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Accusations of arson and car bombing fly at Clearwater retiree mecca

CLEARWATER — Ivan "Van" Farber, 68, careens through suburban traffic beneath a Florida sky the color of ash and indigo, squinting against the wind as his convertible speeds and slows.

Farber's is a face that could have adorned a coin of the Roman Empire, a sloping brow and strong nose that easily express aggrieved dignity. His erratic handling of this Ford Mustang might lack gravitas, but he is nervous just now, as befits a man running from unseen enemies.

It's not his car, anyway. His car went up in flames on Easter.

"My car blew up here," he says, once he has reached his destination, the On Top of the World retirement community off U.S. 19 in Clearwater. Standing in an empty parking space encrusted with melted tire rubber, Farber shakes his head and gestures toward his boarded-up, second-floor condo, damaged twice in recent weeks by arson.

"It's beyond imagination," he says in a Bronx accent. "It's not what people retired to be able to do."

On the stairway, Farber meets an elderly woman whose eyes widen when his white hair and graven features bob into view. He says hello. She moves uneasily toward the elevator.

"She's afraid," Farber says when she is gone. "They're all afraid."

Something strange is going on at On Top of the World, an internationally themed complex for residents age 55 and over.

Turn on Australia Way, drive past the Moorish arches of Building 5 ("Old World Spanish") and the tall, white columns of Building 6 ("Grecian Classic") and you will arrive at Building 7, in the "English Tudor" style, pale taupe walls with brown trim.

Three times in the past two months this place has been an active crime scene. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is investigating the explosion of Farber's car and two fires in his condo as suspected arsons.

But this is the setting for a story that goes back further than that. It is a tale of old age ignited by bitter passions, equal parts Pulp Fiction and Cocoon.

It is the story of Van Farber and his neighbors, and its ending is not yet clear.

• • •

On Top of the World was built in the 1960s. The complex of about 6,500 residents — one of the state's first retiree mega-communities — combines an aggressively modern architectural sensibility with Old Florida kitsch.

Its entrance is a triumphal arch on Sunset Point Road, opening on a blue-and-gold globe and parkway lined with bare-breasted Greco-Roman statues. Beyond are rows of cruciform apartment buildings, each with its own It's a Small World-style decorative theme.

Farber moved here in 2000. Before that, he said, he was a schoolteacher and entrepreneur in his native New York City and in Pennsylvania.

On the side, he pursued an interest in progressive political causes. He claims to have worked as a young man for former New York Sens. Robert Kennedy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and says his grandfather, a Jewish barber in the Bronx, was a drinking buddy of political patriarch Joseph Kennedy.

Those claims could not be independently verified, but a more recent piece of his resume is less grandiose: In 2010, he served as a campaign consultant for the late Shelly Leonard, an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives.

On Sunday night, March 31, Farber said he was watching Masterpiece Theatre at a neighbor's condo when he heard an explosion. Stepping outside, he saw his car on fire. Others had gathered in the parking lot. One of them, Farber said, was rubbing his hands and laughing in the flames' ruddy glow: his 64-year-old neighbor, George Landis.

Once, the men were friends. When Landis first moved in, Farber, a longtime resident, took the newcomer under his wing. He took him to baseball games, Farber said, and gave him a bicycle as a token of fellowship.

Things changed at a Tampa Bay Rays game two years ago. While leaving Tropicana Field, Landis, who had been drinking, got in an altercation with a police officer.

According to court records, Landis was arrested and pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and assault on a law enforcement officer, receiving probation. But depending on whom you ask, the incident had more far-reaching consequences.

Farber said his cooperation with the police investigation turned Landis against him and led others at On Top of the World to brand him an informer.

"They have this snitch thing," Farber said. "You don't snitch on a neighbor."

It is Landis, Farber alleges in court documents, who planted a bomb in his car in retaliation for the episode. When that failed, Farber recently testified before a judge, Landis set fire to his condo twice in mid May. On both occasions, Farber wasn't home.

