Thomas Huggins. He knows people. People you should know. PROFILE

Thomas Huggins, founder, Ariel Business Group, Tampa, by Bob Andelman
Thomas Huggins, founder of Tampa-based Ariel Business Group, featured on the cover of the Maddux Business Report. Story by Bob Andelman.

By BOB ANDELMAN

Written September 17, 2005

Maddux Business Report

Thomas Huggins knows people.

Construction people, engineers, environmental consultants, accountants, attorneys and all kinds of professional, small business people.

He’s made an entire business of knowing people, knowing people who know people, and knowing what some people are looking for in other people.
When governmental agencies and big businesses around the Tampa Bay area need to get a job done by a small, minority or disadvantaged business they often turn to Huggins’ 10-year-old Tampa consulting company, Ariel Business Group.

That’s what Skanska USA Building did.

When Skanska was preparing to bid on the design and construction of Tampa International Airport’s new outbound baggage handling system and security enhancements project in 2002, the general contractor knew that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority required that a percentage of work on the system would be done by disadvantaged business enterprises – DBEs, in its bureaucratic lingo. (Other agencies and private companies may call them SBEs, for small business enterprises.)

“We understand that there’s more to dealing with a public entity than just building,” says Skanska Senior Vice President Jim Clemens. “You can’t follow a scorched earth policy in the local market. And there is a responsibility we have to support and understand the needs of the community. The taxpayers of this region have funded these projects. The taxpayer base is a reflection of those people in the community and therein lays the responsibility for an open-minded construction manager to ensure the work we do responds to the needs of the community. The original goal of the airport was 15 percent for this project. And we said, ‘We understand what you want to achieve.’ And we committed to a 20 percent goal right out of the chute. And we even beat that.”

Large government agencies maintain a list of certified DBEs in their area. The City of Tampa, for example, has a list of minority or disadvantaged businesses, as does the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. The challenge for many general contractors who may not be based locally is that they are provided with a quantitative list of names and phone numbers but no qualitative information about each outfit’s capacity. Ariel Business Group – and similar consultants – adds value by providing missing background on firms they have worked with and their capabilities for tackling a particular task. Beyond that, they have often worked with additional firms that may not be on an agency’s list but that can perform a needed service.

“The outbound baggage project was a highly visible project, one that a number of firms were going after,” Huggins says. “I had a meeting with Frank Fralick, who was then the president of Skanska locally (and is now executive vice president of Manhattan Construction Company in Tampa). We talked about his desire and interest in pursuing this project and having a strong diversity of firms. He recognized the commitment of the Aviation Authority and he made a commitment to having a diverse team on this project.”

Huggins says Fralick made a decision to “do it the right way.

“There are companies that really believe they can get around the SBE requirement by filling out some paperwork and not achieving the intent of the program, which is why it was installed in the first place, to create opportunities where opportunities didn’t previously exist. Frank took the higher road.”

Thomas Huggins, Ariel Business Group, Tampa, by Bob Andelman
Thomas Huggins, founder of Tampa-based Ariel Business Group

When Skanska won the baggage contract in mid-2002, Huggins and Ariel were immediately added to its team for the purpose of assigning $26 million (of the $130 million total budget) in subcontracting work. Individual contracts over the next three years ranged from $30,000 to $1 million. The baggage system was a design-build project that encompassed design, installation and construction.

“It wasn’t just bricks and mortar, either,” Clemens says. “It was high tech, very demanding. Our work couldn’t negatively impact aviation at Tampa International. It takes a special contractor. It’s like trying to build a new operating room at a hospital while there is an operation going on next door.”
What’s interesting is that Skanska USA Building has an office and presence in Tampa, unlike some contractors that may bid a project here but be based elsewhere.

“Do we turn to Ariel and a Thomas Huggins because we don’t know where to turn without them? No,” Clemens says. “We turn to them because they provide instant credibility in their community. They provide, in a real-time manner, which subs are capable – and which are not. Which are over capacitized and which are not. They bring a lot more to the table than a list of names. They understand the market and the firms available. Skanska knew of all these subcontractors before. Could we have done it without Thomas? Probably. But it would have made the job more difficult. He provides a service not unlike your insurance agent or attorney. He brings an expertise in an aspect of the market that we can’t provide on a full-time basis.”

Ariel started the process with a serious of informational meetings that introduced almost 40 minority and disadvantaged small business to Skanska and the dimensions of the project. Many had not worked for the airport or Skanska before. Clemens went through the project and provided background on Skanska and the scope and magnitude of the system. He also explained how, as a team, Skanska and Ariel intended to meet and exceed the Aviation Authority’s participation guidelines. (Not all the DBE firms went through this process but many did.)

Ariel had a continuing responsibility to the project from pre-start until closeout.

“We try to be proactive as opposed to reactive,” Huggins says. “We recognize the challenge of the larger firms. They inherently have budget issues and scheduling conflicts. We’re real cognizant of those issues. As we work with the disadvantaged companies, we want to be sure the DBE firms have the capacity to do their portion of the work. Being proactive, we want to ensure that we’ve covered the areas that potentially may be of concern: Can the company perform? Is there a need for performance bonding? Payment assistance? Our goal is to get the participating firms to look at (using DBE companies) as a process, not a project. They should be incorporated in the process of doing business.

“We not only are matching firms with capability,” he continues, “but we also are there to anticipate any conflicts, mediate any issues and alleviate problems. The goal is, get the project done, so everybody makes money and everybody walks away happy. This is business driven. The contractors are in it to make money. The subs are in it to make money. It’s only good in the end if everybody is happy. And that’s difficult to achieve in the construction business.”

Construction, as anyone who has ever hired a contractor for something as simple as a home renovation or as complicated as building an office tower, is a tough business. An awfully tough business.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog business,” says Huggins. “My passion for the subcontractors trying to enter it is you can be a great tradesman but you have to understand the business – the administration, the financial, the management aspect. All those components are critical in escalating your business. They’re critical to your overall success.”

The challenge for Huggins and his DBE network is in constantly upgrading not just their trade skills but also their industry savvy in ways that make them indispensable beyond earning set-aside project budgets.

“The majority of the minority subcontractor firms that worked on the airport project liked working for the contractor because of the relationships that developed,” Huggins says. “They were not easy contractors but they were fair; the contractors I talked to felt that. Skanska demanded performance; they demanded the best out of the subs. The subs respected them not only for being demanding but also being fair and respecting them.”

Clemens says the feeling was truly mutual.

“We got enthusiastic subcontractors that wanted to work, wanted to learn,” he says. “Because of that we achieved an even greater percentage than the goals for using disadvantaged businesses. We grew as a family on that project. All the ethnic and race divides withered away. Thomas and his leadership allowed that to occur.”

Skanska subsequently used some of the subs that Huggins introduced it to on other public – and private – projects in Orlando, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami-Dade.

The bottom line, of course, is the impact the DBEs have on the general contractor’s ability to profit from a job. But Clemens insists the equation isn’t that simple.

“Beyond the bottom line, we are helping to grow and cultivate in the Tampa Bay area a group of new and rising stars in the construction field,” he says. “We may not see immediate effects in economic aspects, but the market and community sees the creation of jobs and the stability of the competitive marketplace being improved. It isn’t all ‘Great Society’ stuff. It creates more qualified subcontractors, not just more qualified disadvantaged minority subs. These are newly confident people available to the airport five years out. The next group of subs will be stronger and better positioned as a result of these programs.

“My mission statement is to satisfy my customer,” Clemens continues. “My client is the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority. Their interest is that the tax dollars that they use to fund projects provides a benefit that transcends back to the community at some level. That is my job. Yes, we’re in business and business is capitalistic and there is a profit motive involved. But at the end of the day, the way I’m graded is on the level of client satisfaction that I bring. And I need to meet, at the most basic aspects, the goals my customer establishes for disadvantaged participation. I have it in a contract. For me to be profitable and not meet those goals, they won’t have me back.”

So what did the companies Huggins recommended do?

“A little bit of everything,” according to Clemens. “We had contractors that installed the baggage conveyor systems. We had electricians, welders, plumbers, excavators and underground utility providers. It wasn’t a bunch of guys who pushed brooms and threw out the garbage.”

And not only was the baggage system completed on time in April 2005 and work well, it won a major industry award. The National Construction Management Association of America gave Skanska its 2005 Project Achievement Award in the category of “Public Project with a Construction Value Greater than $100 million.”

“It’s a fantastic honor,” Clemens says.

• • •

Thomas Huggins gets high marks from everyone with whom the Maddux Business Report spoke. Huggins, 45, is a past-chairman of the Tampa Urban League and current chairman of the Hillsborough Community College Board of Directors, having been appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1999.

He truly is a people person.

“He’s just a real easygoing guy,” says Mary Hall, legal affairs director for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, another Ariel client. “And he’s got a good team. In all this time, I’ve never seen him not have a suggestion or a solution. He’s a good team player.”

That view is echoed by Skanska’s Jim Clemens.

“Our relationship has grown to be very friendly,” Clemens says. “We went from working associates to friends. He’s a great guy, hard working, whose career reflects his personality and work ethic, which is refreshing in the construction business. He has a very high threshold for dealing with difficult situations.”

But what is Huggins actually like as a man?

He’s been married for almost 20 years to his wife, Belinda, with whom he has two sons and two daughters. The oldest son plays football at The Citadel.

“Thomas is a pretty good guy,” says his friend of six years, Rea Remedial Solutions, Inc. President Kevin Simmons. “When I started my business – I used to work for Westinghouse and decided to open my own environmental firm – I met Thomas. Our firm was getting qualified to work for DOT through its bonding program and Thomas was running that program through Florida A&M University. I took the certification course through Ariel in St. Petersburg and Thomas taught the class. After I got certified by DOT, I came back and taught some classes for him. He gave me the old pitch about giving back. Thomas is good about being sure that those people who get help getting a leg up help the next guy.”

Simmons, who is African-American and the majority owner of his Valrico-based environment construction and engineering and assessment firm, has since worked on two projects referred by Ariel at Tampa International Airport, one for Skanska and one for Beck. He is currently working on another Ariel arranged assignment, the Selmon Crosstown Expressway expansion.

“Thomas has been a real proponent for minority business,” according to Simmons. “He’s done a real service in terms of helping small and disadvantaged businesses establish themselves through the cities, counties and state. He has a heartfelt view of helping and it comes out. He has made some introductions for us. By being the liaison for Beck and Skanska, it’s his job to understand the capabilities of those businesses. Once he knew what we could do and what they need, he was instrumental in getting us that introduction. “

Okay, okay, he’s a great humanitarian. But what’s he like?

“To be honest with you, Thomas is kind of a dry guy,” says Simmons. “There’s no wild side, no wild story to be related. He’s very into politics; he’s an African-American Republican. And he’s proud of being able to say it. A lot of African-American Republicans keep that to themselves.”

• • •

Like a lot of successful businesspeople in the bay area, Thomas Huggins relocated to Tampa from somewhere else; in his case, it was Charleston.
Huggins, who is originally from Green Cove Springs, Florida, received a degree in business and finance from the College of Charleston, SC, where he also played basketball.

Arriving here, he spent his first days working in the payroll accounting department of Hardaway Construction during its construction of the new Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Nights he worked for the St. Petersburg Times in it printing plant, folding and processing newspapers.

In 1983, Huggins was hired by Community Federal Savings & Loan, the only African-American, multicultural bank in the city at the time. From there, he worked for consulting firms such as Boone, Young & Associates and Laventhol & Horwath doing small business consulting. At each firm he worked with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“During that time, we worked a lot with small businesses, particularly construction companies, on major projects in the area,” Huggins says. “We worked on diversity issues, primarily business related, and minority business development programs. We were versed in the procurement and contracting arena and some of the challenges minority businesses were facing at the time.”

Huggins’ responsibilities included assisting small businesses with financing, developing business plans, and obtaining financing through the Small Business Administration and local banks. “We were identifying contracting opportunities for small businesses with the government and private sector. We educated them on the procurement systems and entering the construction arena. At the time, I managed a five-person staff that provided those services,” he says.

Fees at both consulting firms paid by small business clients were offset by the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency. The idea was giving small, disadvantaged and minority businesses a better opportunity to compete for both jobs and access. “DOC’s goal was to have an avenue where minority business would receive technical assistance to promote business development,” Huggins says. “They wanted them to get the same assistance offered to mainstream firms through CPA firms. That is otherwise prohibitive to small business, so the DOC contracted with firms to provide that assistance at a subsidized rate. So instead of $200 an hour, the firms that came in might pay $100 or $75 an hour.”

As it turned out, the DOC indirectly subsidized Thomas Huggins’ future as well.

“I gained a tremendous amount of experience,” he says.

No surprise then that when Boone closed its Tampa office in 1996, Huggins went out on his own and hung a shingle as the head of Ariel Business Group.

“I felt that there was a niche, a void, in the area as it relates to the emerging business market,” he says. “Businesses that are under $2 million in revenue needed managerial and organizational assistance, all the way down to individuals that were micro-businesses in needed of assistance in starting a business.

“And,” he says, laughing, “I needed a job.”

Huggins felt it was the right track for him; when Boone shut down, he didn’t apply for any other jobs with existing firms. “This was the direction that I was led to go,” he says. “Being a spiritual man, this is where my prayer was. I asked for direction and guidance from God and this was the direction that he led me.”

Seems logical. But when you say you’re a “consultant,” there are a lot of consultants that do a lot of things. To provide some credibility early on,

Huggins’ goal was not just be another consultant working from home, going from one client to another.

“I wanted to develop a business,” he says.
In the early days, Ariel consisted of Huggins and a part-time administrative support person. Today, he still runs a lean operation, helped by a vast computer database and a staff of five, including Melanie Mitchell, who was the project manager on the airport and expressway jobs.

“Relationships are important,” Huggins says. “The real issue for us is understanding the needs of the client, understanding the individual finance-making industry and what their likes and dislikes.”

Over time, Huggins broke Ariel up into three service areas:

• Management, advisory and program administration services;

• Corporate and diversity training to senior level management and governmental agencies – “We’ve not only worked for government agencies,” Huggins says, “but they’ve asked for our help on the public policy side to develop minority policies”;

• Work with individual firms to do contract compliance and small business outreach on construction related projects.

“On the emerging business side,” Huggins says, “we still work with individual small businesses with revenues below $1 million that seek assistance in procurement and understanding the government bureaucracy, as well as individuals seeking financing.”

Ariel’s annual revenues are in the “mid six figures” according to Huggins. He bills clients by the hour for services rendered, using the same time-tested approach as lawyers and accountants. The amount is not, he emphasizes, based on the DBE budget for a project. And Ariel does not charge the SBE firms it introduces to its clients. “That’s considered double-dipping and I wouldn’t do that,” Huggins says.

His goal, he says, is to see his small business clients outgrow him.

• • •

The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority – the government agency that operates the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the Veterans Expressway – hired Ariel Business Group as its official small business enterprise authority for construction of the new $400 million expansion of the existing Selmon Expressway. It was one of several consulting firms that responded to an RFP for an SBE consultant.

“We were centered on getting as much of the construction work distributed to small businesses as possible,” explains the Authority’s legal affairs director Mary Hall. “We’re a small agency. We couldn’t by any stretch license or register or maintain an independent contractor list the way city or county do. Our board decided that if a company is on the list on any governmental agency in a seven-county area they could be on our database. Ariel was hired to try to get the word out that these jobs are available through the authority and they’ve been pretty successful.”

As it did with the airport project, Ariel participates in weekly expressway construction meetings with the major contractors to keep abreast of performance and evolving needs.

“The firms say, ‘Over the next two weeks we’re working on whatever.’ Then Ariel goes back to their database and tells companies what is coming up this week,” Hall says. “The small companies wouldn’t have known about us because we’re not typically in the construction business. They can’t bid these huge jobs; they have to be subs.”

Ariel impresses its clients on both ends by staying involved in the process.

“Sometimes they come up with issues we don’t hear about, such as delays in payment,” Hall says. “They act as the SBE’s representative and they get through some sticky issues that always resolve satisfactorily. One time, for example, there was a delay in payment to a sub. That’s a hardship. Once the general contractor confirmed the work was satisfactory, we expedited payment to the sub based on Ariel’s intervention. They work closely with our project accountant. That’s how they track the SBE participation. We have a reporting system that involves everyone.”

The Expressway Authority requires any contractor with which it does business to follow its SBE policy. “Whenever they have any work effort, they’re encouraged to look for SBE firms. Our construction policy requires that the contractor have a similar policy to ours; most of them already do,” Hall says. “We don’t just say it and let it sit on the shelf. We require they participate.”

• • •

There’s something different about Thomas Huggins from other small business enterprise consultants that Jonathan Graham has worked with before.

“He’s professional,” says the Graham, of Horus Construction Services in St. Petersburg. “I’ve dealt with Thomas for about four years. We had an opportunity through him with the Hillsborough County school district. We also worked with him on a Palm Beach contract.”

The mark of an effective SBE consultant is that the agency or company that hires him or her has the power to enforce participation.

“If they’re just there as a show – ‘We, as a corporation, do outreach but the construction managers do what they want,’ there’s no value,” Graham says. “But if they want to take the advice of the consultant, such as Thomas, it’s a good thing. But we’ve found people want to work with people they know. Big companies know majority subcontractors. They don’t know minority contractors. People put up a front, ‘We’d like to work with minority contractors’ but they don’t know them and don’t take chance to get to know them.”

Kevin Simmons says that when it comes to opening his network, recognizing or seizing opportunity, Thomas Huggins doesn’t see people of color, sex or ethnicity, just opportunity.

“He’s been a real incubator for getting women-owned or (non-disadvantaged) small businesses started. He’ll say, ‘Here’s a good accountant.’ Or they say. ‘Thomas Huggins from Ariel said to see you.’ Or Thomas will call in advance and say, ‘This guy is coming to see you; he needs help.’ It’s a nice little network.

Ariel Business Group Website

(This version of the story may be somewhat different than the published version.)

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Copyright 2015 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman

Meet long-time Tampa Bay Rowdies owner Cornelia Corbett! INTERVIEW

(Originally published in Florida Business/Tampa Bay, 1989)

Dick and Cornelia Corbett, Tampa Bay Rowdies, by Bob Andelman
Dick and Cornelia Corbett, Tampa Bay Rowdies (Photo by Craig Fossett)

Before her, Cornelia Corbett’s team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Behind her, a few thousand exuberant soccer fans who haven’t given up the dream.

There isn’t much to cheer on this overcast Sunday night at Tampa Stadium except that the rain has stopped. Despite the Rowdies having advanced to this American Soccer League playoff game against the Boston Bolts, only 5,000 people have come out to support the team. Even their loudest screams echo as but a whisper in the cavernous bowl, where 67,000 seats both end zones and the entire north side of the field are empty. Even the concession stands are against the Rowdies tonight; they ran out of hot dogs before halftime.

Still, Cornelia Corbett is unswayed. Watching the entire game in her now familiar position on one end of the bench beside head coach/general manager Rodney Marsh, the owner of the Rowdies concentrates her energies on the field. She winces each time the Bolts score and claps enthusiastically when the Rowdies engineer an elegant pass or steal.

The Rowdies are down two games to none after losing two straight in Boston. This game is their last gasp and before the night is over, they will have choked, 2-1.

Despite all these clouds, there are rays of sunlight for the oft battered Rowdies. Their regular season record was 12 wins and 8 losses, up from 10-10 in 1988. They won their division. An average home attendance of 5,792 was actually tops in the two-season-old American Soccer League. And while the team may lose up to $200,000 for its fiscal year (overhead from the off-season includes a reduced office staff, soccer clinics for youngsters, player tryouts, travel and league work), it actually showed a small profit of $10,000 during the team’s 20-game season.

That’s why Cornelia Corbett is smiling.

“I think we’re making headway,” she says. “Our losses aren’t as bad this year as last. It’s a minute swing: it’s possible we could make $150,000 and it’s possible we could lose $150,000.”

Corbett doesn’t know that the Rowdies ever made money not under founder George Strawbridge in the North American Soccer League (NASL), nor under the ownership troika of Stella Thayer, Bob Blanchard and Cornelia’s husband, Dick Corbett. In the heady years of the NASL, when Marsh was a star player, Gordon Jago was coach and a coterie of international stars electrified the league’s games on national TV, the Rowdies averaged 28,000 fans at Tampa Stadium. There was tremendous overhead associated with that success. But it’s a level Cornelia Corbett would like to reach. “I can’t imagine drawing an average of 28,000 and losing money,” she says.

Sportswoman, socialite, businesswoman, wife, mother of four who is Cornelia Corbett?

“She’s a mover and a shaker in our sport,” says Colin Phipps, owner of the Orlando Lions ASL team. “The average sports enthusiast sometimes gets enamored of the sport and forgets the practicality. She understands both.”

