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818 Land Trust dealings have a familiar ring

Yes, he once bought a useless strip of land near a condominium complex.

Yes, he tried to pester neighbors into buying it back from him.

Yes, he dug up the turf, strung up an orange plastic fence and invited homeless people over for a pizza party.

But so what? Anthony Tocco, real estate speculator circa 2003, says to give him a break: Any resemblance of his highly publicized past in Largo to the on-going tactics of the secretive 818 Land Trust in Pasco County, he says, is purely coincidental.

"It's not me," a frustrated Tocco said this week. "Please don't knock on my door again."

But what to make of the William Tidwell connection?

Earlier this year, just before the 818 Land Trust came on the scene in Pasco County, the Clerk of Circuit Court received a written request from a man named William Tidwell.

Tidwell wanted to know the price tags on more than 20 delinquent tax properties in Pasco.

Among those properties were a strip of land in Aloha Gardens, a road in Zephyrhills and a strip of land in Colonial Hills. The 818 Land Trust later brought those three parcels, and the relationship between the trust and the neighbors has been sour ever since.

Tidwell asked the clerk's office to mail the information to a Clearwater post office box address, care of "Swiss Automotive."

Who is president of Swiss Presidential Automotive Holdings, which has the same post office box?

Anthony Tocco.

In March, less than a month after the clerk's office sent the prices to that address, a courier for the 818 Land Trust showed up at the Dade City office to purchase tax deeds to the lands in Aloha Gardens and Colonial Hills and the road in Zephyrhills.

Then the trust marketed its small parcels to the neighbors by threatening to undertake certain activities, from turning the road into a drag strip to setting up a ministry for the homeless on the Aloha Gardens land.

In Zephyrhills, the residents along the road eventually bought it back, netting the trust a $2,700 profit. In Aloha Gardens, the trust and neighbors have sparred over a shed on the land, a dispute that has brought Pasco sheriff's deputies to the scene multiple times. In Colonial Hills, residents say they haven't heard from the trust since the first series of calls.

Practicing 'gumball machine real estate'

The trust, which says it is based in California, has not made its membership known and has left a scant public records trail. Only the name of its Largo-based lawyer, Joseph Perlman, appears on the land deeds. The trust speaks to reporters only through an intermediary.

Tocco, who lives in Clearwater, said Tidwell is a buddy of his, a 40ish day laborer who was thinking about getting into real estate by buying some investment properties. A novice investor, he didn't know how to buy delinquent tax properties. He asked for Tocco's help.

"Bill just wanted some guidance," Tocco said. "I told him I know how to do it."

Consider Tocco's resume. Back in 2003, at a Pinellas county tax auction, he bought a sliver of land near Shadow Lakes condominiums in Largo. Then he hatched a number of tactics — including the pizza party for homeless people and a fly-over in a helicopter — to try to force his neighbors to pay an exorbitant price for the parcel.

Unlike the members of the 818 Land Trust, Tocco was never afraid to see his name in print. He even came up with a name for this real estate practice: "Gumball machine real estate," he told the St. Petersburg Times back then. "Something small, inexpensive, really sweet, easy to get, no big closing statement."

The saga ended when Tocco agreed to give the land back to the Shadow Lakes Condominium Association as part of a court settlement with the association. Also as part of that settlement, Tocco agreed to refrain from buying property at any tax deed sale unless the parcel is buildable or at greater than 10,000 square feet.

And so ended Tocco's dealings in gumball real estate, according to Tocco.

Back in Pasco, Tidwell never found anything on the Pasco County list that he wanted to buy, Tocco said. "Bill swears to me he didn't have anything to do with it," he said.

That was Tidwell's story in April, too, when the Times contacted him at a cell phone number he provided on his letter to the clerk's office. He said then that he knew nothing about the 818 Land Trust and that he was looking only for buildable lots.

In the past two weeks, Tidwell has not answered the cell phone or returned messages.

Tocco said he last heard that Tidwell moved either to Miami or one of the Carolinas, looking for work. He said he did not know anything more.

Publicity not part of current lifestyle

Tocco is now married. He has a car sign that says he buys gold, but he declined to say what he does for a living or what exactly Swiss Presidential Automotive Holdings does. He said he knew Tidwell had used the company name in his request to Pasco officials but that Swiss Automotive is not real-estate related.

Tocco no longer likes publicity all that much, nor does he like unannounced visitors (he has a video camera placed near his front door). He worries about who may be listening in on phone calls.

"Are you recording this?" he asked a reporter at one point.

No.

"Is anyone else listening?" he asked at another point.

No.

The 818 Land Trust story is wearing him down, he said.

"I hope the whole situation chills out," said Tocco, "so people won't look at me because of the coincidences."

Times researchers Will Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

818 Land Trust dealings have a familiar ring 07/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 8, 2008 5:54pm]
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