CORY LAKE ISLES — He built the exclusive community of Cory Lake Isles brick by brick, naming the development after his son, dredging a man-made lake and personally meeting with each new resident.
It was the mid '90s and there were about 20 homes in Cory Lake. Gene Thomason drove around the exclusive gated community like a proud owner.
"He was around all day, every day," recalled Michele Shaw, who moved into her home in 1995 and was among Cory Lake's first residents. "If you walked out your door, you would see him. At 6 a.m., he was already driving around the neighborhood looking to see what was going on."
Fourteen years later, Thomason is rarely spotted in the community, although his home is here. Neighbors don't see him driving down the street. They don't pass him on the sidewalk. And his absence has them abuzz with speculation. The fact that he's rarely seen, some say, is a sign that his empire is crumbling fast.
Residents point to several lawsuits against Thomason, the latest being foreclosure filings against his Cory Lake Isles Professional Center, for which he owes $11 million to Wells Fargo Bank, court records show.
It's far different from the Thomason who was once the master of this domain, running the taxing district board and controlling the homeowners association. His company made hundreds of thousands of dollars a year landscaping his community. His wife and son were the official real estate agents for Cory Lake, renting office space inside the community's Beach Club for $1 a year.
Then homeowners began asking questions about finances. Two years ago, a group of them filed a lawsuit demanding that Thomason turn over records of the taxing district's spending. That lawsuit spawned a second one accusing Thomason of using residents' money for personal projects.
In November, Thomason lost control of the taxing district board when his handpicked board members were soundly defeated in an election.
Then the current board kicked the realty company out of the Beach Club. Thomason in turn filed a lawsuit against the board.
All the cases are still in the court system, including an unrelated one involving Thomason and his business partners over investments they made, records show.
Shaw said Thomason used to be easily reachable by phone and moved quickly to address complaints. Now he's nowhere to be found.
Thomason's company no longer landscapes the community, his wife and son no longer work out of the Beach Club and he no longer patrols the property.
"Things are just falling apart on him," Shaw said.
When reached on his cell phone, Thomason blamed the foreclosure suit on "a little war" he was having with someone named Frank, whom he wouldn't identify more specifically.
He wouldn't give details about what he's been up to or his finances. When asked to comment on his loosening grasp on a community that he once held tightly in his fist, he declined to comment again.
"I can't talk about it right now," he said. "When I can, I will."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.