The wild early years of the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market were marked by fierce business rivalries, political corruption allegations, money-laundering busts, ties to Israeli organized crime — and even the murder of one of the market’s founders.
So it was fitting that the place was literally built on stolen dirt.
In 1984, its two founders looted a county road of 201,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel — enough to bury a football field 120 feet deep — to help fill in muckland in Northwest Dade County that would become home to Miami-Dade’s largest and most popular flea market.
But the colorful history extends far beyond the people running a place that will end its nearly four-decade run in September. The array of stuff for sale was astounding, from animals bound for religious sacrifices to high-end designer bags, or at least (not always legal) knock-offs, and everything else in between. And the entertainment! Boxing and wrestling matches under circus tents, fancy car shows, a multicultural mix of music, including an actual rave dance party.
And there were also those daring less successful efforts to expand the customer base. One etched in flea-market lore: the time six erotic dancers from nearby Club Rol-Lexx performed a wrestling match.
“On their way out, they stole everything they could,” recalled the market’s longtime general manager, Scott Miller. “We did not allow them to come back.”
Opa-locka, flea market capital
The market opened at 12705 NW 42nd Ave. in January 1985 as Opa-locka, best known for its Arabian architecture, sought to reinvent its struggling business community and become the “Flea Market Capital of South Florida.”
The faces of the venture: Joe Lazar and Ezra Tisona. Lazar was a former luggage vendor at the old Hialeah Swap Shop, and brought many other vendors along with him.
Within months of the opening, both were arrested and later put on probation for stealing the $1 million worth of sand and gravel to help fill in their property. A few years later, in 1986, Lazar would again be arrested, this time accused of paying $4,000 in bribes to a city official for “favorable treatment” for a flea market beset by code violations. The charges were later dropped.
As the Opa-locka Hialeah site was revving up, a challenger appeared — literally across the street — called the Miami Marketplace. The battle between them would eventually be dubbed the “Flea Market Wars” and was a fierce one, featuring allegations of political corruption, sneaky tactics and rumor mongering. The Marketplace long alleged that city officials gave Lazar’s group favorable treatment, even accusing one commissioner of helping funnel traffic away from its business and into the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market.
The flea market wars were a major political issue in the city. Opa-locka Mayor John Riley at one point was accused of pocketing illegal cash and perks from the flea market owners and criminals with interest in the operation. A female employee of Lazar’s later told police that he ordered her to have sex with Riley, which she did fearing she’d lose her job.
Riley was never charged with any wrongdoing but he lost the following political campaign. He actually went on to work with the flea market after his time in office ended. And despite his scandal-plagued mayoral tenure, he served as a commissioner again between 2016 and 2018, again drawing complaints about his unethical dealings with a city business.
Ultimately, the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market won the war. The Miami Marketplace shut down in 1989.
The Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market also came under the immediate scrutiny of Dade County organized crime investigators, who said they believed several well-known Israeli crime figures had “hidden interests” in the business, using it to launder money through the multitude of cash businesses.
“Joe was a great guy,” Sheldon Zipkin, Lazar’s friend and the flea market’s former longtime lawyer, later told the Herald. “All he really wanted to do was run a flea market. He sold his soul to the devil to fulfill that dream. It’s just that at the time, we didn’t recognize the devil for who he was.”
As detailed in a Miami Herald exposé in 1998, a group of Israeli crime figures involved in money laundering, jewelry heists and insurance fraud were tied to the flea market. For the Israeli mobsters, federal investigators told the Herald, the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market was a perfect place to launder dirty cash, all funneled through the marketplace’s myriad of cash businesses. Six booth operators, including two Israelis, were later charged by the feds with money laundering.
“It was an interesting time — and an interesting bunch of characters,” said Jack Devaney, a former U.S. Customs agent who spearheaded the money-laundering probe dubbed “Operation Flea Scam.”
Two of the Israeli men were charged with laundering more than $1 million in just four months of 1990.
“We’re talking about a few months’ work for these guys,” said Devaney, now a Doral police detective. “We’ll never know how many millions went through those booths in six years.”
Lazar had a falling out with two of the men in 1989 and was soon planning a venture for a new flea market down the road.
