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Relatives of RV king Don Wallace plead guilty in extortion case

TAMPA — More than a year after they tried to blackmail Lazydays RV Super Center founder Don Wallace for $1.2 million, three of his relatives admitted Monday for the first time that they lied when they accused him of molesting and impregnating his niece.

The concession came as the relatives pleaded guilty to one count each of extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion, felonies that carry stiff potential prison sentences.

But as part of a plea agreement, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta sentenced Wallace's niece, Samantha Harris; his sister, Marion "Connie" Strickland; and brother-in-law Clyde Strickland to 15-year probation terms.

Wallace, 60, urged his family members to accept responsibility for the pain they caused.

He rattled off the names of the people they hurt, including his wife, Erika, who sat stone-faced in the audience next to Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober.

"Everything you had to say about me and Samantha was a lie," Wallace said. "A rotten, filthy lie, the worst thing you could say about somebody. You should be so ashamed."

Wallace's bizarre family drama came to light last summer, sounding more like a Jerry Springer show than the life of a prominent Tampa philanthropist who owns the biggest mansion on Bayshore Boulevard.

For months, Wallace privately disputed allegations Harris made in a police report she filed in February 2008 in Columbia, S.C., where she lives. Harris claimed that her uncle had sexually molested her since she was 9, impregnated her at 16, took her to get an abortion, and impregnated her again at 18.

She had falsely accused other men of getting her pregnant. Wallace took a paternity test that proved he didn't father Harris' daughter, born in March 2002.

Then Harris and her parents plotted to extort $1.2 million from Wallace in exchange for keeping quiet about the supposed sexual abuse, prosecutors said. They were arrested after they signed a notarized agreement and mailed it to Wallace.

"There was not a chance in hell that I would give you all a dime for something like this," Wallace told them Monday.

As part of the plea agreement, Harris' parents had to admit that they knew their daughter suffers from mental illness and has a history of lying.

All three relatives had to admit there was no truth to their allegations that Wallace ever had any sexual relationship with his niece.

Harris, 27, gave a tearful apology, saying she knew what she had done was wrong.

"I am sorry to Don Wallace and his entire family, which is also my entire family," she said. "And I am sorry that our family has been embarrassed, shamed and forever marked by this event."

This wasn't the first rift between Wallace and his sister. Over the years, e-mails show, Connie Strickland, 62, had accused her brother of owing her money. She resented not getting any credit for the success of his RV business and asked him to consider opening a dealership in South Carolina for her family to manage.

On Monday, Connie Strickland said she regretted allowing "past pain" to dictate her recent actions.

She recalled standing in her kitchen on Sunday and looking at a Humpty Dumpty figurine as she reflected on her relationship with Wallace.

"I realize it's broken," she told him. "It'll never get put back together.

"Don, I am sorry. I do love you deeply."

Ficarrotta withheld adjudication for 68-year-old Clyde Strickland, meaning he will not have a conviction on his record. The judge found the two women guilty of the extortion charges.

He warned the relatives to have no further contact with the Wallaces. Connie Strickland said she has no plans to ever return to Florida.

She had one request of her brother, she said. When their mother dies, she asked that he write her a note with the news.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Relatives of RV king Don Wallace plead guilty in extortion case 07/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 10:55am]

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