State explores claims of misused funds

The men who asked investors for money to get a gated community built seems to have a history of defrauding people.

Published September 3, 2006

Torrey K. Cooper and Richard S. Truesdale promised investors a stake in a posh gated community with plantation-style homes.

But little has materialized on the 12-acre site on the corner of Belcher and Belleair roads in Largo except for some lush landscaping, rock-lined streams and an unfinished gatehouse.

Now the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it's investigating whether Cooper, 54, and Truesdale, 72, misappropriated funds from people who invested in The Plantation and a related Dunedin project called RiverWalk Townhomes.

The FDLE has been investigating The Plantation since June 2005, after three investors contacted the department, FDLE spokeswoman Trena Reddick said.

The investigation may take at least six months to complete, she said.

Cooper insists every penny of the business can be accounted for.

"Everything we deal with is paper-in and paper-out," Cooper said.

Truesdale likewise denied any wrongdoing.

"It's not true at all," Truesdale said. "I've been in this business a long time and I've never been accused of that."

Meanwhile, The Plantation is at the center of court battles between contractors and vendors who say Cooper and his company owe them hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a bank that says it is owed millions.

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Once the site of a family horse farm, the parcel at 2140 Belleair Road has been a source of drama for nearly a decade.

In 1998, a Clearwater developer wanted to build an assisted living center there, but neighbors fought that proposal.

The next year, the site was the center of a turf battle between Largo and Clearwater. Swiss investor Jurg Weiss chose Largo and made plans for a palatial home. But those plans came to a halt when he returned to Switzerland in police custody to face a charge of embezzlement.

In 2002, Cooper and Truesdale announced plans to develop the site and build 23 upscale homes.

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But the Plantation was not the only project that Truesdale and Cooper were talking to investors about, according to court records.

In September 2004, Truesdale touted a venture in Dunedin called RiverWalk Townhomes. Truesdale and Cooper unveiled the project at an event on the Plantation site, according to an agenda for the meeting.

RiverWalk Townhomes would "capitalize on the sales strategy, team and prestige of The Plantation," Truesdale and his partner, Martin Merriam wrote in a letter to investors in September 2004.

The agenda for a meeting to showcase the project lists Cooper and Truesdale as partners on RiverWalk, according to court records.

Truesdale and Cooper never owned the land on Main Street in Dunedin. Instead, it was owned by another developer who plans to build 30 townhomes there.

About a dozen people invested in RiverWalk, Truesdale said.

Three investors interviewed by the Times say Truesdale told them the deal didn't work out months after he took their money.

He said he told them they could flip their investments into The Plantation. Truesdale told the Times most RiverWalk investors agreed to do so. Cooper recalled that about four investors made that choice.

Eventually, at least three investors contacted the FDLE after repeated requests to get their money back failed.

One was Brian Goodhead, 40, of Riverview, who put $25,000 into RiverWalk. Another was Jack Fritz, 60, of Tampa, who invested $50,000 in RiverWalk.

"It became apparent to us that there was something stinky in the water," Goodhead said.

The men said Truesdale told them he invested their money with Cooper, and Cooper denied ever receiving it, Fritz said.

"We can't even narrow down where the money went," Fritz said. "We're stuck with nothing."

Now RiverWalk is one of the things the FDLE is looking at, Reddick said

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The Plantation also has produced at least one unhappy and litigious investor.

Albert Grieco, 74, a retired State Farm insurance agent who lives in Palm Harbor, invested $80,000 in the Plantation in 2003.

As part of the deal, Cooper signed notes promising Grieco a 10 percent return per year, plus a one-third stake in one of the companies that bought the land for the Plantation in 2004. Grieco later invested about $20,000 more, Grieco and Cooper said. Grieco, who said he was unaware of the FDLE investigation, said he trusted Cooper in the beginning, but in recent months his trust started to wane.

In March, Fifth Third Bank, which holds a $3.4-million mortgage on the property, sued White Star Reserve LLC, the company that now owns the property, and its officers, including Cooper and Grieco.

The property went into receivership, and a court-appointed trustee was named to reorganize the company's finances and complete the project.

Last month, Grieco filed a cross-claim in the bank's lawsuit, contending that Cooper "defrauded" him "of his retirement nest egg and induced him to invest in a real estate project under false pretenses."

Grieco contends Cooper used his credit to obtain the $3.4-million loan from Fifth Third Bank and promised him a one-third stake in the property.

But Grieco says he later learned he was just a 10-percent partner in White Star.

Grieco said he realized things were going downhill several months ago, when he got calls from Plantation employees who said their paychecks had bounced. They wanted him to pay.

Then came the summonses from contractors and vendors who said White Star owed them money.

Grieco also noticed that a corporate credit card he provided for Cooper showed personal expenses, including charges for flowers, lingerie from Victoria's Secret, a hotel stay in Nassau and a cruise to Alaska. The expenses were logged in credit card statements shown to a reporter by Grieco's attorney.

Grieco wasn't concerned at first because Cooper was paying the bill. Grieco's attorney, Joel Treuhaft, says there are checks showing that Cooper may have used company funds to pay off the bill.

Months later, Cooper stopped paying the bill, Grieco said, and Grieco was stuck with more than $20,000 worth of credit-card bills, he said.

When asked by the Times if he spent the company's money on a trip or lingerie, Cooper laughed and said that question must be about the credit card. But he didn't elaborate.

Now Grieco wants all Cooper's ties to the project cut.

"I'm not looking to hurt him," Greico said. "All I want to do is come out this thing whole."

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Cooper and Truesdale aren't strangers to controversy.

In the mid 1990s, Cooper headed a company that ran into legal trouble for buying insurance policies from the terminally ill but failing to pay for them.

A Pinellas County circuit judge ordered Cooper's company, Credit Life Corp., dissolved and banned Cooper from operating that type of business again in Florida.

And Pennsylvania attorney Michael Laffey said he represents a client who unsuccessfully invested money with Truesdale and Cooper in 2000.

"I'm still trying to find those guys," said Laffey, who sued the men and their company Merriman Properties in 2001.

Laffey said the duo had touted an Orlando project called the Grand Royale resort to doctors in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

After Cooper and Truesdale defaulted on the $50,000 investment, Laffey took a judgment against them in Pennsylvania and filed it in a Pinellas court.

But five years after the original investment, Laffey said he hasn't been able to track their assets or get his client's money back.

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Fifth Third Bank plans to continue with Cooper's vision of 17 estate homes with old-fashioned lamps, live oaks and brick streets, all near a 4-acre lake with a waterfall.

But earlier this year, Largo city officials issued a stop-work order on The Plantation because rocks from a berm outside the fence were falling onto the sidewalk.

The city also said that the sidewalks did not meet the county's specifications.

The order was temporarily lifted to allow work on the gatehouse, but won't be permanently lifted until repairs to the sidewalk on Belleair Road begin.

Jim Shaw of Shaw & Associates, who is doing engineering work on the project, said he expects repairs to start soon.

"By no means is this project going to go away," Shaw said.

Meanwhile, Cooper said Truesdale is no longer active in The Plantation and he plans to break his own ties with project as well.

"I actually have two other major projects in Sarasota," Cooper said.