“She understands sports, which is a major plus for any owner,” says Rodney Marsh.

Born in Manhattan in 1946 to a “well-to-do” family (she’ll say only that her father is in “investments,” her mother owns racehorses and Cornelia herself has “private income”), Corbett earned a degree from New York University (Washington Square) in history. As soon as she graduated though, “Cornie” as friends and family call her went west to teach skiing in Aspen. She met Dick there in ’68 and returned with him to New York City. They married two years later.

The honeymoon was exotic and long three months of hiking and wandering through Tibet, Nepal, Kamandu and the Himalayas. “The two of us slept in mud huts with the Nepalese,” remembers Dick. “We traveled with nothing but the clothes on our backs and two sleeping bags. That trip showed she was a great outdoors lady. Leaving Manhattan, she was comfortable sleeping in a mud hut next to a campfire, crawling up and down the Himalayan range. She was a doer and great fun to be with.”

As her husband made his first million in real estate (see sidebar), Cornelia spent three years as a case officer investigating abuse and neglect for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “It was interesting and pretty gruesome,” she recalls. When their first child was born in ’73, it was time for a career change. “I could no longer be objective,” says Cornelia. “I couldn’t do case work. Every child became my own.”

The Corbetts met on the ski slopes, but Dick himself a former light-weight amateur boxer with a nose broken in six places to prove it introduced Cornelia to golf and, of course, she’s been playing ever since. They take family vacations to hunt or go white-water rafting in Colorado, climbing in the Grand Canyon and camping with Wild Kingdom TV host Jim Fowler (he is godfather to one of their children). The couple is “simpatico,” says Cornelia, very upbeat.

1989 Rowdies Staff, by Bob Andelman
1989 Rowdies Staff

If an impression of Cornelia Corbett as ultimate sportswoman is being formed, it’s not incorrect. “I’ve been a sports nut all my life,” she says. “If I have been consistent in one thing in my life, it’s my love of sports and competition.”

Cornelia and Dick moved to Tampa in 1978. In 1984, when the NASL went under, Dick Corbett’s partners in the Rowdies, Stella Thayer and Bob Blanchard, decided to bow out as well. They didn’t know where soccer was going if anywhere and lacked the spirit and time to continue. Dick and Cornelia toughed it out although the team has nowhere to play in ’85. In ’86, Dick made his wife sole owner.

“As he has done many times in the past,” recalls Cornelia, “he said, ‘Do you want to see what you can do with it?'”

No hesitation; she said yes.

Throwbackmax Men's Tampa Bay Rowdies 1975 NASL Soccer Tee Shirt
Throwbackmax Men’s Tampa Bay Rowdies 1975 NASL Soccer Tee Shirt. Click to Order!

Corbett had worked in the Rowdies front office during the last NASL season, so she knew the makeup of the business. The game itself was close enough to field hockey which she played competitively from grade school through college to assure her of competency in the finer points of soccer gamesmanship. And, most of all, she is not a woman to shirk from a challenge. When Dick needed someone to supervise a brownstone gutting and renovation in New York City back in the early days, he turned to Cornelia to bring in estimates and run roughshod over the crews. When he was in-between general managers at the old Hall of Fame Inn, Cornelia effortlessly handled the job.

“I’ve stepped into gaps for him a lot of times as a caretaker,” she says matter-of-factly.

In the case of the Tampa Bay Rowdies though, what Corbett inherited from her husband was very little. A familiar nickname, one that was once synonymous with having a good time. A somewhat tired Irish melody and phrase “The Rowdies arrrrrreee …. a kick in the grass!” Westshore offices in need of repair and a fresh coat of paint. Those were just the peripherals: the team itself had disintegrated with the league. There were no players, no coach. And no league to play in.

Desperate and choiceless, Corbett entered the Rowdies in the American Indoor Soccer League. The team played indoors at the Bayfront Center Arena. Despite a 21-21 record and a playoff berth, fans knew this was not the old kick-in-the-grass and they stayed away in droves.

The 1987 season was the first to offer promise to soccer fans. Corbett entered the Rowdies in the start-up American Soccer League (ASL) and quickly found herself the Grand Dame of the game, having had as much or more experience than most of the other owners in the 10-team league. She was called upon for opinions and rose immediately to the league’s executive board. The Rowdies’ first season in the ASL was a flat 10-10, but the team led the league in attendance.

Rodney Marsh runs the game side of the Rowdies; Cornelia Corbett handles the business. She says, contrary to public opinion, husband Dick is completely out of the team’s operations.

Finding a woman running a professional sports franchise is still unusual. Marsh says male team owners around the league found they had quite a capable associate in Corbett, however someone who knew their business better than they themselves did.

“There are a lot of ethnic owners in soccer and many of the meetings get personal,” he explains. “She comes in with a very cold, calculated, detail-oriented business concept. They were a little overpowered by that.”

1989 Paini Football 89 Roy Wegerle, by Bob Andelman
Roy Wegerle, Tampa Bay Rowdies, 1989

Linda Powell, director of operations for the American Soccer League, says Corbett has earned the respect of her counterparts. “She’s been in the sport longer than most of the owners,” according to Powell. “She is very concerned that the franchises run professionally and that her colleagues also run their franchises professionally.” Corbett was chair of the league’s marketing committee at one point and currently sits on the executive committee.

“Our club is as professional an organization as you can have,” reiterates Marsh. “We are in the lead at everything we do, whether it’s player salaries, medical care, uniforms, stadium and travel arrangements. It’s a real first-class organization.”

A first-class organization maybe, but operating on a shoestring.

Corbett runs a very lean operation. In-season, the Rowdies only have 10 full-time employees. The league has a player salary cap of approximately $75,000 an average of $250 per game, per player which controls costs and quality. Many players have second jobs which sometimes interfere with practices and even games, but in a nickel-and-dime league, the Rowdies cope.

Off-season, players receive no pay and the administrative staff is reduced to a bare bones four. “We’ve got a lot of people who are very loyal,” according to Corbett. “Our receptionist, Pat, has been with the team since 1975. Every August (when the soccer season ends) she says, ‘See you in January.'”

To reduce stadium costs, Corbett has explored playing in a smaller facility. A more intimate, contained facility would also boost morale and give the impression of fewer empty seats. The Florida Suncoast Dome has been discussed, partly because soccer youth leagues and Rowdies fan support has always been greater in Pinellas County than Hillsborough, but the team has objections to the artificial turf planned there.

ASL administrator Powell says none of the teams in the ASL are profitable yet.

“We told people when they came in: Don’t expect a profit in two years,” she says. “One of the goals of the league is to keep losses minimal. This is a growth industry; we are still growing. There is going to need to be an upgrading where we can pay players a living wage and keep them with the teams. Then we can build them up within the community.”

When the Rowdies were a bigger deal to the Tampa Bay sports public, the team began a commitment to building soccer in the community through youth leagues and summer camps. While times are tough now for the professional team, amateur soccer in the Bay area is thriving so the Rowdies have maintained their efforts with teen-agers. By operating clinics for the kids featuring Rowdies players and by offering deeply discounted season tickets to youth soccer league members, the team hopes to develop a new generation of loyal fans who will grow with the Tampa Bay entry in the ASL.

“We’ve instituted a program where, when kids join their league, we offer them a $10 season pass that will allow kids to get in for $1 a game,” says Cornelia Corbett. “We are trying to reach out and give the benefit to the kids who play the game. We’re working closely with all the youth leagues.”

The athlete in Corbett sympathizes with Tampa Bay area youths who need more places to play amateur soccer.

“The need for fields in unbelievable,” she says. “Your senior divisions can rarely find fields to play on. I get discouraged the United States has more soccer players than any other country, more than England, Brazi, Argentina, Germany. And yet the facilities aren’t there. In Tampa Bay alone there’s 20,000 kids playing the game. To me, politically, you multiply that by moms and dads, that’s quite a political force.”

Donna Salzer is administrator of the Florida Suncoast Soccer League and state registrar for senior division soccer players. She thinks Corbett’s vision of a brighter day for soccer in this country is accurate.

“The group born in the ’60s is going to make soccer American,” says Salzer. “When they have children, they will grow up with soccer. I’m close to 50. Our generation didn’t get introduced to soccer until their 30s. My son is 21 he’s played for 15 years. He goes to all the Rowdies games and can relate to it. We have to allow these kids to grow up. Soccer is going to catch on.”

As Corbett and the entire league waits for the next generation of fans to mature, they are faced with other stumbling blocks before the American public can be expected to open its arms to this very European sport. Soccer needs television exposure and knowledgeable, colorful announcers to bring it to life and explain the nuances. A likely merger with the Western Soccer League in 1992 could create new media opportunities. But this is a low-scoring game so fans need to be trained to appreciate the action and defense. And there is nothing like an eclectic, talented player to add a little zing to the field of play. Pele brought it from Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer brought it from Germany to the old NASL. The Rowdies of old had three players Marsh, Tatu and recently retired Steve Wegerle who could charge up a crowd.

None of this is news to Corbett or Marsh, of course.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says the team owner. “Soccer will not succeed without mass media. Media will not get involved until there’s 10,000 people in the stands.

“I also think the quality of the product (was better) in the late ’70s,” she continues. “We had a lot of Europeans coming over. Now you can only play two visa players. I know how fickle the American fan is it would be lovely to have a charismatic hero. I never saw Rodney play but I did see Tatu. Tatu did terrific things and he would score. You can play to the crowd when you can back it up with ability. I just don’t think we have Americans with the personality and confidence to do that.”

“You have no argument from me,” says Marsh. “For any sport to succeed, the quality has to be there. What is quality? Star players.”

Marsh also notes the inconsistency that has developed in fan support between the Rowdies and Tampa Bay Bucanneers football team.

“We had a seven-game winning streak a team record. We ended 12 and 8 and we still had 5,000 people. If the Bucs did that, they’d have 72,000 people in the stands. We need to have a winning season to maintain our crowd. The Bucs need to have an ordinary season to improve their crowd.

“At the end of the day,” concludes a hopeful Marsh, “soccer in this country will be enormous. Staggering. But whether or not that will be in my lifetime, I don’t know.”

There are precious few women in ownership positions with professional sports franchises. Cornelia Corbett is one; Marge Schott of the baseball Cincinnati Reds and Georgia Frontiere of the football Los Angeles Rams are the only others.

You can bet neither Frontiere or Schott is working indefinitely without salary or income from their teams as Corbett does.

Equally as rare in professional sports are owners who watch their teams compete from the players’ bench the way Corbett does. Home or away, her players know she’s going to be seated beside them from the opening buzzer ’til time runs out.

“It is very difficult to be in an owner’s box when family is there and you’re entertaining guests and friends to really be able to watch the game without offending someone,” according to Corbett. “Also, I find for me you’re quite removed when you’re high up. I prefer to be close-up. Corbett arrives at Tampa Stadium for 8 p.m. home games by 6:30 p.m. She’ll check in on the owner’s skybox, the V.I.P. and media boxes. Then she tours the stadium, checks the placement of sponsor banners on the field and visits the entrance gates for a fix on attendance. Last stop is the visiting team’s lockerroom. “If there’s any trouble-shooting or decision-making to be done, I’m available,” she says. “But by ten of eight game time I move down to the field.”

She says that sitting on the bench evolved from road trips with the team. “Where else are you going to sit and totally concentrate?”

It would be every armchair quarterback’s in this case, armchair goalie’s dream to sit on the bench of a favorite team and shout encouragement and advice. Corbett knows she walks a fine line between being a knowledgeable, influential fan and being considered an interfering, know-nothing, rhymes-with-rich.

“You have to restrain yourself,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the owner’s place to be coaching, making comments, or trying to second-guess your coach.”

Tampa Bay Rowdies logo, by Bob AndelmanDuring the Rowdies-Bolts playoff game, Coach Marsh frequently whispers to Corbett, who sits beside him, describing finer points of the action or simply expressing his frustration. After just a few minutes of observing the two, it becomes obvious that just because he is seated beside his boss and a lady at that, Marsh and his players do not weigh the invectives they sometimes spew at referees and players.

“The players on this team have shown enormous respect by treating her the same way they’d treat anyone else,” says Marsh. “It’s almost like she wasn’t there; they treat it normal. I’m pleased they do that. I’d hate for them to be looking over their shoulders.”

Close quarters during the heat of battle has helped Corbett come up to speed on the game of soccer and given Marsh the full confidence of the boss. The two from all appearances share a mutual trust and working relationship. It’s also a teacher/pupil relationship at times, with Marsh the teacher, Corbett the pupil.

“Over the last three years,” confirms Marsh, “she’s really digested a helluva lot. Her understanding is very complete.”

“I ask Rodney to keep me informed about players, but as general manager, he makes those decisions,” explains Corbett. “We might discuss it so I understand his reasoning, but it’s never to overrule him. It’d be pretty stupid of me to second-guess Rodney Marsh. There’s a very clear delineation. He knows me well enough to know when I ask a question, I’m not questioning him, I’m looking for information. After two seasons, I don’t ask as many questions as I used to. I’ve come to understand how he thinks and the quality a certain player brings.”

There must be less stress-inducing things a bright, active woman like Cornelia Corbett could do besides operating a money-losing, under-attended soccer team, right?

“I love it,” she answers defiantly. “How can you not love it? You’re involved with something you love to do, sports. And steep it with a firm business policy. For two hours on a Saturday or Sunday, I have the passion that sports take. But Monday through Friday, during business hours, it runs as a business.”

How Florida’s Pro Soccer Teams Fare

Team, ’88 home attendance, ’89 home attendance

Tampa Bay Rowdies, 55,130; 57,922*

Ft. Lauderdale Strykers, 53,580; 43,073

Orlando Lions, 27,100; 27,614

Miami Sharks, 11,620; 8,164

* Tampa Bay holds the single-game attendance record, 19,211, on July 4, 1989.

Statistics provided by the American Soccer League.

Sidebar:

Dick Corett’s International Dream

Development deals can take a long time to work out. There’s land acquisition, financing, permiting, sales and marketing. Not to mention 95 percent luck.

Even so, Dick Corbett’s International Plaza a 135-acre, mixed-use project planned at the intersection of Westshore Blvd. and Columbus Drive near Tampa International Airport has been a long time coming. First announced in 1983, the property received its DRI in 1985. Corbett has made little visible progress since, except for demolishing the Hall of Fame Inn, which was once on the site.

“It’s moving more slowly than I would like, frankly, because of the softness of the office and hotel market,” he says. “You’d like things to happen tomorrow. Developers would like things to happen today. But the frustrations of the permiting process in the state of Florida requires a lot of patience.

He says the speed of development is about to shift to a higher gear.

“My first step was to build off-site roads,” according to Corbett, who describes the current $4-million widening of Spruce Street/Columbus Drive as a joint effort between the city, state, Metropolitan Insurance and International Plaza. “Patience and prudence has been a good policy in this case because the off-site roads should be completed first so you have good access. This is an example of good planning. Once roads are in place, things will happen quickly.”

Construction will be completed in March; around that time Corbett expects to break ground for interior site work. Build-out is expected to be fully completed by 1997.

Building in Tampa is nothing like what Corbett was used to after two decades in the Manhattan real estate business. “It’s not at all the way it was when I was in New York, where things would happen quickly,” he says. “You would make decisions and have things done within 12 months. There you had tax abatement, tax incentives. The city would offer developers incentives to build. They helped make business happen. It was a strong, pro-business attitude.”

Dick Corbett has had what many would call a charmed life of being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right people and saying the right things.

He was president of his senior class at Notre Dame in 1960, the spring presidential candidates John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, President Dwight Eisenhower and a future pope all spoke to students. Corbett says he was fortunate to meet and introduce all four “it was an incredible year.” Kennedy had the most powerful affect. Corbett changed his career plans, joined JFK’s campaign and was a manager based in Chicago.

Kennedy’s November victory brought a young Corbett into the White House to work in congressional relations. He helped pre-screen other potential political appointments. While this was an education in and of itself, he decided to return to school in 1962 and earned an MBA at Harvard.

With a no doubt impressive Rolodex of contacts and an equally impressive resume, Corbett found a position with Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises in Manhattan. He spent a decade with the Kennedys, buying and selling real estate, making more contacts and setting up lucrative deals for himself on the side. During that time he hit the campaign trail with Robert F. Kennedy; “I was eight feet away from RFK when he was shot,” says Corbett, pausing. “At that point, I left politics.”

Corbett says he left Harvard in ’64 with $5,000 in debt. Six years later, through shrewd real estate deals, his net worth was several million dollars. — Bob Andelman

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Ironman triathlon’s roots are in the Tampa Bay area! INTERVIEW

(UPDATE: This story, originally written in May 2009 and published in the Maddux Business Report in July 2009, became worth posting online for the first time when the Tampa Bay Times reported on August 28, 2015 that Dalian Wanda Group of China paid roughly $900 million to acquire the Tampa-based company.)

Ben Fertic, Ironman, CEO, World Triathlon Corporation, by Bob Andelman
Ben Fertic, CEO, World Triathlon Corporation (Photo by Alex McKnight Photography/amcknight.com)

Ben Fertic was 14 the first time he ever heard of a triathlon. He and his brother, Cole, who is six years his senior, were watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” coverage of the running, biking and swimming event in Hawaii and it changed their lives.

“I was watching Julie Moss cross the finish line and we knew we wanted to do that race,” Fertic says.

Two years later, Cole led the way, running his first triathlon in 1984. Not that it was easy; Ben’s older brother was electrocuted as a teen and lost his right arm and right leg.

“When he did it, which was at that time unheard of, he was like, ‘Why don’t you do one? If I can do one, you should go do one.’” Fertic recalls.

He couldn’t resist the challenge and the CEO of Tampa-based World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) has been racing ever since. He’s also the guy who now negotiates and signs the company’s TV contracts, which includes the Ford Ironman World Championship held every October on Hawaii’s Big Island, plus three additional televised events on NBC and even more on the Vs. cable network. (There is also a live, 18-hour webcast of the Hawaii championship.)

There are more than two-dozen officially sanctioned, qualifying Ironman events held around the world, from Monaco to San Francisco and China to Lake Placid. Every November, Clearwater is host to the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship70.3 (a shortened version of the Hawaii triathlon) and St. Petersburg hosted its first IronKids National Triathlon Series event in June 2009.

The Ironman triathlon’s biggest competition, Fertic says, isn’t other triathlon organizers but televised football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis and golf. He’s competing for sponsorships and eyeballs.

• • •

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For almost two decades, WTC was part of the Dr. James Gills business empire in Tarpon Springs. Gills first rose to fame and fortune thanks to the revolutionary cataract surgery techniques he pioneered at St. Luke’s Cataract & Laser Institute. With that foundation, he became a land baron in North Pinellas/South Pasco, where he developed the sprawling community known as Trinity. And in 1990, Gills acquired ownership of the original race, which takes its name from three back-to-back endurance events, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. He named the company the World Triathlon Corporation and created a charitable arm, The Ironman Foundation. If it seems an odd fit, it wasn’t; Gills was a triathlete himself who ran the race many times before buying the company. And once he owned it, the ophthalmologist became the world’s biggest promoter of the nascent competition.

In the mid-90s, Gills’ son, Pit, was in medical school, on his path to eventually working alongside his dad at St. Luke’s. His wife Joy met Dara Fertic at the retail store where they both worked. The Fertics often entertained Joy when Pit was at school or studying. Ben—a University of Florida trained engineer—and Pit discovered a shared love of triathlon and began training together with both racing in the 1996 Ironman. It was the start of a friendship that endures to this day.

The business relationship began when the Gills were unhappy with the results of outsourcing the IT and website work for the triathlon company. “I told everyone, ‘I have this friend, a really sharp guy.’ He revamped our web site and it was the beginning of the site really growing.”

Fertic’s performance on that assignment grew into a new one: design an ambitious new business plan for WTC.

“He did a nice job,” Pit Gills says, “and we promoted him to president. Ben has got an engineer’s mind, so whenever he has a problem, whatever it is, he’s going to find a solution to fix it. That’s the way he’ll be till the day he dies. Ben’s engineer personality combined with his love of triathlon makes a perfect match.”

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Last year, the Gills gave Fertic permission to find a buyer and ultimately negotiate the sale of WTC to a private investment firm, Providence Equity of Rhode Island.

“Selling the company was a little rough but it was the right thing to do for the company and for us,” Pit Gills says. “They’ll be able to grow it more than we could. We had it for 20 years and grew it quite a bit. I think the group that has it now will do a good job with it. It was hard to let go. But it was the right timing and it will be the best thing for the company as a whole to go to the next level.

