Broward News

Artist Raymond Brown's Death in Mural Accident Raises Questions About Construction Firm's Safety Record

Forty feet above Hollywood, Raymond Brown helps his friend Douglas "Hoxxoh" Hoekzema sketch out a design on the side of a new luxury high-rise. The two stand side by side on a narrow platform suspended over the side of the towering condo building. After weeks of work, they're nearly finished with the 25,000-square-foot mural, an eye-catching series of circles in shades of blue and green — Hoxxoh's biggest project ever, which Brown happily volunteered to help execute.

"He was a free spirit and a kid who loved art and music."

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In recent days, the wind had whipped at the friends as they worked on the façade at the Hyde Resort & Residences, but not today. The weather is calm and sunny as Brown, Hoekzema, and a third artist, Jonathan "Pucho" Olsen, add color to the wall. A new album from the Swedish group Goat — Brown's pick — plays through a Bluetooth speaker.

Suddenly, with a tinging sound, a cable snaps. The three friends plunge. Paint dumps down the wall. Hoekzema's and Olsen's harnesses catch, leaving them dangling from the side of the building.

But Brown plummets five stories to the ground, his safety line torn in the chaos of the falling platform. Paramedics arrive at the scene almost immediately from a fire station just a few blocks away, but it makes no difference: The 32-year-old artist dies on the scene.

Brown's October 24 death has left a hole in Miami's arts scene and exposed how dangerous the booming business of mural painting can be. But it has also raised questions about the general contractor in charge of the project. Just five days before the three painters were sent plummeting down the side of the building, five people were injured and one was killed in an accident at a Brickell construction project handled by the same firm.

In fact, the company — John Moriarty & Associates, a large Massachusetts-based general contractor — has been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for 27 violations since 2006. At least one other worker has died at a Moriarty-run South Florida construction site, and several others have been seriously injured.

"The numbers beg investigation," says Brian Silber, a Fort Lauderdale personal injury attorney. "Construction work is inherently dangerous... The question is, are they doing something wrong or failing to do something that's right that creates a pattern?"

John Leete, executive vice president of John Moriarty & Associates of Florida, says the answer is no. In a written response, he says Brown's death and the Brickell accident were "separate, unrelated incidents." He adds that John Moriarty & Associates' Experience Modification Rate — the insurance industry's gold standard for rating the safety of a company — is .79, which is 20 percent better than the national average of 1.0.

"Safety is our number one priority," Leete writes. "We have and will continue to be vigilant in ensuring our job sites conform to the highest industry standards."

The Hollywood accident left Miami's creative scene without one of its most vibrant members.

Raised in New Jersey, Brown was the only child of Raymond and Roseann Brown. "He was a free spirit and a kid who loved art and music," recalls his uncle, James Woods, who says Ray would sit on his uncle's couch and play guitar for him. "He would help anybody and do anything for anybody."

Brown spent summers with his grandparents in Tequesta and after high school decided to head south again for college. He attended Florida Atlantic University, studying graphic design. Classmate Tim Brown remembers being inspired by how free Ray was with his work. "That's what he was able to do, just inspire creativity, bring out the artist in everyone else," he says.

After graduating from college, Raymond Brown found work handling and installing art at NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale and Pérez Art Museum Miami. On the side, he worked on projects of his own.

"He could do almost anything in terms of art, whether it was music or drawing or silk-screens or murals," says Bhakti Baxter, a friend and fellow artist. Brown had recently been asked to do his first solo show, likely featuring sculptures with a sound element.

Much of Brown's work, though, was collaborative. Part of a tight-knit community of creatives who often congregated for bonfires outside Hoekzema's Little Haiti studio, which they dubbed the "Little Haiti Country Club," he was constantly helping friends with their projects.

"He liked to be with his friends, playing music and exploring being an artist," Baxter says. When he needed a hand installing illuminated, inflatable heads among the trees at Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival earlier this year, Baxter knew Brown was the one to turn to.

"I'd be up in a tree and I knew I had Ray with me, and it was such a relief," Baxter recalls. "I knew we were going to do things right."

Music was an equal passion for Brown. Along with Baxter and two other friends, he formed the band Brogurt, playing mostly psychedelic rock. During performances, the group wore wild costumes, with Brown clad in a cockroach head and goggles. He mostly played guitar but could play just about any instrument and make sounds no one had ever heard before. He was into all kinds of music and often sent his friends Dropbox playlists.

Yet getting him to dance was nearly impossible. Hoekzema remembers Brown just standing there, not moving, at an Outkast concert. "He was our totem pole that night," Hoekzema says, smiling. "We were dancing circles around him."

Brown cultivated an image as a curmudgeon; his dad found a badge of his that read, "I hate everybody." But he was fun to be around and had a dry, cynical sense of humor. So Hoekzema invited him to help on almost every project he did.

