MIAMI - It's the perfect Miami morning at Carlos Justo's penthouse -- warm and bright, with luxury yachts powering through the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean some 30 stories below.
An assistant, sitting at a glass table with her back to the stunning view, is talking business. She wants to know whether he will receive any commissions or checks anytime soon.
"Right now, we don't have any money," Justo says. He continues talking. Fast. Pacing back and forth, he gazes out the window.
"There's money to be made," he says, grinning. "I'm creating the team. I'm creating the billion-dollar real estate team."
In fact, Justo is $20 million in debt. He is five months into a massive bankruptcy filing. The IRS is after him for $6 million.
And yet, he dreams.
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A Cuban immigrant who came to the United States with nothing, Justo's is a rags-to-riches-to-rags story, a peculiarly American dream.
Carlos Justo meditates at his Miami penthouse. "I knew the market was going to crash," he says. "It was irresponsible what we did, what all of us did in the United States."
Once, he starred on the TLC network program "Million Dollar Agents." There was a time he appeared in social columns for brokering real estate deals for one-named celebrities like J-Lo, Shaq, Versace, and two-named notables like Gloria Estefan, Sylvester Stallone, Rosie O'Donnell.
Like so many of our modern titans -- like Donald Trump -- he inspires both admiration and contempt. Greed, he acknowledges, fueled his rise. Hubris ensured his fall.
Next time, he says, it will all be different.
A Star in the high-end market
Living among the wealthy didn't come naturally to Justo; he was born in Cuba, and as a child lived without electricity, running water or plumbing.
His family came to Miami in 1967 when Justo was 11. He got his GED at night school but by the time he was 19, Justo had learned English and bought his first home -- a modest, stucco triplex -- for $20,000 with money he made as a janitor.
For the man who grew up with so little, talking about homes came easily. So he got his real estate license. Early on, he targeted the top end of Miami's real estate market, the places most folks see on TV: mansions accessorized with palm trees, sugar-sand beaches and turquoise waters.
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In 2000, he brokered the $19 million sale of the area's most famous home, the Ocean Drive mansion where fashion designer Gianni Versace was killed.
Justo's success was astronomical, the product of his aggressive enthusiasm, uncanny knowledge of the ultra-rich and a phenomenal real estate market.
In 2005, Justo was worth $20 million. He and the agents who worked for him sold $200 million in real estate in a single year. He was also the owner of 12 multimillion dollar estates in the county's most exclusive enclaves; he intended to eventually flip them and make a profit. Justo and his business partner, Irving Padron, were awarded a prestigious Sotheby's franchise and opened its offices in one of the few historic mansions in downtown Miami.
His strategy seemed like a sure thing in a city filled with speculation.
Unlike most other brokers in Miami at the time, Justo never dealt in new condominiums -- he thought they were too risky. In 2005, he was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, "I refuse to sell condos; I think it's irresponsible. They will end up falling on their asses."Continued on Page Two: Motivated by Greed ...