What’s in a name? Apparently enough to get your teeth knocked out, Miami businessman Luis Garcia Fanjul was learning as the shouting from the earpiece of his telephone continued.
“You’re not a Fanjul, you lying [bleep]!” said the guy on the other end, a New York private detective. “Stop saying you are! I eat guys like you for breakfast! If you do it again, I’ll jump on a plane and punch your [bleeping] lights out!”
“It was like a bad gangster movie,” says a shuddering Garcia Fanjul, who’s more accustomed to having his photo snapped at A-list charity events than he is to listening to threats to have his neck snapped. “I don’t know what this is related to. I don’t know who is behind this.”
The detective who was on the phone that day last December, celebrated former New York homicide cop Bo Dietl, whose cases are the stuff of movies and books, says he’ll be happy to explain it again. “His name isn’t Fanjul and it never was,” says Dietl. “What he’s using that name for is to get introductions and make people think he has this power and wealth.”
Only in South Florida, where the fascination with wealth and celebrity is matched only by the capacity for self-reinvention and, let’s face it, a propensity for inexplicable weirdness, could this story unfold.
In one corner of this triangular tale is a hard-boiled detective right out of a tabloid headline; in another, a soft-spoken businessman from the society pages. And in the third is the plutocratic Fanjul family, a hermetic collection of wealthy Palm Beach sugar barons who obsessively seek to stay out of any newspaper pages at all and are frantically wishing they didn’t appear on the one you’re reading.
“This doesn’t have anything to do with the Fanjuls,” says family spokesman Gaston Cantens. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the sugar business. They don’t have anything to say on the subject because it doesn’t have anything to do with them.”
The characters in this tempestuous passion playlet began down the paths to collision sometime last year when Dietl’s partner in a Florida real-estate venture — he won’t identify the man — complained that he had been jerked around in another business deal by somebody he called a “phony Fanjul.”
“You’re a detective,” said Dietl’s partner. “Why don’t you do something about this? Why don’t you expose this guy?”
Dietl is indeed a detective, a highly decorated one during his 16 years with the NYPD. Several movies, including One Tough Cop and The Bad Lieutenant, have been based on his career or cases he broke. If you watched last year’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, you saw Dietl playing himself as a private detective working for stock-swindler Jordan Belfort.
As luck would have it, he’s also a longtime friend of José “Pepe” Fanjul, a member of the billionaire family that lost its sugar fortune when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and then promptly made another here in Florida. “We’ve known each other a long time,” Dietl says. “We used to dock our boats alongside each other in Sag Harbor.”
His interest piqued, Dietl put his cadre of investigators on the trail of the man his partner had called a “phony Fanjul.” That’s Garcia Fanjul, a 53-year-old businessman who runs in elevated social circles. He was, for instance, best man at the wedding of German tennis star Boris Becker. He’s also a business partner of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, for whom he’s a major political fundraiser.
Garcia Fanjul’s prominence is partly due to his wife, Judith Kamps, a philanthropist heiress to a German food fortune, and partly due to his perceived connection to the Fanjul sugar empire. Newspaper stories about his presence at high-society affairs sometimes refer to him as a “sugar baron.”
But the 34-page report Dietl put together says that Garcia Fanjul is not a sugar baron or even a sugar princeling; that his name isn’t Fanjul and he isn’t related to the Palm Beach family.
It also turned up some decidedly unaristocratic episodes in Garcia Fanjul’s background, including arrests for forgery, petty theft and aggravated assault, and convictions for grand theft and use of fraudulent credit cards. All of them were verified by the Miami Herald through court and police records.
The criminal charges all date back to before Garcia Fanjul’s prominence — indeed, to a time before he was using the name Fanjul. But a federal tax lien of nearly $109,000 is still pending.
Garcia Fanjul admits that many of the allegations in the report are accurate, though he insists he is a distant relation of the Palm Beach Fanjuls and is entitled to use the name even if it doesn’t appear on his birth certificate.
