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Mystery buyer purchases $8.8 million of Clearwater Beach property

The vacant lot, right middle, on north Clearwater Beach and the house above it, left of the lot, is on a narrow strip of land  between Caladesi Island and the Carlouel Yacht Club.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

The vacant lot, right middle, on north Clearwater Beach and the house above it, left of the lot, is on a narrow strip of land between Caladesi Island and the Carlouel Yacht Club.

CLEARWATER — In mid-July, on the secluded sands of north Clearwater Beach, a hedge-framed mansion and a palm-dotted lot were deeded to a mysterious company named Where's the Turtle LLC.

Formed 10 days earlier, in Delaware, the company breezily signed off on its first act of business: buying 110,000 square feet in the gated millionaire enclave of Mandalay Point.

On an isthmus between Caladesi Island and the Carlouel Yacht Club, with views of the gulf and Intracoastal Waterway, the company had assembled an unspoiled beachfront the length of a football field.

The two deeds on the beach's poshest block cost $8.8 million. (For perspective: A 30-year mortgage would cost more than $24,000 a month.)

Yet for all its big spending, the origins of Where's the Turtle remained, like its name, an enigma. The company had been registered through a Wilmington, Del., corporate-identity service favored by many on the Fortune 500. The owner or any associates were effectively cloaked from view.

The company's whereabouts were similarly masked. Its corporate address tracked back to Manhattan, to the 15th floor of 1350 Avenue of the Americas, a "boutique office" tower with views of Central Park. That floor is occupied by Rothstein Kass, an accounting firm catering to "high-net-worth individuals," with offices in the Cayman Islands and Beverly Hills.

The land showed few signs of new ownership. In the open lot, where a 1950s home was demolished a decade ago, weed-choked tile stairs and chipped black banisters led to overgrown grass and a constellation of palms. Coldwell Banker listed the lot at $10 million, reduced to $7.5 million and it finally sold, after three years, for a paltry $5 million.

Next door, the 4,400-square-foot mansion at 1140 Mandalay Point sold in only three weeks. The pink ranch-style home, with five bedrooms and 5 1/2 baths, offers a sun deck, a private dock and a yard of mango trees. It had been owned by Karla H.K. Harrison, 104, who moved out of state. Her family trustees sold it for $3.8 million.

None of the sellers returned messages. And Mary Hickok, the real estate agent, said she was sworn to secrecy by a confidentiality agreement. "That's why people work with you," she said, "because of your integrity."

The few clues to the buyer's identity lay in rumors from neighbors on Mandalay Point. One woman who would not give her name answered the door to the $3 million home of Diane and Herbert Brown while in the middle of a phone call.

She said she knew the family of the buyer, a famous businesswoman, who tended to work in Atlanta and New York. She would say no more and returned to her phone call.

Next to the Browns, at a $2 million mansion owned by St. Luke's Cataract & Laser Institute founder Dr. James Gills, a guest answered the door to pass along an even more specific rumor. The buyer, the anonymous man said, was a magnate of footless pantyhose.

Ultimately, what solved the mystery was a three-page affidavit, signed in New Fairfield, Conn. It identified the manager of Where's the Turtle as Sara Blakely, 40, a Clearwater native best known for founding the blockbuster womens' shapewear line Spanx.

A Clearwater High graduate, Blakely transformed her $5,000 in savings and an idea for cut pantyhose into a wildly popular, Oprah-endorsed international name. Hosiery beget lingerie, swimwear, a maternity line and men's undershirts. In 2008, Spanx reported $350 million in sales.

Blakely lives with her husband, Jesse Itzler, the co-founder of a private jet company, and 2-year-old son, Lazer. The family, according to a New Yorker profile in March, owns homes in La Jolla, Calif., New Fairfield and Atlanta, the company's headquarters. They also own a 37th-floor apartment on Central Park West.

It remains unknown what Blakely plans for the beachfront. A Spanx spokeswoman who asked not to be named said Blakely was busy in back-to-back meetings. "I'm guessing she probably doesn't want to divulge many details," the spokeswoman said. "So at this point, no comment."

And what about the turtle, whose questionable whereabouts sealed the $8.8 million deal?

It remains missing, lost to the mystery.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Mystery buyer purchases $8.8 million of Clearwater Beach property 08/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011 3:15pm]

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