Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Famed heckler's millionaire-row mansion crawls through foreclosure

ST. PETERSBURG

The dilapidated mansion on millionaire's row lies in surrender to spindly weeds. Black stains blot the balustrade near the estate's arched windows, which have turned a sickly green.

The waterfront home was once a gem in the necklace of Brightwaters, the elite coastal enclave of Snell Isle and the city's priciest boulevard.

But in recent years the 7,000-square-foot estate has earned a less luxuriant claim to fame. In and out of court since 2009, it has become one of Tampa Bay's most lavish homes in foreclosure — and an object lesson on how even the most prominent cases can crawl.

In 2006 Robert Szasz, a Toronto native whose endless taunts at Tampa Bay Rays games earned him infamy as the "Happy Heckler," built the gated mansion on a half-acre of coastline that he and his wife, Bonnie, bought for $1.8 million.

Szasz, a developer who during the boom built local townhome and condo projects like Oldsmar's Seaside Estates and Clearwater's Villa del Mar, spared few expenses for his own home. The two-story stucco estate at 1951 Brightwaters Blvd. NE showcased French doors, vaulted archways, a bayfront boat dock and an infinity-edge pool.

But as the market collapsed, three banks filed lawsuits accusing Szasz of skipping out on payments for more than $9 million in loans. Wachovia, which accused the Szaszes of stopping payment on a $3.1 million "Pick-A-Pay" mortgage after only four months, said it planned to come for the house.

In 2010, the Szaszes' attorney fought back, demanding Wachovia prove that it held the mortgage. A year later, a hearing was called and abruptly canceled.

Then, silence. Had the bank been overloaded with foreclosures? Or had someone messed up? A spokesman for Wells Fargo, which bought Wachovia, won't say. In early 2012, after a year of legal inaction, a judge dropped the case.

That happens a lot. About 40 percent of the Tampa Bay foreclosure cases resolved in the past year were dismissed, often for what judges call a "lack of prosecution." But the banks can reset the clock, and in May, Wells Fargo did just that, filing again to foreclose.

What the bank will do differently this time, however, remains a mystery. The attorney who court records say is representing the bank said he didn't know his name was on the case. He referred a Tampa Bay Times reporter to another lawyer, who did not return messages.

Listings show the Szaszes tried three times to sell, slashing the price to as low as $2.4 million, but never attracted a buyer. Szasz, who now owns a few local Tropical Smoothie Cafe franchises, has not been cited for any code violations at the mansion.

Messages left for Szasz were not returned. A man at the home who looked like Szasz but would not give his name demanded a Times reporter leave the property.

Neighbors said they thought the home was abandoned, though they often saw people enter and leave. In 2009, the Szaszes' real estate agent told a process server the home was unoccupied.

Florida is one of the nation's slowest states for finishing foreclosures, with the average case taking 907 days, data firm RealtyTrac said. But this case has taken nearly twice as long, and there's still no end in sight: Nothing has been filed in the newest foreclosure case in three months.

Banks' sluggish inconsistency in where and when to oust homeowners aggravates lawyers like St. Petersburg defense lawyer Matt Weidner, who sees the mansion's dawdling foreclosure as a sign of another bank repossession campaign gone wrong.

"They'll ignore that $3 million loan but work with aggression to turn out some $150,000 loan in Pinellas Park," Weidner said. "Where is the equality in that?"

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]

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