"He's threatened my life," Farber said. "The real frustration is that he's blown up my car, he's set off bombs in my condo, it's uninhabitable, and the sheriff's department doesn't have him in jail. It's unbelievable."

Landis is a shambling Vietnam veteran with hearing aids, watery hazel eyes and a thin mustache. About 5½ feet tall, he is 7 inches shorter and weighs 90 pounds less than Farber. He speaks in a slow and heavily sandpapered murmur that is the opposite of his antagonist's mile-a-minute drone.

Landis denies bombing Farber's car or setting fire to his condo. He acknowledges they had a falling out, but said it was over a business deal gone sour, not his arrest at the Rays game. He asserts that he gave Farber $37,000 for a condo at On Top of the World.

"Van sold it to me on a handshake," Landis said. "I'm from the old school." At the time, Landis admits, he was in the throes of a serious drinking problem.

Farber did not own the condo Landis believed he had bought; it is owned by Farber's son, Scott, a New York resident. Landis moved into the unit and continues to occupy it, but Scott Farber sued him in February, seeking to force him out.

Scott Farber declined to comment for this story. Van Farber denies ever taking money from Landis. "His whole story is a lie, start to finish," Farber said.

Elizabeth Minor, a 59-year-old Clearwater resident, loaned Farber the convertible he was driving on a recent afternoon. She said he is a benevolent figure in the English Tudor building, frequently taking neighbors along to his beloved Rays games and running errands for disabled occupants of the complex.

Minor said she once heard Landis make menacing remarks to Farber when she was visiting On Top of the World to go swimming. The recent fires have saddened and disturbed her. "I think it's horrific," she said. "I don't go over there anymore."

• • •

The mutual recriminations between Farber and Landis quickly become exhausting, but this is not a simple story of a one-on-one feud. Farber paints himself as a victimized Good Samaritan, but many who have dealt with him have a different view.

In his 12 years at On Top of the World, Farber has built an impressive record of disagreement with and alienation from his neighbors. Complaints against him have been extensively documented through letters to the complex's management team and reports to the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.

His alleged transgressions range from the obnoxious — hogging the building's storage space — to the weirdly aggressive. Cecile Sangiamo, 77, has lived at On Top of the World for 20 years. She said she was once at a potluck with Farber and Shelly Leonard, who had a pet cockatoo.

"I was repelled," she said. "Around food … the bird could just make his droppings. And the feathers." When she complained, she said, Farber threatened to throw her down a flight of stairs.

Three residents — Landis, Josephine Pleskach and Tom Kovach — have filed for restraining orders against Farber. He has also filed for injunctions against them, as well as against Roy Satkowski, the 66-year-old co-chairman of the English Tudor building residents' committee.

Even before the fires, the Sheriff's Office was involved. In March, Deputy Frank Felicetta was called after Farber, allegedly wielding a metal pipe or similar instrument, "started banging … on the ground and yelling loudly" at Landis, claiming Landis was violating a protective injunction by approaching him too closely.

"It appears (Farber) may be suffering from mental illness, as evidenced by his recent behavior," Felicetta wrote in a report. Farber was taken into custody under the Baker Act, a Florida law that allows for forcible psychiatric examination of those who might pose a danger to themselves or others.

Farber was released and two days later was charged with felony aggravated assault after he was accused of threatening Kovach, who is 70. Kovach was arrested the same day on a misdemeanor charge of violating one of Farber's injunctions. Both men have pleaded not guilty and the cases are pending.

In 2012, Satkowski wrote a letter to On Top of the World management warning that if Farber was "allowed to continue with this kind of behavior someone will be killed."

Landis, Kovach, Pleskach, Satkowski, Sangiamo — all distrust Farber and say they are exasperated with his dramatic tales of firebombs and threats upon his life. They say there is no mystery as to who destroyed his car or set the condo fires.

By their account, Farber did it all himself.

