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."

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman