William D. “Billy” Abraham is a controversial figure in El Paso.
The imprisoned businessman owns what some consider one of the most significant collections of historic real estate in El Paso and some of the most recognizable buildings in Downtown.
At times, the poor condition of some of his properties has brought Abraham into conflict with city officials, who have filed a number of code enforcement actions and tax lawsuits against him over the years.
Their poor condition has also been a particular sore spot among investors who are participating in Downtown revitalization efforts.
Abraham has announced big plans to renovate his buildings before, including in 2011 when he took El Paso Inc. on a tour of some of his buildings, but they remain mostly vacant.
In an exclusive interview last week from the prison where he is incarcerated, Abraham took on his critics, asking for patience and describing his latest plans to redevelop his property. It is his sincere hope, he said, that he can begin a new relationship with City Hall when he is released.
Abraham, 59, answered questions by email and over the phone, speaking with El Paso Inc. from a public telephone inside the Fort Stockton Transfer Facility where he is serving his sentence. He spoke until he was cut off by the 20-minute time limit.
What landed Abraham in prison was driving drunk on Paisano Drive in July 2010. That night, he struck and killed a 47-year-old man who was walking in the street, Jay Grady. A jury found Abraham not guilty of intoxicated manslaughter, but he was convicted of driving while intoxicated. Last March, he was sentenced to prison after pleading no contest to another charge, failure to stop and render aid.
Abraham, who is working as a supply clerk in prison, has a projected release date of Jan. 28, 2016, according to criminal justice records online.
In the interview, the first he has given in years, Abraham points out that his buildings are still standing, unlike some other historic buildings that have been demolished in recent years.
Abraham’s Downtown buildings include the Stevens Building, Kress Building, American Furniture Building and Haymon Krupp & Co. Building, according to a review of public documents by El Paso Inc.
He also owns the old J.J. Newberry Building and Toltec Building, where Theodore Roosevelt once breakfasted.
Many of the buildings were built in the early 1900s by famed Southwest architect Henry Trost; some have historic landmark status.
Abraham is a descendant of Richard Caples, a former El Paso mayor, and he owns the seven-story Caples Building, commissioned in the early 1900s. The building figured prominently in the Mexican Revolution and served for a time as the headquarters of the regime of Francisco Madero, according to local historians.
The El Paso County Historical Commission has included the building on its 2015 list of the 12 most endangered buildings in Downtown El Paso.
Abraham also conducts business in Puerto Rico and has a promotion company.
His grandfather, Joseph Abraham Sr., emigrated from Syria to Mexico and then to the United States in the early 1900s, establishing the family in El Paso.
Joseph Sr. started with little, but had a keen business sense and amassed a small fortune in real estate. His son, Joseph “Sib” Abraham Jr., Billy’s father, became one of El Paso’s most prominent defense attorneys, handling a number of high profile cases. He died last year at the age of 77.
Abraham is a private person and sees himself as a misfit – a Steve Jobs – someone who is “crazy enough to think they can change the world.”
Abraham said his greatest accomplishment was “putting six feet on the ground.” By that he means his three daughters.
In the interview, edited for length and clarity, Abraham spoke with El Paso Inc. about his ambitious plan for Downtown, how he is managing his businesses from prison, why he wants to commission a statue of his father and his business plans in Puerto Rico.
Q: If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently the night you hit and killed Jay Grady with your truck?
Even though I was found not guilty of vehicular manslaughter by the jury, there isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think back on that night with a heavy heart. I am so sorry. Mr. Grady and his entire family remain in my prayers. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. I take ownership for that.
If I could go back, I would not have driven home; rather I should have stayed at my apartment Downtown at the Toltec. I had an Appraisal Review Board tax hearing case at 8 a.m. the following morning. That was my mistake. We all make them.
I refuse to allow myself to be defined by my past mistakes. The travesty is not learning lessons inherent in your mistakes. I am not the same man I was, I am not the man I am going to be. I am a work in progress.
This may sound strange, but God works in mysterious ways and these last months have been good for me. It has allowed me to refocus and it has galvanized my intentions. No hay mal que por bien no venga. (Nothing bad happens where good does not follow.)
Q: You were found not guilty of intoxicated manslaughter, but you were convicted for DWI and pleaded no contest for failing to stop and render aid.
Correct. What happened is I pled nolo contendere (no contest), because it was the best route to bring closure to this. We had excellent legal points on appeal that I think would have reversed the conviction of the DWI, and I think we had a good chance of acquittal on the second charge. But to bring closure to it, I think I made the right decision – to take ownership and put this behind me.
Q: How are you managing your business from prison?
I rise at 4 a.m. every morning, exercise and then review the “outside world’s daily agenda.” My chargé d’affaires, Juliann Smith, briefs me from my Caribbean headquarters on the day’s developments.
Prior to my incarceration, I established the Caribbean Commission Co. in Puerto Rico to take advantage of legislation passed to attract residents from the United States to conduct business on the island. All of my day-to-day operations are being run from Old San Juan.
Q: Are you going to restore the historic buildings you own in Downtown?
Yes. Each and every building is an important component that will play a key role in an urban revitalization plan that will revolve around a district to be known as Caples Square, named for my great grandfather and former mayor Richard Caples. It is the four-block area bounded by Mills to the north, Oregon to the west, Stanton to the east and Overland to the south.
I will create a purely pedestrian experience for families to come Downtown and walk around, enjoying art, music, food and our beautiful weather. I see streetcars playing an integral part by moving people around within the district.
Peter Tosh (Jamaican reggae musician) taught me if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future. We are a railroad town. I believe rails are an important part of our future.
