A mansion fire ultimately exposes the real story behind an enviable life of wealth and privilege in a household led by a would-be authoritarian strongman who betrays his friends and family while exploiting political predicaments for personal profit.
By Moses Frenck
I’m sitting in the back seat of a Rolls-Royce Silver Spur screaming down the Florida Turnpike at close to 130 miles per hour. The flashing blue police light attached magnetically to the roof signals our urgency and our presumably official status.
Suddenly, we’re pulled over by the Florida Highway Patrol and, upon stopping on the shoulder, the driver of the Rolls—a middle-aged, robust man, well dressed and with a thick Spanish accent—jumps out of the car and power-walks to the cop car behind us while holding up his credentials, hollering: “You do not know who am I?! Call to me your supervisor immediately!”
After listening to the driver of the Rolls explain that he’s on a secret government mission, the state trooper apologizes for pulling him over and lets him go. The driver, Zigi, was my stepfather. I don’t know what secret mission Zigi told the cop we were on. I just remember it as us driving home from a family trip to Walt Disney World. I was a kid, and together with me in the back seat was my younger sister Kathy and step siblings Isy and Isa, the twins. It was 1987. I was 15.
Were we really on a secret mission? Is that why Zigi didn’t hang out with us in Disney? He and my mom went off together, while us siblings enjoyed the parks on our own. Our trip didn’t seem all that official, certainly not some important trip of intrigue. In fact, just minutes earlier, somebody in the car had passed gas and Zigi demanded to know who was responsible. No one fessed up, so he threatened that as soon as we got home he would sniff everyone’s pants to determine the culprit, and that person would be grounded for an entire month!
That’s part of what it was like growing up with Zigi. In this particular instance Zigi did not follow through on his threat, which was unlike him. By the time we arrived at home he had forgotten to smell our pants, and the gas-passer was never revealed. But punishments like that were not uncommon, and that was a mild one. What enraged Zigi more was that we were lying or withholding information from him. Punishment and intimidation was how Zigi ruled. How he maintained control.
Isy, who’s a few years younger than me, remembers one time a state trooper actually gave us a police escort and the car we were driving was a Bentley Turbo R. Another time, Zigi took possession of an Aston Martin Lagonda in Washington, D.C., and he brought Isy and me along to drive back to Florida with him. In that car, with its futuristic, talking digital dashboard, we probably hit speeds approaching 150 miles per hour.
But how and why did we have those luxury cars, with police lights? And, for that matter, speedboats and yachts, and live in mansions and frequently travel the world first class? Where did this money come from? And when we did travel internationally, why did we often bypass customs at the airport? Not just U.S. Customs, but also Peruvian Customs and Brazilian Customs. Why did we have that kind of access? Why were our family friends prominent politicians, government officials, military generals and businessmen from various countries? Why did the president of Peru come to our house for dinner? And was a different president of Peru behind the explosion that burned down our house?
He married my mother and killed my father. That’s the sentence I intended to use initially to start this story, but the reality is much murkier and more complicated, with so many angles, and the truth buried somewhere within.
Yet, this is not the story of Zigi. It is the story of the reality of growing up in a world so foreign to what you are supposed to experience, what your closest friends experience, what the world thinks you’re experiencing. This story offers a glimpse into what from the outside appeared to be an idyllic life, but in reality was far from it.