But he insists that the most important part of the report is what it does not say: that he’s using the Fanjul name to swindle, cheat or outfox anybody.
“If you said, Luis stole money or was involved in a Ponzi scheme, did something bad, that’s one thing. But this is nothing. I haven’t done anything. For what purpose is this man doing this report?
“Yes, I use the name Fanjul. So what? How is that cheating anybody? I don’t know any banking institution that you can walk into and say, ‘Hi, I’m a Fanjul’ and you get a loan.”
The Palm Beach Fanjuls, who have no compunction about unleashing lawyers on anyone they perceive as damaging the family’s image — they once threatened to sue CBS over a TV show that depicted a conniving clan of Cuban-American sugar merchants on the grounds that viewers might think it was about them — have seen Dietl’s report. But they have no complaint about Garcia Fanjul.
“I think the family barely knows him,” said Fanjul spokesman Cantens. “Only a couple of members have actually met him. . . . The Fanjuls didn’t ask for that report and they aren’t involved with it.”
Dietl admits his investigators didn’t find evidence that Garcia Fanjul has used the Fanjul name to do anything illegal. But he notes that Garcia Fanjul never seems to have used the name Fanjul until the aftermath of his most serious brush with the law.
That was in 2006, when police and court records show that a man identifying himself as Luis Garcia was arrested after trying to use a fake credit card at a Palm Beach Gardens shopping mall. He and an accomplice were charged in federal court with possession of 15 phony cards with intent to defraud.
Garcia, who could have faced 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $750.
“After he was convicted, he tried to change his identity and become a Fanjul,” says Dietl. “That’s the real story here.”
Garcia Fanjul admits he’s the same man who pleaded guilty in the credit card case, which he blames on “being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.” Police reports of his arrest offer a different picture, saying Garcia Fanjul began running out of a store when he saw police approaching and was tackled by a cop, violently enough that he had to be taken for medical treatment.
But he says he often used the Fanjul name before that.
His grandmother was a Fanjul back in Cuba, he says, which makes him a distant cousin of the sugar family. And in using the Fanjul name, he is merely employing a variant of the Latin American custom of using a mother’s maiden name as a second surname.
Garcia Fanjul’s work is mainly in Latin America, where he markets medical-lab equipment and industrial meters, and he says he uses the Fanjul surname to distinguish himself from a zillion other guys named Luis Garcia.
“My name in America is Luis Garcia,” he says. “You don’t use your mother’s maiden name in America. . . . The only reason I use the Fanjul in Latin America is that ‘Luis Garcia’ is like ‘John Smith’ here.”
Garcia says he has “lots and lots” of documents that show his grandmother’s name is Fanjul and that he had used it long before his credit-card conviction. He initially promised to share them with the Miami Herald, but when it came time for a reporter to view them, he changed his mind.
Six months after their combative telephone conversation, the threatened boxing match between Dietl and Garcia Fanjul has developed into something more like trench warfare. Dietl remains as pugnacious as ever — “The great impostor lives in Miami!” he proclaimed to the Herald in one recent phone call — but Garcia Fanjul is still using the Fanjul name. “At the end of the day, nothing happened,” he sighs.
If anything, Garcia Fanjul seems resigned to eccentric, even unfathomable, encounters. He has had them before. The Internet is littered with strange little mini-biographies of Garcia Fanjul written by anonymous posters, many of them seeping admiration and envy as they describe his sumptuous New York penthouse, his prodigious art collection and his delectable celebrity dates with people like the sultry Mexican pop singer Paulina Rubio.
The thing is, not a single word in any of these accounts is true. “I have never met Paulina Rubio, much less dated her,” says Garcia Fanjul. “And all these ridiculous stories about how I’m a billionaire. . . . I’ll tell you what, if you can find the money and the artwork, I’ll go half with you.”
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.