A trail of charm and crime
By COLLINS CONNER and KENT FISCHER
Thirty years ago, his name was Angel Alcantara. His ambition? To join a Texas police force.
But he is neither cop nor Angel.
Alcantara, who now uses the name Jeffrey, is at the center of a fraud investigation, suspected of carrying tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars out the doors of Deerwood Academy, a public charter school in Port Richey.
He was the go-to guy at Deerwood; he handled operations, prepared classrooms, hired contractors, bought supplies. He was also an ex-con, a smooth talker who drove flashy cars, wore pricey clothes and hung out at topless bars.
Since his college days in Texas, Alcantara has changed his face once, his name twice and his occupation half a dozen times. He has wooed and won over wealthy investors, then left them holding the bag. He talked people out of their credit cards, then ratcheted up charges. He accumulated convictions in Florida and Chicago for drug possession, for fraud, for theft.
In November 1998, he was released from federal prison; 28 months later, he was selling Deerwood to prospective parents.
Deerwood's bubble burst in October, little more than a year after it opened. Its finances were a mess; outside auditors threw up their hands in frustration.
Hank Johnson, Deerwood's founder and director, was fired. Alcantara was booted from Deerwood's campus along with his ex-wife, the school nurse; his teenage daughter, the school bookkeeper; his brother-in-law, the school food services director; his son-in-law, the school gym teacher, and two of his Clearwater friends.
Alcantara, who turns 50 this month, tells people he was not responsible for Deerwood's disappearing cash, though about $96,000 went missing after he and his daughter began handling the school's business operations.
His attorney George Tragos said no crimes occurred at Deerwood. "I don't think criminal charges will ever be brought down," Tragos said. "As far as we know, all the finances are correct.
"Every expenditure can be documented, and there were no improprieties ever on any financial transactions."
When Deerwood opened its doors in August 2001, Alcantara was there, directing traffic, fixing up the classrooms Deerwood leased from the Unity Church in Port Richey.
Unity's Board president Elva Clark saw Alcantara helping out and was impressed by his hard work. Even today, with all she has heard and read, she bases her opinion on those images.
"I have to believe what I see," she said.
Clark had such faith in Alcantara that she didn't hesitate when he came to her in August with a peculiar plan to bolster Deerwood's finances.
Alcantara sold her four rings for $15,000 -- money he briefly loaned to the school. She picked the rings from a sack of jewelry Alcantara took to her home. She didn't have the rings appraised; she said she's a good judge of diamonds.
And, she said, a good judge of character: Alcantara "always dressed well; he had a nice car. He seemed pleasant, trustworthy."
Fine clothes, costly cars, charm -- with Alcantara they're practically trademarks.
They impressed Stephen Dorsett of Lutz and Pasco County ophthalmologist Frederick Hauber, both of whom joined Alcantara in investment ventures that soured. They impressed the elderly mother of a mentally ill man, who handed Alcantara her credit card to run an errand and wound up with $10,000 in charges. They impressed his fellow bellhops at a Clearwater Beach hotel, who gave him thousands to buy a "hot stock" that wasn't.
To this day, an elderly Pasco man scammed by Alcantara in 1994 holds out hope that Alcantara will pay him back, according to Debbie Blanton, the man's daughter.
"There's not an intelligent person alive who isn't vulnerable to him," she said. "He's very intelligent, and he talks the talk. He's verbal, bright, smooth and sociable."
In 1972, Alcantara applied to be a police cadet in San Antonio, Texas. By the time he moved to Pasco County in the mid-1980s, he had dropped out of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, married three times, divorced twice, sold Schwan's frozen foods, worked as a route salesman for B.F. Ascher & Co. pharmaceuticals and operated drugstores in and around San Antonio.
He'd also accumulated debts, federal tax liens and, in 1986, a Chicago conviction and two years' probation for possession of barbiturates with intent to deliver.
Alcantara and his family bolted out of Texas when "somebody shot into their house," said Alcantara's brother-in-law, James Walsh. "They ran them out of the state."
In Florida, Alcantara formed a commercial investment company, started going by the name of "Ryan Alcantara" and soon hooked up with Dr. Hauber, who had money to invest. He also met Dorsett, who needed financing for a client with a fish-farm proposal.
"It appeared like he had acumen; he was articulate in what he would say," Dorsett said of Alcantara. "He had us going for about six months."
The fish farm deal went nowhere, and Hauber's investments went bust.
But Alcantara stayed busy.
Court records show that from 1990 until he went to prison in 1994, he:
Fraudulently charged $2,713.20 to an AT&T Universal Card.
Racked up $13,500 in fraudulent charges on Dr. Hauber's Diner's Club Card.
Used a stolen credit card to buy $766 in jewelry from Gold Galore in Hudson.
Was arrested in Pasco and Pinellas counties for writing worthless checks.
Fraudulently racked up more than $2,500 in credit card charges at Tattletales topless bar in Clearwater and other strip clubs.
Was arrested in Texas on accusations of swindling several people by "misrepresenting himself as a stockbroker."
Floresville, Texas, Police Chief Daniel Martinez caught Alcantara in early 1994 as he headed out of town in a new Mitsubishi 3000 GT. In the car Martinez found several social security cards and driver's licenses. He also found photographs of Alcantara with "classy, nude women."
"Dominique" autographed the studio photo of herself, wearing little more than boots and a set of handcuffs: "To Jeff, thanks for the great time in San Antonio. Hope to see you soon." Another photo in the police file shows Alcantara posing by a Mercedes in front of a Saks Fifth Avenue department store.
The year before, with bum check charges already filed against him, Alcantara played a four-month shell game, opening a bank account in Texas with about $4,000. He then wrote a $10,000 check on that account to open another, with Smith Barney in Florida. He deposited more bad checks to the Smith Barney account, but before they bounced he used them to pay his defense attorney $16,000.