By the time Hoekzema began his Hollywood project in August, Brown had become his right-hand man. The two knew there was risk in their line of work. South Florida has mourned the loss of a handful of other young graffiti artists who died while making art. Eighteen-year-old Israel "Reefa" Hernandez-Llach was killed in 2013 when Miami Beach Police tasered him after catching him tagging a wall; the next year, Delbert "Demz" Rodriguez, who was 21, died after being hit by an unmarked police cruiser while painting in Wynwood.

The artists knew the height demanded by the Hollywood project was dangerous. "Ray was an art soldier," friend and fellow artist Oliver Sanchez says. "I coined that term because we sign up for these things and it's more than a paycheck; it's your love of art. And we're prepared to do things that are sometimes dangerous."

But Hoekzema and Brown were serious about safety — Brown especially so. As the friends worked the condo project high above the beach, he constantly tightened his harness and instructed everyone else to do the same.

Neither friend knew, though, as they hoisted themselves several stories above Hollywood every day, that the company in charge of their project had been cited multiple times by OSHA for safety issues.

Established in 1985, John Moriarty & Associates now has offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. Its Hollywood office handles construction projects across South Florida and has been hired for a number of major projects, including work on Pérez Art Museum Miami and Brickell World Plaza.

Since 2006, OSHA has issued Moriarty offices a total of $127,896 in fines for 27 violations ranging from problems with wiring methods to excavation requirements to gas welding and cutting. Eight of those violations were related to fall protection. OSHA was unable to furnish reports from the cases in time for publication, so it's not clear exactly what transpired in each instance.

But court records shed light on some injuries blamed on the company — as well as one other death in South Florida.

In 1998, construction worker Jeorge Allan Clements fell from the 15th floor of a Miami Beach high-rise after a bolt on a safety rail broke. His widow sued Moriarty in state court, but the firm was immune under Florida law. Instead, the subcontractor that installed the safety rail system, Commercial Forming, agreed to pay $500,000 to Clements' widow and $500,000 to his young son.

Lawsuits also spell out some injuries at Moriarty projects. In 2003, subcontractor William Docos claimed he lost use of his right knee after sheetrock fell on him during construction at Boston Children's Hospital. (That case was settled.) In 2009, Peter Erickson said he was injured while using a crane to lift a chiller unit at a Waltham, Massachusetts, construction site. (Erickson settled his claim with subcontractors and dismissed Moriarty from the case.) In 2010, Robert Lally allegedly fell while working as a mason on a project at Brandeis University. (His case was settled as well.) And in 2014, Johnnie Parker sued over exposure to toxic chemicals at a Washington, D.C. project after he was allegedly told to excavate an area that officials had warned was contaminated. (That case is still pending.)

On October 19, six days before Brown and Hoekzema's accident, a platform broke 50 stories above the Echo Brickell, a luxury condo building where Moriarty is overseeing construction. Debris fell to the street, hitting two construction workers, two bystanders, and a woman inside a car, who all sustained minor injuries. Spanish banking executive Salvador Garçon, who was 53 years old, had a heart attack and died while running from falling debris.

Around 1:30 p.m. October 24, the platform holding Hoekzema, Brown, and Olsen failed, sending them plunging down the side of the building. Olsen hit his head and was treated at a hospital, while Hoekzema for the most part escaped physically unscathed.

Leete says his company is working with the subcontractors and equipment providers at each site — CECO and Doka in the former; Indeco Finishes of Florida and Sunbelt in the latter — to determine what went wrong. "We want to continue to express our concerns and condolences for the families who were directly impacted by these separate incidents," he says.

But the fact that two fatal accidents happened in such quick succession troubles many who loved Brown. "It doesn't bring Raymond back, and that's all we care about," Woods says, "but I'd hate to see it happen to somebody else, because it's a tragedy nobody deserves to go through."

Last week, Brown's parents traveled from New Jersey to Miami. They drove to the mural he died working on and stared up at the circles painted on the condo wall. They found comfort at a bonfire attended by at least a hundred of his friends, who lined up to talk to them. There were tears and endless hugs. Brown used to text pictures from bonfires to his dad, who told Hoekzema he now understood why his son loved them. The group filled a wooden drawer with notes to Brown and placed it in the flames.

Hoekzema, who has been grappling with the loss, doesn't expect to ever be able to make sense of the accident.

"If something happened, the fire department was steps away," he says. "We all had our harnesses on. We had everything you're supposed to do. And the cable snapped. It's just one of those things you're not going to get an answer to. We can go to Mars, but we can't design a swing stage that's going to hold up?"

He doesn't plan to ever get back on a swing stage, and he doesn't know when he'll feel up to seeing the mural he'd been so excited about. But he does eventually want to see it completed. He thinks that's what Ray would have wanted.

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Brittany Shammas is a former staff writer at Miami New Times. She covered education in Naples before taking a job at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She joined New Times in 2016.
Contact: Brittany Shammas