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Lawsuit: Investment in Bahamian crab company nets $200,000 from Tampa businessmen

Two Tampa businessmen say an investment in a stone crab company cost them $200,000. JIM DAMASKE | Times

Two Tampa businessmen say an investment in a stone crab company cost them $200,000. JIM DAMASKE | Times

Brett Ory visited the Bahamas in May 2015 to see the crabbing company in which he and his father, Ronnie Ory, had invested $100,000.

Brett Ory, 38, said he inspected a processing facility, fishing and stone crab trapping boats and 45 acres of prime property on the Bahamas Long Island, all supposedly controlled by Ruskin-based High Cotton Bahamas.

A month later, Ory said he wired an additional $100,000 to High Cotton after its representatives told him they needed capital to buy more boats.

But it turned out that High Cotton was something of an illusion, according to lawsuits filed by the Orys.

The Orys, prominent Hillsborough County businessmen who founded Brandon-based Cyprexx Services, said in two lawsuits filed earlier this month that High Cotton never owned nor controlled the crab business Ory visited. It accused High Cotton's manager, Robert L. Humphrey Jr., 58, and his wife, Maria Humphrey, of misleading them in an elaborate effort soliciting investments.

The suits, filed in Hillsborough Circuit Court, seeks the return of the $200,000 they invested in the company.

A High Cotton business plan attached as an exhibit to the lawsuit lists 19 people who invested a combined $682,000 in the company, including the Orys. (The business plan lists Robert Humphrey's wife as Marie Humphrey, not Maria as in the lawsuits.)

The suits said that, to the best of Orys' knowledge, "High Cotton has never engaged in the business of trapping . . . processing . . . or marketing stone crabs in the United States on any commercially viable basis."

The Humphreys could not be reached for comment Friday. An email message sent to Robert Humphrey was not returned.

The Orys and their attorney also could not be reached to comment. Their company, Cyprexx, preserves and rehabilitates properties nationally.

In a 2014 Newsday report about "zombie houses" — vacant properties that are often in foreclosure — Ronnie Ory, 77, president of Cyprexx, said his company had 500 employees in a call center who hire local contractors for work on homes, often for banks. The company has a national network of 20,000 contractors.

High Cotton's website, www.highcottonbahamas.com, now directs visitors to a site for a company called Bahamas Certified Seafood. This company's website lists Robert Humphrey's name and provides a Hillsborough phone number for him, which he did not answer.

Florida corporate records list Humphrey as secretary of Bahamas Certified and Mark Beloyan of Davie, near Fort Lauderdale, as CEO.

Beloyan, who said he has no ownership interest in High Cotton, said he has invested $650,000 in High Cotton that is being used to refurbish two boats, including one that is now in Tampa for repairs and a retrofit. Beloyan said Bahamas Certified has an agreement with Humphrey to share profits once the boats are again working in the Bahamas.

High Cotton investors, Beloyan said, are also supposed to eventually share in those profits. Beloyan is not listed as an investor in the High Cotton business plan attached to the Orys' lawsuits.

"I don't think there is any intent to defraud," said Beloyan of High Cotton. Of the Orys' allegations, Beloyan said, "I don't know what they were told. I wasn't there."

The Bahamas Certified Seafood website solicits "partners," though it does not explicitly request investments. The website says the company, a Florida corporation, is "engaged in commercial stone crab fishing on the Bahamas Banks and in 2016 will begin the construction and subsequent operation of a stone crab aquaculture farm on the island of Andros, Bahamas.

"BCS has secured the permanent rights to certain patent pending technologies making the BCS farm the 'first of its kind' anywhere in the world. The farm system will use 'patent pending' technologies both to grow and to harvest stone crabs."

But the company also warns: "Visitors should conduct their own investigation and analysis of the information contained in this website."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.

Lawsuit: Investment in Bahamian crab company nets $200,000 from Tampa businessmen 12/23/16 [Last modified: Friday, December 23, 2016 7:57pm]
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