“Ben lives two blocks down from my wife and I,” Pit adds. “Our kids are close friends and he’s one of the guys on my speed dial. I joke with him that this will be a lot easier on our friendship. I was upstairs almost everyday, managing.”
The changes in the business’s size and complexity have already been dramatic. In Tarpon Springs, as part of the Gills empire, WTC occupied 3,500 square feet and had 27 employees. (Five years ago, it had six fulltime employees.) Now operating from the scenic top floor of the Island Center building on Rocky Point, the company leases 10,000 square feet and employs 40 on site and 100 worldwide.

“Within the next few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if we hit 150 worldwide,” Fertic says.

Clearly, WTC has already benefited from the sale.

“There are always certain times in your business where you just have to sit down and say, ‘Are we going to invest the money to get it to the next level?’ That always involves risk,” Fertic says. “Providence Equity is one of the largest funds in the world. They were willing to take the bull by the horns and take it to the next level. As much as Dr. Gills and his family loved Ironman, it’s one of those things where, if you love it so much, you have to set it free.”

The Gills were not actively looking to sell WTC, which had been profitable for the last 10 years.

“In the last two years, equity companies were just continually calling because Ironman was becoming much better known and it was privately held by family,” Fertic says. “That’s kind of a fishing ground for private equity firms. They go looking for that opportunity and we were on a lot of people’s radar as a potential opportunity. My thesis was, let’s form a group that can bring products to market with our brand name, and we’ll build this as a separate entity. That’s the road we were heading down to get the dialogue started. It wasn’t necessarily about selling the company. Providence was the right partner and we put together a proposal for how to grow it, and the Gills liked it.”

The sale price was not disclosed and neither the Gills family or Providence Equity will disclose WTC’s annual sales.
“Dr. Jim Gills absolutely created the market,” Fertic says. “I think that it takes somebody that’s passionate, even when it’s not a profitable entity, and he was willing to take the risk. It shows an amazing amount of commitment, and it took somebody special to do that. Because certainly when he bought the company, it was not profitable. Its value increased over time, but there was a lot of heartache there and a lot of work.”

• • •

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The World Triathlon Corporation is best known for its “Ironman” events and brand. It’s largest revenue streams come from sponsorships (Ford, Timex, Foster Grant, PowerBar and Gatorade, to name a few) and from products and product licensing fees (an Ironman Timex watch, Ironman sunglasses, IronKids Gummies multivitamins), endorsements and media and broadcast revenues.

Event entry fees—and there are 120,000 worldwide participants in the three branded Ironman competitions: Ironman, Iron Girl and the newly acquired from Sara Lee Corporation IronKids—make up a portion of revenues, but not the largest by any means. There are only so many people out there who will do an Ironman, but there are so many more that will watch.

And even those who watch will buy merchandise with the Ironman name. One of the growth strategies Fertic engineered with the financial strength of WTC’s new owner is more Ironman products but many now produced and sold directly by WTC, rather than middlemen.

Two years ago, WTC licensed all of its merchandise sold at all of its venues. Not any more. “We took over all of our own merchandise,” Fertic says. “We do all of our own designs. And we’re taking over all the risk, too. I wouldn’t say it’s that much more profitable, but I know that our level of service and the quality of the product are ten times what it was. We are able to provide a much higher quality product and still maintain our margin from the event. Our athletes are getting something that’s of so much greater value. We’ve focused on that. People look forward to coming to the merchandising stand to buy stuff that they could either train in or that looked really good and they knew the stitching wasn’t going to fall out of it two weeks later. And that was the other thing about our brand–we didn’t want anything to associate with our brand that was going to fall apart in three months.”

There are exceptions. Timex still licenses the rights to produce its Ironman watches. The arrangement is acceptable to WTC because Timex, despite its lower price points, is known for making “indestructible” products, according to Fertic.
“That’s why they are such a great partner for our brand; it’s an endurance product that fits us perfectly.”

Another development in WTC’s evolution under Providence Equity was its purchase, on Jan. 1, of a Boulder, Colorado, licensee that previously fulfilled product orders and operated some Ironman events independently for WTC. Providence bought the company and made it the headquarters for WTC’s new merchandising group.

• • •

The Boulder acquisition brought up a natural issue to Fertic from WTC’s new owners: You’re no longer tied to Florida; where should the company be located? Tarpon Springs? Boulder? New York? Somewhere else?

“I could have literally, from a strategic business perspective, picked any place, and we would have moved,” says Fertic, who has been married to his wife Dara (herself a triathlete and marathon runner) for 14 years and is raising three children in Clearwater. “But we built roots within the community, from our professional lives and obviously our personal lives. I’ve lived internationally, and I’ve lived all throughout the U.S. and a lot in the Southeast. This is an amazing place. From the cost of living and a lot of other things, it’s got a tremendous amount of strategic advantages from that perspective.”

Among those is the time zone convenience that Florida offers.

“We do a lot of business in Europe, it’s one of our biggest markets, so an East Coast location is probably the best because of all the time changes we have to deal with. Germany is six hours ahead of us, so all those calls basically have to happen at 6:00 in the morning, which is noon in Germany.

“Combine that,” he continues, “with the saltwater and the incredible convenience of the airport and everything else, and this is just a complete natural fit.”

• • •

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The IronKids program is deviously brilliant in its simplicity and likely to explode the sport around the globe for generations to come. Just as watching the Ironman competition on television 27 years ago piqued the interest of young Ben Fertic, it continues to inspire athletic boys and girls.

There are age-appropriate IronKid distances, for example, a 25- or 50-yard swim, a 3-mile bike, and a one- to two-mile run. The events are completely tailored for 6- to 15-year-old.

“Our Ironman events are 18 and up, so we never really reached into the kid market,” Fertic says. “We knew through our television and media that we were having an influence on kids in triathlon as far as them aspiring to be an Ironman or to compete in that event, so it’s a natural fit for us to go into the market.”

Think of the opportunity! IronKids workout gear! IronKids bikes! IronKids swimsuits! IronKids Timex watches!
That’s not cynicism. Marketers are always selling to kids. Would you rather see them buy into physical activity or stationary videogames and computer programming?

“We pick up the paper every other day and see the obesity epidemic and the obesity trends in the United States and what percentage of the kids are obese,” Fertic says. “We have this healthy lifestyle platform, and we can make an impact, we can make a difference. Ours is a lifestyle that you can do forever.”

WTC isn’t going to just rely on word of mouth, either; Fertic foresees IronKids programs breaking out in schools and recreation programs around the world much like soccer programs, Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. And unlike those three, the IronKids program feeds into adult events that participants can run into their 80s.

“A lot of kids play football, but when they hit 21, unless they go to college or the pros, they’re done,” Fertic says. Triathlon is something you grow up with. That’s what our team and I started to focus on. I have three very young girls, and they play softball and soccer, and they also race triathlon, and they are sports enthusiasts. Our goal is that when somebody is in eighth grade and saying, ‘I want to be on a team,’ one day triathlon will be somewhere in that mix.”

He expects IronKids to be a big factor for the company and young participants in three to four years because that’s how long it took the Iron Girl events to take wing. There could be as many as 10 official IronKids events this year.

There are a couple schools in the country that have triathlon teams, but you could probably count them on one hand. Back when Fertic was a University of Florida engineering student in the late 1980s, he was part of the school’s triathlon team. Him and two other guys.

Is it any wonder that Provident Equity bought Fertic’s vision?

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Currently, the average age for Ironman participants is 41—an age considered over the hill in every major sport with the possible exception of baseball pitchers—and that number is skewed because WTC doesn’t allow anybody under 18 to enter. But the true development of this sport will come from the youth and exposing people to the brand and the lifestyle.

• • •

Boos Development Group of Clearwater has been a sponsor of the 70.3 Half Ironman event in Clearwater for the last three years and company president, COO and triathlete Rob Boos calls Fertic a close friend.

“Ben can drill down into the details and still fly at 30,000 feet,” according to Boos. “He’s done a great job leading the company to growth over the last five or six years he’s been in charge. His ability to have balance in his life is incredible. His intensity in work is the same as the intensity of how important his family to him.”

Like Jim Gills, the man who hired him, Fertic, 40, is in it for the passion. Getting well compensated is just the gravy.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you love what you do, then you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And this is a passion for me. There are a couple of things in my life that have been passions. One of them is racing triathlons. When you have something that you’re really passionate about and you get to work in that space, you just feel incredibly blessed and lucky that that happens. I’ve surrounded myself with people that are equally passionate. We’re kind of all rowing in the same direction, and we love the sport. We love Ironman, we love the sport of triathlon.”

Mom and Dad must wonder what happened to the UF engineering degree in which they invested, right?

“This is the question that people ask me all the time,” Fertic says. “Even to me, it’s hard to understand. My first four or five years out of college, I worked for a Fortune 100 company in engineering, McDermott International. I was in the power generation group.

“I was the lead engineer, building projects and running large-scale projects. I lived in Venezuela for a year. I lived in Thailand. I traveled all over. There were two skill sets that I learned that McDermott taught me. One was running large-scale projects with a lot of vendors on tight time schedules, which is what we do here. And the other thing is the international aspect, because we’re very international. I’ve had three calls today, one to Switzerland and two to Germany with German clients, and you have to appreciate how other cultures approach business, how they react to contracts and what their methodologies are. We have a race in Malaysia. We have sponsors in Malaysia. Somebody from Malaysia is going to approach something very, very differently than someone from New Zealand or someone from Germany. I lived in these other cultures. My eyes were opened to the fact that not everyone conducts business the way that business is conducted here in the States.

“Yeah, my parents wonder what happened to me, absolutely. They still don’t understand it. To this day, they are like, ‘What do you do?’ But engineers, ultimately, are problem-solvers, and that’s really what business is about.”

And Fertic still races in Ironman events.

“I’ll do them past 80,” he says. “It’s the fountain of youth.”

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Tampa Bay Times calls Stadium For Rent (Second Edition) “Notable” for 2015 baseball season!

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
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Q & A: Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman! MADDUX REPORT 1991

(This interview with Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman was recorded in March 1991 for the Maddux Report.)

Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman
Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman

Sandy Freedman’s fingerprints are all over her city. In typical big city fashion, nothing of any significance happens in Tampa these days without the mayor’s nod of approval or hands-on contribution. It’s evident in the Tampa Convention Center — for which she had final approval of details down to the color scheme — and the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise, which she personally rallied the National Hockey League Board of Governors to award. She participated in the city’s successful efforts to lure Salomon Brothers to Tampa and pushed the coming Florida Aquarium from dream to reality.

The mayor — who won re-election in February with the support of a crushing 73 percent of the electorate — made a reputation for herself during his first term as what she calls a “facilitator,” someone with a knack for bringing parties to the table to work out their differences. It was her influence that broke down years of mistrust between Tampa and St. Petersburg and set the stage for such infant trans-bay organizations as the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Congress of Chambers of Commerce. She went to St. Petersburg to meet with the National League Expansion Committee in February and express the entire Tampa Bay area’s support for a baseball franchise in the Florida Suncoast Dome.

She says her early days in the office were awkward as city staff and business leaders struggled to adapt to not just Tampa’s first woman chief executive but to a mayor decidedly different in style and execution from her predecessor, Bob Martinez.

Still, however, she is a lioness searching for a voice, as her quiet asmidst the racial storm of the cancelled Gasparilla invasion and parade demonstrated. It was the perfect episode for the mayor of harmony to take a stand and be heard, yet she was largely silent, preferring to stay in the background.

Freedman talked with the Maddux Report for an hour in her city hall office in April, the day after she was sworn in for her second term.

MADDUX REPORT: You were re-elected by a landslide, probably making you the most powerful woman in Florida …

SANDY FREEDMAN: I never think about that. I hope I’m a good role-model for women. That’s the only way that comes into mind. It does say that women can be in executive positions, not just legislative position, that woman can lead and do well and have the support of the public as they’re doing it.

MR: What does it mean for Tampa that you did so well, that you established clearly that you are the mayor of all of Tampa?

SF: What it says is that people like the direction the city is in now, the direction we’ve taken these last four years and they want to continue along that course.

MR: What message did your victory sent to the citizens of Tampa and the city council in terms of your mandate and your ability to govern.

SF: One of the things I was interested in was winning big. Because there were an awful lot of things that I started and I wanted to continue. I think the margin lets everybody know that the public is supportive of those things and they want to keep ’em going, whether it’s the housing program or economic development. I hope they’re going to remember that as we move into new areas and that the public widely supported me. I might REMIND ’em on occasion. (She laughs.)

MR: You’re widely thought to be someone who’s low-key, a behind the scenes person, not a grab-’em-by-the-lapels mayor — almost a contradiction in a ‘strong mayor’ form of government.

SF: When you’re my size you can’t grab people by the lapels. (She laughs.) Kick ’em in the shins, maybe.

MR: What tops your agenda for the next four years?

SF: We will contine working on reducing crime in creative ways. It’s not just hiring more cops. The housing programs, which, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of them. They’re really helping people. We’re going to continue them and fine-tune. We’re doing one pilot project, rebuilding and revitalizing, in effect, an entire neighborhood. If we make that one work, we’ll be able to take that model to other neighborhoods. I’m confident we’re going to get a convention hotel, but on terms the city can afford and handle, as opposed to someone else’s terms.

Hopefully some of the things that are the hardest to do — race relations, the arts — will be in better shape.

MR: How would you describe your style of governing?

SF: It’s a different style than this community is used to. And I think that’s why it’s was hard early on for some people to understand, even for some of the staff members. It was very different from the way Bob Martinez dealt.

I work in a very open way. People are in and out all day. It’s not a closed, inner circle and then another circle, as might have been the case in the past. Everybody has access to this office. It’s a very democratic kind of thing. Everybody shares their ideas, free-for-all. We don’t sit around a conference table; I’m not comfortable there. We kick around ideas and then I say okay, this is the way we’re going to do it. And everybody gets behind it.

I think it works. The people who work with me — I don’t think they’re scared out of me. They know I can be tough and I can be a taskmaster, but I don’t ask of them anything I don’t ask of myself.

It’s low-key, behind-the-scenes much of the time, non-traditional, maybe. There’s a lot of team building. We do some things out of the office, we socialize together. We spend more time together than we do with our families so we better like each other. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding. There’s a great deal of camaraderie.

I get around a lot to the departments. If I need information, instead of asking them to come here, I go there. It helps for people to see me, to know I care about what they do. I probably know more people by name than any other mayor ever has. I like people. Maybe that’s the difference.

MR: You have been given credit for a number of things that have happened during the last four years — hockey, Salomon Brothers, the convention center, the Florida Aquarium. What do you think your contribution to these things has been?

SF: Often times I’m a facilitator. I take pride and some degree of credit in getting the convention center done on time and on budget. Every Wednesday morning I got a report on progress from the moment that project began to insure it came in on time and on budget. My credibility and the fortune of the city was at stake and I wasn’t going to let it get away from me.

Hockey, that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of things. I’ve been given a lot of credit, but I think I just said, ‘Let’s pick up the pieces. You get the private financing and I’ll go down (to the NHL Board of Governors meetings at The Breakers in Palm Beach) and make the pitch for you.’ But I think they wanted to give Phil Esposito a franchise. There was an electricity when he walked in the room that is a very rare thing to see.

MR: There was a great picture of you holding a hockey stick over your head after the team was awarded …

SF: I hated that picture. Everybody else loved it. I guess it was because it was very different for me.

Women who started in politics a long time ago came along at a time when there were very few women involved in politics, when we really had to be smarter, be better, do more homework. At least we thought we did. We were held up to a microscope, much more so than the men who were elected. As a result of that, a lot of us developed what appears to be a level of intensity, much more thoughtful, less humorous, less frivolous. That has kind of carried over with me. That’s why it’s still hard for me to see myself with a hockey stick.

MR: What did Salomon Brothers ask of the city that the city could — and could not — deliver?

SF: They asked very little, quite honestly.

I think they knew the answers but in the early stages had to have discussions as to whether they could have tax incentives, tax abatements, the normal questions that everybody asks. I think they had well-researched this area and knew what the Florida Constitution allowed and also what it prohibited. They really didn’t ask much. They were very receptive to the few offers we made — the partnership school concept, which I took to them very late. They were very very enamored with the concept and they are going to be implementing it in conjunction with the Hillsborough County school system. We certainly offered to help facilitiate the process through permitting. Not to give them anything, but to help make sure that things move as quickly as possible. We’ve done that for others and will continue to do that.

I think they were most especially interested in the feel for the community, the receptivity to the top people who came down. They were interested in housing, the arts.

MR: Was there anything Salomon Brothers wanted that you just couldn’t give them?

SF: I don’t recall anything that ever came up that they said, ‘We have to have this,’ and we had to say no, we can’t provide it for you.

MR: You have maintained a very strong hand in negotiations for a convention center hotel, turning back some well-known, would-be developers. What were they asking for that the city can’t or won’t deliver?

SF: They’re asking more than we’re able to deliver or even want to deliver. I don’t think the city of Tampa — as interested as we are in getting a convention hotel in close proximity to the facility — should be in the convention hotel business. And some of the requests made of us have been to, in effect, own a piece of the rock. Not to own it, but we would have to put so much in, that in effect, we would be kinda partners even though we wouldn’t own it. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think the public wants that. There are certain things we can work with and they’ve been widely reported, from the parking situation — we’ve got a couple little parcels down there that might be part of the deal — and there’s a little bit of tax increment financing money, maybe some help with the meeting rooms. But owning half a hotel, in effect, is not what we’re going to do.

MR: Is there anything in particular holding up the process right now?

SF: I think the economy certainly hasn’t been in our favor. Land prices down there have been very, very high, although they seem to be coming down a little bit, which may help facilitate the deal.

I’m pretty confident that in the not too distant future we’re going to see something happen down there. I don’t have anything to announce — but there’s more interest in the last couple months than there was in the six months prior to that.

MR: You have made a mini-career of bringing together disparate groups and telling them to meet, talk among themselves and work together.

SF: I’m glad that I’ve been able to fill the facilitator’s role. It will mean more to me if those things become long-lasting. That’s one of the reasons why the way I operate is different. Some people say I should stand here, pound the desk and say, ‘THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GONNA BE!’ I don’t view that behavior as being for long-term progress. I think the community has to come together. I see my role as bringing those forces together for the long-term interest.

MR: Will Bob Ulrich’s decision to step aside as mayor of St. Petersburg interrupt the mood of cooperation across the bay?

SF: No. I think it’ll continue. David Fischer and his wife were at my swearing-in ceremony. Bob Ulrich was also there. That never would have happened four or five years ago.

I don’t know David Fischer at all, but I know of him and I’m real comfortable with him.

MR: Would you favor a Tampa BAY Sports Authority if a Major League Baseball team is awarded to St. Petersburg? What about a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts?

SF: I’m not sure I favor a Tampa Bay Sports Authority or a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts.

As much as I support regionalism, there are always going to be times — and there should be times — when we maintain our separate identities. Yes, we should work together on sports, but no, I don’t think we ought to have a Tampa Bay Sports Authority.

MR: How would you describe your relationship with the business community?

SF: I think I have a good relationship with the business community. There were times early on that maybe it wasn’t as good as it is now, but I think that was because I was somewhat unknown to them as a chief executive. My style is very different. I don’t just call a half-dozen people for advice. I call a LOT of people. And so I think there might have been some people who thought they were cut off.

I’m very supportive of good, sound economic development.

MR: Do you consider yourself and your administration pro-business?

SF: I think we’ve demonstrated that we are.

MR: What do you think of the Hillsborough County Commission’s proposal to establish its own economic development commission?

SF: I think it’s a mistake.

Government does some things very well and some things we don’t do very well. I think we need to acknowledge that. I don’t think this is an area government could do really well. We can help facilitate economic development, clearly, by our actions as well as our resources. But I think the Committee of One Hundred has done quite well; I think they can do better. There’s been a fragmentation of economic development with the proliferation of University North, the Parkway Association, Ybor City, downtown, Westshore — which hasn’t necessarily accrued to the benefit of the overall economic picture.

Personally I would hope there would be some pulling in of all of those in more of an umbrella effort, so that those resources that are expended in all of those areas might be more efficiently administered. But I don’t think it ought to be done by government.

MR: So you don’t favor the creation of another EDC.

SF: Absolutely not.

One of the frustrations (of the county commission) — and I have felt it myself — is as a public official you’re expected to know everything. And yet there’s an arena in which you can’t know everything. There’s a confidentiality when you’re dealing with corpprate relocations. Even as the mayor, I don’t know all the people or groups that we’re wooing. And I shouldn’t.

MR: There was probably one election issue that no one was happy with you about and that was your handling of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. You were uncharacteristically silent about the Krewe’s unwillingness to take in blacks, women and minorities, seemingly unwilling to take sides, unwilling to alienate the black coalition or the white power brokers who make up the Krewe. In the meantime, as the sports world prepared to come to town for Super Bowl XXV, Tampa’s national image took a beating in the press. Was it a mistake to not be more outspoken?

