Crazy Like a Henn | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


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."

Henn laughs and explains that even if he wanted to sell to them, which he most definitely does not, a new law prohibits tribes from buying land not connected to land they already own.