Developer gone, buyers left in lurch
Sky Development's office sits empty , leaving buyers, agents and contractors with bills, questions.
By CATHERINE E. SHOICHET
Published October 29, 2006
CITRUS SPRINGS - Last year Sky Development Group employees handed out free hot dogs and hamburgers at picnics in the company parking lot.
They placed a giant balloon next to the community's main entrance. They donated money to help buy programs for the Citrus Springs 35th anniversary celebration.
For more than a year, the South Florida developer played a prominent role in this sprawling north Citrus neighborhood. The message on the sign in front of the company's office, just off U.S. 41, was clear: "Living up to our name."
Now that office is empty. The sign is gone. And so is the developer.
Land investors and home-buyers say it looks like Natalia Wolf, the registered owner of the company and all of its subsidiaries, took their money and ran. Some speculate she returned to her native Russia. Millions of dollars could be missing.
This month, the Citrus County Sheriff's Office began investigating complaints that Sky Development Group forged deeds and illegally claimed ownership of hundreds of pieces of property. Lawsuits against the developer are pending in Citrus, Orange and Miami-Dade counties.
Investigators are trying to track down the company's assets and find the people behind the apparent scam with a scope so far-reaching that Citrus officials say it's unlike anything they've ever seen.
According to public records, Sky Development Group was involved in nearly 1,000 land deals in Citrus Springs alone. Billboards throughout the county still boast that the developer will provide "The Best Home of Your Life."
To government officials, land speculators, residents and Realtors, the company seemed legitimate.
"I'm really surprised," said County Commissioner Vicki Phillips, whose district includes portions of Citrus Springs. "You just don't expect people that come into the community, and set up a presence like they did, to not be what they represent themselves to be."
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From the outset, Sky Development officials made it clear they were committed to Citrus County.
They proudly announced building plans at community meetings. They joined the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce and the Citrus County Builders Association. On the company's Web site, they posted photos of the Citrus Springs Christmas Parade.
"They were very visible in the community," Citrus Springs Civic Association president Harry Frank said.
There were signs everywhere, he said. And the company's vans - often packed with people visiting property - were a regular sight on the community's winding streets.
But that changed a few months ago, when the developer cleaned out its office in the Citrus Springs welcome center. The Civic Association had an office there, too.
"We knew that they were gone the day we showed up and our keys wouldn't open our office doors," Frank said.
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One name is on all of Sky Development Group's corporate filings, and most of the company's property transactions: Natalia Wolf.
But for Mona and Richard Alley of Hollywood, the 32-year-old North Miami Beach resident wasn't just a name on paper. She was a familiar face.
The Alleys met Natalia Wolf and her husband earlier this year, after purchasing property in Citrus Springs.
"They were the nicest people," she said. The Alleys bought a Precious Moments jogging suit for Natalia Wolf's new baby. They bought a pricey bottle of Russian vodka for her anniversary. And they bought more than $330,000 worth of additional property in Citrus Springs, Mona Alley said.
Last week, she said, they learned the deeds for that property were never recorded. And the money they paid is missing. The title company where they sent the money, All Title and Trust Company, dissolved in August. Its owner, according to corporate filings, was Natalia Wolf.
"I can usually read people. I never caught this at all," Mona Alley, 53, said. "They had us hook, line and sinker."
Her Realtor, Alex Hamilton with Interinvestment Realty, broke the news.
Hamilton met Natalia Wolf and her husband in January, when the couple came to his Miami office to talk about Sky Development.
"They gave us this beautiful presentation about their product," he said Friday. "I wish I'd never met them."
Hamilton eagerly pitched the company's property to his clients and bought a piece himself.
Now Hamilton's company has hired a law firm to sift through records and find out whether legitimate deeds for those purchases exist.
"We don't know the full extent of it yet ... It just boggles the mind," he said. "How could they pull this off? How could they do this and nobody caught it?"
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People who purchased property from Sky Development Group aren't the only ones asking questions.
Three weeks ago, Maureen Spence called Wolf at her North Miami Beach office, asking when Sky Construction Group would finish building the $200,000 Citrus Springs home she and her husband Samuel had purchased.
"She told us that they fired everybody in the staff ... I knew something was wrong, because she didn't give anything in details," Spence said.
Wolf promised the house would be finished soon, Spence said, and said she would send a letter to the Spence family's Pennsylvania home confirming the details.
That letter never came, and the North Miami Beach office is now empty. Construction has stopped. The house is half built. The Spences have received letters from sub-contractors claiming that Sky didn't pay for thousands of dollars of materials.
"We are just sitting here with this nightmare," Maureen Spence, 66, said Friday.
Peter Mazzarino of Coral Springs also talked with Wolf earlier this month. He and his wife Gwen had shelled out more than $25,000 for Sky Construction to build their new home in Crystal River. But construction crews never came.
And a refund check Wolf gave them bounced, Gwen Mazzarino, 47, said Friday.
"We knew a long time ago this was coming down, and nobody would listen. Nobody would turn the key and start making things happen," Gwen Mazzarino said. "Now it's too late. Now she's gone."
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Law enforcement officials in Miami-Dade County are looking for Natalia Wolf, said Citrus Sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney. And the Citrus County Sheriff's Office is trying to find victims involved in possible fraudulent transactions.
Tierney said Detective Mike Kanter has received reports from owners of hundreds of pieces of property claiming that Sky Development Group forged deeds and illegally claimed their land. Millions of dollars could be involved, she said.
Even the largest white collar crime cases the Sheriff's Office has handled were on a much smaller monetary scale, she said.
Property Appraiser Melanie Hensley said issues with deeds to property sold by Sky Development starting coming up in February. But she said many of the problems were resolved with corrective deeds.
"We had not caught on that this was fraudulent," she said.
Now that detectives are investigating, she said, a team of employees from her office is putting together a spreadsheet listing parcels that can't be transferred because of an ownership question.
"This is not good. It just involves so many people," she said. "We may not know for a long time how many."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this story. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 860-7309.