SF: I don’t know that I was silent. I said the city wouldn’t participate any longer (in the Gasparilla parade) with our services, the policemen, clean-up and everything else.

I’ve thought that one through dozens, hundreds of times probably by now. What could I have done differently, what would have been better? And I haven’t figured it out yet. I worked from day one behind the scenes, trying to bring the parties together, trying to get the Krewe to integrate, trying to make order rise from chaos and (Tampa received) a black eye, a nationwide black eye. But I don’t know what could have done differently.

MR: Did you not get a sense that people on both sides were waiting for you to come out on one side or the other?

SF: Yeah, yeah. But either way was a losing proposition. I think it was handled poorly all the way around from a public relations standpoint. I tried very hard to get that moderation between all the folks that were involved. I’m not sure that I could have handled it any better; perhaps if others had reduced the rhetoric and maybe belayed their actions … It was a painful thing. But sometimes, no pain, no gain. We’re gonna be a stronger community as a result of it.

MR: Will Gasparilla return to the city?

SF: We’ll have to wait and see.

MR: And if it does, will the city be involved with the Krewe?

SF: If the Krewe wants to put on a parade with the support of the city, then it’s going to have to be an inclusive organization.

MR: Cecil Edge said your fingerprints are on every downtown building built in the last four years and every building that will rise for the next four years. (The mayor laughs.) Do you have a clear vision for downtown?

SF: I think I have a pretty good vision for downtown. We put together the downtown plan to help articulate that vision. That’s to give everybody guidelines, to put everybody on a level playing field.

I have a vision. I’d like to see the waterfront very people-oriented. I would not like to see it walled-in with high-rise buildings where you couldn’t see the water or there was no green space. I think we have had the last of our buildings that is going to be concrete and steel, sidewalk to sidewalk. I hope we have. I think there’s going to be public art in downtown. I hope we will attract more retail and housing. Those are tricky, very tough. I hope the architecture will be architecture people will view in and of itself. Good architecture doesn’t cost more money.

MR: What will drive the Tampa Bay market in the next decade?

SF: I think we’re learning that we’ve got to have more homegrown. The SRI study proves that to be a reality. There aren’t that many corporate relocations out there. The real value-added is going to come from within and it should. We ought to have an environment that can nurture that.

MR: Your predecessor used this office to leap first into the governor’s mansion and now the president’s cabinet. What’s ahead for you?

SF: I get asked that question at least once a day. I don’t know what’s ahead. My schooling, my degree, was in local government. I get a great deal of reward and personal satisfaction from what I do. It’s probably a good thing that I can only serve two terms. But who knows? Maybe if there wasn’t a charter revision, maybe I’d want to keep on going. There’s a lot to do in this community and a lot I’d like to be involved with.

end

Tampa Bay Times calls Stadium For Rent (Second Edition) “Notable” for 2015 baseball season!

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
Order ‘Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball’ by Bob Andelman, now available in an expanded, updated and illustrated 456-page special edition, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!

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Bungle in the Jungle: Remembering the late Sam Hall (JUMP)

JUMP_Monthly_cover_July_1987_Sam_HallWhen the Tampa Bay Times published the obituary of Sam Hall on September 4, 2014 (he died August 11, 2014), I was reminded of a Q&A interview that Connie May Fowler–then still going by her pre-best-selling novelist name, Constance May–wrote for Jump Monthly magazine. Jump was a Tampa Bay area, city-style magazine that I published for four issues. And the Sam Hall story was on the cover of the fourth and final issue. It was a great conversation with the former Olympian, Dayton, Ohio, mayor and two-term member of the Ohio State House of Representatives who went on to be a hugely controversial figure as a self-proclaimed counter-terrorist/soldier of freedom.

The irony of the situation between Hall and Fowler was that her fame as a writer a decade later eclipsed his as a figure involved in Ronald Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. When Hall died, he was a little-remembered man, a footnote in geopolitical history. By contrast, Fowler today is the Oprah Winfrey endorsed author of Before Women Had Wings, How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly, and many more successful literary titles.

As a side note, before publication of this interview, Connie May and I were good friends. She kept me busy with assignments when she was editor of a regional computer newspaper, The Data Bus–where I eventually succeeded her–and when I started Jump, she conducted this interview for me for free. To be honest, Connie May absolutely hated the headlines I put on the cover, “Bungle in the Jungle: The Private Wars of Sam Hall,” and on the inside, “Send Lawyers, Guns & Money: For Soldier of Freedom Sam Hall, Happiness is a Warm Gun. Shoot, Shoot.” In my defense, I was trying to be provocative, trying to attract eyeballs, trying to stay in business.

Connie May ripped me a new one over my choice of words and hasn’t spoken to me since, although for the last few years we have been friends on Facebook, so I’m hoping she’s no longer mad and that sharing this 27 years later won’t reopen the rift. As for Hall, he made one threatening call to me about it, but nothing else happened. I suspect he gave her a load of crap about it, which set her off on me.

I’m sharing this here, now, because Hall has died and history still hasn’t definitively made up its mind about the guy. And I still think Connie May did a bang-up job dealing with this mystery wrapped inside of an Iran-Contra enigma. — Bob Andelman


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Copyright 2014 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman

The Unknown Man: College official, bank robber William Strawn

(The following story appeared in Tampa Bay Life in 1989.)

Rosie Owen just wanted to cash a check. What she got that clear November morning was a few minutes of sheer terror that will last a lifetime.

“I had just gone up to the teller and she was verifying my check,” remembers Owen. “I heard an awful commotion behind me. I looked back and I saw – it looked like a giant, a man wearing a stocking over his head! He was a big man, close to six feet. He was heavy, kind of clumsy. He was waving a gun – he looked nervous. He told everybody to hit the floor.”

Twenty miles from Disney World, at 10:15 a.m. on November 14, 1988, the Florida National Bank branch at 6306 W. Colonial Drive in Orlando was being robbed by an awkward, six-foot-three, 370-pound bandit wearing pantyhose over his head, green surgical gloves and armed with a .22-caliber revolver.

“He kept yelling at the tellers to hurry up and put the money – all the money – on the counter.” He particularly asked for 50s and 100s.

“If you give me any dye, I will come back and kill you,” threatened the bank robber. “I’ll come back and blow some brains out!”

When the tellers had emptied the money from their drawers on the counter, the bandit came to Owen, 46, who was face down on the floor. He hit her on the shoulder with the gun and said, “Lady, get the money.” He gave her a gray plastic bag to collect the bundles of cash.

“I have no idea why he singled me out. Trying to make my life more miserable, I suppose,” says Owen. “I was so nervous, I kept fumbling the money. He said, ‘Hurry up, lady, or I’m going to start shooting!’

“He was really nervous. Afterward, everybody kept saying he must not have been a professional because he took so long. But part of the reason he took so long was I kept dropping the stupid money.”

Outside the bank, Glen Lannon, a 26-year-old landscape worker, was stuck in traffic, driving his company truck to a job. As usual, he was paying attention to everything but the other cars on the road. “My girlfriend always gets on me for looking all around and not paying attention to traffic,” he says. This particular day, his wandering eye caught something more interesting than a fast girl in a pretty car. This morning, he saw a big man hurriedly exit Florida National Bank and run to a silver 1985 Dodge Caravan.

“I seen him running. He’s a big boy; kinda looked suspicious. I said to myself, ‘I know what that guy’s doing,'” recalls Lannon. “I said, I’m going to catch that fucker.”

Just then, a red dye packet smoked and exploded inside the bandit’s money bag. Realizing the money was no good to him, he dropped it in the parking lot and took off in the van.

“I called my supervisor on the truck’s radio. I said, ‘Hey, guys, I’m going to follow this bank robber!'” Lannon’s boss had a phone in his car and alerted authorities. For the next 20 minutes, the young landscaper – who noted the van’s license plate had been removed but who didn’t know the bandit was armed – followed the bank robber from a distance, passing their changing locations on to the police through his boss.

The bandit became suspicious at a red light.

“He opened up the van door and leaned down like he was looking under the van,” says Lannon. “He looked back and seen me and made a quick turn-around. The police nabbed him right after that.” A .22-caliber revolver and stocking mask were found on the van’s floorboard. Ironically, the man was captured in front of an Orange County Sheriff’s Department sub-station.

(Lannon says Florida National Bank sent him a $1,000 reward and a letter of thanks. Ironically, the same bank later refused him a new car loan. “I didn’t have enough collateral,” says Lannon. “Too risky.”)

Back at the bank, the police brought the bank robber back in chains for witnesses to identify. Rosie Owen had no doubt this was the man who robbed the bank – Hillsborough Community College Director of Student Services William J. “Bill” Strawn.

“I cannot express the fear in words,” says Owen. “You start thinking about your family and the Lord. I thought, ‘If this is it, forgive me for what I’ve done … ‘ It was kind of hard for me to sleep for about a week after it happened. I’d start falling asleep and I’d wake up having nightmares about it.”

* * *

The jails of this country are filled with innocent men and women, law enforcement officials will tell you. They say that sarcastically because few ever admit to committing crimes of which they’ve been convicted. Bill Strawn is different. He confessed to robbing banks, first to the police, then to the Orlando Sentinel, then to Tampa Bay Life. Strawn has seen the evidence, he knows he had possession of stolen money, he knows he tried to get away. He claims he doesn’t know why he did these things and, if you believe him, he has no memory of the events themselves. He says he was in a seizure-induced trance each time a robbery occurred.

Strawn had actually robbed four Orlando banks by the time he was caught, netting more than $80,000. The junior college administrator says that in each case, he only remembers getting in his car to go to work and then – much later – coming out of a trance and finding a sack of money in his van.

“It’s a very strange case,” says FBI Special Agent Larry Curtin. The FBI was involved in a joint investigation of Strawn; Curtin says Strawn is not a suspect in any further bank robberies. “It’s unusual that someone in the position Mr. Strawm occupied would be arrested for and suspected of bank robberies. He was gainfully employed.”

Strawn, his eyes red and welling up with tears, insists his capture was the first time he knew for sure where the money came from.

“What would you do,” he asks, “if you were riding along and looked down and saw a garbage bag, a plastic bag, with money in it, wrapped up with things around it where you could see where it was from, and you didn’t know where it came from? What would you do? Would you go to the FBI?
Would ‘ya? No sir. Would you go to the police? What do you do? I had that dilemma. I didn’t know what to do. I wish, now that I look back, I had called Lee (Elam, his attorney and friend) and said, ‘What do I do?’ But I didn’t. I was afraid that all they’d do is arrest you. ‘Man, you robbed a bank, you’re under arrest.’

“Well, they caught me at it,” he says with resignation and shame. “They took me back to the bank several hours later, handcuffed, chains around my waist and walked me up to the window outside the bank, people everywhere, all around. And the people who had been there and witnessed it were inside saying yeah, that’s him.

“Thank God it was that (bank robbery) and not something more serious. Thank God I didn’t have this urge to go out and kill somebody or something like that. I look back now and I think it was like kleptomania or something,” he says. “It had to be. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Legal and medical authorities don’t know how to describe it either.

A lifelong victim of concussions, seizures and two major auto wrecks, Strawn’s family, friends, ministers, former students and physicians are attempting to paint a picture of him as a long-suffering man in pain, a man beleaguered by demons, voices and blackouts. They have written 66 letters to Orlando Circuit Judge Jeff Miller begging for leniency and mercy on Bill Strawn’s tortured soul.

Independent experts and even Strawn’s own psychiatrist say his behavior could be explained by complex seizures and brain damage once – maybe even twice. But four times strikes all four of them as suspect. They’re not buying the former educator’s story.

Rosie Owen has read all the newspaper reports about Bill Strawn’s mental health problems. Unlike the bank robber’s friends and family, however, she saw what he did. She was the one he threatened point-blank with a revolver.

“He’s pulling wool over their eyes,” she says. “He’s no more sick than I am.”

Strawn pled no contest to four counts of robbery with a firearm in an Orlando courtroom. “It’s obvious,” says Strawn’s Brandon-based attorney, B. Lee Elam, “that on the one count (robbing Florida National Bank), he wouldn’t stand a chance, outside of the fact that he admitted it to a newspaper reporter. And I don’t think he is capable of standing trial. We got through the plea part and I had my fingers crossed. Then they told us to sit in the back of the courtroom while they filled out some paperwork. But we never got to the papers. The bailiff tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’ve got a problem.’ And I looked at him (Strawn) and he was having a seizure. So I knew he would never be able to get through a full trial. And I’ve noticed every time I’ve had occasion to have him come into the office, no matter how small an area or topic we’re covering, he has seizures. The smallest stress causes it. I was concerned that maybe trial stress might be life-threatening. … I just didn’t feel comfortable taking him through the stress of a trial. One count or four counts, it’s all the same stress on him. Maybe this is something a lawyer shouldn’t say, but Bill’s not only a client, he’s the closest friend I have. I had to consider that. I had to put that into the equation. Would I take a chance on seriously injuring a friend as well as a client?”

Some might suggest that Elam – who won an out-of-court traffic accident settlement for Strawn in 1983 and donated his services to Strawn pro bono – should have set aside friendship and let another lawyer handle the criminal case. Arguments can be made that instead of pleading Strawn nolo contendre, Elam should have attempted to have him declared not competent to stand trial. At least one nationally recognized psychiatrist examining his case believes that if Strawn were unable to contribute to his defense or control his behavior – demonstrated by the courtroom seizure – his own psychiatrist and attorney had a responsibility to seek to have him declared not competent to stand trial.

The crimes Strawn has pled to carry minimum mandatory sentences of three years each because a weapon was involved. In Florida, bank robbery is a crime punishable by life in prison.

* * *

While the cash from the Florida National Bank job was recovered, none of the money from three previous robberies has been located. Strawn says it never will be found.

“The first time, I put it in a dumpster at the college,” he says. “I put it in two bags so you couldn’t see through it. They came everyday and dumped our dumpster, about 4 o’clock. I put (the money) in it about 3:30. I looked out and there was this guy out there looking for aluminum cans. I had never seen that before – he was going through the dumpster. I nearly had a heart attack. I went out and chased him off. They finally came and picked it up.

“The others – I burned ’em in a 55-gallon drum (at his Plant City farm). I think if somebody went out there and looked in that drum, if they could identify ashes, they could identify that. … I thought about flushing it down the commode, but that’s a lot of flushing. And burning it is not easy. It takes a lot of gasoline and you gotta drop it in a few (bills) at a time. It’s not easy, it’s tough. You gotta stir it. It’s hard to burn money – it’s the hardest thing to burn in the world. I used gasoline and I stirred it, more gasoline, and I stirred it.

“I was scared to keep it. All I could think of was it had numbers on it so if you spent it they’d catch you anyhow. But I didn’t want to spend it. I’m really not a bank robber. I’m not a bank robber.”

Rosie Owen and the staffs of three banks – Florida National Bank (robbed Nov. 14, 1988), Southeast Bank (robbed May 1, 1987 and May 16, 1988), and First Union Bank (robbed Sept. 9, 1987) – might disagree.

* * *

“When I received the call from Orlando telling me Bill had been arrested I wondered if I knew him at all.”

Those are the words of Jean Strawn, Bill’s wife of 35 years. She wrote them in a letter to Orange County Circuit Judge Jeff Miller, begging for mercy on her husband. (Mrs. Strawn declined to be interviewed for this story. She attempted to have this story stopped after her husband had been interviewed at length – despite the presence of his attorney. She also threatened a lawsuit against Tampa Bay Life – “You’ll be sorry if you print any story about us … This is our lives and you better not print this.”) Two weeks prior to her husband’s arrest, Mrs. Strawn purchased the gun he used in the Florida National robbery at a garage sale for $20.

Strawn remembers the moment he had to call home and fess up to what had happened.

“(When) I called my wife, I said dont say anything. Just listen. I said, ‘I want you to divorce me. Tell my grandchildren I died. I want you to forgive me.’

“When I was arrested,” he says, “I was laying out on the concrete, face down. There must have been 30 guys with guns and I was cryin’: ‘Please shoot me. Please do.’ I started to get up and run, so they would. And then I thought, no, if I do that, they’ll think I’m really guilty of something.”

Strawn is a beloved figure in Plant City and at Hillsborough Community College. The inexplicable twist his life has taken has left friends and former co-workers wondering if they, like Jean Strawn, knew Bill at all.

“The whole community was just in total shock,” says Sadye Martin, a city commissioner and former mayor of Plant City. “He was just such a role model in the community for so many young people. When they said what happened, I thought it had to be somebody else. He was an upright citizen.”

Barbara Kent, editor of the Courier in Plant City, wrote an editorial about her friend that began, “Some things are hard to believe” and ended, “Say it ain’t so, Bill.”

“I can’t recall ever hearing anybody saying a bad thing about him,” says Donna Allen, HCC’s director of communications. “If you were down in the dumps, he’d do something to cheer you up. I thought the world of him. He was one of the nicest co-workers I had. I can’t imagine what happened. There’s something not right for someone to have that kind of double personality.”

Two administrators at HCC – Safety and Security Manager James A. Lassiter and Plant City Provost Charles Deusner – wrote sympathetic letters on Strawn’s behalf to attorney Lee Elam, which were forwarded to Judge Miller. Lassiter’s letter was written on school stationery; Deusner’s was not.

This is the second case of administrative mischief to rock HCC in the 1980s. Back in 1982, Ambrose Garner was pressured to resign as president of the community college after charges he sexually harassed female professors, administrators and students (“Sexual Politics at HCC: Did Ambrose Garner Go Too Far?” chronicled in the July, 1982 issue of the now-defunct Tampa Magazine).

* * *

Bill and Jean Strawn met as students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and have been together ever since. They live – along with all four of their parents, Strawn’s brother Richard, twin sons Terry and Perry, 29, daughter Valerie, 32, their spouses and children, six cows, five rabbits, five horses, two geese, a donkey and a goat, 21 people and 20 animals in all – on a 15-acre Plant City farm with an estimated market value of $300,000. They have lived there since 1981.

The entire extended family eats together every night at 6 p.m. in a screened-in dining room. “I use the (Strawns) as an example of what people and families should be like,” says family friend and attorney B. Lee Elam. “They live together; they eat together in a common area. They’re the most amazing family.”

There are a lot of little details about Bill Strawn that describe the kind of man his friends and family know. Born in Norfolk, Va. … Rose to rank of Eagle Scout. … Member, Sigma Nu fraternity at Vanderbilt, which he attended on a football scholarship. Tossed out of Vanderbilt in freshman year when his picture appeared on the front page of the Nashville Tennessean during a panty raid. … Transferred to Western Kentucky and added shotput and wrestling to his athletic prowess. … Declared 4-F by the military because of a bad shoulder. … Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as a linebacker/center but left after a few weeks in camp because of his shoulder. … Earned bachelors and masters degrees in counseling and guidance from Western Kentucky. … Learned to shoot a gun in ROTC. … Taught high school in Portsmouth, Va. and college in Kentucky (Lees Junior College) and West Virginia (Marshall University). … Enjoys gardening, fishing, crabbing. … Conducts bible study every Sunday at his home. … Doesn’t smoke and hasn’t had a serious drink of alcohol since 1955.

During 20 years with Hillsborough Community College, Strawn made a lot of friends and rose quickly from a guidance counselor to department head to dean of student services, in which he oversaw the library, counseling, advising, financial aid, custodial staff, admissions, records, job placement services, student government and newspaper. After a 1979 auto wreck, he took a lesser position as director of student services at HCC’s Plant City campus. Still, he was well-compensated for his work and years of service – he earned $46,500 in 1988, $52,000 in 1987. Strawn was suspended with pay from his position immediately following his arrest; he resigned in January.

Early reports indicate he was desperate for cash when an antique business run by his son Terry, 29, went bad – their combined debt was said to be $14,000. From 1982 to 1986, Bill also owned Heaven Sent Nursery. Both businesses operated from the Strawn compound in Plant City. In a telephone interview from jail immediately following his arrest, Strawn told the Sentinel, “I was going to work and I stopped and said, ‘I’ve got to get some money.’ I was in debt badly.”

That may explain one robbery, but not four.

Most people who earn $46,500 have a measure of debt between credit cards, auto loans and home mortgage. Few turn to bank robbery. They negotiate consolidation loans, extended payment terms. Anything to avoid the public humiliation of inventorying your trousers, shoes, blouses, knick knack shelves, bandsaw, fishing rods and surrendering your automobile to the bank.

