Image: Carlos Justo
Lynne Sladky  /  AP
"Fear is not something I'm familiar with," says real estate agent Carlos Justo, left.
updated 8/2/2009 1:39:59 PM ET 2009-08-02T17:39:59

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.

Justo, a 53-year-old real estate agent, has been awake since 3:30 a.m. but he shows no sign of fatigue. His eyes scan back and forth, from the high rise condos, to the water, and back to the condos.

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.

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.

Image: Justo
Lynne Sladky  /  AP
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.

Stared in 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.

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."

Motivated by greed and ego
Those were the days when Americans were addicted to real estate. It seemed like on every cable channel, there was a different program featuring the nation's collective obsession. Justo was in the middle of it all; a promo for "Million Dollar Agents" described him as "the biggest fish in Miami's shark-infested pool of real estate."

Crews filmed him racing maniacally around Miami, showing luxury homes by day (from a helicopter) and going to parties at night (in a chauffeured Rolls Royce). Cameras captured his unorthodox methods of doing business: using a lunar calendar to plan deals, going barefoot during meetings, meditating with his sales team.

Justo was a natural on TV, with his amber eyes, bald head and perpetual tan. His custom-made, silk suits — white or black or occasionally red — looked suspiciously like pajamas, which he wore to closings and clubs alike.

"We get paid for having fun!" Justo roared in one episode.

Justo spent $1,000 on sushi lunches. $3,000 a month on life coaching. He didn't accumulate many things — he enjoyed sparsely decorated, all-white furniture and rooms — and freely let his friends stay in the various homes he owned.

Justo says that during those years, he "wasn't operating out of integrity" — and that many of the people surrounding him weren't, either. Greed and ego were his motivation. He took advice, he says, from the wrong people and didn't pay attention to details.

He also didn't make many friends, says Kevin Tomlinson, a real estate blogger and Miami Beach agent who says Justo stole on of his clients in the late '90s.

"When I got into the business, he was the king. He was the legend that everybody looked and aspired to be," Tomlinson said. "But over the years, his reputation within the broker industry is a mixture of people being afraid or intimidated by him and his success or downright loathing."

Justo took out mortgages he couldn't afford, tapped into equity, splurged with credit cards. He didn't diversify his portfolio and didn't save a penny.

"I knew the market was going to crash," he said. "It was irresponsible what we did, what all of us did in the United States. We took out huge loans, we bought things that people had no business buying."

Checking account balance: $49.73
Friday, Feb. 13, 2009. A clerk at the federal court in Miami stamped "RECEIVED" on Justo's bankruptcy filing.

For three years, Justo had tried to avoid filing Chapter 7, even borrowing $15,000 from his 85-year-old mother and $75,000 from his 83-year-old aunt to pay his monthly debts. But he was underwater on too many mortgages. There were other creditors, too, including the IRS, which claimed that he should have filed his taxes in the United States, not in the Virgin Islands, which Justo says is his principal residence.

He was named in two lawsuits, one filed by a former real estate agent who worked for his team, and another by Padron, his former business partner. Both sought hundreds of thousands of dollars, alleging that Justo didn't pay commissions on various deals.

Justo had no savings, no stocks, no bonds.

His checking account hit bottom at $49.73. His financial picture was summed up in one dry sentence in the bankruptcy filing: "At the current time, the debtor has no income due to the state of the real estate market."

That week, at the urging of a friend, Justo had offered his penthouse as a crash pad to a group of traveling Buddhist monks from Tibet. As the monks chanted in an even baritone, Justo's mind reeled in turmoil.

"What happens if everything is gone?" he thought.

He wrote a $3,000 check as a donation to the Buddhist monks. It bounced.

‘A world with all possibilities’
Sparked by a former co-worker, Justo had studied New Age and Buddhist philosophy for years, visiting meditation retreats, spiritual centers and monasteries. But somehow, he said, the concepts of attachment and greed never really sank in until he went bankrupt.

It was the scariest thing he had ever done; scarier than meeting Fidel Castro twice in the mid 1990s, more daunting than coming out as a gay man to his parents.

