One of Steven Bartlett's victims said he felt a moment of sympathy when the builder was led to jail Wednesday after being found guilty of grand theft.
Not me. Not a twinge and not for a second.
I don't know if I've ever seen a case where money so dear to those from whom it was stolen was wasted so willfully by the one who stole it.
Bartlett's 105 victims paid him more than $5-million — money they had long been saving or had raised by selling previous homes. For most of them, the houses they trusted Bartlett would build were the major purchases of their lives — their biggest investments, their anchors to the community.
What did Bartlett, president of Coral Bay Construction Inc., do with this money, or at least the $1.2-million prosecutors said he pulled from his company's accounts?
He bought tropical fish tanks, a $40,000 security and stereo system, customized motorcycles and took trips to the Caribbean, Biloxi, Miss., and Las Vegas.
So Bartlett could feel like a big shot. Because that's what this kind of spending is all about.
He didn't have to be handsome and charming. All he had to do was throw around thousands of dollars at a strip club, former Coral Bay carpenter Ralph Zanello Jr. said in 2006, "and the girls just flocked to him. … It was like a bloody corpse being thrown in a shark pool."
If you spend evenings at the craps tables, laying down long-shot $1,000 bets, casino owners will treat you like a "whale.'' That, supposedly, is a distinction, one that entitled Bartlett to free hotel rooms, another of his friends said. To me, it sounds like another word for "sucker.''
I don't know why Bartlett needed this kind of dubious respect. He declined to be interviewed Friday at the Hernando County Jail, where he awaits his April 16 sentencing.
I do know that the State Attorney's Office and the Hernando Sheriff's Office deserve credit for going after Bartlett. It was the biggest builder fraud case in the history of the 5th Judicial Circuit, and Assistant State Attorney Phil Hanson and Detective Harold Varvel Jr. worked for months to make sure it held up in court.
Prosecutors, in turn, credited the St. Petersburg Times with exposing Bartlett, though, in truth, it didn't take a lot of digging.
The path of destruction was so wide — and so many victims were willing to tell their stories — that it sometimes reminded me of covering a hurricane. To not report it would have meant willfully ignoring what was going on.
Not unlike another recent story on mortgage fraud.
The damage is as obvious as the plummeting sales figures in Hernando Beach and the neglect to houses bought and abandoned in these suspicious deals. The people who know this market have been aware of the problem for months.
Yet, all the appraisers, Realtors and investors involved in these deals are still free to do their jobs. Sometimes it seems as though the agencies with the power to act have ignored the problem.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the FBI and the Florida Real Estate Commission are looking into complaints, as we've heard. Neither will confirm it.
I hope so. The people behind these deals have hurt their community as clearly as Bartlett hurt his customers. I think an investigation will show they acted just as willfully. If that's true, I will be just as happy to see them led away to jail.