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Old Sun City: Act V: Liberty and Justice

Developer ruled legally insane, locked up

By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published February 9, 2007


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Fifth in a series of stories looking at the promise - and failure - of the Sun City development.

 

J.T. Fleming lay in a bed on the fourth-floor of Tampa Hospital. He had broken his back in a fight with a deputy sheriff, but the crushed lower vertebra wasn't his biggest problem.

Judge William Brooker, in an effort to spare the government from more of Fleming's legal antics, called a sanity commission to evaluate the man's mental capacity.

A "petition for inquisition of incompetency" was filed in county court in early 1953 by the county physician, the county welfare director and the superintendent of the county hospital, all of whom had tried to calm Fleming down.

If the commission found him insane, the 64-year-old Sun City developer would be shipped off to the State Hospital at Chattahoochee, an overcrowded insane asylum where conditions were wretched.

The news hit Fleming hard and he fought the only way he knew how to stay out of state custody. He began petitioning the court and invited a newspaper reporter to tell his story.

"Fleming has been having a field day with his court barrages since he began to recover from the spinal fracture he suffered Feb. 21," Paul Wilder wrote in the Tampa Tribune.

Fleming filed 80 motions from his hospital bed in just a few days. He refused to use a court-appointed guardian.

"If I accepted him as guardian, I would be admitting I'm crazy," Fleming said.

Meanwhile, those whose respect Fleming earned in years of fighting the system were taking up a collection. The man who had bought the bankrupt Sun City development years earlier for $100 with a vision of resurrecting its grandeur was broke and on welfare because of his legal expenses.

A cigar box in his room filled with bills and change from visitors, including a $10 check from a circuit judge Fleming once sued.

The sheriff appointed a guard to watch Fleming since he was still charged with assaulting the deputy. The first day Fleming was in his room, the deputy casually walked in and sat down.

"Who are you?" Fleming asked.

"A deputy sheriff," the officer answered.

Fleming's face turned red.

"I want to inform you, sir," Fleming shouted, "that this room while I'm in it is my home. It's my castle. I want you to go outside unless I call you or invite you in."

From then on, the three deputies who maintained a 24-hour guard, sat quietly outside the door.

On March 19, 1953, in the doctors' library of the hospital, J.T. Fleming acted as his own attorney. He called witnesses and cross-examined the county's representatives. Several attorneys who had once stood against him now spoke fondly of the old man.

None of that mattered.

The government he fought against for years deemed Fleming legally incompetent.

The old man who amassed a fortune during the Florida land boom was taken from his home in Sun City and sent to the State Hospital near Tallahassee.

- - -

One petition arrived on a small scrap of paper. Another arrived on the back of wrapping paper.

J.T. Fleming was locked up at the State Hospital, but he wasn't finished fighting. He pleaded with county judges across Florida to restore his sanity so he could be free from the underfunded state institution that housed the mentally insane.

But no one would listen. Not in Florida anyway. He was incarcerated for 19 months before finally getting permission from hospital administrators to leave if he swore to exit Florida and make his home in Georgia.

Once he was freed to Georgia, Fleming quickly set about having his sanity restored by a Fulton County, Ga., court And he had the paper to prove it.

Wrote Dr. A.J. Floyd, an Atlanta psychologist, in a dispatch to a Hillsborough County court: "On Oct. 11, 1954, I examined J.T. Fleming and found him to be fully oriented and cognant of all recent and national events, normal in every respect. In my opinion, he is mentally sound and should have his citizenship restored to him."

The same judge who ruled Fleming insane was forced to reconsider his earlier findings.

Judge William Brooker revealed in letters to Fleming's wife that he was sympathetic to the old man and that he struggled with the decision. He asked advice from a slew of judges, lawyers and psychologists.

Many were skeptical.

"It is our opinion," wrote J. Robert Campbell and E.R. Bourkard from the Mason Smith Neurological Clinic, "that unless Mr. Fleming has in the meantime suffered intellectual deterioration caused by organic disease of the brain or similar physical disorder, he will, upon discharge, again obtrude his travestied concepts of Liberty and Justice upon the already sufficiently burdened agencies of good government."

Despite that risk, Judge Brooker restored Fleming's right to defend himself in court. He had no option.

While Fleming was locked in the State Hospital, the county reclaimed his 500 acres near present-day Ruskin for unpaid taxes.

The county was now trying to evict the man who kept the Sun City dream alive.

- - -

By the time he died in January 1968 at age 79, J.T. Fleming had been living on welfare for years. He lost his land to the county for unpaid taxes. When his house was seized, men hauled away a truckload of his legal documents and writings.

The Tampa Tribune carried Fleming's obituary.

"Some of his more colorful escapades include lying down before a bulldozer to prevent construction of a road, staging a lie-down strike on the county jail porch because he wanted to go to jail and they wouldn't let him and having to be carried bodily from a county commission meeting."

The county tax assessor and a county judge helped carry his casket.

He was buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery in Tampa, 25 miles from Sun City. His modest headstone mentions nothing of his activism, or his ties to the 500 acres that wrecked two dreamers.

 

Next week: What has become of Old Sun City?

This story includes information from materials in the Special Collections department at the Tampa Library at the University of South Florida; Rinaldi's Official Guide of South Florida, 1925; various newspaper articles and real estate advertisements from the Tampa Daily Times, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Morning Tribune, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and the Bradenton Herald; Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen; Some Kind Of Paradise, by Mark Derr; public documents; and interviews with descendants of H.C. Van Sweringen.

Researchers Angie Holan and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or 813 661-2443.

 

. ON THE WEB

A dream pursued

To read previous installments in the Old Sun City series, go to links.tampabay.com.

 

[Last modified February 8, 2007, 08:21:24]


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