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Before capture, fugitive cruised Greek isles

To a friend from Nashville, Matthew B. Cox "seemed like a smart guy" with money.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published November 22, 2006


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[Photos courtesy of Brian Williamson]
Masquerading as Joseph Carter, Matthew B. Cox took an eight-day cruise through the Greek isles with his girlfriend Amanda Gardner.

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Matt Cox, left, and Brian Williamson recently traveled together to Venice and then cruised the Greek isles. Cox was traveling as Joseph Carter, with his girlfriend. Williamson was with his wife.

Previous coverage
  • Before capture, fugitive cruised Greek isles (Dec. 22)
    Artistic fraud on top of mortgage fraud? (Nov. 18)
  • Sitter's fears set arrest in motion (Nov. 17)
  • In trouble's footsteps (Nov. 16)
  • Dubious housing deals line avenue (12/14/03)
  • Invisible investors deceive lenders (1/22/04)
  • Fraud by the book: Novelist becomes his own hero (12/19/04)

  • In late September, Matthew B. Cox used a falsified passport to fly from the United States to Italy, where he and his girlfriend and two other couples embarked on a luxurious eight-day cruise through the Greek isles.

    To everyone aboard the nine-deck, 777-cabin cruise ship MSC Armonia, Cox was known as Joseph Carter - a 39-year-old former developer who had relocated from Tampa to Nashville and used his family legacy to start a home restoration company with his 25-year-old girlfriend, Amanda Gardner.

    "Carter," as his friends in Nashville called him, spread his cash around freely, drove a silver 2005 Infiniti and lived in a fashionably renovated bungalow. He sported hair transplants and looked trimmer after liposuction and removal of breast tissue.

    "He was kind of a smart aleck, but he seemed like a smart guy," said Brian Williamson, who accompanied Carter on the Mediterranean cruise. "He seemed to have a lot of money. He said he was from a wealthy background."

    On the cruise, Carter stayed in his cabin a lot, Williamson said, emerging to go on island excursions and mug for snapshots.

    Williamson, 26, who runs a McDonald's franchise in Nashville, had hired Carter to build a home on the site of an abandoned church. Carter and his girlfriend had promised to sell the Williamsons a home worth $180,000 for a mere $130,000, providing a "gift of equity" to mark the close friendship between the couples.

    But last week, as the new home's foundation was still drying, Secret Service agents stormed Carter's house and arrested him on a 42-count indictment accusing him of using forgery and identity theft on a cross-country crime binge involving mortgage fraud, bank fraud and money laundering.

    "I had no idea that he was this other guy," said Williamson. "But I guess we're lucky he was arrested when he was."

    A former University of South Florida art student and mortgage broker, Cox fled Tampa in December 2003 as the St. Petersburg Times prepared to publish articles questioning property deals by Cox and his company, Urban Equity.

    Atop the Secret Service most-wanted list since he and another girlfriend, Rebecca M. Hauck, were indicted in Atlanta, Cox was captured last week after a tip from a suspicious retiree who occasionally babysat the 4-year-old son of Cox's new girlfriend.

    Moments after his arrest in Nashville, Cox confessed his true identity to Gardner, with whom he had lived and shared the budding Nashville Restoration Project renovation business for more than a year.

    Cox's arrest came 24 hours after the sentencing of Hauck, his accomplice for almost two years. Like Cox, Hauck faced more than 400 years in prison but cut a deal with the government to testify against Cox. She was sentenced to 70 months in prison and restitution of $1.19-million.

    Now, the attorney who helped negotiate that sentence, Paula Hutchinson, has agreed to represent Cox's latest girlfriend.

    Hutchinson said there is no indication that Gardner was aware of any illegal activities by Cox.

    "Amanda is shell-shocked, that's for sure," Hutchinson said Tuesday. "And quite understandably, she trusts no one and wanted legal counsel as she cooperates with authorities.

    "With her whole world turned upside down, she felt like she needs an attorney who doesn't need to start from scratch in matters involving Matt Cox."

    Cox might have stayed in Italy or Greece after the vacation cruise, Hutchinson said, except for an obsessive fear of Interpol, a phobia mentioned in Cox's unpublished autobiographical crime novel, The Associates, a phobia Hauck also noticed when the couple took a 10-day trip to Jamaica while fugitives.

    Hutchinson said that from her conversations with Gardner, she believes Cox was preparing to flee Nashville when he was captured.

    While the Times had continued to publish stories on Cox's exploits, Hauck's arrest and her story of life on the run attracted Fortune magazine, which published a lengthy article this month on the "Bonnie and Clyde" of mortgage fraud.

    And with Hauck's sentencing last week, Dateline NBC prepared to broadcast a story that would put Cox's image in living rooms around the country.

    A week ago, Cox and Gardner reported to police that armed intruders broke into their home and took watches, $6,000 cash, a handgun and the silver Infiniti.

    Hutchinson believes the robbery may have been staged: Cox's 16-camera, motion-activated security system failed to create a tape of the break-in, and Cox later told Gardner he feared someone was after him.

    Hutchinson suspects Cox was laying the groundwork for another quick getaway.

    Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or testerman@sptimes.com.

    [Last modified November 22, 2006, 00:10:45]


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