According to their voluntary petition for personal bankruptcy, Bill and Jean Strawn owe $114,553.37 on their mortgage, $9,000 on the Dodge Caravan getaway van (since repossessed) and $19,252.57 in credit cards and medical bills. (Their list of unsecured debts includes notations for First Union Bank, Florida National Bank and Southeast Bank – institutions Strawn robbed – all with the word “undetermined” where the amount should be listed.) It is a lot of money but leveragable with Strawn’s income and property holdings. He knows he went to an extreme. And that’s what makes his case so strange. Bill Strawn doesn’t go to extremes. By all accounts he’s level-headed, even-tempered and quite bright.

Or at least he was until those two auto accidents.

“I used to be a hyperactive person who was everywhere,” says Strawn. “Now I’m slow. I don’t function like I used to. This is no cop-out, but I’ll guarantee if I hadn’t been in those two accidents, this would never have happened to Bill Strawn.”

* * *

Do you know Orlando very well?

I don’t. I really don’t.

You’re not familiar with the streets?

I have been to Orlando probably 10 times in my whole life. And usually when I go there it’s to a deans’ meeting and then right back.

Have you ever been there for a week?

No. In fact, I don’t have any idea how I found these banks. And frankly, I don’t even know where they are. If I had to take you to them right now, I couldn’t take you to any one of them.

You were charged with four armed bank robberies. Did you commit any bank robberies?

I had the bag of money. I dont know. … But from everything I’ve read, I think I did. I didn’t know what I did. I didn’t have any idea of what I did, from the time I left Plant City. I really couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know what I was doing. I really didn’t.

You don’t remember driving from Plant City to Orlando?

No.

You don’t know why it was this bank and not that bank?

I have no idea. But I’ll say this: It’s not uncommon for me not to know what I did that day. It’s not. There are so many days that I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened to me all day long. On the others, I came to somewhere around Lakeland when I was driving back. I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ The last one, I came to when I was coming out of the bank.

You realized then that something was wrong?

That’s when I realized I had done something wrong, when I found the sack there. I wish I’d been caught the first time.

You remember burning the money the first time?

Oh, yeah. I was perfectly sane then. But I’ll tell you this – there wasn’t any way that I could figure out – and I still can’t figure out – any way to have turned it in. Especially the second and third times.

I’ve got my whole family saying, ‘Why didn’t you turn it in, why didn’t you tell us?’ My wife, especially.

Did she have a hard time understanding why you didn’t confide in her?

Well, yeah. Because I confide in her in everything. But this was a horrible thing to me.

The money was gone. What did you do then?

I prayed every night that I wouldn’t have this thing happen again. One day when this happened, the next day, two guys from the FBI came to visit me. It was about something unrelated, nothing to do with this. But it scared me to death. I thought, they must know. They must be checking me out.

* * *

Strawn’s claim to being unfamiliar with the locations of the banks he robbed is dubious at best.

The first two banks, Southeast and First Union, are both located on Sand Lake Road, mere blocks from Interstate 4. “Easy-on, Easy-off,” as read the fast-food drive-thru signs that beckon to hungry highway travelers. Theoretically, Strawn – who allegedly used a lever-action rifle in at least one of these crimes and a short barrel shotgun in others – could have exited I-4, robbed a bank and been 10 miles west toward Plant City before police arrived. Except that Sand Lake Road provides access to Orlando’s Hotel Row, International Drive, making ingress and egress slow at best. Authorities say banks in this area are frequent robbery targets; Southeast has at least six video cameras visibly trained on its lobby.

Explaining the choice of the Florida National Branch may be more complicated. Its West Colonial Drive location is far off the beaten trail, five miles – and a few dozen traffic lights – west of I-4. Along that route Strawn would have passed branches of almost every bank in town. But Strawn likely knew a faster route than I-4 to Colonial Drive because of his many years as a junior college dean. State Road 435 intersects I-4 and ends north at Colonial. How could Strawn, who claims to barely know Orlando, find his way across town on such a local road? Perhaps because Valencia Junior College sits midway between the bank and I-4 on S.R. 435. Even on this route, he had to pass branches of C&S, Barnett, Sun, and Orange Banks before arriving at Florida National. The route also passes the Mystery Fun House and under-construction Universal Studios Tour.

Just after being arrested, Strawn told the Orlando Sentinel he chose the tiny Florida National Bank branch over another institution across the street, The First Financial Center, abecause there were fewer cars in its parking lot.

What puzzles most people examining these crimes is – if Strawn planned the robberies – how he ever expected to get away unrecognized with a stocking mask over his face. His sheer girth – 370 pounds – made him memorable to witnesses; he couldn’t possibly be confused with a medium-build bank robber.

* * *

Tom Oatmeyer wrote a letter to B. Lee Elam, Strawn’s attorney, to be used in his defense. In it, Oatmeyer balances tales of Strawn’s humanitarian gestures with what he calls “unusual occurrences.” Once, he writes, his friend Bill gave a speech to HCC students and suddenly spoke in Turkish. Four Turkish students thanked him afterwards for his comments and asked where he had learned their language. That same morning, his secretary found a note he had written – in Arabic. A student had to translate; Strawn couldn’t read his own note. “It said that Bill would come by to pick up the president of Hillsborough Community College in a rickshaw,” writes Oatmeyer. The stories are also confirmed by another witness and letter writer, Earl Hartman. “It was very obvious … these experiences were tormenting Bill,” according to Oatmeyer.

In February, Jean Strawn asked Oatmeyer to “come quick, something was wrong with Bill.” He arrived to find Strawn in the midst of one of his spells. He announced he was leaving his family and never coming back.

“He left with nothing,” writes Oatmeyer. “I decided to check the airport because Bill loved flying. I arrived to find a ticket in Bill’s hand for a northern city. He had no luggage, (he was wearing) a short sleeve sport shirt and (was) going to a city that had temperatures in the 30s. When I went to him, he was in a daze. He acted like he didn’t know me. I kept talking to him until finally I reached him. At that point he said, ‘I don’t know why I have this. I don’t even know anybody in this city.’ He was now ready to go home, shocked at how he even got to the airport.”

There is a huge body of circumstantial evidence such as Oatmeyer’s letter that supports the claim of Strawn family members, friends and physicians that Bill Strawn is mentally ill. While certainly biased, the authors build a caseload of bizarre twists in Strawn’s life. They tell wildly different stories which form an undeniable pattern of abnormal events and behavior.

o Joe Menendez wrote a very moving letter about Strawn. After describing his familiarity with Strawns blackouts and seizures, Mendendez got to the root of their relationship: “Many years back he counsled (sic) me, week after week because I was in a very bad stage of depression and I was about to kill a few of my coworkers (sic). If the Lord have (sic) not put this man in my path I just don’t know what I would have done.”

o William Seeker is now president of Florida Keys Community College in Key West, but from 1970 to 1979, he was Strawn’s supervisor at HCC. “I noticed Bill would have periods of memory lapses and/or blackouts. He did not remember conversations we had, assignments I had given him or meetings that he had attended. At one particular staff meeting he actually went into what I would call a convulsion.”

o Strawn himself tells many examples of his troubles, including pre-cognitive experiences wherein he foresaw a friend having a heart attack or his father being struck by a train.

Being at work did not make him immune from seizures and blackouts; secretaries, teachers and administrators used to cover for him regularly.

“My secretary and I worked on a grant one day,” he remembers. “We worked on it from seven in the morning until 5:30 at night. We finally got it finished and we mailed it. We were so happy. The next morning when she came in, I said, Stella, we’ve got a big job today – we’ve gotta get this grant done. I had already worked on it for an hour and she said, ‘We worked on that yesterday.’

“I had secretaries who would really help me, who would keep up with me if I wouldn’t come back on time. They’d try to find out where I was. They probably should have been getting my salary.”

o Jean Strawn’s eight-page letter is the most revealing and poignant plea to Judge Miller. In it, she traces a number of steps in the life of her husband that helped set him apart from most men. As a high school history teacher in his younger days, he gave anti-communism speeches at night at Baptist churches. Drawn by a need for teachers in Appalachia, he moved his family to Jackson, Ky. There was the time he pulled a man from a burning car shortly before it exploded. Or when the bleachers collapsed at a basketball game and Strawn pulled them apart to release trapped arms and legs. A neighbor stopped breathing and Strawn got him started again with CPR.

Despite all of these super-human acts with neighbors and strangers, Strawn faltered when it came to dealing with family crisises and job stress, according to his wife. “He would want to lie down and within minutes he was out of it and talked out of his head a lot. One time he really scared me because he was talking to his dead grandfather. (Strawn) said he wanted to go with him. I pleaded with him for about an hour not to go because I needed him here. He has also seen his dead uncle Francis. He tells me about places we used to go and it would be so real to him. He said he could taste the chicken at Farrells which was a place back in (our) college days.

“I used to accuse him of being too weak to face up to problems. I told him every time I needed him most he folded up on me. Now that I look back he was having a form of seizure then whenever he got under pressure or stress.

“His life has been memorable,” Jean writes. “Some day I know I will find out what God’s plan for him really is and then I’ll know why Satan has tried to destroy him.”

On the day she wrote the note, Jean Strawn writes, her husband had survived 15 seizures.

* * *

It is difficult to compile an exact list of incidents contributing to Strawn’s head injuries because there are insufficient medical documents and only family accounts to go by. But problems seem to have begun at age seven, when a baseball bat fractured his skull; other incidents include a number of concussions, two broken jaws and a fracture skull in 1952 and 1953 while he was in college playing football; multiple hospitalizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; a 1979 head and neck injury in a Tampa automobile accident that left Strawn unconscious for an hour and paralyzed for ten hours; a second auto accident, in Brandon in 1982, resulted in back surgery. He won out-of-court cash settlements in both accidents.

Strawn has suffered from grand mal and petit mal seizures off and on since 1975. Grand mal seizures take place when the victim falls down, begins convulsing on one side, bites his tongue, foams at the mouth, wets his pants and/or wakes in a stupor, unaware of having had the seizure. Petit mal seizures cause the person to stop, sit silently and not know what is going on around him, then regain consciousness and not realize anything was amiss. They are considered physical, not mental, problems caused by electrical disturbances in the brain’s temporal lobe.

Strawn’s frequency of either seizure type occurring varies between daily and every few weeks depending upon how well he controlled he is medication-wise. Stress is widely considered a trigger to the seizures. Strawn has had seizures at home, church, school, doctor’s and lawyers office and in court and jail. They manifest themselves differently from incident to incident.

“There are times when I can’t carry on a conversation, times when I forget a whole day,” he says. Sometimes he sees and hears things that aren’t there. “I would actually see these creatures telling me to hang myself. I’m not the kind of guy to do that. But there were times when I really felt like I was going to do it.”

* * *

Is Bill Strawn telling the truth? Could seizures and blackouts have caused him to rob four banks over 19 months?

A quintet of nationally recognized experts in epilepsy and neuro-psychiatry say yes, it is possible that Strawn was not in control of his actions when he committed the first bank robbery, maybe even the second. But none is convinced such a pattern could occur four times.

The four authorities consulted by Tampa Bay Life for comment who were not directly involved in the case were given details during individual telephone interviews, including hearing direct comments from the deposition of defense psychiatrist Dr. Walter Afield and from an interview with Strawn. Participants in the “psychiatric autopsy” were:

o Ann Scherer, director of Information and education for the Epilepsy Foundation of America in Landover, Maryland.

o Dr. Dietrich Blumer, a psychiatrist specializing in epilepsy at the University of Tennessee Epicare Center. The Epicare Center is the largest center for the treatment of epilepsy in the Southeast. Blumer was recommended as an expert by the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

o Dr. George Dohrmann is a neorosurgeon at the University of Chicago and was recommended as an expert by the Brain Research Foundation.

o Dr. Helen Morrison, an M.D. who is certified in general, child, adult and forensic psychiatry, has been an examiner for the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry. Morrison – who was recommended by Dohrmann – is also director of The Evaluation Center, a neuro-diagnostic program in Chicago for the evaluation and treatment of people with organic and emotional problems. She has examined serial killers Michael Lockhart and Bobby Joe Long as a witness for the prosecution.

o Dr. Walter Afield, a former professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, was retained by the defense to examine Bill Strawn and form conclusions about his mental fitness. Afield is an accomplished psychiatrist who has a private practice in Tampa and works as an expert psychiatric witness in criminal trials across the country. He worked for the defense in the trials of Bobby Joe Long (opposite Dr. Helen Morrison), William Cruise and fire-bomber Billy Ferry.

Afield says that in reviewing a battery of neuro-psychiatric tests (including EEG, Luria, Halstead) and documented seizures, he has no doubt that Strawn has suffered severe brain damage and intractable seizures. He says that Strawn did not undergo the now common magnetic resonance imaging tests because he was too big to get in the machine. There could have been a “definite correlation” between Strawn’s seizures and the bank robberies, according to Afield, until he learned the number of crimes had grown from two to four.

“That was the hardest part for me to understand,” says Afield. “That was a little difficult. I’d be a little hard pushed with the evidence that four were due to that. But you do have a man with brain damage and it can make a man do strange things.”

The expert consultants agree that criminal activity is rare as a result of even complex seizures, but not out of the realm of possibility for a man with Strawn’s history of head injuries and brain damage.

According to Dohrmann: “Some people who do things out of character can have something wrong with the left frontal lobe, impairing their judgement or understanding of right and wrong. The frontal lobe’s function is to ride herd over a person’s impulses. When that’s gone, people can be quite impulsive. Normally they wouldn’t say, ‘I don’t know what I did.’ They’d say, ‘I did it – so what?'”

All three doctors doubted epileptic seizures alone could cause Strawn’s repeated criminal activity. But they believe the seizures might be part of a greater neuro-psychiatric malady.

“There are a tremendous number of possibilities,” says Morrison. She says robbing a bank would not be unusual in the “Fugue” state, a form of amnesia. In this state, someone can do incredible things, like disappear only to “wake up” years later. It is caused when people are unable to handle extreme stress and become amnesiac as a result. Another possibility she cites is multiple personalities, which the mind creates as a defense mechanism. But she is ultimately skeptical of a stereotyped crime being repeated over and over with the same highly organized pattern.

“Why not just rob a bank and a gas station or a speeding ticket?” wonders Morrison. “If he has brain damage, why would it be limited to bank robbery? Does brain damage explain the robberies? It doesn’t. Can you definitely connect the damage to the action? No, you can’t. No one can prove this man’s seizures led to the robberies.

“A thousand things can aggravate seizures,” she continues. “If the person is going to have a seizure, why wouldn’t he have a seizure while robbing the bank? Or while going through the complex act of burning the money? Does that seem like the action of someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing? He was scared? One time, okay. Twice, maybe. Three, four times? Forget it. It doesn’t take any psychiatry to figure that out.”

* * *

What should society do with Bill Strawn?

He robbed four banks at gunpoint. That seems beyond dispute. Pre-meditation is more to the question. Did failing health and looming debt push Strawn to knowingly commit these four criminal acts? Can his claims of being in a trance-like state be borne out by medical evidence? And if he was not responsible for his actions, does the state still have its own responsibility to his victims to mete out some form of justice?

In some ways, society has already begun taking its measure of the Strawn Family.

“We’ve gone through bankruptcy, we applied for food stamps the other day” – Strawn pauses as tears well up in his eyes – “we’re about as poor as you can be. I’ve taken my family through a lot of embarrassment, I know. I can’t get near water, I can’t get near machinery, I can’t drive a vehicle. And yet everything I’m trained to do requires those kinds of things. I can’t go up steps, I can’t walk near a durn ditch that’s got six inches of water in it – I could drown. I almost drowned one night in the bathtub, taking a bath. Now I have to take showers. Part of the real punishment I’ve had is seeing my family go through this. Every day is something in the mailbox. Every day is another call. Every day there’s another hell to face.”

Dr. Walter Afield, who examined Strawn, thinks the accused is ashamed, embarrassed and of the opinion he should be punished for what he did. That worries Afield.

“He’s depressed, suicidal,” the psychiatrist believes. “If he makes it to jail I wouldn’t be surprised if he kills himself. He’s not a jail kind of guy.” Afield feels that because of Strawn’s continuing need for medical attention, justice, the community and Strawn would be better served by community control. “House arrest is cheaper on the taxpayer. If he falls down on his head, we’re going to get a $50,000 bill.”

“Obviously, the gentleman’s going to prison,” says Assistant State Attorney Gary Dorst, who is the new prosecutor on Strawn’s case. Dorst notes that sentencing statutes in firearms cases have been rewritten to take discretion out of the hands of judges. They are required to issue minimum mandatory sentences and there is no “gain time” for good behavior in firearms cases. He estimates Strawn could get anywhere from six years to lifetime in prison or 100 years probation. One possibility that could reduce prison time would be to run sentences for each bank robbery concurrently. “It’s a crime punishable by life,” says Dorst. “He’s looking at four life sentences. That’s the possibility. He probably won’t get it.”

“I wish they would put me in a situation where I could do something worthwhile,” says Strawn, wistfully.

Whatever Bill Strawn’s fate is, he has changed Rosie’s Owens’ life forever.

“I have a great fear of going in the bank,” says the woman who felt Strawn’s gun at her back on the day he was caught. “It was a frightening experience – it goes with you. It’s something you never forget.”

end

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King, Queen & Subject: The Snell Isle Murder of Joan Amos

(“The Snell Isle Murder of Joan Amos” was originally published in Tampa Bay Life, Spring 1991)
 

Sgt. William T. “Bud” Blackmon Jr. broadcast the second BOLO on the alleged fleeing murderer of a wealthy St. Petersburg socialite at 1 a.m. January 30, 1990 to the four sheriff’s deputies spread across Sumter County, prowling in the dark night.

Be on the lookout for a white male, late 20s, driving a steel blue Mercedes-Benz. Homicide suspect. Considered armed and dangerous.

It was a chance in a million, Blackmon figured, too much of a long-shot to be worth patrolling the interstate. The perp from St. Pete probably lost himself in the city until things cooled down, anyway. No way he’d be so obvious as to get on I-75.

Still … the only place open for miles around was the Chevron mini-mart at the State Road 48 interchange. The nearest all-night gas stations were 15 miles south and 12 miles north. With less than two hours to go on his shift, Blackmon figured he could afford to drive over and wait across the street.

It was the best hunch Bud Blackmon ever played.

No sooner had the 35-year-old sergeant begun filling in details of the dog bites man report at 1:45 a.m. than a steel blue Mercedes pulled up to the self-service pumps. Blackmon drove across the street for a better look, cruising behind the car. It matched the BOLO description, but there were two passengers, not one – a white male got out on the passenger side to pump the gas. And the tag numbers didn’t match the BOLO.

Blackmon called the dispatcher to run the tags.

Sure enough: right car, wrong tags, right owner. No explaining the extra passenger yet. Meanwhile, the teenager pumping gas saw the Sumter County Sheriff’s vehicle and appeared nervous to Blackmon. The teen paid for his fuel and got back in on the passenger side.

Blackmon couldn’t approach the Mercedes here; a gas station shoot-out could be hazardous.

The car pulled away from the pumps and toward the road. So did Blackmon. The Mercedes driver waited for Blackmon. Blackmon didn’t budge. Seconds passed like hours. The Mercedes driver finally entered traffic. Blackmon came up from behind him. At the northbound interstate on-ramp, the Mercedes driver slammed his pedal to the floorboard and took off. Blackmon flipped on his blue lights and gave pursuit.

Six miles into the high-speed chase, Blackmon lost sight of the vehicle on a curve. His hunches still paying off, he looked back to the S.R. 470 overpass, glimpsed a cloud of dust and turned around.

The Mercedes took the exit but couldn’t see the sharp curve of the ramp. The driver hit the brakes late, marking the road with dark skid marks before plummeting into a ditch.

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Quickly, the two men grabbed their belongings and crossed the interstate’s northbound lanes on foot. The driver of the vehicle dropped a 9 mm semi-automatic revolver in the median before the two crossed the southbound lane and scrambled down into a culvert, crawling head-first into a narrow drain pipe beneath the southbound on-ramp.

That’s where Sgt. Bud Blackmon and a K-9 bloodhound named Luke captured Jonathan “Jay” Ashley Amos and John Albert DeHate.

When Jay Amos was booked in Sumter County later that morning, under “next of kin” he wrote his grandmother’s name. He hoped his parents were both dead by now.

 

The first time John DeHate was in the split-level Snell Isle home of Charles and Joan Amos was January 29, 1990. It was 2 a.m. Sunday morning and DeHate was not an invited guest of the millionaire St. Petersburg insurance brokers.

Using keys and instructions given him by the Amos’s 26-year-old son Jay, DeHate, 19, disabled the burglar alarm from outside and entered the house. He expected Joan and Charles to be asleep. Joan was; Charles wasn’t. He was returning to the den from the kitchen with a snack when the front door opened.

