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In the Hillsborough courthouse, this janitor knew all the dirt

Once upon a time there was no place more intriguing than the Hillsborough courthouse — the politics, the judges stepping down for conduct unbecoming, the endless variety of cases.

And always, there was Lorenzo, haunting the halls in his blue custodian shirt. Sometimes he carried a broom, though you did not often see him actually sweep. Lorenzo had things to do.

After his unexpected death this week, even people who knew him for decades wrinkled their brows when you asked his last name. He was Lorenzo. Like Sting or Cher.

When I was a new reporter, he no more than politely "hello-ed" me until one day he stood nearby in the hallway, not looking at me. "If I was a reporter," he drawled, "I'd be in Courtroom 12 right about now." I hightailed it in to find a big-money defendant entering a plea at an unscheduled hearing, clearly hoping it would happen away from the prying eyes of the press. Trust Lorenzo.

"He was a character," says Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober. "He told me a lot of things I dare not even repeat."

Did he know people? Circuit Judge Ron Ficarrotta remembers being up for a judicial appointment and Lorenzo telling him who to contact. "And I'll tell you what," the judge says, "they were the people to contact."

Ask him to predict judicial elections? This was the guy you'd want at your elbow in Vegas, blowing on the dice.

"He knew where all the skeletons were," says Channel 13 reporter Warren Elly. "Unforgettable character — heart of gold, and you always had the sense he knew more than he was telling you."

You knew he was deeply involved in his church, but you never knew his age. He could summon you from across the courthouse with a single shout, or busy himself with his broom and fade janitor-like into the woodwork, if it suited him. And if you happened to run into him at an evening affair, he would be in a suit that looked like three months of a downtown lawyer's salary.

Once lawyers were arguing before a judge about an alternate juror left in the jury room for deliberations. They wanted to be sure no one else might be in there who shouldn't. Who do you think is going to be in there? the judge asked. "Lorenzo?" The courtroom laughed. He could be anywhere.

In a broom closet he fashioned a tiny office, and the joke was he kept a fully stocked bar and did his important business there. "That guy had the courthouse wired," said former prosecutor Nick Cox, now Department of Children and Families regional director.

When he retired from the courthouse gig, lawyers chipped in thousands for a bash in Ybor City. People roasted him and stood by a life-sized cardboard Lorenzo for pictures.

Then he was a "courthouse liaison" in those sharp suits and elegant ties. "You could have an order that needed signing right away, and he would walk up to the bench and get it signed," says his new boss, lawyer Frank de la Grana. Though his death was terrible and unexpected — what appears to be a fall at his home — friends said Lorenzo long planned his own service, down to, you would not be surprised to hear, which elegant tie he would wear.

A "Homegoing Celebration" for Lorenzo Fraines Hayes will be Saturday at 11 a.m. at Greater New Salem Primitive Baptist Church, 1605 N Nebraska Ave., Tampa.

In the Hillsborough courthouse, this janitor knew all the dirt 01/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 8:56pm]
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