But on April 5, 1990, men posing as cops pulled Lazar over in Northeast Miami-Dade and shot him to death. He was killed one day before he was to meet with FBI agents to dish on Israeli organized crime figures. His murder remains unsolved.
Miller, the former general manager, said he believes the Israeli organized crime presence was overblown — and either way, the market was sold by the early 1990s, the Israelis purged from the business. Lazar’s original partner Tisona and others returned to Israel.
A New Chapter
The market thrived under new ownership in the 1990s, becoming a local cultural icon thanks to its catchy TV jingle and its place as a vital marketplace for African Americans, Hispanics and immigrants from across the Caribbean.
When Hurricane Andrew walloped South Florida in 1992, the storm blew off the gates, killed electricity and flooded parts of the parking lot. Business never stopped after that — the market began operating seven days a week, eventually drawing roughly 100,000 visitors a week, rain or shine. “People had to shop,” Miller said. “The generator and tool people went crazy.”
The sheer amount of goods available at the market was mind-boggling — including snakes, chickens, fish, giant exotic birds. A Herald reporter, browsing for a bird cage, once saw for sale a nutria, the giant swamp rat native to South America.
And, of course, there were the stolen goods that inevitably ended up for sale. And there were counterfeit products of all sorts, enough that luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton sued the market. In 2006, two importers who sold bogus Vuitton goods and Rolex watches got sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Miller says he responded by getting Louis Vuitton to train him how to spot counterfeit goods.
The market also has had its share of on-site tragedies.
Despite measures to lock down access to the roof of a tall bathroom building, a handyman stacked two picnic tables, climbed to the top and jumped off to his death in a suicide. In 1993, a 14-year-old honor student, Dayan Aparicio, who worked part-time at the flea market to save money to buy a computer, collapsed and died of an un-diagnosed heart ailment.
Then there were the occasional acts of violence, like the time an aspiring cop robbed a man of $18,000 at the flea market, and shot another man. He was arrested when he showed up to the Opa-locka Police Department for a job interview.
Most infamously, husband-and-wife jewelry vendors Jonada and Angela Campos were shot to death in a robbery in 2003. DNA hits led to the arrests of three men. The victims’ family later settled a lawsuit against the flea market over lax security.
The market proved a gathering spot for more than just shopping.
Fresh off the Florida election debacle of 2000, officials introduced newfangled touch-screen voting machines in 2002. Months before any elections, the NAACP, Miami-Dade elections and the market hosted a special event so people could learn how to use the machines.
Over the decades, the sprawling marketplace served as an entertainment hub — one far removed from the glitz of South Beach, and later Wynwood.
Children scampered on playgrounds, rode a Ferris wheel and slid down inflatable water slides. Salsa, reggae, hip-hop, Caribbean soca — music nights were regular events, as were Super Bowl parties and showcases of tricked-out classic cars.
Even until recent months, wrestling nights were also a mainstay, early stops for wrestlers who would go on to become national celebrities in the fight world. The pro wrestler M.V.P. — a Miami native who is well-known to national wrestling fans — even took to Twitter with news of the closing.
“Damn. My 1st wrestling match took place here. For Miami this is the end of an [era],” he wrote to his over 420,000 Twitter followers.
Circuits like the Coastal Championship Wrestling set up shop in the flea market food court, or sometimes the parking lot, trotting out fighters with names like the Ricky “Cuban Assassin” Santana from the Barrio Brothers, Vanilla Vargas, Josh ‘El Jefe’ Santos and Gangrel the Vampire Warrior.
For CCW, the flea market was an important venue, drawing a diverse array of fight fans, curious shoppers and vendors.
“It was the perfect place to put a lot of the younger guys, to see how they feel. It was a relaxed, fun weekend thing and for a lot of the guys, it was not as nerve-wracking as one of our more official shows,” said executive director Nelio Costa, aka “The Brazilian Destroyer.”
The Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market helped the CCW grow throughout the 2010s — today, the company runs a training school and hosts events throughout Florida, including a monthly “Bash at the Brew” night in nearby Hialeah.
“A lot of the fans, they remember seeing us in Opa-locka. It was a diverse crowd, and it was part of us growing as a company,” Costa said. “It felt like real Miami.”