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Mystery at Rogers' Christmas House

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published January 29, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - The lights were off, the music was stopped, the doors were locked. There was a U-Haul truck backed up to the side of the main building at the Rogers' Christmas House complex. And upstairs were Ann Chapman, who was in charge of marketing, and Bill Chapman, who was in charge of the day-to-day finances and operations, and they said in a quiet room they were closing the business for two weeks to figure out how or even if they would reopen.

That was Jan. 10.

Three days later, the iconic Hernando County business was back open, 9:30 to 5, as always. Only there were fewer employees. And the Chapmans were gone.

Folks around town started to talk.

Now it's two-and-a-half weeks later.

And here's what really happened.

Donna Jones, 64, of Weeki Wachee has been the owner for the last year-plus. Ann Chapman is her half-sister, Bill Chapman is her brother-in-law, and they moved here from Michigan after she bought the business. And the Chapmans, Jones said Thursday, used company money to pay personal credit card bills of $49,000, $33,000, $5,000 and three different bills of $3,000.

Jones says they told her that money was used to buy things for the Christmas House. There's no way to know at this point. The Chapmans left with two of the computers, Jones said. She can't find the records. Neither can longtime employee and new manager George Rodriguez. They know the dollar amounts only because they found the check stubs. So Jones fired the Chapmans.

"They got out of here fast," she said.

"I'm glad it's over. I'm glad we're here. Now we got all the nice honest people who care."

"Either they were not business-knowledgeable, or they were smart as a fox," Rodriguez said. "One or the other."

Bill Chapman was reached Friday by phone.

"I'm not even going to get into this," he said from his home in Taylor, Mich. "We left, we're done, that's that.

"You can believe what you want," he added.

All this starts, in a way, on Sept. 26, 2005, which was Jones' birthday, and Ann Chapman was down here visiting, and they went to the Christmas House to do some shopping. Jones asked the management at that time if the business was for sale. It was.

Jones is a passive sort - that's her word - but she's a workaholic. She also owns a denture clinic in Hudson.

Bill Chapman, 56, worked for Ford for 31 years. Ann Chapman, 58, worked in nursing homes. Neither has a criminal record.

They retired after Jones bought the Christmas House and moved here.

Jones says she didn't ask them to do that.

"I swear," she said Thursday. "I got a phone call. They're on their way."

The Chapmans started work in January.

Ann Chapman did marketing.

Bill Chapman did the books.

The Christmas House is no normal local business. Longtime, legendary owner Margaret "Weenie" Rogers Ghiotto, who died last February, began in 1970 selling Christmas collectibles out of a corner of her father's downtown department store and two years later moved the business to its current location on S Saxon Avenue.

"When somebody walks in here, you see the smiles," Bill Chapman said in April.

"It's fun," Ann Chapman said then. "This whole place is nothing but fun."

They made some improvements. They painted the insides of some of the houses, repainted the lines in the parking lot and replaced some of the wood on the walkways outside. In April, they had spent "almost $100,000," Chapman said, "and we're not anywhere near done."

They bought 14 new kinds of Christmas trees.

And a bigger home for the gnomes by the pond out back, and the rocks around the pond, and the goldfish that went in it.

In November, Ann Chapman told a reporter from the Times that they had spent, in six months, $750,000 on new products.

Closed for two weeks

The Chapmans were living in a 38-foot RV in the Topics RV park on County Line Road when they first got here. They said they were looking for a house. But they were still living in the RV during the holiday season.

On Jan. 10, a Wednesday, Jones was in Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill with double pneumonia, and over at the Christmas House the Chapmans sent their employees home when they arrived for work in the morning. A sign went up on the front door: WILL BE CLOSED FOR 2 WEEKS DUE TO ILLNESS.

They said early that afternoon that they might be able to find an investor and reopen, or maybe reopen restructured somehow, or maybe close forever.

"Christmas was excellent," Ann Chapman said. "But not enough. Not enough to take care of everything we need to take care of.

"I need to talk to some attorneys and things like that," she said.

Brooksville's small. Word got out that something was happening at the Christmas House. City and county business officials started to plan for a meeting with the Chapmans to try to help.

In the meantime Jones got a call in the hospital. It was Ann Chapman.

"They decided what to do without asking me," Jones said Thursday. "I told her, 'You get your little things, and you go home.' "

'We will make it'

The Christmas House was closed Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of that week.

It reopened that Saturday.

Which is when Jones and Rodriguez started to notice some things.

"They took the computers," Jones said.

"We haven't been able to find any paperwork," Rodriguez said.

"I let things get too far," Jones said. "I figured anybody with any common decency would go only so far. But everybody's not like that."

"We're not accusing anybody of anything," Rodriguez said. "But was he using his Visa, MasterCard and American Express to pay for things for the store? I don't know. That's the big secret."

Rogers had 45 employees in December. Now that number is 21. Some of that has to do with the typically higher levels of seasonal help, Jones said, but not all of it.

"But we will make it," she said. "We will."

"With the right management and the right level of creativity, the Christmas House will flourish again," City Council member Lara Bradburn said. "It is a gold mine."

The Chapmans talked about that a lot. They seemed to understand its unique position in town.

"We did everything we knew how to do to keep that store afloat," Bill Chapman said Friday. "But she dismissed us. We came here. We're done with the store.

"Donna's going to say what she wants to say."

Then their daughter got on and hung up the phone.

There were three callbacks. Someone picked up just long enough to hang up again, and again, and again.

A fourth callback.

"Goodbye," a voice said.

A fifth.

"Bye."

"Whatever they do is their business," Jones said Friday. "I don't care to hear from them ever again.

"Ever."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

[Last modified January 28, 2007, 23:10:54]


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