“What the fuck are you doing in here?” Charles asked the intruder he found in his foyer.

DeHate, who did not appear to Charles to be armed, became agitated.

“Jay and I were working in the office and he sent me to pick up some computer back-up tapes in the kitchen,” he chattered.

Charles didn’t believe the young man, although there were computer back-up disks in the kitchen from Friday’s close of business at the Amos family’s firm, Aanco Underwriters, Inc. DeHate said Jay was at the office waiting for him; while Charles thought it unlikely his son was working this late, he gave DeHate the benefit of the doubt. They went into the kitchen and called the Aanco office. Jay was there, although he swore he didn’t know DeHate and that he had lost his keys.

“You two better get your stories straight,” Charles told his son.

Handing the phone to Dehate, he told him, “You better work this out. You’re in my house and according to my son you’re not supposed to be here.”

“Jay, Don’t bag me,” DeHate told Charles’ son during a short conversation.

Charles, his suspicions intensifying, took the phone away from DeHate and told his son to leave the office immediately. He didn’t trust Jay and didn’t believe his denial of being acquainted with DeHate. Hanging up, he snatched his son’s house keys away from DeHate.

Charles let the intruder leave his home without calling the police. DeHate said he was going back to the Aanco office to meet Jay.

After DeHate left, Charles woke Joan and told her to dress. They were going to confront Jay in person at the office.

Driving north on 4th Street, the Amoses passed DeHate pedaling furiously at 54th Avenue. By the time Charles and Joan got to the office building they owned at the corner of 9th Street and Gandy Blvd., it was 2:40 a.m. The Aanco offices were dark but for a light in the computer room where they found Jay.

The Amoses waited 40 minutes for Dehate to show up. Charles quizzed Jay about the two different cigarette brands snuffed out in the ashtray; Jay said they were both his. Joan even retraced the route to the office by car but couldn’t find the teenager. Charles searched the office unsuccessfully for DeHate’s belongings. At 4 a.m. they left with a sheepish Jay in tow.

Charles, a man of strong, sometimes physical temperament, blew up at his son when they got home.

“I don’t want you giving out the goddamned keys!” he roared.

“But I told you, I LOST them,” Jay insisted.

Charles was disgusted with his son. He told Jay he was going to cut his pay and keep his house keys. His son would only be able to get in the Amos house when one of his parents was home.

When Jay went off to bed, Joan told her husband he was too severe with their son. Charles acceded to her wishes and returned the keys to Jay before he fell asleep. He also backed off on reducing his son’s pay.

In the morning, Joan and Jay went to church. When they returned home, about 9 a.m., Charles called the police to report the break-in.

Things calmed down by dinnertime. Charles, Joan and Jay cooked steaks on the back porch. Jay got up to leave for his daily Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at 4 p.m. But before he did, he reached over and hugged his mother.

“It’s great to have parents like you,” Jay told Charles and Joan.

 

When the phone rang at Aanco Underwriters at 2 a.m. Sunday morning, Jay Amos was surprised only by the identity of the caller. He had been expecting a call from John DeHate, not his father.

His father was supposed to be dead.

John DeHate was supposed to have killed him and Joan Amos.

Weeks earlier, Jay had given DeHate a map of Snell Isle and detailed information on both disarming the household security system and the layout of the house. He also left his father’s 9 mm Walther and a 12-inch carving knife in a trash compactor in the garage. There was also a pair of socks for Dehate to wear on his hands when he killed Charles and Joan Amos.

Between his father’s second call and his parent’s arrival at the Aanco office, Jay received a call from DeHate. He was at the 7-Eleven at 38th Avenue North and 1st Street.

“Your father was awake when I got to the house, Jay! You said he’d be asleep!” complained DeHate.

“He should’ve been. I don’t know why he wasn’t.”

Jay told DeHate not to come to the office. He had to hang up because the elevator just stopped and opened at Aanco’s third floor offices.

“I’m gonna take a cab and go home,” said DeHate. “Call me Monday.”

 

Charles Clinton and Joan Marie Amos – each an only child – met in 1960 in a nightclub in Joan’s hometown of Leominster, Massachusetts. He was 20, serving with the Army Security Agency; she was 25, a theatrical ice-skating instructor and former national skating champion. They were married in 1962; Jonathan was born in January 1963.

Joan gave up skating after the wedding. She stayed home to raise Jonathan during his formative years, but in 1969 began working with Charles in the insurance business. She was an astute businesswoman with a talent for accounting by her husband’s description, his right arm and secretary/treasurer of the company for almost two decades. She was hard – hard-nosed, hard to get along with – exacting and precise.

Charles was a self-made man. Born in Tucson, Az. and raised in New Mexico, he spurned the opportunity to work in his father’s lumber business and studied electrical engineering at the University of New Mexico. After his stint in the Army, he stayed on in Leominster with Joan and found work with the Beneficial Finance Co. and later, with Wausau.

The Amoses went into business for themselves in the late ’60s and bought several a series of small insurance agencies. “Massachusetts was starting no-fault auto insurance,” recalled Charles. “All the old guys wanted out; I wanted in. Once in a while you hit timing – THAT was timing.”

No-fault insurance was the beginning of a windfall for Charles and Joan Amos. In 1972, Charles – who hated the snow and cold weather – sold the company and moved the family to Florida.

Charles contracted Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 1977. The muscular disease gradually degenerated his sense of balance and forced him to rely upon an aluminum walker. Shortly after he was diagnosed, the family moved into the roomy house at 300 Raphael Blvd. in St. Petersburg’s posh Snell Isle neighborhood just north of downtown.

In the St. Petersburg community, Joan was active, raising $250,000 over the years for All Children’s Hospital, Pinellas Association for Retarded Children, Florida Orchestra, Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Cross of Lorraine. (After her death, Charles made a substantial contribution in her memory to the Gulf Coast Lung Association and also gave $500,00 to Ruth Eckerd Hall.) Charles was no wallflower; he spent five years on the Pinellas County Housing Commission.

Joan had her charities, Charles his collection of antique Corvettes. Joan was an early riser, throwing open the curtains at 6 a.m. and declaring, “What a beautiful morning,” no matter what the actual weather. It was a small irritation to Charles, who stayed up later and later and stayed in bed long after his wife was dressed and got on with her day.

Still, he said, “I was very fortunate. In 28 years, I never saw another woman that I was interested in. None whatsoever.”

 

Jonathan “Jay” Ashley Amos was an outgoing, smart child – an I.Q. measured at 150 – with blue eyes and brown hair. He loved to be around people, taking more after his mother than his father. Charles, by his own description, was “the clandestine one in the crew.”

Mother and father were strict with Jay. “We weren’t as liberal as a lot of parents,” conceded Charles.

Jay, who wore big, clunky glasses that hid much of his face, was no athlete like his father, although their physical resemblance became more pronounced as the boy matured.

And while he was not a problem child until his teens, even then he was less rebellious than withdrawn. “Something happened when Jay turned 13,” said Charles. “It was almost like you rang a bell,” according to Charles. “On his 13th birthday, everybody became dumb, blind, ignorant and stupid to him. Jay became very secretive. He started staying to himself.”

The boy who once brought a trail of friends to his home now brought no one.

Charles tried to teach Jay to be independent; don’t rely on anyone for anything. In one alleged incident during Jay’s youth, Charles stood behind his son and said, “Fall back in my arms.” Jay did it and Charles let him fall to the ground. The boy became angry.

“See?” Charles told him. “Don’t trust anybody.”

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Jay received his diploma from Shorecrest Prep and moved to Gainesville, where he attended the University of Florida for a year. There was talk of studying business and computer science, but it didn’t pan out and he returned home.

Jay had worked in the Aanco office part-time since he was a teen, running errands, working in the file room. He started full-time in 1981 as a receptionist earning $180 a week. As he learned the serious side of the business and worked his way up, his salary grew, from $225 a week in 1985 and $400 a week in ’87. His last increase – to $33,500 per year – came in November ’89.

“If I wanted something done and done right, I’d give it to Jay,” said Charles. “He always wanted to be an insurance agent. He’d been talking about that since he was 10, 11 years old. Never varied. I’d say, ‘Jay, study computer science.’ He’d say no. I told Jay, ‘Understand one thing: the hardest thing in the world is to work for your parents.’ … I wanted him to do insurance, but I never did say it. My dad set up a business (lumber) for me – I didn’t want it. I figured the only way Jay would come in is if I said I didn’t want him.”

In addition, Charles had a lucrative financial arrangement awaiting his only son. Prior to age 21 he was promised $100,000 upon graduating college (he quit after one year), $100,000 upon marriage (he rarely, if ever, dated), and a 25 percent share of ownership in Aanco Underwriters at age 30. That offer was later amended to give Jay a 25 percent stake in the Amos estate at age 30, another 25 percent each at age 35 and 40 and the balance when he turned 45.

His father also told him he’d inherit an estate worth $9 million – including six Pinellas County properties valued by the property appraiser’s office at $1.6 million, $2.2 million in life insurance on Charles, $2.96 million on Joan – when Charles and Joan died.

Was this a close family?

“My own father’s definition of the home,” according to Jay, “is that it was a simple dictatorship: king, queen and subject.”

 

The police had a file on Jay Amos with multiple entries long before January 1990. No violent crimes or destruction of property, just stupid things.

Jay was arrested for breaking into his parents’ $260,000 home in 1983. He planned to steal a few checks and forge Charles’ name. But Joan came home unexpectedly. Jay hid in the closet, afraid to be caught by his mother. She didn’t come upstairs immediately, however, and Jay fell asleep in the closet. When Joan finally approached her bedroom she saw tools on a chair and saw the broken door. Then she noticed three checks had been removed from her checkbook. She went back downstairs and told Charles, who called the police.

Charles told the investigating officer that his son was probably the burglar. Jay had written several bad checks and had taken money from his father without permission, according to Charles. Unable to find Jay or any other perpetrator in the house or neighborhood, the policeman left.

The police got a second call from Charles Amos soon after and returned to the house. Joan had heard snoring in the bedroom closet. Charles took a 9 mm revolver and opened the closet door, finding his son sound asleep on the floor.

Instead of yelling at the boy – then 23 – or even striking him, Charles trained his gun on Jay, closed the closet and called the police.

The officer didn’t want to press charges, but Charles insisted. “I want to teach the little bastard a lesson,” he said. “Show him the inside of a jail cell, keep him overnight. We’ll see if he ever tries a stunt like this again.”

The officer relented. He read Jay his rights, led him out of the house in handcuffs and booked him into the St. Petersburg jail for breaking and entering. Charles didn’t bail him out until the next day.

Jay became well known to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, acquiring 14 citations in six years for moving vehicle violations ranging from speeding and driving under the influence (DUI) to reckless driving and operating a motor vehicle without a driver’s license or tag certification. His license was suspended a total of nine times – three times each for DUI, points and failure to pay traffic tickets.

The last time, his driver’s license was revoked for 10 years.

 

Computers provided an escape for Jay. He had 200 games stored in the Aanco Underwriters computer, but his real entertainment came from socializing with other lonely dataheads like himself via on-line computer services such as Meganet, which he could access by telephone modem.

Meganet users took on “handles” or nicknames much like Citizen Band radio users do. Jay was known as “Preacher,” although he sometimes used “Mortician” or “Shadow.” From Jay Amos’s on-line autobiography:

Real Name: Jay Amos

Aliases: Preacher

Physical Description: 5’9″ Brown Hair Blue Eyes

Favorite Movie: The Godfather

Favorite TV Show: Star Trek

Favorite Foods: Just about anything!

Favorite Sport: Bowling

Other Hobbies/Interests: Sailing, Antique Cars (Restoring/Showing)

Summary: NAMES ARE OFTEN DECEIVING!

Under the name Jay Amos, he had a second Meganet file:

Real Name: Kilroy

Physical Description: If you really need to know … it’s too late …

Favorite Movie: Dangerous Liaisons

Favorite TV Show: Monty Python

Favorite Foods: Just about anything

Favorite Sport: Bowling … Sailing

Other Hobbies/Interests: Gathering information … for personal edification …

General Info: Not Small, VERY little sense of humor …

Summary: NAMES ARE DECEIVING … THE SHADOW KNOWS!

 

Joan Amos would have made the Pharaoh proud, such a slave driver was she. Even her family acknowledged it at times.

“We used to have a standing joke between one person and myself in the office,” Jay said. “Who was going to knock her off first?”

At least one employee didn’t remember it as a joke. Jay had asked him, “Do you know any good hit men? For $10,000 I could have someone bump her off.”

By January 1990, Jay had come up from working for his mother in the accounting department to being her boss as ad hoc office manager. The change was made partly in response to Jay’s hard work, partly due to a rash of employee turnover. “An attitude needed to be changed,” Jay said of the period. He was made responsible for hiring and training office staff and it didn’t sit well with Joan.

On December 15, 1989 the Amoses held a family meeting. Charles told Joan that she was running Jay and the rest of the staff too hard. “The pressure on (Jay) had to be horrendous,” said Charles. Jay took two weeks off from work just to get a break from being around his mother.

Joan herself needed a break, some time off. Charles suggested she take a breather for the entire months of January and February. Furthermore, he asked Jay if he could take over Aanco’s accounting responsibilities from Joan for the two months. Jay said yes and the meeting ended.

The day after Christmas, Jay forged Charles’s name on five company checks worth $11,000. Among them were two checks for $1,500 each and a gift check for Jay’s “girlfriend,” Judith Schiess, a woman in Bowling, Ky., whom he had talked with electronically via computer modem but never met. (Jay sent the money to Schiess by Federal Express.) He planned to cook the books in January to cover the checks while his mother was away.

But on New Year’s Eve, Joan reconsidered her vacation. There was too much to be done, she told Charles; she would postpone the rest until March and April.

Jay was panic-stricken. He knew that when the bank statement came on February 1, his scheme would be revealed and he’d be fired, kicked out of the house, disgraced.

Since he couldn’t do anything to prevent the check from coming back, he decided to prevent his parents from ever seeing the discrepancy.

 

John Albert DeHate hardly knew his father, Richard DeHate, and was shunned by his paternal grandparents. His mother, Betty Jean, divorced Richard when John was 14 months old. She remarried twice, the first when her son was 5, the second when he was 15. Neither union lasted more than five years.

When DeHate was 15, Betty Jean married Robert Lawrence, a co-worker at the telephone company. The couple took early retirement and moved from San Jose, Ca. to Florida in 1985, purchasing Crabbies Sandwich Shop on John’s Pass in Madeira Beach. Business was good and they opened a second shop on the boardwalk, Sweet Licks Ice Cream.

The family deteriorated when Lawrence couldn’t handle the 3,000-mile separation from the four kids he left behind in California from his previous marriage. Betty Jean’s third husband abruptly left her and returned to California.

“John had to take my husband’s place as far as work responsibilities go,” said Betty Jean. “He became a lot more cynical.”

Things didn’t get better. DeHate quit Pinellas Park High School, grieving over the on-campus murder of Dean Richard Allen. There wasn’t enough money to hire help for the family businesses so mother and son were together 24 hours a day – at home, at work, at home and at work. It was like being in a bad marriage. Betty Jean sold Sweet Licks Ice Cream at a loss when she and her son couldn’t manage it and Crabbies. DeHate quit Crabbies and took a job at a Pick-Kwik convenience store. Within months, in 1988, Betty Jean lost the sandwich shop.

DeHate drifted in and of several jobs. Not having a car didn’t help. DeHate got a Florida driver’s license in 1988 but relied on buses, cabs, rides from friends, walking and bicycling for transportation.

To occupy themselves, he and a friend offered a service via the BBS they called “Anything, Inc.”

“A lot of people don’t know what that was,” said Betty Jean. “‘Anything, Inc.’ was – you’d tell them, ‘I’d like a radar detector that does this and this.’ And they’d design it. He would sit down for hours at the sandwich shop drawing schematics. They were talking designing these things and taking them to a shop like Honeywell. You sell them your plans and get a prototype built. It’s a far-fetched plan but that’s how these things originated.

“At the trial,” she said, “they made it sound like Murder, Incorporated.”

 

Alison Smith was four years older than her latest boyfriend, John DeHate. The short, spunky, green-eyed redhead met DeHate in August ’89 the same way they met Jay two months later – via the Meganet computer bulletin board. Alison was “Cheshire”; DeHate was “DeHate.”

DeHate enjoyed telling people on the BBS that “DeHate – it’s not just a name, it’s an attitude.” From his on-line autobiographical information:

Real Name: John DeHate

Aliases: nothing polite

City/State: Hell, DeHate style

Physical Description: A boy with dark hair, skin and hazel eyes … big enough not to care.

Favorite Movie: sex, lies & videotape

Favorite TV Show: The Movie Channel

Instrument Played: Keyboard, Females

General Info: Been called ‘harmless’ … by people who need to stop being naive.

Summary: Not a very nice person to meet.

“He was 18 when I met him,” said Alison. “I didn’t like him at first. He had a tendency to do things to annoy people. His personality was his bleak sense of humor. John and I were able to share a lot. He was a real good listener. I was having problems; a lot of girls on the BBS would call him and he would listen to their problems.”

Both were dreamers; Alison, the member of Wicca, a coven of white witches; and DeHate, who fantasized of being a computer programmer, an engineer, a bodyguard or chauffeur. He also daydreamed about secretly doing “jobs” for people.

There were plenty of things about Alison to attract DeHate. Both were voracious readers of adult comic books, science fiction and fantasy; DeHate could consume a book a day. Alison introduced him to alternative rock music, philosophy and ladies’ erotica. Four years earlier, Alison had been involved with a sociopath who she said kidnapped and abused her. “This was the guy who wanted a job as a hit man,” she recalled. “He was a nut case. He seemed to get a kick out of scaring people. John just liked annoying people.”

DeHate told Alison he was in love with her; he even joked about getting married. “I’ve had a few affairs, been out with a lot of guys, and John really stood out,” said Alison. “We were very complementary. Like Yin & Yang, you know?”

Alison moved into her own one-bedroom apartment at Foxbridge Apartments in Largo. DeHate moved in with her in October 1989 and stayed on and off through the next four months. He was neater than most guys; his worst habit was changing his socks a few times a day and leaving the dirty ones all over the apartment.

DeHate and Alison broke up around Thanksgiving 1989, although DeHate continued living in the apartment. Partly for financial reasons – DeHate was perpetually broke and between jobs – partly because DeHate was depressed and had started drinking.

They were still co-habitating in January, drifting in and out of a relationship.

“John was real nervous the whole month,” Alison said.

 

Being a good listener on Meganet made a lot of friends for John DeHate. Jay Amos was another sympathetic ear on the service, but his anti-alcohol tirades earned him the sobriquet “Preacher.”

When DeHate had problems with Alison, he told them to Jay. Jay took it all in, even offering advice to his friend. DeHate was glad to have someone to talk to.

So was Jay.

He was intrigued by DeHate’s advertisement on Meganet for “Anything, Inc. (not a joke)” When Jay asked what Anything, Inc. had done, DeHate told him his business was mostly burglaries.

That’s when Jay knew DeHate would listen to his murder scheme. Especially if Jay dangled money before his depressed, unemployed new friend. That’s when he knew he had DeHate’s attention. DeHate took him very seriously when they talked money.

Jay offered DeHate $15,000 to kill Charles and Joan Amos: $5,000 up front, $10,000 when the deed was done.

DeHate was disappointed Jay didn’t hire him to work on computers at Aanco. But he worshipped money. It made him feel like a big man. Having a wad of bills in his pocket meant power.

 

The $5,000 Aanco check that Jay Amos forged on January 12 was made out to Alison Smith. The money wasn’t a generous post-Christmas gift; it was a downpayment to pay her boyfriend for the murder of Jay’s mother.

“He flaunted the check all over town,” according to DeHate’s mother. “He’d have to be a real moron to do that.”

DeHate told different stories about the money. It was an advance against his new job as a computer programmer at Aanco. Or, as he told Bill Lang, he was going to work for Jay Amos’s crippled father as a driver.

The closest DeHate came to telling the truth was when he told his girlfriend that he was hired by Jay to do a burglary. “The only thing he didn’t tell me was who the people were,” said Alison. He even showed her a diagram of the house Jay Amos had drawn on a yellow legal pad. “Supposedly, Jay had something he wanted out of the house,” according to Alison, who didn’t know it was Jay’s house.

From the time he picked up the check, DeHate enjoyed spending the money. He withdrew $1,500 in cash and took friends and acquaintances out to dinner and repaid debts to his mother, girlfriend and ex-roommates. Alison wrote checks to pay for a $700 TV and VCR at McDuff, stereo equipment for $698 at Sound Advice and $225 at Service Merchandise for a black, 18-speed Huffy bicycle.