"Fear is not something I'm familiar with," he says.

It was scary, he said, because it forced him to confront the truth: He had failed. He had come close to bankruptcy before, always somehow pulling himself back from the brink by selling a property or getting a loan. There was no safety net this time, not in this economy.

When he first realized he was about to lose everything, Justo wondered whether it was better not to exist at all. It was the first time, he says, that he had ever considered suicide.

"Then I thought, I'm alive, I love my life. I have my health. I don't have cancer," he says. "I started to realize how little I need to really live."

As he sheds mansions (five have already been taken by the bank, and it seems like the penthouse will be gone soon, as well) and possessions (he only owns about $6,000 worth of stuff, including furniture, clothing and, some Buddhist art), Justo insists that material possessions mean nothing to him.

And if he manages to make money again, he insists he won't be foolish with it.

"I'm creating a real estate empire based on love," he says, adding that he plans to give large chunks of his cash away to charity — once he puts a million dollars each in the bank accounts of his mother and aunt.

"In the past, I created my own hell. I needed to be brought to my knees," he says. "Whatever you believe, you create. Today, I live in a world with all possibilities."

But for Justo, those possibilities still include luxury. "I've been rich and I've been poor, and I like being rich a lot better," he says.

He says that after he pays his family back, he wants a yacht. And maybe a personal chef.

Which begs the question: Has he really learned from his mistakes?

He's back and ready to sell
It's 8:30 a.m. on a bright Miami morning and Justo has assembled a dozen people in his penthouse. They sit in a circle facing the boss and drinking coffee.

Four of Justo's "Billion-Dollar Team" are in attendance. One of his lawyers is there. So is Justo's masseuse. And a banker who is foreclosing on the penthouse. There's also an interior designer, a former client who owns a $12 million estate and the architect who is designing Michael Jordan's Florida home.

Justo talks, nonstop, for nearly two hours. The message: He's back and ready to sell. If he is afraid of the future — one in which he has to borrow money to pay his bankruptcy attorney, his cell phone bill and food — he's not showing it. It seems as though Justo is actually having fun talking about his troubles.

"That Bernie Madoff guy, the day he came clean and said he stole all those millions, that's the day he was freed," Justo says.

It's Justo's acceptance of his failure that will propel him back to the top, his friends say.

"I fully expect him to land on his feet," says Jeffrey Rubenstein, one of Justo's lawyers. "He owns what has happened to him. In this day and age and particularly in Miami, that's a very unusual thing."

But his brother, Alex Justo, is worried.

"To me, I don't think my brother needs what he's trying to build again," said Alex, who thinks his brother should focus on what he's good at — selling — and not involve others in his success. "Forget about making this billion dollar whatever. There's no other Realtor in town that does what my brother does. He's a genius."

Justo and two of his agents descend from the penthouse and hop in a Range Rover — the Rolls Royce is long gone — and they begin a daylong frenzy of appointments and meetings. First, a cup of turbocharged Cuban coffee with his mother. Then, a powwow with his bankruptcy attorney. In the lobby, a flat-screen TV broadcasts a CNN headline: "Good Borrowers Go Bust!"

When Justo emerges from the hour-long meeting, an agent tells him that a Saudi Arabian sheik wants to know if there are any estate rentals in Miami for $20,000 a month. Justo orders the agent to follow up, immediately.

In the car, there are calls to clients, showings arranged, listings discussed. Then, a break for lunch.

There are no more three-hour lunches. Justo and a few of his agents go to South Beach to eat on lounge chairs on the sand. His sales manager — a man from Macedonia who started as his chauffeur three years ago — totes a small bottle of sake in a lunch pail for Justo. Another agent brings a plastic bag filled with plastic foam cartons of ceviche.

Justo kicks off his loafers and strips his white pajama-suit off. He's down to his black Speedo.

Finally, he's stopped talking. He runs on the sand alone, toward the turquoise ocean. Wading into the water, he dives, head first, into a wave.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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