole place ought to motherfuckin' fold. This whole fuckin' place ought to just go under."

Murphy then eyed Lamson. "You don't give a shit about this place, do you?" Murphy angrily asked before launching into a curse-laden rant, in which he discussed Carney, "Cornelius Blane," alcoholics, rules, racism, rednecks, and "fuckin' Alabama and Mississippi bullshit." Murphy then led Lamson, who calmly endured the verbal onslaught, into the clubhouse and showed him some Polaroids of the Budget van in question.

"Here's the pictures," Murphy said. "This is a Budget van with writing on the side. That's a commercial vehicle, and it stinks, period. There's people out there getting lawyers. And the thing about condo commando? If I wouldn't have gotten on this board, this goddamn place would have gone a long time ago. Why ain't you never been on the board?"  

"I don't have time to be on the board, Harry," Lamson answered.

When it was over, Lamson just smiled helplessly and shook his head. Then Murphy offered him a ride to pick up the van. As they left the complex, the flowers were beautiful, as always, and the place was deathly quiet and orderly, just the way condo folk like it.

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