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Land speculator strikes again

Another stunned homeowner emerges in the tax deed drama that has turned a profiteer into a pariah. There's a happy ending, sort of.

By JEFF TESTERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 2002


Another stunned homeowner emerges in the tax deed drama that has turned a profiteer into a pariah. There's a happy ending, sort of.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Robert C. Jones wore a puzzled look the day land speculator Don Connolly got out of his pickup truck and began rolling a surveyor's wheel across Jones' front yard.

"Is there a highway coming through or something?" the 68-year-old retired autoworker, widower and great-grandfather asked.

"No," Jones recalls Connolly saying. "I just bought half of your house. I'm here to sell it back to you. Otherwise, I'm going to come in and put a fence right down the middle of the house."

After Connolly returned and began pounding stakes into the yard, Jones moved out. For five weeks he lived at his daughter's house, fearful that Connolly might indeed put a barrier between Jones' living room and the bedrooms in his 1,100-square-foot home.

"I was afraid," Jones said. "He threatened me up one side and down the other. I couldn't sleep at night."

Finally, two attorneys and a title company crafted an agreement that gave Jones back the southern half of his property and his peace of mind. The settlement also transformed Connolly's $2,436 investment in a tax deed into a sale worth $16,500.

Connolly, 44, is the Valrico businessman who has made headlines by buying up tax deeds of submerged land and threatening to fence off lakes and docks unless homeowners pay him top dollar for the properties. The pink fence he erected between homeowners and a Tarpon Woods lake put him in the national spotlight.

He also bought the tax deed to half of a Tampa woman's house and sued her, asking a judge to order her home sold so Connolly could split the proceeds of the sale.

Now county officials from around the state are preparing to discuss reforms that would make profiteering on tax deeds more difficult. The Florida Tax Collectors Association meets this month. High on the agenda is a discussion of notifying adjacent landowners before the sale of any tax deed.

"This man (Connolly) has educated a lot of people, no doubt about it," said Pinellas Tax Collector Diane Nelson. "We must better define who should be notified, but we must also be careful we don't violate the Constitution."

Jones, who paid $20,000 for his house at 3139 25th St. N in 1989, had no idea that a tax deed for a portion of his property was being put up for bid at a public auction last November. Florida law requires only that the owner of the property or any party with a lien interest, such as a mortgage holder, be notified.

"I was never aware of it until Connolly told me," Jones said.

Connolly appears to have taken advantage of an error that occured when Jones closed on his wood frame house, which was moved from the site of a Bayfront Medical Center expansion and put down on two parcels.

The southern 17 feet of Jones' 52-foot lot was never conveyed to him. When the owner of record failed to pay taxes on the 17-foot section, Connolly bought the tax deed.

After threatening to put a fence down the middle of the house, Connolly offered to sell his deed to Jones for $12,500. Jones said he wouldn't dare make a move without consulting an attorney. But Connolly said if an attorney were brought in, his price was going up to $16,500.

"He was high pressure. He wanted his money that day," Jones said.

Connolly also offered to buy the rest of Jones' property for $26,000. Jones never considered that option. The Pinellas property appraiser says the market value of Jones' land and the entire house is $55,800.

Jones hired Seminole lawyer Peter T. Hofstra and handed him a survey he had received at closing showing he owned all 52 feet of his lot. Hofstra turned to Stewart Title Co., which had insured the title to Jones' home.

"This was about a sliver of property that had fallen through the cracks," Hofstra said. "We put a claim in to the title insurance company and they paid."

A check for $16,500 went to Connolly in January for a deed transferring the 17 feet to Jones. Another check paid Hofstra's fee.

Nothing came out of Jones' pocket, but the experience with Connolly has left him unsettled and angry.

"He just tore me up for two months," said Jones. "I'd like to see them hang this guy."

Notary credentials revoked

Connolly, who was informed last week that he faces a violation of probation hearing June 20, got more bad news this week.

In a June 3 e-mail to Connolly, the governor's notary education coordinator asked him to immediately resign his notary commission and return his notary certificate and seal. The resignation was requested because Connolly falsified his May 2001 application to be a notary public.

Asked if he had been convicted of a felony, had adjudication withheld or was on probation, Connolly wrote, "no."

Records show Connolly had adjudication withheld after arrests for soliciting for prostitution, assault and grand theft. In addition, he was placed on 15 years' probation in 1997 after pleading no contest to the theft charge, which stems from a tax fraud case where a used car company he owned remitted only a fraction of $634,477 in sales taxes owed to the state.

Though the withholding of adjudication leaves a defendant without a criminal record, the e-mail from the governor's office says it is seeking Connolly's resignation because he failed to report he was "convicted of felony charges."

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