tampabay.com

Cox arrest stuns latest girlfriend

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published November 17, 2006


Amanda Gardner dropped off her 4-year-old son at school Thursday morning and returned to her Nashville home to find a half-dozen Secret Service agents surrounding her boyfriend, Joseph Carter.

Gardner, a 25-year-old U.S. Army veteran of the war in Iraq, met Carter last year and operated a home restoration business with him. She says she couldn't fathom why agents had wrestled her boyfriend to the ground and handcuffed him.

Carter said he had something to tell her: "He said he was someone else. He said he was sorry. He said he had been on the run for two years.

"He said his name was Matthew Cox."

A fugitive since he fled a real estate investigation in Tampa in 2003, Cox was arrested Thursday.

In Nashville, Cox had assumed the latest of many identities: Joseph Carter.

Gardner said she had no clue.

"He said he'd run a mortgage company in Tampa, then a development company that he sold, then he decided to travel around the country for a while. He told me he'd had some trouble in Tampa, but I assumed he was in the witness protection program.

"He was wonderful to me. When you're in love, you don't want to know the truth."

Cox had violated probation on fraud convictions when leaving Tampa, then leaped to the top of the Secret Service's most-wanted list after a grand jury indicted him on 42 counts of forgery, bank fraud and identity theft.

Cox's romance with Gardner followed a familiar pattern involving young, divorced mothers.

In Tampa, he met Alison Arnold, allegedly pulled off a mortgage fraud in Pinellas County, then parted company. Next he committed a series of crimes with Rebecca M. Hauck, she says, before abandoning her in Houston.

While Cox took a new identity to become Gardner's partner, Arnold and Hauck went to prison - Arnold for two years, Hauck sentenced this week to nearly six years.

Gardner said Thursday she never dreamed "Carter" might be involved in illegal activity. She learned the extent of the allegations against her boyfriend after reading St. Petersburg Times stories on her computer.

"I had no idea," she said. "I'm in shock. Everyone is in shock. The man I'm in love with is not the man I thought he was."

Gardner said after returning from Iraq, where she helped search for weapons of mass destruction, she met Cox on an online dating service.

"He seemed so versatile. He was an artist," she said. "He had written books. He did everything he could to make me feel 100 percent special."

Cox's art deco paintings soon decorated the couple's restored bungalow at 79 Donelson St. in Nashville. Some of the artwork was nearly identical to the murals Cox left in his triplex in Tampa Heights.

After an idyllic 10-day trip to Greece in September, Gardner said she never felt better about her future with Carter. Now, she said she's in too much shock to consider where her life will go next.

She said she's not sure she can stay in the couple's restored home. The deed is in one name: Joseph Carter - a man who does not exist.

Thursday afternoon, Gardner was trying to hold together her home restoration business. When a caller asked for Joseph Carter, she choked back tears and said:

"He's no longer with us."