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Target of land inquiry is fugitive

The businessman at the center of questionable land deals in Tampa Heights now is wanted for violating his probation on earlier charges.

JEFF TESTERMAN
Published December 19, 2003

TAMPA - Matthew B. Cox, a businessman at the center of an investigation into land speculation in the Tampa Heights area, is now being sought by state and federal probation officers as a fugitive.

A warrant was issued for Cox's arrest Thursday on charges of violation of probation after officials were unable to reach him by phone or find him at any address listed in probation records.

Cox, 34, disappeared as Tampa police detectives and FBI agents began looking into a series of questionable Tampa Heights property transactions highlighted in a Dec. 14 St. Petersburg Times story headlined "Dubious Deals." The story focused on seemingly huge profits made on the sale of several older homes on Amelia Avenue that were bought, then immediately resold for a much higher price by Cox and two other associates in a real estate investment firm called Urban Equity Inc.

Cox is on probation on mortgage fraud and grand theft charges and cannot leave the area without notifying probation officers. If found and convicted, Cox could face a minimum of five years in prison, said Joseph E. Papy, regional director for the Florida Probation and Parole Office in Tampa.

The Times story detailed the use of a nonexistent notary public on deeds, allegations of a forged mortgage payoff document, a sale to one nonexistent buyer and the claim of another buyer that she never paid Urban Equity the $233,000 price reflected on the deed to one Amelia Avenue property.

The Hillsborough Property Appraiser's Office believes the activities point to a scheme to artificially inflate property values to benefit investors who own property in the Tampa Heights area.

"It's very suspicious and it warrants a complete investigation," Papy said of the Amelia Avenue deals done by Urban Equity.

Wednesday, a small moving van was parked in front of Cox's Mediterranean-style apartment building at 403 E Amelia Ave., and workers were packing up furniture. Surveying the scene with a worried look was Keyla Burgos, Cox's ex-wife. She said Cox's parents had hired the movers to relocate Cox's belongings.

"Nobody's seen him," Burgos said. "We don't know where he is. He didn't even come to our son's birthday party."

Cox, a one-time art student at the University of South Florida, pleaded guilty in federal court last year to grand theft charges in connection with a fraudulent loan application made with a local bank. He was fined $1,000 and put on three years' probation.

In a separate state case last year, Cox pleaded guilty to theft and fraud changes stemming from his assuming another man's identity to obtain an $80,000 mortgage loan. He also was sentenced to probation in that case.

In state probation records, Cox is listed as an employee of a Busch Boulevard mortgage company called United Capital Trust of Tampa and was paid between $8,000 and $12,000 a month. The president of the company is David A. Walker, a broker who until last month was also an officer at Urban Equity.

Through his attorney, Walker said this week that Cox left United Capital Trust in early December after Walker decided to distance himself from Cox because of a questionable loan document.

Walker also said he is offering his cooperation to an investigative team headed by Tampa police Detective Bill Todd.

"Mr. Walker has nothing to hide," said attorney Steven Loewenthal, who represents Walker.

Walker decided to sever ties with Cox and Urban Equity because he thinks that Cox filed a false satisfaction of an Urban Equity loan made by Tom Martino Inc., an Ybor City mortgage lender, Loewenthal said.

Martino learned in August that his name had been forged on a satisfaction of an Urban Equity mortgage, a document showing a loan to the company had been paid off, according to an affidavit he filed in Hillsborough County records. Martino told the Times he filed a police report about the forgery. He said the Urban Equity loan was quickly paid off a short time later and the investigation was dropped.

Martino said Walker did make a trip to Martino's office to apologize about the document and to say he had no involvement in its creation.

Loewenthal also said Walker contends someone at Urban Equity prepared a deed that falsely portrayed Walker as selling a two-story apartment house that had been declared unfit for habitation for $552,000. The buyer of the peach-colored apartment house at 104 W Amelia Ave., according to the deed, was Alex Antioch.

But Florida records show no record of anyone named Alex Antioch - no driver's license, no previous address, no record of any kind in Florida. The tax bill and city code enforcement notices sent to Antioch all came back undeliverable.

Walker resigned from Urban Equity in mid November. As part of a settlement, his lawyer said, Walker did sign the deed for the peach-colored apartment house. But Walker says he never knew he was conveying the property to someone named Antioch, and not for a price of $552,000, nearly seven times the apartment house's market value.

"It was a blank deed," said Loewenthal. "He thought he was deeding it back to the Urban Equity guys."

Records obtained by the Times show a cashier's check drawn on Cox's account at a Carrollwood bank was used to pay for state documentary stamps to make it appear the property was sold for $552,000.

A large photograph of the run-down apartment house accompanied the Times "Dubious Deals" story. But the structure looks different today. Someone this week applied a coat of yellow paint to the 3,300-square-foot building.

Just who paid for the paint is as big a mystery as the whereabouts of Cox.

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story. Jeff Testerman can be reached at 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com

Read "Dubious deals": http://www.sptimes.com/2003/12/14/Hillsborough/Dubious_housing_deals.shtml

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