Deerwood parents say they often saw Alcantara flaunting a big roll of cash. He also liked to show students his Rolex and his luxury car, an Infinity J30.
Alcantara was "a high roller, flashy," according to Lisa Montero, his friend at one time.
She met Alcantara in the late 1980s when she was a waitress at Hooters. She remembers he had bruises where plastic surgeons had inserted cheek and chin implants to change his appearance.
"He had a red Porsche, a 928," Montero said. "He would take me and my girlfriends out to dinner." She thought Alcantara was single until his wife Joanne telephoned her. Montero said she ended the relationship then.
But while they dated, Montero said, she met one of Alcantara's investors. "Supposedly they were really good friends for a while, then all of a sudden, they're not friends.
"He really burns through friends, I guess."
Dorsett and Hauber sued Alcantara over their failed ventures.
In 1992, Dorsett, a financial adviser, was awarded $1.9-million. The day Dorsett won his case, Alcantara was in jail in Texas, charged with theft, though the charge was later dropped when he offered to make restitution.
Five months later, Hauber was awarded $1.65-million for Alcantara's "willful fraud" and "theft." The judgments were moral victories only; neither man collected a dime.
Hauber and his attorney declined to comment.
In 1994, while on probation in Pasco County for worthless check charges, Alcantara bragged to his probation officer that he didn't have to work, leaving her "to believe that the federal government was paying him to testify" in upcoming cases, according to court records.
But his record shows that during his probation, he was committing more crimes.
On Jan. 14, 1994, he was sentenced to probation for swiping and using the credit card of his boss, auto dealer Richard Warren. That same week, he was fraudulently using New Port Richey victim Miriam Soper's credit cards to buy a $5,000 presidential Rolex watch and get lap dances at Scarlett's World Class Men's Club and Flash Dancers.
In August of 1994, he started serving his state prison sentence on various credit card charges -- 14 counts in all, according to Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan.
He spent two years in state prison, then was sent to federal prison for two more years.
During his time in the state pen, he was disciplined only once, Buchanan said.
On Nov. 6, 1998, Alcantara walked out of the Jessup, Ga., federal prison. Nineteen months later, back in Florida, he started work as a bellhop at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach. He was 45 years old.
Now using the name "Jeffrey Alcantara," he made friends with the assistant bellman captain Aristides "Eric" Poppiti.
Late in 2000, bellhop Dan Barlow overheard Alcantara and Poppiti talking about an investment opportunity. The two were planning to turn $10,000 into $100,000, Barlow said, and he wanted in on it.
Alcantara agreed, Barlow said, but swore him to secrecy and demanded cash.
Barlow gave Alcantara more than $16,000 over the next 10 months, he said -- all in cash except one check for $3,700 that, at Alcantara's insistence, was made payable to his daughter, Nicole.
Barlow said two other bellmen also gave Alcantara and Poppiti cash to invest, though the Times was unable to reach the men. Poppiti could not be reached for comment. The investment produced nothing, Barlow said, and Alcantara and Poppiti wouldn't return his money. He contacted an attorney.
"He said it was my word against his," Barlow said. "That was my life savings . . . a good chunk of it."
As for Alcantara, Barlow said he took him at face value.
"I know I've been naive; I guess this proves it."
By the time Alcantara left the Clearwater Beach resort in June 2001, his daughter Nicole was already working at Deerwood Academy and his son was set to attend classes there two months later. Though Alcantara and his third wife Joanne divorced in 1991, they continued to live together, and she too obtained work at Deerwood.
The school's founder, Hank Johnson, told the Times last month that Alcantara arrived at Deerwood in the nick of time. Johnson was busy enrolling students and hiring teachers, so he let Alcantara tackle problems with the school building. Alcantara seemed to know a lot about construction and mechanical equipment, Johnson has said.
Every public school employee must undergo an FBI background check, but Alcantara worked eight months at Deerwood before Johnson finally checked his criminal history. When the lengthy rap sheet landed in Johnson's lap, Alcantara told him the report was simply wrong. Johnson believed him, and allowed Alcantara to continue working for the school.
"He took care of maintenance and air conditioning work, and he helped put in phone lines late at night," Johnson said Oct. 9, just days before the Times broke the news of the missing money. "He was a tremendous help."
Alcantara told the Times that same day that Deerwood didn't have money for repairs and maintenance, and that he was glad to help out. "We pitched in and tried to get (the school) started," he said.
Alcantara paid contractors in cash, out of his own pocket. He would later submit the receipts and invoices for reimbursement.
"We could get work done cheaper that way," he said.
Investigators now suspect that many of those reimbursements were wildly inflated or were based on bogus receipts from phony companies.
An example: On Feb. 18, Alcantara used his Visa card to purchase a "clobber" for $10.60 at Woody Tucker Plumbing in Port Richey. The receipt later submitted to Deerwood for reimbursement, however, was for $2,700.60. Deerwood paid it with a check made out to cash.
Deerwood records also show that Poppiti, Alcantara's buddy from the Sheraton, profited from Alcantara's role at Deerwood. In August 2001, Poppiti created a company that he named Nikon Dareios. Between January and August, the company received $31,955 from Deerwood for work that school district officials contend was never done.
The Times and school district auditors have found dozens of similar receipts and bogus payments. The newspaper's review of Deerwood's ledgers showed nearly $96,000 of taxpayer money unaccounted for. The school remains open today only because the Pasco County School District seized control of Deerwood's operations on Oct. 16. Tragos, Alcantara's Clearwater attorney, declined to comment on his client's history.
"Whatever is public record is public record," he said. "We really have no comment on public record stuff. The only thing we will comment on is Deerwood and our comment is: There was no impropriety at the school."
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