How did it come to this?
Evelyn and Batista Madonia worked for more than a half-century building their fortune. They are known for the Red Rose Inn, a Plant City landmark, but the real money, millions upon millions, was made in tomato farming.
They had 10,000 acres in Florida and Virginia and employed 1,000 workers. Their assets are vast: housing camps and luxury homes here and up north for the workers and executives, packing and storage facilities, millions of tomato stakes. And the equipment, anything imaginable to run a huge operation: $200,000 tractors, sprayers, forklifts, pickups, semis, golf carts.
Now, everything they have worked for is going. They are in bankruptcy. They have hundreds of creditors. They owe at least $100 million.
Several million are due to the IRS. The exact figure isn't known.
The remains of their empire go on the auction block this week. If that doesn't make enough money to cover their debts, the Madonias' personal property could be next.
"It does not look good," said Jerry McHale, the bankruptcy court-appointed trustee overseeing the sales.
People called her Mrs. Evelyn and she was the queen of the Red Rose Inn, seen in commercials 100 times a week, dripping jewels, all corseted gowns and elbow-length gloves, false eyelashes and flaming red hair, a grandmother in her 60s and then 70s, fighting age with the same determination she used to build her wealth.
And the inn was like no other. It was a Ramada motel by the interstate with a $4 million renovation, a mix of dinner lounge doo-wop and Gone With the Wind, emerald velvet curtains and leather booths, stars glittering on the dance floor ceiling and chandeliers above the toilets, everything toile and gilt-framed. The inn's passing more than a year ago was mourned so dearly that "After the Rose" dances were held in town, trying to recapture that strange magic.
The inn was Evelyn's gift after a lifetime of raising four children and working by her husband's side.
First, as newlyweds in Pennsylvania, they sold tomatoes out of the back of a truck and grew East Coast Brokers & Packers into one of the biggest operations in the country.
Regular people usually never meet someone with that type of money, but most in Plant City knew the Madonias, touchable, huggable royalty, holding court at the inn.
Their names are on the Strawberry Festival's agricultural center and at the hospital's cardiovascular wing. Evelyn, in her gown and gloves, is painted in a mural with other city figures, displayed on the side of a building in the heart of downtown.
They are rarely seen in public these days.
The Madonias, in their 70s, could not be reached for this story and did not respond to messages passed to their attorney and friends.
Their son, Stephen, said their farms suffered freezes, a hurricane and cheap Mexican imports.
"We've been through tough times before," he told the Ledger newspaper last year. "We can get through this."
Stephen spoke at a hearing in federal bankruptcy court in June, making a last-ditch effort for the family to keep control of asset sales and debt payoffs, even though the auction plans were already under way.
But U.S. Bankruptcy Judge K. Rodney May said no. The family filed for bankruptcy in March but had creditors pursuing them for at least a year prior.
May said they had been given enough time to sell assets and hadn't made any progress.
The farmland sat there, the assets losing money each day. Creditors told the court that equipment had been vandalized. Squatters had taken up residence in a Virginia motel used for laborers.
"There's been gross mismanagement," May said.
It was in the best interest of the case for a trustee to be appointed, he said, and for a public auction to be held quickly.
McHale, the trustee, said he thinks the company's financial issues were tipped over the edge when the Madonias' daughter Laurie was diagnosed with cancer and died in April 2012.
"It appears that the world stopped," McHale said. "It is truly a bizarre situation.
"It's almost as if everybody just walked away and said, 'We have to take care of Laurie,' and they never came back."
Last week, the calendars in the Madonias' offices at their farm in Mulberry remained opened to early 2011.
In son Batista Jr.'s office, a moldy glass bottle of Diet Coke sat on the desk, his "Play like a champion today" mug by his gold nameplate, sandals on the floor, minifridge humming. In what was likely Evelyn's office were two gold-framed copies of some of Audrey Hepburn's favorite beauty tips.
For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, seek out the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry . . .
People streamed in and out, hauling boxes of papers, emptying file cabinets, clearing the building for sale, bringing equipment from the Florida farms for buyers to inspect. The same is happening in Virginia. Four auction companies are working full time.
A bankruptcy sale "on this scale is not typical," said Bill Catsulis, sales manager with Weeks Auction Co., out of Ocala. He expects much of the farming equipment to be sold globally, everywhere from Nigeria to Ecuador to England.
The contents of most buildings likely will be sold in bulk, McHale said.
When dealing with millions of dollars, there is too much at stake to mess with lamps, desks or leather sofas and chairs.
The Red Rose Inn will be sold as is. Many walls are blanketed with photos of the Madonias. McHale said he has encouraged the family to get them.
"I have no desire whatsoever to hurt them," he said. "They are nice people.
"It's sad. It really, really is."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.