Date: 2004/04/25 Sunday Page: 009 Section: NEWS Edition: FINAL Size: 1096 words
Series: THE FUGITIVE PHILANTHROPIST
Read main story A LIFE OF Money and myths
By BRIAN DONOHUE
STAR-LEDGER STAFF - HAVANA
- Down a quiet, sun-baked road, past the yachts, hotels and Che Guevara
billboards, Herbert Axelrod sits in an
oceanfront bungalow at the Hemingway Marina, a fugitive from justice, poring
over photographs of hamsters.
Back in Newark, federal prosecutors have built a case charging the
76-year-old pet-book magnate with concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in
Swiss bank accounts. Violin appraisers are questioning the value of the stringed
instruments he bestowed on the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Former business
associates are calling him a fraud.
Axelrod began this Friday, two days ago,
fishing from his 52-foot boat, hooking five small marlin. Now, barefoot in a
black and white summer kimono, he sits at a wooden kitchen table, working on the
latest in a long line of pet-care books that have earned him what he calls "a
special kind of life."
At the far end of the table lie stacks of notes for two books that will
follow the guide on hamsters - one on geckos, the other on American rat snakes.
This life - a retirement split between Europe and Cuba, a place where he can
fish every day, smoke Habana cigars and work on his pet books - has always been
And Axelrod is sticking with the plan.
At his age, he says, he's got no time or energy to waste fighting a federal
prosecutor who has an arrest warrant for him, or spending his days in court - or
maybe even prison.
"I'm an old man," he says, then adds, "I worked hard all my life and I want
Axelrod says he is dumbfounded as to why they
are coming after him. Hundreds of thousands of people cheat on their taxes every
year, he says - why would the government go after him? The charges against him
stem from a misunderstanding, he says, or perhaps a bookkeeping error someone
Certainly it is something that could have been cleared up by the IRS coming
to him and asking him to settle up. He says he can only conclude that the
authorities want him for one reason:
"It's because I'm rich," he says. "I'm a tycoon. And they're coming after the
Bearded and almost cherubic, Axelrod looks
not unlike the photos of Ernest Hemingway that seem to adorn nearly every corner
of the marina.
If he were to write a book telling his own life story,
Axelrod says, "you wouldn't believe it."
It is a life that has taken him, he says, from gathering eels in the shallows
of Newark Bay as a boy to trekking naked through the Amazon in search of rare
tropical fish. He says he gathered specimens with Emperor Hirohito and he even
managed to outfit his beloved New Jersey Symphony Orchestra with the world's
greatest set of classical instruments.
But now, it is Axelrod himself who cannot
believe the turn the story has taken.
His $60-a-day bungalow sits in a section of the marina called Villa Paraiso,
a group of about 15 bungalows surrounding a pool and a small restaurant. Villa
Paraiso (paraiso means "paradise") lies a half-mile past the main marina.
Visitors walk across a small bridge and pass by a second gatehouse manned by a
pair of uniformed guards.
Axelrod says he has been coming here for 25
years. He loves the island's extraordinary fishing, its people, the cigars. Now
Cuba may offer something else - protection from the law.
Cuba's lack of an extradition treaty with the United States - along with
President Fidel Castro's propensity for thumbing his nose at the U.S. government
- has made it somewhat of a haven for American fugitives.
Joanne Chesimard, the former Black Panther who escaped prison after killing a
New Jersey State Police trooper, is living on the island nation.
Axelrod utters Chesimard's name in
astonishment, as though he can't believe he is in her company. While Chesimard
has been granted asylum by Castro, he is unsure what will happen to him.
He would like someday to come back to New Jersey, he said, but is not sure
that's possible now.
His eyes grow glassy when he discusses his future:
"Here I am and I don't know if Cuba's going to want me here - turn me over or
send me away."
News of the outside world is hard to get in Cuba, where the Communist
government keeps a tight lid on information and newspapers and Internet access
are hard to come by. Axelrod's wife, Evelyn,
calls him with the news on a daily basis. He will not say where she is calling
He says questions about his business practices and his claims to various
discoveries and adventures are nothing more than the bitter complaints of people
who failed to achieve hard-earned success equal to his own.
His adversaries scoffed at his tales of naked treks along Amazon tributaries
with native tribesmen; they accused him of lying when he claimed years ago to
have discovered a new species of fish.
"No matter what you do, you will have critics because they should have done
what you did," he said. "So they criticize you."
He is sorry that his generosity is being questioned - philanthropy is
something he learned as a boy in Bayonne and it's a source of huge pride.
In his childhood home, he says, his family kept a small metal box where they
would put change to be given to orphanages.
He says his first business was selling eels and blue claw crabs he caught in
Newark Bay to the Chinese owners of Bayonne dry cleaners. "I made more money
than my father."
He is not angry about what's happened to him, he says, adding he does "not
want to fill my life with hate."
Axelrod moves to a leather cushioned chair
and props his feet upon a bamboo footrest.
On his coffee table sit two Tupperware-style canisters of long dark cigars.
Alongside the cigars is a phone message from an American reporter and a doctor's
report outlining his high blood pressure and chest pains.
"I'm an old man. I'm not looking forward to spending any time in a jail or
fighting this thing."
Animated, full of stories about his exploits, he finally escorts his visitors
to the door of his bungalow. The coconut trees sway in the breeze; boats bearing
scuba divers and fishermen coast peacefully across an aquamarine inlet.
Axelrod invites his guests to come fishing
with him the next day on his boat, docked just up the road. The interview has
lasted two hours and he is still telling stories as the guests leave. And it's
clear he could keep talking for two hours more.
PHOTO CAPTION: 1. Fugitive Herbert
Axelrod wears a summer kimono outside his one-bedroom bungalow in the Villa
Paraiso section of Hemingway Marina Friday. 2. As a security guard watches, a
crew member boards the Lady Ev II, Axelrod's
52-foot sportfishing boat, Friday in the marina. 3. A family pedals past
Axelrod's bungalow yesterday. A federal judge
issued a warrant for the arrest of the philanthropist-turned-fugitive after
Axelrod failed to appear in court Wednesday.
CREDIT: PHOTOS BY ANDREW MILLS/THE STAR-LEDGER