When it came time to earn his money, DeHate failed. After the furtive run-in with Charles Amos on Sunday morning, he lied to Alison about what happened at the Amos house. There was no one home, he told her. What I went for wasn’t there.

“He thought it was a set-up,” said Alison. “It was like someone had known he was coming.”

 

DeHate’s failure to kill Charles and Joan Amos on Sunday morning gave Jay second thoughts. He told DeHate he wasn’t going to go through with the plan.

Monday morning he changed his mind again when Joan allegedly held a 9 mm revolver to Jay’s head. It was not the Beretta she carried in her purse and had supposedly pulled on him the first week of January but the .357 magnum Charles kept in his bedroom.

According to Jay, his parents were altering the insurance company’s books with regards to workman’s compensation clients. Speaking to Joan in her second-floor bedroom, he told his mother he planned to leave the company in four months and go out on his own. If Charles or Joan tried to stop him, he threatened to reveal the discrepancies. That’s when he said she told him he had a non-compete contract with Aanco and threatened to kill him.

And Jay said he decided to kill or be killed.

An alternate – perhaps more plausible – explanation for the scheme being re-started was that early on Monday, Jan. 29, 1990, Joan discovered $10,000 was missing from one of the company’s Merrill Lynch checking accounts.

There were two specific transfers of which she had no record. Jay denied knowledge of them so she requested fax copies of the transfer orders be transmitted to the Aanco office. Merrill Lynch said it would take two working days to research the request and transmit the orders. By end of business Tuesday, she’d have the information.

Jay called DeHate on Monday at 9:30 a.m. from the office after finding out his mother was on to him.

“I want this done tonight,” he said. “Both of them.”

“The only way I can do that is if you help,” DeHate said.

“Fine,” Jay said. “I’ll call you after work and set it up.”

He knew then that one way or the other, the end was coming.

 

 

At 6 p.m., Jay went into his father’s office. His parents were planning to work late. Jay offered to stay and pitch in, but Charles said it wasn’t necessary. This was Jay’s second anniversary with Alcoholics Anonymous and he didn’t want his son to miss the celebration.

Joan and Charles worked until 9 p.m. and went home together. Joan was in bed and asleep within an hour. Charles stayed up and watched TV. Jay – who told DeHate to meet him at The Clock restaurant on 4th Street North at 9:30 p.m. – took a cab from A.A. to The Clock.

While awaiting DeHate’s arrival, Jay called Judith Schiess in Kentucky from a pay phone. They chatted about their plans to finally meet in Nashville in February. Jay had even booked a room for them at the Opryland Hotel under the name “Mr. and Mrs. J. Amos.”

A friend dropped DeHate – wearing blue jeans and a sleeveless gray hunting vest – and his bicycle at The Clock.

Their business completed at 11 p.m. and the plan set in motion, DeHate headed for Snell Isle on his bicycle. Jay waited 20 minutes then took a cab home. He greeted his father in the den, put on light blue pajamas, a dark blue robe and tan moccasins and joined Charles in the den to watch a videotape of professional wrestling. Joan always left the room when wrestling came on, but Charles and Jay loved it.

At 11:30, Jay said he was going to put the trash out for the morning pick-up and went out to the garage. Charles dozed off in his chair.

 

Thick fog hung over the darkness of Snell Isle like a dank shroud as John DeHate hid his new 18-speed Huffy bicycle in some high, brown grass near a creek behind the Sunset Country Club. He crossed the golf course behind the homes on Raphael Blvd. and came up behind the Amos house.

Jay let DeHate into the house through the service porch off the garage and showed him the knife and gun (the same 9 mm Walther with which his mother threatened him) he had hidden in the trash compactor on Saturday. DeHate took the knife and put on the socks he had asked Jay for to avoid powder burns or blood on his hands.

Jay wrapped a brown towel around the gun barrel as DeHate followed him into the dining room. As soon as DeHate heard the first shot, he was to go upstairs.

“My mother’s in the upstairs bedroom,” Jay whispered. “I’ll take care of my father.”

 

Jay re-entered the den at 11:45, his footsteps awakening his 49-year-old father. Charles thought he was dreaming as his son pointed a blazing brown towel at him from 10 feet away. Two shots fired.

“There,” said Jay, “that will take care of both of you.”

“What the hell did you do that for?” Charles demanded to know, clutching his stomach in pain.

Jay didn’t answered. He pulled the trigger again but the gun jammed – exactly the kind of thing that always happened to Jay under pressure. As he banged the gun on the sofa, Charles reached into the drawer next to his chair for his gun. In that moment of anger, he wanted to blow his son away.

“You better get out!” he told Jay. Remembering his wife, he tried to call her. “Joan! Stay the hell upstairs!”

But his gun was gone – only vaguely did he comprehend it was his own 9 mm revolver being used to shoot him. Unable to defend himself, Charles grabbed the telephone and dialed 911.

 

Upstairs, DeHate quietly pulled down the covers and climbed into the sleeping woman’s bed.

“Jonathan!” she cried out, frightened, thinking her son was the attacker.

DeHate clamped one hand to Joan Amos’s mouth and brought his knife to her throat with the other. The first cut was tentative, as DeHate grew his nerve. In a defensive move to block another attack, Joan drew cuts on her left hand and right wrist and bruises to her right hand, right wrist, forearms and legs.

The next thrust of the carving knife plunged deep into the base of the throat and cut a dogleg slightly to the left, slicing fatty tissue and muscle six inches deep to a point below the collarbone, severing the internal jugular vein.

Joan was conscious, in agony, when DeHate grabbed her purse and left, but she passed out within moments. Her blue nightgown was soaked with blood – so were the bed sheets, carpeting and a nearby chair. Joan sat upright on the floor, leaning against her bed, unconscious, but still breathing.

 

Failing to fix the jammed gun, Jay watched his father call the police and made no effort to stop him. He was unable to act as his scheme unraveled before his eyes. His father was supposed to be dead, not calling the cops. Just like Sunday morning when DeHate first slipped into the house and Charles was waiting for him. Just like a hundred other times in his life, his father wasn’t making it easy for Jay

Another problem occurred to Jay.

What to do with DeHate?

The original plan was blown. Joan may be dead upstairs, but help was on its way for Charles. Even if the old man died, he’d already fingered Jay to 911 as the trigger man. There was no getaway plan because only Jay was supposed to survive. DeHate thought he’d come out of John’s bedroom, rough Jay up enough to look realistic, tie Jay up, rob the house and split on his bicycle, his duffel bag stuffed with loot. He never realized Jay was planning to kill him, too.

Jay, in a fit of vengeance, planned to shoot the “intruder” who killed his dear mother and father. For once in his life, Jay Amos would be a hero. Plus, he’d be rid of his parents once and for all. With DeHate dead as well, there would be no loose ends, no one to jeopardize his inheriting cash, property, the insurance business and life insurance policies worth $9 million.

But it wasn’t working out that way at all.

Leaving his father, Jay climbed the six stairs and yelled to DeHate, “John, he’s called 911! Let’s go!”

Jay ran into his bedroom and grabbed some street clothes – still on their hangers – so he could change out of his pajamas. Then he ran into his father’s bedroom – Charles and Joan slept in separate bedrooms – and took a set of car keys. DeHate went downstairs first, leaving blood stains on the handrail at the top of the stairs as they ran downstairs.

“Come on!” Jay said.

Running through the kitchen and out the door into the garage was another bad move. DeHate left bloody fingerprints on the kitchen wall and Jay neglected to shut off the security system. It blared loudly when the door swung open, waking neighbors on either side of the house and across the street. Even if his father hadn’t alerted authorities minutes before, they were certainly on their way now.

Pressing the automatic garage door opener, they threw their clothes, Joan’s purse and other stuff into the backseat. Jay bypassed the Rolls-Royce and a Chevy Suburban and hopped into the driver’s seat of Charles’ ’78 steel blue Mercedes-Benz and roared out into the night to the curious stares of more than a few aggravated, sleepy neighbors.

Crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge on Interstate 275, DeHate, quite pleased with himself, said he did his part. Joan Amos was dead.

That’s when Jay informed his hired hand that his gun jammed and Charles, most likely, was not dead.

DeHate suddenly wished he could kill Jay, the pathetic bastard.

 

Charles was discovered conscious and in great pain by the police, still in his den. Joan was in a sea of blood, barely alive.

She arrived at Bayfront Medical Center in downtown St. Petersburg with no pulse or blood pressure. Dr. Charles A. Howard pronounced her dead at 1:10 a.m.

Howard treated Charles for three gunshot wounds to the abdomen and one to the left arm. Of them, one bullet entered and exited through a hernia in a protrusion of the abdominal wall; a second lodged in the upper abdomen; and the third in the left arm. The doctor said it was possible the three abdominal wounds were caused by one bullet; after four hours of surgery and in deference to Charles’ other medical problems, Howard elected not to remove the two bullets he found. Charles remained hospitalized until Feb. 10.

It wasn’t until several days after the incident that Charles learned someone other than Jay had stabbed Joan to death. But by then, it didn’t matter to him; as far as he was concerned, he no longer had a son.

 

The state offered plea bargains to both Jay Amos and John DeHate, despite what they thought were solid first degree murder and attempted murder cases. DeHate confessed to St. Petersburg Police officers upon his arrest, although the confession was ruled inadmissible. The deal was life in prison without chance of parole for 25 years for the first-degree murder charge and a 15-year concurrent term for the attempted first-degree murder in exchange for admissions of guilt and testimony against the partner.

Otherwise, the pair faced a certain trip to the electric chair.

Jay accepted the plea on August 23, 1990 and gave a 50-page deposition describing the crime and implicating John DeHate as his accomplice.

DeHate, who had no prior police record, declined the plea bargain agreement.

The decision to go to trial almost killed DeHate.

Evidence clearly drew a path for DeHate from his bicycle, lock and jacket being found behind the country club to the back door of the Amos house. A map of St. Petersburg was found among his belongings with a blue line drawn to Sunset Country Club where DeHate hid his bike. When he was captured with Jay in Sumter County less than two hours after the crime, DeHate’s windbreaker and pants had Joan’s blood on them. Inside the house, evidence included mud tracks from the kitchen into the green carpeted hallway and the six steps leading upstairs to the master bedroom. More mud was exhibited from the imprint one of DeHate’s size 11-1/2 Korean-made Kaepa brand sneakers on a sheet in Joan’s bed.

Jay described the night of January 30 to the court in grave detail, revealing no emotion. He said that he hired DeHate and that killing his parents meant “survival” for himself. He said he felt financially, emotionally and physically abused, claiming that his father beat his mother and physically abused both his mother and himself.

After three days of deliberations in January 1991 – almost a year to the day of the murder of Joan Amos – a Pinellas County jury needed just two hours to decide the guilt or innocence of John Albert DeHate.

While the jury was out, a strange thing happened.

Charles Amos, who attended the entire trial with the exception of his son Jay’s testimony, drove the motorized wheelchair he has needed since being shot toward Betty Jean Lawrence and talked to her in whispered tones for at least 15 minutes. The two – stone-faced but distinguished Amos, his salt and pepper hair immaculately groomed, and chubby, blonde-haired Betty Jean, her nerves frazzled – were an odd sight.

“He tried to talk to me the night before,” said John DeHate’s mother. “But I felt very awkward. It’s like you want to apologize to everybody.

“He wanted to explain some things to me, since I hadn’t been there, about Jay and Joan. It had happened to him and Joan but he said I was a victim, too, because for all intents and purposes (my) life is changed, too.

“He told me as far as he was concerned, he didn’t have a son. He told me, ‘If I was you, I’d forget I had a son, too,'” according to Betty Jean. “I said I can’t do that. Even if he were guilty – and I don’t think he was – how do I erase 20 years of my life?”

Back in the courtroom, DeHate took a deep breath and held it as the judge asked jury foreman Todd Llewellyn for the verdict. The accused exhaled quickly when it was read. The jury unanimously convicted DeHate of first degree murder and attempted first degree murder. His shoulders sagged. Betty Jean Lawrence sobbed. Even DeHate’s attorney, Robert Dillinger appeared startled.

DeHate was devastated. He had told his mother he expected a not guilty verdict.

Sentencing deliberations took an hour. The jury was split 6-6 between death in the electric chair and life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. Judge Richard Luce ruled DeHate would serve 25 years to life for the first degree murder charge. And while he insisted there were no “freebies” in his court, he ordered the 15-year sentence on the attempted first degree murder be served concurrently. In other words, a freebie. The only mitigating factors in DeHate’s favor were that he had no previous record and that while DeHate committed the murder, Jay Amos hatched the plot and received life in prison.

As he was fingerprinted and led out of court, John DeHate paused to flash the two-fingered salute he learned in Cub Scouts to his mother.

“He had tears in his eyes when he did that,” Betty Jean Lawrence said. “Ever since he was in school, that’s how he’s said goodbye to me.”

 

 

A $2.9-million-dollar insurance policy pay-out is a lot of money, even for a wealthy man like Charles Amos. With his wife dead and his only son in the state penitentiary for 25 years to life, Amos is a widowed 51-year-old man with Multiple Sclerosis and no heirs.

“I’m the last guy,” he said bitterly. “I don’t have anybody to leave it to. It’s all going to scholarships and charities. There will be a lot of kids who get a lot of breaks they would not have gotten but for one stupid kid. I guess the world has its own checks and balances system afterall.”

 

This case does not yet have an ending.

John DeHate is appealing his sentence of life in prison.

Jay Amos has accepted his penalty but is not yet through trying to destroy his father. In August 1990 he began mailing a series of letters to Florida Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and the audit departments of several major insurance companies accusing Charles Amos and Aanco Underwriters of falsifying final audit reports on worker’s compensation and liability policies of its insureds.

The state was investigating Jay’s allegations at press time and no charges had been formalized or indictments handed down.

“It’s a rat’s nest,” said one prominent Pinellas County insurance underwriter. “In a case like this, every time you lift a stone you’re going to find a rat. Maybe three or four.”

Events and conversations in this story have been reconstructed from interviews with the parties and court records. Neither Jonathan “Jay” Amos nor John Albert DeHate were interviewed for this story, under advice of their attorneys.

end

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Swingtime Saturday Night: Sex with the Couple Next Door in Tampa Bay

THUMBING THEIR NOSES AT THE PROSPECT OF
 CONTRACTING AIDS, A SURPRISING NUMBER OF MARRIED PEOPLE UNABASHEDLY PURSUE SEX WITH OTHER COUPLES. IT’S A LIFESTYLE, THEY
 INSIST, THEY’RE NOT ABOUT TO FORSAKE.

Swingtime Saturday Night, Tampa Bay Life, writers, Bob Andelman, Linda Gibson
Read “Swingtime Saturday Night,” originally published in Tampa Bay Life magazine, written by Bob Andelman and Linda Gibson

By Bob Andelman and Linda Gibson
(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life, October 1991)

It’s Saturday night in Zephyrhills. Neighbors can’t help but notice the cars filling up Bob and Nancy’s long driveway, all the way out to the road. There are rumors about Bob and Nancy. Some neighbors guess that nudity—at the very least—occurs at these gatherings.

If they could peek inside, the Joneses next door would find their wildest suspicions confirmed: Every Friday and Saturday night, Bob and Nancy have up to 60 people over for sex.

The handsome, 50-ish couple are leaders in Central Florida’s erotic underground. They run a private, couples-only club for swingers (“Club Sensitivity”) and “Sensitivity Seminars” for would-be swingers—all-day sessions on the rules, etiquette, hygiene, philosophy and legalities of organized, consensual sex. In an era when AIDS is making monogamy fashionable, swingers like Bob and Nancy persist in what nowadays could almost be called sexual overkill.

Bob, a tall, gray-haired, balding investment counselor, also writes a newsletter for the club. A recent issue included columns (“We have seen so many men blow any chance they· might have had by probing intimate places before any conversation has occurred. Refine your approach.”) and news of national swingers’ conventions and Florida swing clubs.

Nancy, Bob’s wife, is a self-described researcher of mystical experiences. She has a halo of short, blond hair and a gentle voice. Her private meditation room is one of those used at their parties for swinging.

Guests start arriving at the sprawling, seven-room house at 7:30 PM. They come from all over Tampa Bay and beyond- Miami, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Vero Beach—even Georgia. Some bring vacationing friends along, although these first must be screened over the telephone by Bob or Nancy.

At 9 PM the front door is locked. Lights are dimmed, candles are lit, soft rock or new age music plays on the stereo, and foam mattresses are pulled from the closets. In a touch that’s pure Florida, the RV in the yard is moved closer to the house—in case its two beds are needed.
 First, the house rules are announced: which room is for group sex, what time the beds may be used for sleeping (not before 2 AM), the limit of four towels per couple, and no threesomes until late in the evening to ensure that everyone has at least one partner available-preferably not their own.

Then guests go into the co-ed dressing room in the garage to change into their party clothes. Men usually don a short bathrobe or towel. Women tend to wear lingerie or garters, hose and heels. Some people head for the hot tub outside. Bob calls what happens from this point “condensed dating.”

“It’s just like a singles bar, only double or triple the intensity,” Nancy says. “Pretty soon it transcends sex. It’s a beautiful experience.”

For the rest of the night, people wander from room to room, partner to partner. Twosomes favor the guest bedroom, which features pink sheets on two queen-size beds, a red nightlight and movable full-length mirrors. The host and hostess have thoughtfully placed a bottle of “motion-lotion ” (a brand chosen for its resemblance to semen, Nancy points out) and a two-speed vibrator by each bed. Bob and Nancy’s room, which is also available, sports a king-sized bed and a massage table.

Swingers denounce the media myth that swinging is mostly a matter of orgies. Friendship, they say, is as important as sex. But many eventually drop “straight” friends for people they’ve met swinging. Sharing each other openly, swingers say, avoids the pain of furtive affairs. Straights don’t understand.

To swingers, cheating means failing to include your partner in all sexual adventures. And it’s considered very bad manners to display jealousy or possessiveness at the sight of one’s partner bedding down with someone else. “What is not acceptable to us, what is an extreme no-no, is to tell someone. ‘I want you for my own,”’ explains Tom, who runs a swing club outside of Tampa.

In the morning, those who spent the night at Bob and Nancy’s linger at breakfast and gossip about who did what with whom. “They serve you as a family, a warm and safe cushion to surround you and make you feel wanted,” Bob once wrote in the newsletter.

The North American Swing Club
 Association (NASCA) in Anaheim, California, estimates three million Americans take part in “the
 lifestyle.” Most are married
 couples, whose average age is 38. Through the NASCA newsletter, “playcouples” can learn where to join a group marriage, how to film their own erotic video, what cruises or tours are available specifically for swingers, and who offers marital or sexual counseling for swingers. Nowhere in the world are there as many swing clubs-over
in the United
Lifestyles, the biggest annual swing convention held in America each year, at- tracts people from all over the world.

The Palms in Fort Myers operates along the same lines as Club Sensitivity, offering house parties every Saturday night and introductory, seven-hour seminars twice a month for up to four new couples. Ken and Pam, hosts of The Palms for five years, say their guests swing for one reason: It’s fun. “It’s like going to Disney World and deciding what rides you want to go on and which rides you don’t. You pay your admission, you do what you want. When you leave, you leave happy. It’s purely recreation.”

Ken, 51, likes the variety. ”There are no two women in this entire world that are alike. Every lady is a trip all her own, totally different than anyone I’ve been with before. Every time I go with a lady I have not been with before, I’m nervous.” How many women has he been with in nine years as a swinger? “I don’t know if I could give you a number. It would have to be several hundred.”

Pam, 44, says variety keeps her coming back for more. “The whole thing is that you’re still attractive to other men after all this time, with no commitments. It’s fun.”

Swinging was originally Ken’s idea. He was between marriages, engaged to Pam. “I wasn’t real comfortable at first,” she says. “It took me about six months. It wasn’t miserable, but it wasn’t something I would have picked to do. To this day, I still have little pangs of jealousy, but not the green-eyed monster kind. At least if Ken comes home late, I’m not worried he was out with another woman. He doesn’t need to be.”

Swingers are growing sensitive about words and labels. The younger participants disdain the term “swinging,” preferring to describe what they do as a lifestyle. The act is called “partying.” Ken says he and his guests are more than the joining of their parts. “We’re not penises and vaginas,” he says. We’re gentlemen and ladies.”

Tampa Bay sex and relationship therapist, Dr. Gitane (her legal name is simply Gitane), gives a variety of reasons to explain the allure of swinging: titillation; violation of society’s norms (“Some like to be on the fringe, doing something different”); putting pizzazz into a dull marriage; bringing to life a fantasy.

The latter, however, can backfire.

