Feb. 16, 2009 -- "Keep your head low," cautioned Carlos Justo as he ran under the whirling blades of a helicopter that landed on a vacant lot on Miami Beach's star-studded Star Island -- some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the country.
Within seconds he was onboard and heading for the sky. Justo doesn't miss a beat.
"This is Puff Daddy right here," he said, pointing out the helicopter window at an impressive waterside mansion. "Next home is owned by the Estefans -- I sold that to them. Two doors down is Rosie O'Donnell."
When the Miami real estate market was hot, Justo was red hot, selling $200 million in real estate in one year to multimillionaires and billionaires. He used a helicopter the way most agents use a car.
"Miami is flat," he said, raising his voice in the noisy cabin but clearly reveling in the moment. "Once you get up in the air it changes your whole perspective. That's where the magic happens!"
Justo admits that the helicopter is part of his real estate arsenal. In better times, he chartered helicopters every week to show premium clients prospective homes.
"Typically, whenever I get them in a helicopter, they see it differently. I get them forever. They end up saying, 'This is my thing. This is my guy,'" he said.
Biggest Fish in Shark-Infested Real Estate Market
Just a few years ago a program called "Million Dollar Agents" on the TLC cable channel celebrated Justo as the biggest fish in Miami's shark-infested pool of real estate agents.
When times were good he toured around town in his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce. Million-dollar homes weren't his business. He was only interested in multimillion-dollar homes, and the people who owned them or wanted to.
That was then. Today, the Rolls has been replaced by a Land Rover. The high flyer who was worth $20 million in 2005 is now $12 million dollars in debt and declaring bankruptcy.
For a while, Justo's home was a $7 million waterside Miami mansion. But when the market tanked, he could no longer afford the taxes -- $135,000 a year -- and the mortgage.
"I owned this home and we did the renovation and it didn't sell for about six months," he said as he stood on the driveway. Justo says he lost over $2 million on his own home alone.
His story is typical of many speculators -- it's just that the dollar amounts involved are, in his case, so staggeringly high. At the market peak, he owned 12 homes and carried $50 million in mortgages. Seven have been repossessed by the banks, and the remaining five are all facing foreclosure.
It is a story of a spectacular rise and fall.
From Janitor to Agent to the Stars
Justo came to Miami from Cuba in 1967 at age 11. He never finished high school. His first jobs included bagging groceries at Publix, flipping burgers at McDonald's and wiping floors as a janitor. It took him 30 years to become a multimillionaire. Soon, it will all be gone.
But Justo isn't looking for sympathy.
"I don't know what happened," said the agent, sporting his trademark shaved head and white linen shirt and pants as he looked out the window of the downtown Miami penthouse that he will soon lose to the bank. "What I do know happened is I did it, it was all my doing."
With disarming candor, Justo says he knows what drove him.
"Greed. Ego. Nothing is ever enough," he said. "When the ego drives you, it's like, it's more, more and more. I have no idea what I wanted to do, but some part of me wanted to create more."
By every measure it worked very well … for a while. But today, Justo is scrambling to keep his business alive and his head above water as bankruptcy court looms and 12 lawsuits threaten to sink him.
"Here's what happened with me," he said. "My business is selling real estate and [when] I decided to become an investor, that was really my downfall."
He admits he was initially overwhelmed by that downfall, and for a fleeting moment he even considered suicide. Instead, he decided to confront his demons and clean up the mess he made by declaring personal bankruptcy, and then try to rebuild.
America's Richest Village
Sitting crossed-legged in the back seat of his Land Rover -- no seat belt for this fast-talking entrepreneur -- Justo punched away at his BlackBerry as he barked commands to his driver, Miki, a protégé who dreams of making it rich like his boss did.
Justo insists he needs a driver because he's so erratic behind the wheel, but it's clear he likes this perk and he'll hold onto it as long as he can.
Miki steered the vehicle toward a gated bridge off North Miami Beach -- the entrance to Indian Creek Village, one of the most exclusive addresses in America, sometimes called Billionaires' Row. It is a 300-acre island in Biscayne Bay with just 32 homes, its own golf course, and a police force of 14.
Carl Icahn lives here, so does Julio Iglesias, so does Don Shula.
In Indian Creek, a starter home goes for $10 million.
Justo's destination was a relatively modest pink house sitting in a sea of flowers and grass on a two-acre lot. Anne McDougal has wintered here since 1972. She bought the house for less than $200,000 back then. Today she's looking for $11 million for it. It's her third home, and she'd like to simplify her life.
Justo had an offer to present, but McDougal cut him off.
"You know I am interested only in money," she said.
"Let me give you the basic numbers," Justo said. "Two million dollars now, and then they would lease the home for up to five years."
It's a convoluted lease-buy deal. Justo insists creative deals like this are necessary to move houses in a down market, but McDougal wasn't interested. And it didn't dampen her enthusiasm for Justo.
"He is a fabulous, fabulous person," she said. "And he brings an excitement wherever he goes, and he is inspiring that way."
And although Justo is dealing with his own personal bankruptcy and massive debt, McDougal still believes in him.
"His personality is the same, and my feeling is that he will probably be back in a great position again," she said. "This is his excitement."
Millionaires and Buddhist Monks
The vista from Justo's soon-to-be-repossessed penthouse on Miami's Brickell Avenue is spectacular. There's a clear view of the ocean in three directions. The morning sunrise beams through the two-story living room.
The sound that comes from the living room is unlike anything found in other homes in Miami. There is a rhythmic chanting and a series of soothing hums.
This unorthodox real estate agent has opened his crumbling empire to half a dozen Buddhist monks who are spending a month in Miami as they tour the world. Justo says he's not Buddhist, but insists he learns from their serenity.
"No matter what it is, they are so fulfilled and satisfied with nothing," he said as he prepared to meditate with them. But he added that he couldn't abandon his life's work to become a monk. "I'm going to continue to sell real estate because I love what I do."
First he has to clean up his personal financial and legal mess. And the real estate market has to recover. He thinks that's at least two years away.
"The foreclosures must end," he said. "They must go back. There are a lot of people right now that have properties that should not have them, me included. I should stick to what I know, being a real estate salesman, not trying to be a real estate investor. In the future, I've learned my lesson well."
Carlos Justo, the high-flyer who appears so unshaken by his crash to earth, says when the market comes back, he'll be ready.
And when it does he promises he'll be rich again. Very rich.