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Good family name bears Hell on Earth

A heavy metal stunt has the Tourtelot name in lights, but not in a way that sells real estate.

Published October 4, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - It's a name that has been associated with commercial and residential real estate in Pinellas County for 75 years. As an invitation to Tourtelot Bros. realty's Oct. 16 anniversary celebration points out, "When Gandy was the only bridge to Tampa, when the trolley traveled on tracks down Central Ave., when Babe Ruth leased his St. Pete home ... we were there."

But for the past two weeks, the name Tourtelot also has come to be connected with a running legal battle between the city of St. Petersburg and the front man of an obscure heavy metal band that says it plans to air the suicide of a terminally ill person on the Internet during a performance tonight.

Billy Tourtelot, the leader of the band Hell on Earth, has been interviewed by Rolling Stone, the Associated Press and several local news outlets. The band's plans have received international publicity.

Tourtelot also is the son of William C. Tourtelot, one of the city's most prominent real estate agents, whose Tourtelot Bros. Inc. handles some of the area's most exclusive properties, including the April sale of former baseball star Dwight Gooden's house, which was listed at $1.2-million.

On Friday evening, a prominent local criminal defense lawyer announced he had been hired to represent the heavy metal singer. Since Monday, the city has been working to stop the purported suicide, passing an ordinance outlawing such a performance and trying to serve Tourtelot with a notice to appear in court.

Attorney Kevin Hayslett said the 7:30 p.m. Hell on Earth concert would go forward as planned, although he was unsure whether the suicide would actually occur.

"I think everyone (Tourtelot) has had contact with has advised him against it," he said.

The suicide is intended as a statement in support of the right-to-die movement, although national organizations affiliated with the cause have denounced Hell on Earth's plan.

What effect the recent publicity surrounding the suicide has on Tourtelot Bros. realty is unclear. Family members have either declined to comment for this story or were unavailable. Billy Tourtelot has a brother, Stephen, who has a lengthy criminal history. His mother, Stephanie Tourtelot, filed for divorce from William in 2001, although court records indicate the case has yet to be resolved. Tax records show the couple owned a home on Snell Isle, though they no longer live there.

But others familiar with the real estate business say most people will probably not hold the family responsible for what most think is an irresponsible stunt.

"The question is one of psychological distance - how far people distance Billy's actions from the actions of the real estate agency," said Dr. William Locander, chairman of the marketing department at the University of South Florida's College of Business Administration.

"If he's perceived as a rogue son, then I think there's a lot of psychological distance. The closer they are aligned to one another, the more impact the business will feel.

"They (the agency) have probably developed clients ... over the years who would certainly understand a black sheep of the family doing something very bizarre and out of character for an old-line, conservative family."

People who work in real estate are also quick to draw a distinction between a well-respected family business and the actions of one family member.

"Tourtelot has an impeccable reputation," said Nancy Leslie, a Pinellas real estate broker. "But for some people who follow every newscast, it's definitely going to have a negative impact.

"There are a lot of rumors in our business, and if you're trying to attract quality agents or recruit, and if there is negativity of any sort connected with the agent ... I would shy away. You've really got to keep your nose clean because of the public profile.

"But they do, and I hope things go well for them," Leslie added. "And I know this has to be very scary what the family is going through."

Jean Hicks has a son who works with her as a real estate developer. He is the same age as Billy Tourtelot.

"We can't control our children," said Hicks, a Pinellas broker since 1974. "Billy is an adult, and his daddy can't control him. We're all products of our environments, but people make choices in their lives and suffer the consequences.

"It may cause some problems. But in the long run, anybody who's on the up and up and honest - like Tourtelot is - is going to be okay. They'll weather the storm."

Meanwhile, media outlets from around the world are watching St. Petersburg, waiting to see whether Billy Tourtelot follows through with the plan denounced as sick and depraved by everyone from Gov. Jeb Bush to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

Tourtelot has said the concert and the suicide will be held in different undisclosed locations within St. Petersburg city limits. They won't be open to the public but will be broadcast live over the Internet.

The band's Web site, which had crashed from overuse Wednesday afternoon, was accessible again Friday evening.

City attorneys met with police and Baker on Friday evening to discuss strategy.

"If we get any tips, we'll certainly be acting on them," said Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn. "But we've pretty much done everything we can do."

[Last modified October 4, 2003, 02:04:40]

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