“A man has fantasies of a menage a trois,” Gitane begins. “He talks to his wife and—although she is reluctant—she says okay. What can happen is that the woman is suddenly getting attention from very good male lovers and starts liking it. If she beds down with a few of these lovers, she says, ‘Boy, I like this.’ And the man gets ruffled. He hadn’t planned on her liking it that much.”

Bob, who has seen this happen on more than one occasion, says, “Some of the men have really freaked, especially if she’s orgasmically very vocal.”

Then there are the thrill seekers. “They’re never satiated,” Gitane points out. “One more body, one more position. Those people would do well to get into psychotherapy. Some of them are very superficial. For some men, it’s the ice cream store syndrome: Thirty-eight flavors and I want to try them all.'”

 

Not all swing action takes place in private homes or through classified ads. Hillsborough County has at least two private nightclubs catering to swingers: The Door in North Tampa, and the Full Moon Club in Brandon. Both are open only on Saturday nights. It’s important to note that sex does not take place at either venue. But if ever the atmosphere were right…

The Door picked up where the legendary Swinging Door left off after a fire reduced it to ashes two years ago. It is housed in a two-building nightclub complex on North Nebraska Avenue, which is also home to The Body Shop (exotic dancing), DNA (progressive/new wave music) and Razzles (an after-hours bottle club which takes over The Door’s space at 2 AM).

First impressions of The Door are deceiving. It appears dull on first blush-everybody is dressed, for one thing, and the facility itself is nothing more than converted office space. A one-night “membership” costs $25 per couple; regular members pay a $5 cover charge. Men without partners are welcome, but scarce. (As Bob says, “If a man is gonna have sex with my wife, he damn well better have someone to offer me.”) The club is BYOB-liquor is labeled and kept behind the bar. Although The Door doesn’t sell alcohol, there are bartenders and a waitress to make it seem more realistic.

The Door has a disc jockey, dance floor and game room offering pool tables, darts and pinball. Special events take on new meaning at a swingers club; the fake orgasm, wet T-shirt and best male buns contests, to name a few, are more like auditions than competitions, as explicit photos in the club’s game room demonstrate.

The bartenders are quite friendly. “If there’s anyone you want to meet, or if you want to know someone’s first name, just ask me,” says the young woman behind the bar. She also warns that the crowd doesn’t warm up until 10:30 PM.

She’s right. Couples that came in together begin separating then. socializing with other people around the room. Men and women dance with persons other than their spouses. Hands roam over backs and buttocks. Bodies press closely.

It’s a young crowd for the most part, late 20s through early 40s. Happy, chatty and not shy. Like the man who asks a stranger to dance, pressing close, whispering in her ear how she should leave her husband and join him and his wife at their table. When the dance ends and the woman declines, the man works his way around the room, unperturbed, making the same invitation to a number of women before one accepts.

The Door is not a place couples should go to casually. Regulars assume that anyone paying the hefty price at the door is interested, available and consenting. This is not a place for the shy.

Brandon. which hasn’t allowed Joe Redner to open a nude dance club, did
 get a swingers club in June. The Full Moon Club (FMC). But David. the owner, disputes the “swinger club” label.

“It’s a social club,” he says. “It’s not a swingers club. It’s a place for people to meet and then decide what they want to do. We put no rules on anybody. What happens [here] happens elsewhere. But at least when people come in the door, they have open-minded people to meet.”

Many find their way into swinging through magazines such as Swinging Encounters, Florida Sunshine Swinger, Southern Swing Fever, Preferred Swingers or Black Preferred Swingers, several of which are published in Tampa. More specialized swingers might pick up Get Kinky, Unique Encounters or Over Forty Swingers.

These publications, selling on newsstands for up to $10 each, are done on the cheap—typeset on a typewriter—and feature grainy, black and white nude and semi-nude photos of men and women in provocative poses.

Al’s personal ad was a little unusual, even for this genre: “Madeira Beach, FL—Single, white male. 49, no sex for seven years due to raising a family. Ready for all women, any age, race or height. Call: AI. (813) xxx·xxxx.

Most advertisers emphasize the size of their sexual organs, list their fantasies or announce that their soiled panties are for sale. But Al’s ad was remarkable because it gave his home phone number, “so if someone wants to have sex that evening, I’m available,” explains the retired Air Force master sergeant.
 Al is a shy guy. His wife divorced him in 1974 when the military sent him to Greenland for a year. Upon his return, he discovered the swingers’ scene, first in Denver, then in Sacramento, through magazines and clubs.

“I went crazy,” he says. “I didn’t turn anybody down… We’re talking about a lot of kinky sex. My wife and I had a good sex life, but it was straight—in bed, at night, under the covers with the lights off, missionary style.” From 1974 to 1979, Al says he had 90 encounters. “I think I’ve done just about anything sexually possible. And enjoyed most of it.”

The bottom dropped out when Al’s teenage son and daughter moved in with him. He decided to stop bringing women home and to set a good example. But his personal ads continued to appear—they have a tendency to run longer than contracted for and often appear in completely unrelated publications—and a few stray calls alerted Al’s daughter to his most private peccadillos.

By the time his kids had married and left to start their own families, Al had moved to Madeira Beach and was ready to pick up where he left off. He placed his first ads in Swinging Times and Florida Swinger.

Why advertise? Why not chase someone at the workplace or hang around a bar like most people do?

”I’m opposed to the idea of buying sex—dinner and a movie.” Al explains. “I wanted to meet women who wanted to have sex. This seemed the most direct way.”

His first encounter was with a couple. “I didn’t want couples, but I guess I was horny enough to try.” And when the husband’s definition of his wife’s beauty didn’t match Al’s understanding of the word, he still went through with the act. “I’d agreed over the phone to swing, and they came a long way,” he explains.

A single man isn’t likely to meet a lot
 of single women swinging today. It’s mostly a sport for couples. “Unfortunately,
 you meet a lot of men who are gay or bi,
 who you have to fend off,” says Al. “You
 meet a lot of couples. They are really 
sincere, most of them. The women want more sex than the husband can give and the husband is not jealous. They seem to have their heads together a lot more than other married couples.

“The women,” he continues, “are looking for variety, I would imagine. That’s
 what swinging is—variety. A woman can 
tell her lover things she couldn’t tell her husband or boyfriend. You couldn’t tell your husband your deepest fantasy—you’d be too afraid of the horror, the rejection. To me they can say anything.”

Every encounter is different. “All men react differently to a strange man having sex with their wives,” says AI. “Some want to watch X-rated movies while you go in the other room. Some want to watch; some want to take pictures. Some want to direct—which turns me off a lot.” He doesn’t usually get together with a couple more than once or twice. “They get into swinging, they want variety. If you do it with the same person over and over and over, you can’t get variety.”

Pete, 31, wasn’t looking for variety.
 He was just a lonely guy looking for companionship when he placed the following ad in the Florida Swinger. “Black male, 6·3”, 170, slender, well-endowed. Professional, young, clean-cut, drug-free. Known as the Marathon Man. Seeking light complexion black female, or clear complexion, tan, Oriental, white female, preferably bi. Photo a must. Age 21-40.’ The St. Petersburg man received 18 responses. None of which he answered.

“The responses—either people can’t read or they don’t care,” he says. “One guy sent me a picture of himself and he was married. I guess he was gay. There was a woman in Texas. She was in her 50s, moving her business here. She wanted to meet me. This Mexican girl from North Florida—she’s in jail-getting out real soon. She wanted to meet me. Another girl said she was coming down from New York on business. Caucasian chick. I didn’t follow up that one because she sounded like a pro. There was a black girl from Ft. Lauderdale. She wrote me a long letter, even put perfume on it. She advertises in the magazine, too. Her ad said she liked gang-banging. I was too afraid to pursue that one. Then there was a couple from St. Petersburg. I could tell they were real professionals. The wife likes black men and he likes to watch. hat was interesting, but…”

There were a number of factors that turned Pete off from the swingers scene. The lack of respondents who fit his interests was one; the specter of AIDS was another.

Swingers don’t like to talk about AlDS.

“Swinging suffered greatly in the hysteria over AIDS.” says NASCA spokesman Robert McGinley.
 So, do they worry much about AIDS?

“Not too much,” admits Bob. “The perception seems to be that it’s not a white, middle-class, heterosexual, non-drug user problem.”

That’s the perception. Here’s the reality, according to state and federal medical authorities. In Florida, 17,810 adults had full-blown AIDS as of August 31. Forty-one percent of the 2,300 females included in that number were infected through heterosexual contact, as were 10 percent of the males. Nationwide, the number of women with AIDS jumped 34 percent from 1989 to 1990. More than one-quarter of women with AIDS—27 percent—are Caucasian. This year, the Centers for Disease Control expect AIDS to be one of the five leading causes of death among women between the ages of 15 and 44.

Dr. Dorece Norris of Tampa has treated over 400 people with HIV infection. She sees 30 new patients a year who have contracted the virus through heterosexual sex. Among her patients: a 15-year-old girl who had several male partners in their 20s; a single professional woman who had ten or fewer partners in ten years; and a woman in her mid-50s, married for 30 years to her only sexual partner, who had no history of drug use or bisexuality.

“I’m seeing more and more people acquiring it that way,” says Norris. ‘They have no history of drug use, they’re not gay and they’re coming in infected.”

Swingers simply refuse to believe this. ‘There’s no such thing as a problem with AIDS in the heterosexual population:” insists McGinley. “There’s been virtually no proven cases of transmission heterosexually. It’s been almost exclusively drug-related, or one partner has been practicing anal sex within the homosexual community.” He refuses to count the two women in a Minneapolis swing club who contracted HIV several years ago from a man who turned out to be bisexual. He also mentioned a couple of men, former swingers, who had gotten AIDS and died. “We found out they were bisexual and had gone into the gay camp almost entirely. “McGinley insists this proves his contention that anal intercourse between men is HIV’s primary means of sexual transmission. He blames the government and the news media for spreading AIDS propaganda.

“To say it’s sexually transmitted is to scare the hell out of people. Lots of people would like to stop our activity entirely, and this is a good way to scare people.”

Those who still indulge in penetration sex after swapping partners profess no fear of contracting the AIDS virus.

“The formula is married couples or couples living together on a committed basis,” says Ken of The Palms. “We do not permit anal sex, bisexual or homosexual males; we do not permit intravenous drug users. And that basically eliminates it [AIDS]. If swinger clubs were hotbeds for passing AIDS or any sexually transmitted disease, we would be shut down faster than the gay bath clubs. The authorities would love to shut us down for any reason. But it isn’t there.”

“People seem to trust the club membership,” says Bob. He believes keeping intravenous drug users and male bisexuals out of the club is sufficient protection against getting infected. Condoms are provided, but they’re used only for birth control. He’s not worried. “Swingers are cleaner because they’re honest and upfront,” he says.

“I’ve got news for them,” says Norris about the virus. “It’s clearly spread through vaginal intercourse. In Africa, it’s primarily transmitted heterosexually. I have treated several people who have participated in sexual activity within group scenarios. Some are heterosexuals and some aren’t. I’m really surprised at how many people who claim to be heterosexual ultimately admit to me they’ve had bisexual activity. I’ve been doing this for ten years now, and I was naive about the extent of bisexuality in our society,”

AI has seen the word “clean” sneak into most swingers’ classified ads- meaning they are free of AIDS, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, etc.

“You’re taking the person on their word,” he concedes. “I think married couples are more careful than singles. They tend to ask more questions. I’m not even thinking about AIDS with married couples. I am with singles. As for me, I take yearly physicals and blood tests. I know I’m clean.”

Because of the health dangers posed by swinging, Gitane professes amazement that anyone still does it. “Accidents happen to other people—they live in that fantasy,” she says.

“I get very angry at groups like this,” says Norris, “because I’m seeing the effects of their denial system. All they have to do is come by my practice and see all the heterosexual men and women I’ve been diagnosing the last two years. Maybe what they need is a healthy dose of reality, of seeing the ravages of HIV.”

But for swingers like Tom and his wife Linda, the risk is small and the rewards great. “It’s been very fulfilling,” says Tom. “Every time is a learning experience if you’re open to it.” Tom says swinging has increased his sensitivity, compassion and understanding.

Club operators Bob, Nancy, David, Ken and Pam didn’t want their last names revealed. They say they have a good relationship with local police. In fact, some of their members work in law enforcement. Still, they don’t want to alert neighbors to exactly what goes on in their homes and clubs. They’ve been giving swing parties for years and don’t want to quit now.

“People have a lot of misgivings about why we do what we do,” says Tom.

“We do it because it’s fun, and we’re not gonna stop. We may be forced out of the neighborhood. We may leave the state or change our phone number, but we’re not gonna stop.”

BOB ANDELMAN and LINDA GIBSON are not now nor have they ever been swingers. They are just good friends and regular contributors to Tampa Bay Life.


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Lynne Austin: The Original Hooters Girl! INTERVIEW

(This story was written in June 1989. I believe it appeared in Tampa Bay Life later that year. I also believe that some of the original text was lost due to computer incompatibility.)

By Bob Andelman

Lynne Austin, First Hooters Girl, Hooters, By Bob Andelman
Lynne Austin, First Hooters Girll

It’s 4:30 p.m. and she’s now an hour late for the shooting of a new edition of “Hooters Nite Owl Theater,” the weekly movie she hosts on WTOG-TV Ch. 44. Her lateness is more gnawing to the production crew because earlier in the day everything was pushed back from 1 to 3:30 p.m. and Lynne is still late.

When she finally arrives – already wearing the Hooters T-shirt and day-glo orange shorts she has made famous on billboards across America – the Ch. 44 staff and Hooters staff go into overdrive. Lynne does a quick, emotion-less read-through of the script as lights are pointed and cameras are put into place.

A plate of freshly made chicken wings on a cheap wooden plate is set before her and Lynne suddenly reaches into her shirt and adjusts her brassiere to accommodate Tampa Bay’s most famous bosom.

Suddenly the red light goes on and Lynne Austin becomes “L.A.,” the Hooters equivalent of the Gerber baby, Ronald McDonald and the little red-haired girl from Wendy’s. L.A. is Lynne Austin’s Mr. Hyde: quick-witted, sarcastic and effervescent.

“Anybody that can read can do this,” says Lynne between shots.

“Not like you,” answers WTOG’s Ed Jones.

 

Lynne Austin is … not every mother’s dream come true.

But Annette Austin has no complaints. While some parents might disown a daughter who repeated bares her essentials to national magazine photographers and videographers, Annette is the true archivist of Lynne’s growing celebrity. A wicker basket beside the couch in her Sarasota home overflows with her daughter’s newspaper and magazine clippings.

“How did you hear about Lynne?” she asks innocently, as if six years on billboards, a spin as Playboy magazine’s Miss July 1986 centerfold and a platinum Video Centerfold weren’t enough. “I guess I just find it real strange that everybody thinks she was a real big deal,” explains Annette as Lynne laughs.

The Austins – Lynne has a younger brother – are a close-knit family considering Annette and Bob have been divorced for more than a decade. They still spend holidays together. And whenever Lynne has an open weekend in her hectic travel schedule, she prefers to spend it hanging out with mom rather than partying with girlfriends.

Annette is Lynne’s business manager and confidante – they speak frankly and bluntly with one another. It is relationship most mothers and daughters would envy.

Lynne Austin is … famous.

There was the time in Atlanta she called housekeeping at 6 a.m. one morning saying she needed an iron and the manager – dressed in a three-piece suit – personally delivered it minutes later.

 

Lynne Austin is not a bimbo.

“We get a lot of angry calls whenever we have her on the air,” reveals Bill Murphy, host of WTSP-TV Ch. 10’s “Murphy in the Morning.” “I guess that’s because Lynne once opted to take her clothes off.”

Ron Bennington has experienced a similar response to her on the radio.

Playboy Video Centerfold/Lynne Austin [VHS]
Order ‘Playboy Video Centerfold/Lynne Austin’ in glorious VHS, still available from Amazon.com by clicking on the picture above!

“She was doing our show, taking calls,” says half of the morning team at WYNF 95 FM. “A lady gave the normal, right wing attack, ‘You should be embarrassed about being being in Playboy!’ We took 50 calls defending her. That amazed me. People in Tampa Bay are proud of Lynne. She’s a Tampa Bay icon.”

“She’s great in bed, can I say that much?” jokes Bennington, half of the morning team at WYNF 95 FM. Lynne does frequent promotions with the station. And while Bennington is just kidding, he does bring up the assumption many people have that L.A. is promiscuous. I can speak to this first-hand: a few years ago when I was publishing a struggling local magazine, Lynne was on the cover. For weeks after the issue occurred, The idea that any woman who poses in the nude must be a cheap slut gets no support from anyone who knows Lynne Austin well. People who don’t know her and just see her pictures sometimes assume otherwise.

There is a certain class and intelligence about this woman that draws great loyalty and respect from her friends and business associates. They say sure she’s beautiful, but hey, what a mind on that babe! As if being blonde automatically excludes her from being bright.

There are dozens of men in the Tampa Bay area who boast of having dated Lynne. Or their son, brother or nephew has. The stories are just not true.

Not that Lynne needs anyone to defend her. When a woman called into a Louisville, Ky. radio station where the model was a guest and complained that Lynne and all the other women who posed in Playboy – which her husband buys – were disgusting, Bob Passwaters recalls her response. “Lynne said, ‘Okay lady, how fat are you?’ It ended the conversation.”

While debunking the bimbo myth, this may be a good time to deal with the perception that Lynne Austin is not all Lynne Austin. Rumors have circulated for years that she is the product of plastic surgery and breast enlargement.

Pshaw, says the model, who has heard it all before.

 

Lynne Austin is a vegetarian.

Have you ever actually seen her eat a chicken wing? Not likely; she hates chicken and only eats it when she’s sick. Even then, only mom’s secret recipe will do. And she hasn’t tasted red meat in six years.

Still, a driving interest of hers continues to be the acquisition of her own Hooters restaurant franchise sometime in the future. “I’ve grown up with the company,” she says. “I know all the ins and outs.” What she doesn’t know, her mother probably does; Annette is manager of the Sarasota restaurant.

 

Lynne Austin is an inspiration to young women.

In the six years since the first Hooters opened on Gulf to Bay Blvd. in Clearwater and she waited on the first customer, Lynne has gone where few waitresses have gone before. Without any formal training she has modeled, acted, hosted a television program and become a small industry – “Lynne, Inc.” That’s why there’s rarely a shortage of pretty girls interested in becoming Hooters waitresses.

“A lot of the girls have tried for Playboy,” says Lynne; while four have made minor appearances, none have made centerfold or been as much in demand for personal appearances. “We went through ‘Playboy Fever’ where every girl and her sister wanted to be in Playboy. One girl has tried for five years. I told her it’s not for everybody – for some girls, it’s just one big heartache. It’s going to hurt her for a long time because she’s not going to give up.”

Knowing many waitresses aspire to her success, Lynne doesn’t discourage them. “Go after your own goals,” she says. “Let Hooters help you, but do your own thing.”

“In the last five years,” she says, “I dated five guys. I don’t date around. I get one, stick with them ’til they dump me and then I move on.”bleach, “These are the artificial things on my body,” she recites in good humor. “My hair is lightened, my front two teeth are bonded and I wear tips on my nails.”

So has her mother. “They ask me at work,” says Annette.

“Between ninth and tenth grade I grew to this” (she puts her hands on her breasts) “size. I don’t know how many times, on the back of the bus, I had to prove I didn’t stuff!”

“I couldn’t be prouder that she would have the face and body a national magazine would want,” says Lynne’s mom. On the other hand, Annette is still a protective parent. “If she wanted to know if I wanted all the men in America to see my daughter without any clothes – no.”

Lynne Austin, model, Hooters Girl, By Bob Andelman
Lynne Austin

Lynne Austin Calendar Girl Wines WebsiteFacebookTwitterWikipediaIMDBYouTubeLinkedInOrder Playboy Video Centerfold Lynne Austin on VHS from Amazon.com

LISTEN! My 2008 podcast interview with Hooters co-founder Ed Droste!

Tampa Bay Times calls Stadium For Rent (Second Edition) “Notable” for 2015 baseball season!

Stadium For Rent by Bob Andelman, Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays
Order ‘Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball’ by Bob Andelman, now available in an expanded, updated and illustrated 456-page special edition, available from Amazon.com by clicking on the book cover above!


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Copyright 2013 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman

“Wrap That Rascal!” Tampa Bay Weekly cover story, April 6, 1988

Tampa Bay Weekly, Wrap That Rascal, by Bob Andelman

“Wrap It Up!” cover story of Tampa Bay Weekly, by Bob Andelman, about Dunedin, Florida company promoting safe sex with t-shirts, etc., under the brand name “Wrap That Rascal.” (Thanks to Robert LaMonte for sharing)
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Copyright 2013 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman