TAMPA — From inside jail walls, Ali Shabazz saw opportunity instead of inconvenience.
On Sept. 1, Hillsborough's jails started prohibiting letters for inmates. Postcards only, they said. So Shabazz, 38, decided to start a website where inmates' loved ones could type messages. He'd print them on postcards and mail them for $2.50 each.
When he got out of jail on Oct. 21, after serving time for violating probation on previous petty theft and fraud charges, Shabazz raced ahead. Before leaving the jail grounds, he paid $7.80 for the names of every inmate in jail — his new target audience.
He called graphic designers and Web developers, gathered plans and talked to an acquaintance of his, a Chase bank employee named Patrick Wonsey.
The thing about being a jobless felon without savings: Capital can be elusive. But Wonsey, 28, believed in Shabazz. He invested his own money.
He considered it a partnership. But Shabazz says it was nothing more than a loan.
It was the start of an innovative business — and the end of a friendship.
• • •
Shabazz knows jail. He served eight years in prison on various charges relating to bank fraud and racketeering in Ohio. He has been arrested three times in Hillsborough, most recently on petty theft and fraud. Nothing violent.
Now, he says he has turned over a new leaf and is building a legitimate business. He says his knowledge of life inside jail is an asset for his inmate-centered service. He calls his company Deep Swamp Inc.
Shabazz is soft-spoken, tall and lanky. He has an impressive vocabulary and an uncanny memory for people's names. He loves to write and recently started a blog.
He's smart and he knows it.
Wonsey knows it, too. He knew about Shabazz's criminal past, but still thought he'd be a good business partner.
Shabazz finds fault with that word: "partner." He says Wonsey was nothing more than a lender. But in November, that wasn't his concern. Shabazz was focused on building his business. He got postcard prototypes.
For Shabazz, who said he lives alternately with his sister and his sister's mother in Brandon, money was tight. That's where Wonsey was helpful: He transferred money into their joint account and used $688 to pay for a website domain.
Both their names were on the company's articles of incorporation. Shabazz was president, Wonsey was vice president.
In early December, Wonsey introduced Shabazz to a Brandon man named Christopher Paige, 34, who had more business experience and could invest in the company. Wonsey suggested they split the business among the three of them. Shabazz didn't want to share.
He had a lawyer devise a form that would ensure the entire company belonged to Wonsey, but Wonsey wouldn't sign. Still, he appeared to back off, Shabazz said.
Shabazz says he focused on his business and forgot about Wonsey.
But Wonsey didn't forget about the business plan. He partnered with Paige. Their incarnation of Shabazz's initial idea is now MessageMyInmate.com.
It is up and running.
They are using AlphaGraphics — the printer that Shabazz had been communicating with for Deep Swamp. And Shabazz says he recognizes some of his ideas on the website, including the price and the notebook paper graphic.
Is that wrong?
Tampa commercial litigator Daniel Saxe estimates he has seen this type of feud more than 100 times in his practice.
Without written contracts — as in this case — people rely on verbal agreements. And though such agreements can serve as contracts, the situation can become contentious when each party remembers the details differently, said Saxe, who is not involved in this case.
"Then you have the situation of he-said, she-said," the lawyer said. "A judge or jury will have to decide who is right or wrong."
• • •
Shabazz is not giving up, but he's facing several obstacles.
Wonsey dissolved Deep Swamp's articles of incorporation. Shabazz said it was done without his knowledge or permission, which should not have happened because Shabazz was the registered agent and president.
Wonsey also put the DeepSwamp.com domain up for sale at $5,000.
"He's just trying to put me out of business," Shabazz said.
Shabazz thinks Wonsey violated his duties at Chase by partnering with a Chase client. Wonsey works at Chase's Riverview branch in Winthrop Town Centre.
The manager there declined to comment.
• • •
Wonsey's current focus is promoting his new business, which could net him hundreds of thousands a year, if successful.
On a recent Monday morning, he and Paige showed up at the Tampa Bay Times' office in suits and smiles. Their pitch was energetic. They talked about "rewarding" work and "revolutionizing communication."
Their business will help the inmates and the jail staff, they said. And anyone can use it — on a computer, tablet or smartphone.
They mailed fliers to each Hillsborough inmate in February and started sending postcards thereafter. Later, they plan to print photos on postcards. One day, they hope to offer video messages by using kiosks inside jails.
"The sky is the limit," Wonsey said.
Shabazz continues to work from home. He has retained a lawyer.
Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.