Michael Cleare stoops a lot these days, mainly because of the damage he did to his back and knees while driving heavy-duty delivery trucks for almost 40 years.
His spirit is nearly broken, too.
Cleare, who turns 69 the day after Christmas, lost a son to AIDS just as he was about to join the Navy. He lost a daughter heading off to college who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in the family’s home. And he lost a wife who suffered from a bad heart that expired four years ago.
Since the death of his wife, Sylvia, who worked as an operator for Bell South and managed the household finances, Cleare has struggled to pay the bills and keep his life on track. “When my wife died, I kinda lost it,” said Cleare, who lives on Social Security benefits.
Earlier this year, he moved in with his daughter, Collette, who has five children. They’re all cramped into a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a federally subsidized low-income housing complex in Opa-locka.
As the 2018 Miami Herald Wish Book campaign unfolds this holiday season, Cleare is hoping to get a one-bedroom, ground-floor apartment for himself, a simple walker and some Christmas presents for his grandchildren. He plans to undergo knee-replacement surgery early next year.
Cleare, who was born in Miami and raised in New York, moved back to South Florida with his wife in 1977. They lived in a modest home in Opa-locka and everything seemed to be going smoothly. Then, in 1992, as the couple’s only son, Eric, was about to join the Navy, he was diagnosed with AIDS and died at 22 in April that year. “That took my wife over the edge,” Cleare said.
But two years later, an even worse tragedy would shatter the Cleare family.
The couple’s older daughter, Tiffany, was an aspiring lawyer who had just finished two years at Florida International University and planned to attend Alabama State University in the fall of 1994. “This girl had so many dreams, I would just listen to her,” Cleare recalled.
But before her departure for college, Tiffany was threatened by an ex-boyfriend who had gone to high school with her. Tiffany, who had a new boyfriend at the time, obtained a restraining order. But that didn’t stop the ex- boyfriend from targeting her again.
Before sunrise on July 28, 1994, Eugene Stefan Hayes broke down the front door of the Cleares’ home, stormed into Tiffany’s bedroom and shot her twice in the foot, according to police and published reports. As Hayes left the room, Tiffany crawled down the hallway to her parents’ bedroom. Her mother had woken up to the gunshots. Her father had already left for work.
Hayes dashed down the hallway and fatally shot 19-year-old Tiffany once in the chest as her mother held her.
“He got upset that she was going away to college and that she was moving on with her life,” said Collette, the younger daughter, who was nine at the time and witnessed the shooting from a couch in the family’s living room. “He said, ‘If I can’t have you, nobody can have you.’ ‘’
Hayes fled to his father’s house in Opa-locka, where he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder. But the trial didn’t end as expected. Although Tiffany’s mother and sister testified trial, the Miami-Dade jury found Hayes not guilty.
“The whole thing went wrong,” Collette recalled.
The Cleare family would never recover.
As his wife’s health went into a tailspin, Cleare said her heart eventually gave out. “She was always suffering, always going to the hospital,” he said. His wife, Sylvia, died at 61 in 2014.
Engulfed in despair, Cleare said he only began feeling a flicker of hope earlier this year when he met a woman who had gone through a similar tragedy.
Denise Brown, who works for the Miami-Dade school system, lost her son, Roman Bradley, 20, when he was gunned down in a drive-by shooting six years ago. She and two other mothers who suffered similar losses established the RJT Foundation to help grieving parents.
“I created this foundation as therapy for me and to help others who have gone through the same tragedy,” Brown said. “This is my way of giving back and helping my son’s memory stay alive.”
Brown reached out to Cleare, who never felt comfortable talking with anyone about his daughter’s murder. “She is a godsend,” he said. “You are there with people who have had the same life experience as you. I needed that, because the only one I could talk to was my wife.”
Cleare said he joined Brown and other families involved in the RJT Foundation on a trip to Tallahassee after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting to lobby legislators for stricter gun control laws. Cleare said he met with lawmakers but was particularly impressed with the students who spoke at hearings in the capital.
“I was so proud of those kids,” Cleare said. “I loved them. They spoke so eloquently from the heart.”
How to help
Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Most requested items are laptops and tablets for school, furniture and vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook.