BROOKSVILLE — Steven Bartlett once lived a lavish lifestyle fueled by one of the greatest housing booms in Hernando County history.
Tales of the Coral Bay home builder's epic spending on motorcycles, craps tables and luxury trips illustrated how many people in the area profited from the influx of homes a few years back.
And now, in a fitting parallel to the larger housing industry, Bartlett finds himself in the tank.
He celebrated his 41st birthday in jail after a jury found him guilty of bilking thousands of dollars from hundreds of customers in Hernando and Pasco counties who never received the homes they were promised.
This morning, Bartlett, former president of Coral Bay Construction Inc., will learn how many more birthdays he'll spend behind bars.
Senior Circuit Judge William Swigert will sentence him on one felony count of grand theft of $100,000 or more. The minimum punishment is two years in prison; the maximum is 30.
Assistant State Attorney Phil Hanson will recommend that the judge give Bartlett a minimum of 10 years. A presentence investigation by the state probation office suggested that he serve 20 years.
Prosecutors will also ask a judge to order Bartlett to pay restitution to his customers, though the issue will probably get settled in a future hearing. Total losses for the 100-plus victims — homeowners and subcontractors, alike — are estimated at more than $4-million.
Pessimistic that Bartlett will ever satisfy the debt, prosecutors favor punishment ahead of payment.
"I think it's a pipe dream to think that he can make any meaningful restitution," said Assistant State Attorney Mark Simpson, who oversaw the case as head of the public integrity division. "The only way he is going to pay for what he did is time off his life."
Most victims feel the same. Dozens are expected to attend the hearing, which was moved to a larger courtroom to accommodate the crowd.
Among them will be Ann Marie Galea, who paid Coral Bay $26,000 toward a new home and only received a cleared lot.
"I just don't believe it was bad business and he didn't know what he was doing," she said, reciting Bartlett's defense argument. "I think he should receive a substantial sentence."
Galea, 63, said that she is disabled and that her condition was made worse from all the stress she endured during the building process. For her, no punishment can return what she lost.
"It's taken a toll on my health, and unfortunately I can't put that behind me," she said.
Bartlett's attorney, Donald Harrison of Tampa, did not return calls seeking comment. He is expected to argue for the minimum sentence so that Bartlett can work to pay restitution.
Ahead of this morning's hearing, Harrison sent the judge nearly 40 character reference letters in support of his client. They came from family members and friends, along with former customers who were pleased with Coral Bay's work.
Annette Shanley of Weeki Wachee is one of Bartlett's supporters who wrote a letter. She said in an interview that Bartlett built her two homes and went out of his way to meet her needs.
"Steve is not a person that takes from somebody. Steve is a giver," she said.
Debbie Boilore of Brooksville said Bartlett built numerous homes for her and her family in recent years. Like Shanley, she doesn't think Bartlett deserves prison time.
"I feel if the judge gives him a lesser sentence he's still young enough to do something with his life and pay restitution," she said.
The letters sent to the court also demonstrate the effect any sentence would have on Bartlett's family.
His 17-year-old daughter, Caitlyn, said she is devastated by the thought that her father won't be there to see her graduate from high school next year.
"Our house isn't the same without my father here," she wrote. "It's full of sadness and helplessness."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352)