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He's trying to put his cares behind him
Axelrod's chief worry now is whether Castro will allow him to stay
Sunday, April 25, 2004
BY BRIAN DONOHUE

HAVANA -- Down a quiet, sun-baked road, past the yachts, hotels and Che Guevara billboards, Herbert Axelrod sits in an oceanfront bungalow at the Hemingway Marina, a fugitive from justice, poring over photographs of hamsters.

Back in Newark, federal prosecutors have built a case charging the 76-year-old pet-book magnate with concealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Violin appraisers are questioning the value of the stringed instruments he bestowed on the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Former business associates are calling him a fraud.

Axelrod began this Friday, two days ago, fishing from his 52-foot boat, hooking five small marlin. Now, barefoot in a black and white summer kimono, he sits at a wooden kitchen table, working on the latest in a long line of pet-care books that have earned him what he calls "a special kind of life."

At the far end of the table lie stacks of notes for two books that will follow the guide on hamsters -- one on geckos, the other on American rat snakes.

This life -- a retirement split between Europe and Cuba, a place where he can fish every day, smoke Habana cigars and work on his pet books -- has always been his plan.

And Axelrod is sticking with the plan.

At his age, he says, he's got no time or energy to waste fighting a federal prosecutor who has an arrest warrant for him, or spending his days in court -- or maybe even prison.

"I'm an old man," he says, then adds, "I worked hard all my life and I want to relax."

Axelrod says he is dumbfounded as to why they are coming after him. Hundreds of thousands of people cheat on their taxes every year, he says -- why would the government go after him? The charges against him stem from a misunderstanding, he says, or perhaps a bookkeeping error someone made.

Certainly it is something that could have been cleared up by the IRS coming to him and asking him to settle up. He says he can only conclude that the authorities want him for one reason:

"It's because I'm rich," he says. "I'm a tycoon. And they're coming after the tycoons now."

Bearded and almost cherubic, Axelrod looks not unlike the photos of Ernest Hemingway that seem to adorn nearly every corner of the marina.

If he were to write a book telling his own life story, Axelrod says, "you wouldn't believe it."

It is a life that has taken him, he says, from gathering eels in the shallows of Newark Bay as a boy to trekking naked through the Amazon in search of rare tropical fish. He says he gathered specimens with Emperor Hirohito and he even managed to outfit his beloved New Jersey Symphony Orchestra with the world's greatest set of classical instruments.

But now, it is Axelrod himself who cannot believe the turn the story has taken.

His $60-a-day bungalow sits in a section of the marina called Villa Paraiso, a group of about 15 bungalows surrounding a pool and a small restaurant. Villa Paraiso (paraiso means "paradise") lies a half-mile past the main marina. Visitors walk across a small bridge and pass by a second gatehouse manned by a pair of uniformed guards.

Axelrod says he has been coming here for 25 years. He loves the island's extraordinary fishing, its people, the cigars. Now Cuba may offer something else -- protection from the law.

Cuba's lack of an extradition treaty with the United States -- along with President Fidel Castro's propensity for thumbing his nose at the U.S. government -- has made it somewhat of a haven for American fugitives.

Joanne Chesimard, the former Black Panther who escaped prison after killing a New Jersey State Police trooper, is living on the island nation.

Axelrod utters Chesimard's name in astonishment, as though he can't believe he is in her company. While Chesimard has been granted asylum by Castro, he is unsure what will happen to him.

He would like someday to come back to New Jersey, he said, but is not sure that's possible now.

His eyes grow glassy when he discusses his future:

"Here I am and I don't know if Cuba's going to want me here -- turn me over or send me away."

News of the outside world is hard to get in Cuba, where the Communist government keeps a tight lid on information and newspapers and Internet access are hard to come by. Axelrod's wife, Evelyn, calls him with the news on a daily basis. He will not say where she is calling him from.

He says questions about his business practices and his claims to various discoveries and adventures are nothing more than the bitter complaints of people who failed to achieve hard-earned success equal to his own.

His adversaries scoffed at his tales of naked treks along Amazon tributaries with native tribesmen; they accused him of lying when he claimed years ago to have discovered a new species of fish.

"No matter what you do, you will have critics because they should have done what you did," he said. "So they criticize you."

He is sorry that his generosity is being questioned -- philanthropy is something he learned as a boy in Bayonne and it's a source of huge pride.

In his childhood home, he says, his family kept a small metal box where they would put change to be given to orphanages.

He says his first business was selling eels and blue claw crabs he caught in Newark Bay to the Chinese owners of Bayonne dry cleaners. "I made more money than my father."

He is not angry about what's happened to him, he says, adding he does "not want to fill my life with hate."

Axelrod moves to a leather cushioned chair and props his feet upon a bamboo footrest.

On his coffee table sit two Tupperware-style canisters of long dark cigars. Alongside the cigars is a phone message from an American reporter and a doctor's report outlining his high blood pressure and chest pains.

"I'm an old man. I'm not looking forward to spending any time in a jail or fighting this thing."

Animated, full of stories about his exploits, he finally escorts his visitors to the door of his bungalow. The coconut trees sway in the breeze; boats bearing scuba divers and fishermen coast peacefully across an aquamarine inlet.

Axelrod invites his guests to come fishing with him the next day on his boat, docked just up the road. The interview has lasted two hours and he is still telling stories as the guests leave. And it's clear he could keep talking for two hours more.

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