To compete nationally and internationally for that matter, El Paso must reinvest in its transportation infrastructure. We need to look at the effect BART has had on the San Francisco Bay Area. This should be our case study.
There is no reason citizens of our great city should be precluded from entering a subterranean transit station, beneath San Jacinto Plaza, board a train and be at El Paso International Airport in 10 minutes.
In our heyday, our trolley system had 17 routes with over 100 streetcars and 63 miles of track. If it wasn’t broke, why did we fix it?
Q: You’ve laid out an ambitious vision. You’ve done so before. What can you say to those who might be skeptical it will become a reality? What’s different this time?
Nothing’s different. It takes time. It’s a very difficult endeavor to say the least, but I am glad to say we are well on our way.
Q: Where are you in the process of implementing your plan? Are you seeking investors?
I’ve given you the overview of what is going to happen. I say “is” unequivocally. I want to be very clear on that. As far as timeframes, I can’t really speak to that, because there are too many unknown factors that play into this.
Maybe I get out of prison in January and everything falls into place and we can be up and running with a full head of steam in two years or so. I believe in our town.
Q: You’ve owned some of your Downtown buildings for decades and many are partially vacant and in poor condition. How do you respond to critics who say it is “demolition by neglect”?
That is their red herring. My sin of demolition by neglect is a lesser evil than other’s neglect by demolition.
Case in point: the Commercial National and Bristol/Green Tree Railroad hotels; these demolitions were moronic at best. Let’s quit throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I say to my critics: I am not here to renovate a building; I am here to rebuild a town. Please have patience with me. It has been a 40-year journey to get to where I am today.
I have financed this Downtown project with 100 percent of my own funds. To date, I have not received a single penny in the way of incentive from any entity. My only reward has been the satisfaction of knowing we as a city are one step closer to the prize.
There is the misconception that my Downtown project has been a financially rewarding one. That couldn’t be further from the truth. After mortgage payments, maintenance and taxes, which run $500,000 annually, there is not much left.
If I wasn’t considering the city of El Paso’s best interest first and foremost, there would be several more asphalt parking lots in Downtown and I would be sitting on a mother lode of legal tender. This “Abraham Commission Manifesto” has not been profit-driven by any means.
I had an opportunity several years ago to ratify a deal with Fannie Mae that would have realized an approximate profit of $12 million. I did not move this deal forward because it would have required me as the developer to place low-income housing in our core Downtown, occupying three historical buildings: the American, Caples and Newberry buildings.
That was something I could not fathom. And yes, if you are wondering, I could almost taste the $12 million.
Q: Besides the real estate, what other businesses do you have?
I have a promotion company, Billy Abraham Presents, which has just promoted the (Mexican singer) Juan Gabriel date in El Paso. I am planning a live concert with him at the Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, a 16th-century citadel, located in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico.
It feels good being back in the music promotion business. I have not promoted concert dates since I promoted Peter Tosh’s “Wanted Dread and Alive” tour back in 1983.
Abraham Provision Company oversees the food and beverage operations taken on by my organization.
I have always been intrigued with fashion. Because of the Abraham Commission Manifesto for El Paso I have been forced to hold back the launch of my clothing line which I have researched extensively and will focus on Western influences. It will be introduced in short order. The apparel line will be targeted towards upscale consumers in major cities throughout Asia and Europe.
Our Caribbean office is also investigating inroads into what will certainly be fertile ground on the island of Cuba.
Q: What do you plan to do when you are released from prison?
Besides pushing Caples Square forward, I plan to reopen La Norteña Cantina, a roadhouse honkytonk I designed and built in the late 1990s. At the top of my list is to reopen Mr. A’s Brasserie, and the Toltec Ballroom, a turn of the century venue for business meetings, elegant parties and quinceañeras. Also on my radar screen is development of the Acme Saloon and Franklin Chop House.
The island of Puerto Rico sits on the 18th parallel. Its latitude is ideal for farming cacao and coffee. I have studied the island and have earmarked two fincas (farms) for that purpose. The recent Ebola crisis in West Africa and rising demand has created a global shortage of cacao. Everyone I know loves chocolate so I am very excited about this opportunity.
Q: The family was rocked by the death of your father and uncle. How is the Abraham family?
My father’s passing was a tremendous loss to me and the community as a whole. He was my brother in arms – my best friend.
Nowhere is his absence felt more than at the courthouses. He was a lawyer’s lawyer. I, like many others, still lament at the realization his calming voice and gentlemanly demeanor is no longer with us to provide comfort and assurances that everything will be OK.
I have begun preliminary discussions to commission a statue of “Joseph ‘Sib’ Abraham Jr. The Man,” standing sentry over both the Federal and State courthouses where he held dominion for more than a half century. I plan to erect the statue at the Toltec building looking east at what is known as Toltec Plaza.
The matriarch of our family, Margaret Caples Abraham, my beloved mother, is admired by virtually everyone who crosses her path. With the love and support of endless family members and friends, although heartbroken by the loss of her soulmate Sib, she carries the banner of this family forward with dignity and class.
Q: What have you learned in prison?
I find myself in a unique place at a unique time in history. I am 59 years young entering the fourth quarter of my life.
I will try to take kindly the counsel of my years, gracefully surrendering the things of my youth. I must stay curious, engaged, and above all, I must stay fit, never losing sight of the fact that Jesus Christ will always believe in me and provide me the ability to mend my ways.
It is my sincere hope I can begin a new relationship with City Hall, working together with all departments in complete cooperation. Our objectives are parallel. Combined, our efforts will bear delicious fruit.
Upon my return to El Paso, I would like to meet with Mayor (Oscar) Leeser to exchange ideas. These are exciting times.