Real estate broker Horace Gerald Reynolds Jr. embezzled more than $120,000, authorities say, but they did not charge him with a crime because his only victim was a business.
That's news to Christine Shipley.
"I am a victim," Shipley said. "Where did my money go? It was a hardship on people."
Reynolds has acknowledged taking money from her and others.
So, why hasn't he faced criminal charges? And why has there been similar inaction in hundreds of other cases of real estate fraud across Florida?
The circumstances surrounding Shipley's money and Reynolds' embezzlement strike at the core of a bloated system in which cases often travel among state and county authorities, with the various agencies involved unaware of what the others are doing.
Reynolds ran a property management and real estate firm. Investigators say he ran into financial trouble and began misusing money from company accounts, ultimately taking more than $128,000.
The Division of Real Estate began investigating in January 2010. Over the course of the next year, it audited records, placed the company in receivership and amassed a file of at least 13 customers who are out more than $12,000.
Among them were Frederick Hauck of Virginia, who complained in March that Reynolds took $1,500, and Russell Lewis of Georgia, who complained in April that Reynolds took $4,111 from him.
By July, the Division of Real Estate had appointed a receiver to ensure that the victims of Reynolds' "embezzlement'' would be repaid.
By then, the division had referred the case to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. The criminal investigation came to a different conclusion about the nature of Reynolds' actions.
In August, Detective Timothy Allen wrote that Reynolds "used monies from (3) three different accounts that his business had access to. The defendant used those funds for personal use."
In early January, Allen contacted Reynolds' mother, Mary Reynolds. Allen wrote in his report that she said "her son (suspect) was cooperating with them and had made a bad business decision to attempt to save employees' jobs. … They are in the process of replacing the monies back into escrow and that none of their clients suffered a loss."
Allen passed on that information to Assistant State Attorney Sheri Maxim. A week later, she decided not to file charges since Horace Reynolds was cooperating and no evidence existed to show he personally benefited.
Maxim explained to the Times that Reynolds' actions were wrong, but the business was the victim. When told about the list of victims still awaiting money, she referred further questions to the Sheriff's Office.
"I was not presented with those facts," she said.
Detective Larry McKinnon, spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, said last week the investigator was not aware of the victims listed in the civil court files. They are encouraged to call investigators at (813) 247-8650 if they are interested in pursuing charges, he said.
The Times highlighted Reynolds' case in a Feb. 13 story about real estate agents who avoid prosecution after defrauding clients.
The newspaper analyzed more than 1,500 cases from the Florida Division of Real Estate, the agency set up to protect consumers from dishonest real estate agents, appraisers and instructors.
Cases involved a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. The average investigation took more than 18 months. The time lapse allowed many agents, brokers and appraisers to commit additional misdeeds while the initial complaint was still being investigated.
Even if wrongdoers eventually lost their license, the investigations took so long that they rarely faced criminal prosecution. And a prison sentence was rare, even in the more egregious cases.
Even before authorities began their investigation, Reynolds tried killing himself so his mother could use his life insurance to repay the accounts. The suicide failed on Jan. 27, 2010.
State auditors immediately found he misused at least $128,445 from accounts holding money for rents and security deposits. A regulator called it "theft of funds" and suspended Reynolds' license.
During a hearing last week in Orlando, a Division of Real Estate attorney said Reynolds embezzled the money. His mother, the attorney said, hopes to repay the clients in the next year.
Shipley, now living in Pittsburgh, wants her money. She has since received a $928 payment and awaits three more installments. Reynolds, she said, should be held accountable.
"It was clearly my money," Shipley said. "I had to come up with another $4,000. I had bills to pay. I sure hope I get it back."
News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markapuente.