Nevin Shapiro reclines on a deck chair, pulls his plush bathrobe tight, chews a cigar, and grins. All around him on the wooden deck, hundreds of drunken revelers shout, dance, and ratchet up the sexual tension. They're framed by downtown Miami's silhouette, which glitters atop the black depths of Biscayne Bay.
Shapiro's bayfront pool is covered with plexiglass that reflects the hard glare of a professional lighting rig. Jason Ferguson, a hulking Miami Dolphins tackle, swigs Hennessy and bounces to the hip-hop of DJ Irie, the Miami Heat's beatmaker. Mobs surround open bars and ogle metallic $500 bottles of Armand de Brignac champagne. Packs of gorgeous women grind on the dance floor as Fins linebacker Joey Porter shimmies past. In the middle if it all, Akin Ayodele, the veteran defender whose 29th birthday they're all celebrating, flashes a trademark grin.
It's September 22, 2008, one day after the Dolphins' upset of the New England Patriots, and half the Miami team has shown up at Ayodele's bash to begin the bye week in style.
Shapiro, in his embroidered robe, is making it all happen.
After 40 years in South Florida, he finally has it all: parties with Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade, and the Dolphins; lunches with police chiefs; and his name etched onto a lounge at his beloved University of Miami. He's SoBe's Jay Gatsby, a self-made runt from Brooklyn who now rules an island fiefdom that he rarely leaves.
Ayodele's party was part of a beautiful, drunken high. But it didn't last. Now, two years later, Shapiro languishes in a federal prison in New Jersey, awaiting sentencing for crafting an $880 million Ponzi scheme in what may be South Beach's largest-ever fraud case.
During the past five years, South Florida has become America's Ponzi capital — birthing Scott Rothstein and Joel Steinger, fueling Bernie Madoff, sheltering Allen Stanford, and incubating dozens of smaller schemers. Nevin Shapiro marks the homegrown nadir of this epoch of theft. Unlike the others — who spent less ostentatiously or dropped their riches elsewhere — he's the epitome of a Magic City con artist: a hard-partying, tasteless, status-obsessed gambler with a lust for harems of girlfriends, famous friends, and luxury yachts.
But lost in all the schadenfreude over his downfall has been any consideration of where he came from — and what his crimes say about the rest of us.
The truth is, Shapiro has lived his whole life surrounded by fraud. His stepfather was convicted of stealing millions decades ago, and his longtime girlfriend and business partner was indicted this past summer for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars by bilking a beauty supply company. He's a violent, unstable liar who nearly blinded a SoBe club owner with a sucker punch in the mid-'90s and threatened his ex-employees.
In hindsight, his life story — as told through interviews with friends, family, and victims as well as voluminous court records — is a neon-lit ode to South Florida's willingness to take immense and sudden wealth at face value, for better or worse.
"A guy like this, you can't possibly throw him in prison for long enough," says Jack Hulse, a Sarasota retiree who lost $440,000 to Shapiro and recently sold a house to pay it off. "You can't convey how many people he hurt so badly, and everyone was so willing to trust him for no reason."
Barely five-foot-six, squarely built, and baby-faced, Shapiro was wedged into the back hallway of the Stephen Talkhouse, a club on Washington Avenue. He had just snuck more than a dozen of his friends through a back door, trying to avoid the $25 cover charge. But Peter Honerkamp, the club's owner, a 41-year-old New Yorker with a handlebar mustache, had caught the group in the act and asked everyone to leave.
"Are you coming on to me?" Shapiro asked, his deep-set eyes narrowed with rage.
Honerkamp, baffled by the question, called a bouncer for help. He turned back just in time to see Shapiro's fist whistling at his face.
Honerkamp crumbled on impact. Where is all that blood coming from? he wondered, touching his face.
It all happened after midnight on April 16, 1995. Shapiro was celebrating his 26th birthday, and the violent outburst followed a turbulent adolescence and early manhood. He would brag about the devastating sucker punch for years — even as he petitioned the state to scrub from his record the criminal charges that resulted.
Shapiro was born April 13, 1969, in Brooklyn to Ronnie and Larry Shapiro, and the family moved to Miami Beach when he was young. Ronnie, his mother, was the breadwinner.
Before Nevin turned 10, his parents divorced. Court records show he was raised by Ronnie alone; it's not clear what became of his father. (A manager at Larry Shapiro's last listed address in a Bay Harbor Islands apartment complex said he had moved out without leaving a forwarding address.)