TAMPA — It seems like everybody in the world is looking for Tampa businessman John Dargan Stanton III.
His ex-wife. Her private investigator. U.S. marshals. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. Reporters. The IRS. Perhaps even some folks representing him. His bankruptcy attorney says he has no idea about Stanton's whereabouts and hasn't talked to him in more than a month.
In what may be one of the strangest episodes involving a Tampa Bay business leader, Stanton continues to elude capture after eight months with an arrest warrant on his head in a case in which his ex-wife's lawyer calls him "the national poster child for deadbeat dads."
Once worth $269 million, Stanton now claims he is broke. He faces a six-month jail term after a judge found him in contempt in December for not paying his former wife support and alimony.
His ex-wife, who said she is owed more than $10 million, has even offered a $1,000 bounty for his capture.
Stanton's bankruptcy attorney, Paul DeCailly, said he has told Stanton he should turn himself in. But Stanton is clearly not following that advice.
Meanwhile, the bankruptcy that Stanton filed in December is proceeding without his participation. Stanton has refused to attend any creditor meetings. At one of those sessions, police waited to arrest him if he appeared. An IRS representative sat quietly in the meeting room, too.
A trustee in May filed a complaint against Stanton objecting to the discharge of any of his debt because Stanton failed to disclose substantial information in the bankruptcy. Those failings, the complaint said, "constitute false oaths made knowingly and fraudulently in connection with the case."
Stanton is accused of not following a judge's order to file his 2009, 2010 and 2011 tax returns and of failing to disclose that he was an officer or director in seven companies, among other problems noted.
DeCailly, who said Stanton has done nothing improper in the bankruptcy, said he can sometimes reach his client by leaving a message with an intermediary. "It's obviously not the preferred method of communication," he said.
A message seeking comment for this story was sent in that manner, but Stanton did not call the Tampa Bay Times.
Susan Stanton, the ex-wife who now lives in California with their 13-year-old son, said her ex-husband will stop at nothing to avoid paying the money he agreed to hand over during a 2011 divorce settlement.
He's willing to destroy his own life, she said, to leave her penniless.
"John isn't afraid of the law," Susan Stanton said. "For him, it's all about control. It all started out as a vendetta against me."
Stanton has denied all wrongdoing.
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The Stanton story didn't start out like a dysfunctional soap opera. John Stanton's life was one of achievement and success.
He was formerly the president of Cast-Crete Inc., a building materials company in Seffner that earned $1 million a week in profit as Florida development boomed in 2006.
He is a former U.S. Army sergeant with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for rescuing a downed helicopter pilot in Vietnam. With a master's degree in business from the University of South Florida, he earned one of the highest scores in the nation among those taking the certified public accountant exam.
He was once close to the late Ralph Hughes, a Tampa power broker who hired Stanton at Cast-Crete. Hughes' name frequently made the news in 2010 and 2011 when it was revealed he bankrolled an Arkansas house for the wife of former Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman.
Stanton delved into philanthropy, including a $1.5 million contribution to his son's Independent Day School.
But that world no longer exists for the 63-year-old Belleair resident.
In December, a state court judge found Stanton guilty of five criminal contempt charges and sentenced him to six months in jail in absentia. In March, a bankruptcy judge ordered Stanton's arrest for not attending creditor meetings.
In the bankruptcy, Stanton claimed assets between $100 million and $500 million and liabilities of no more than $50 million. He owes the IRS $4.2 million.
While his ex-wife said he has undoubtedly hidden millions in assets to thwart her efforts to collect (Stanton's attorney said that is nonsense), the government has suggested Stanton may have significantly inflated his assets.
Stanton holds stocks that "the United States believes … may have values considerably smaller than those (Stanton) assigns to them. … The one publicly held stock, Bulova Technologies Group Inc., appears from Internet references to have a value of two cents a share or less and is not widely traded," the government said in a Feb. 12 motion.
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So where is Stanton hiding?
Texas private investigator Philip Klein, hired by Susan Stanton, said John Stanton's ability to access fast cash is hindered as a fugitive, and his associates are now more willing to cooperate with investigators.
"We feel he is probably getting increasingly desperate," Klein said. "I think that people, when they start running, they think it's a game at first and then the game turns very, very serious very, very quickly. He's now starting to capture the gravity of the situation. We're imploring him to turn himself in."
Klein said it is believed that Stanton is using prepaid credit cards and throwaway cellphones.
The investigator said FBI agents have questioned some people who know Stanton, but he isn't sure if that means the FBI has joined the search.
Stanton has been spotted occasionally. He enjoys high-end steak restaurants, his ex-wife said. One waiter at an Austin, Texas, restaurant remembered Stanton because he flirted with her and gave her a $50 tip, Susan Stanton said.
Susan Stanton said she saw his picture on somebody's Facebook page in December. He was in a moving truck, presumably driving out of Florida, she said.
Klein said he believes Stanton is armed and could be dangerous.
DeCailly, Stanton's attorney, said that characterization was just laughably untrue. "He's armed and dangerous over a marital dispute?" the attorney said. "I highly doubt that. Do I think he's going to barricade himself in a house to avoid arrest? No."
The bankruptcy will take years to resolve, DeCailly said. And in the end, it will only be the lawyers who collect any money, he said.
"Nobody," he said, "is going to collect anything."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.