About 20 miles from Disney’s Magic Kingdom sits another Florida kingdom of sorts, a 1928-built concrete block stucco mansion that looks straight out of a Billy Wilder film. It is surrounded by 13 acres of “Old Florida” views and has a bass-filled lake that would make an angler’s mouth water. Palm trees wave from an approaching afternoon storm. Clydesdale horses are corralled near the front entrance, grazing in this central Florida Xanadu.
This 5,854-square foot home was once the vacation home of Khalil bin Laden, brother of Osama bin Laden. Khalil purchased the home in 1980 for $1.6 million as a modest wedding gift for his wife. The old bin Laden spot sat abandoned for five years in the years after 9/11, when Khalil and his wife had boarded a Saudi jet and headed off to sweet safehaven. As deserted mansions often do, it went to seed, pocked with dust, broken windows, and bullet holes. It also became a hot spot for Florida’s intrepid urban explorers. Khalil finally sold the sucker, during the mid-2000s Florida real estate boom, for $4,043,800.
The new owner, Aleem Hussain, the majority holder of a development company, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2007 for running a $9 million dollar real-estate scam. Soon after it was foreclosed upon, and then snatched up by a local investment group.
So, who the hell lives there now? I decided take a drive out and have a look. It couldn’t hurt to show up and knock. On the way there, I became a bit concerned about showing up uninvited. Would there be an armed guard on the premises? The only thing that I had in my car to defend myself was a freshly-purchased Cajun turducken. For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to purchase my Thanksgiving meal before going out to take a look at the bin Laden mansion.
I pulled up to the side entrance of the compound. A ranch gate stood wide open. Two cars were parked in the driveway. In the backhouse of the lot, I saw a shadowed man sitting on a couch in front of a computer. I went over to meet him. He introduced himself as John LeClaire.
John, who seemed like a combination of Ernest T. Bass and Ernest P. Worrel, told me he had a lease purchase agreement on the house. He was kind enough to give me a grand tour of the property, starting with the Clydesdales.
“I got four of them—one’s name is Raj, you know like those Arabians,” John said.
“Why Clydesdales?” I asked.
He said he rents out the entire place for weddings and private events. We headed towards the main house, but made a pit stop at his 1980s speedboat sitting up on a trailer. He tried to sell it to me on the spot for $5,500.
Minutes later John offered up the entire property. “You can take it off my hands right now for $2.5 million,” he said. “You got a rich family? Friends who are rich? I’m looking for a partner in this thing, I got an $8,000 mortgage payment—hell, it’s only money.”
John said that when he was cleaning up the house and removing pine trees from the yard, he stumbled on the unexpected.
“We dug big holes to get out the pines and at the bottom of the holes were stairs,” John said. “I thought I hit the jackpot—bin Laden’s vault.” He said. John had all his guys come over and start the big dig.
“It was just all asses and elbows, digging as far as we could—if I were to have found something, it would have been mine,” John said. “If it’s on my property, I can be a bro-dick if I want to.”
I Googled bro-dick as soon as I left John’s house. Nothing. John said that they eventually figured out that the stairs were from a pool that had been built in the 1920s. John took me to the main house. The interior looked like a permanent wedding reception. There was no home furniture throughout—rooms were outfitted with event seating and silver buffet trays, but mostly the place was empty.
“What do you do for a living?” I blurted out. He was wearing a World Series of Poker hat. He said he made some money off of poker, but not all of it.
“I’m a paralegal for a bankruptcy law firm,” he said.
Just a paralegal, poker playing, chain-smoking bro-dick living in the bin Laden mansion. Ah, America.
John ushered me over to his most prized possession: the Rockstar Energy drink fridge.
“Guess where I got it?” he asks. Before I can even answer, he called out, “my next door neighbor’s trash.”
The dining room looked like a Mediterranean chapel, but the only food on the counter was an empty pickle jar.
We headed to the “million dollar” part of the house, as he called it: the patio.
John said that he only puts chlorine in the pool when he has events. His cat named Fred came up to me. I said “Hey, man” to the cat, petting under his chin.
“Fred’s a girl,” John said.
“I’m sorry, you said Fred or Fran?”
“Fred. And any man who comes unannounced to my property should get it right.”
I felt like I was dealing with Doc Holiday.
I complimented him on the job he had done restoring the property. Our last stop was the backhouse. Chairs were stacked in a corner and folded tables lay against the wall. For the first time, I saw the furniture he actually used—his leather couch, a glass coffee table, a flatscreen TV, and his computer.
He sat down and began to play online poker. I said goodbye. In the background, on the TV, A Few Good Men was playing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the part where Jack says, “You can’t handle the truth.”