BROOKSVILLE — On one side of the courtroom sat dozens of victims who had lost dream homes and life fortunes to a unscrupulous builder.
On the other side, a family prepared to lose a son, husband and father for the next 20 years.
The judge's hefty prison sentence for Steven Bartlett, former president of Coral Bay Construction, prompted loud cheers from the clients he swindled and left sad tears in the eyes of those he loved.
It began two years ago with a St. Petersburg Times story about a suspect builder that led to an exhaustive criminal investigation. And now it came down to this.
"I honestly don't know who is the winner here," said Mel Nathanson, one of the 50-plus victims who attended the sentencing Wednesday morning. "You look at his family — and then there's us. So I don't know if anyone wins."
A jury convicted Bartlett in February of felony grand theft of more than $100,000 after prosecutors showed how he took more than $1-million from expecting homeowners and spent it lavishly on personal excesses.
The panel rejected the defense's portrait of Bartlett as a successful builder swallowed by a tsunami of work amid a wild housing market.
Prosecutors asked for at least 10 years in prison, skeptical that Bartlett could pay restitution with total losses estimated at $4-million.
"In terms of impact, this is one of the most devastating cases ... not only the number of victims but the impact on victims individually," said Harold Varvel, the white-collar crimes detective who investigated the case.
Assistant State Attorney Phil Hanson, a 28-year veteran, echoed the sentiment. At this point, he said, it's not about the money lost, but how the victims were treated.
Bartlett and his relatives asked Senior Circuit Judge William Swigert to spare him from the maximum 30-year prison sentence.
One by one, they came before the court and described a man completely different from the testimony jurors heard.
Bartlett sat nearby, wearing a tan jail uniform, handcuffs and ankle chains. He held a wallet-size portrait of Jesus and let his chin fall to his chest during the more emotional moments.
"My son is the kindest, most gentle, wonderful person I've ever known in my life," said his mother, Diane Van Dyke.
"I remember him putting me on the back of his bicycle in my seat and taking me for rides around the neighborhood," added his 17-year-old daughter, Caitlyn. "We did this almost every night, and it's one of my fondest memories."
The testimony touched some victims, but not enough to diminish their deep-seated anger.
They snorted and jeered loudly in protest as the relatives told sunny stories about Bartlett.
"You may sit there and snicker, but these kids lost everything," Bartlett's mother-in-law, Marlene Cutrole, responded. "And now you want him to lose his life. He doesn't deserve it."
When it came Bartlett's time to speak, he read prepared remarks in which he apologized.
"The monster I've been made out to be in the last two years is completely untrue," he said. "I'm prepared to pay for the rest of my life to make this wrong right."
He asked the judge to consider a lenient sentence that would allow him to return to society and work off his debts.
"If nothing else, I deserve a chance," he pleaded to the end.
The judge said he did not consider Bartlett a "real bad person." But the nature of the case meant that he couldn't depart from the recommended sentence of 20 years in prison followed by 10 years of probation.
"A lot of people were hurt, and their lives were devastated," Swigert said, explaining his decision.
The judge put off the issue of restitution for a later hearing and ordered that Bartlett not hold any position with financial responsibility during his probation term. Bartlett's attorney suggested he would appeal the sentence.
Outside the courtroom, the victims expressed satisfaction.
"He doesn't get the opportunity to do it to anyone else," said Mark Moran, who lost $140,000 to Coral Bay.
For Bartlett's family, the ruling was difficult to fathom.
His daughter crumpled into a friend's lap, crying, while his wife, Tracy, sat frozen with shock. Bartlett's mother collapsed and was later taken by ambulance to the hospital.
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or