• • •

The strife at the English Tudor building is not unusual. Retirement communities and condominium associations can be bellicose environments. Disagreements over storage space, pool hours and pet policies can lead to surprising acrimony.

But rarely do they lead to a car in flames. Faced with the recent spate of arsons, a number of residents are voicing the suspicion that Farber is destroying his own property — endangering others in the process — in an attempt to frame Landis.

"It all pertains to what he's trying to do to George. He's trying to say that George did all this," Satkowski said. "He's done it himself. Everyone around here will testify to that." Satkowski acknowledges there is "no positive proof" of this claim.

Pleskach, 71, said she thinks there was no car bomb, only a fire that Farber lit in his own automobile, igniting something combustible. "He's a nutcase," she said.

Farber denies the allegations, calling them absurd. Neither the vehicle nor his home was insured, he says. He asserts that Pleskach, Satkowski and others who side with Landis are conspiring against him. Landis has gathered allies, Farber alleges, by volunteering to walk neighbors' dogs.

If someone at On Top of the World is responsible for the arsons, it is unclear where the elderly culprit came by the stealth and know-how to plant a car bomb and start two fires in a crowded building with nobody noticing. Managers at the condominium complex declined to comment, citing the pending criminal investigation.

Both Farber and Landis have had past troubles with the law. Before the Tropicana Field incident, Landis had pleaded guilty in Orange County to misdemeanor battery. Prior to his pending aggravated assault case, Farber was charged but acquitted for assault in Pennsylvania.

The obvious danger posed by repetitive arsons in a building filled with retirees has gotten the attention of public safety officials. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that his staff has briefed him about the incidents and that the investigation into the three suspected arsons is ongoing.

"Anything and everything is possible," Gualtieri said.

• • •

"I'm being made to live like Osama bin Laden."

Displaced by fire and concerned that law enforcement has turned its back on him, Farber has been moving from house to house, borrowing different cars and closely guarding his whereabouts. On a recent afternoon, he emerged from hiding to face Landis in court, asking Pinellas Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone to extend the range of his 5-foot restraining order.

The reason cited by Farber in his petition: "Respondent 'car bombed' my vehicle."

"I did too much fighting for civil rights in the '60s, and fighting against the Vietnam War, to let a punk like this scare me," Farber said, waiting for his hearing to begin in a hallway at the county courthouse in Clearwater. He likened himself to a notable African-American civil-rights activist whose home was firebombed in 1963.

"It was Medgar Evers' house that was bombed," he said. "Now it's my house that's getting bombed."

Bulone's courtroom is cavernous, with deep rows of benches similar to church pews. Specially designated for hearings on restraining orders, it feels hallowed by a history of intense conflict, like former battlefields.

Farber's voice filled the dimly lit chamber. Toting a battered leather briefcase, wearing a gray suit and red tie, he clutched the edges of the lectern and told Bulone that he feared for his life.

As the judge listened, thumb and index finger resting for long stretches on the bridge of his nose, Farber filibustered. He pleaded. He wept, at least three times. He bitterly recalled the distant era when he and Landis were on better terms.

"I got him a bike, your honor! He was a friend! I took him to a Rays game!"

Landis, attended by his lawyer, R. Curtis Murtha of Clearwater, was more subdued. Murtha argued that Farber was attempting to make it easier to misuse the injunction to have Landis arrested.

Farber won.

It was a small tactical victory in an incomplete war, requiring Landis to stay 100 feet from him at all times. Farber received the decision with expressionless calm; Landis shook his head in disgust.

Explaining his ruling, Bulone said merely that "circumstances had changed" since the previous injunction was issued. "This is a pretty serious situation," he said.

The judge did not weigh in on who might be culpable in the arsons, saying he would await the results of the Sheriff's Office investigation. The question of whether the voluble man in the red tie was more Medgar Evers or Osama bin Laden would have to wait for another day.

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield and news researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Accusations of arson and car bombing fly at Clearwater retiree mecca 06/01/13 [Last modified: Sunday, June 2, 2013 12:26am]

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