DADE CITY — Nearly two years after the death of Kathleen Stanfield, a flamboyant widow whose friendship with a smooth-talking younger man prompted accusations he was stealing the family fortune, the bitter fight has taken a new twist.
J.T. Curtis, who befriended Stanfield shortly after her husband's death in 2000 and was named in her 2006 will as the recipient of most of her wealth, is sitting in the Pasco County jail until he can show a judge what happened to his 87-year-old benefactor's money and belongings.
"It's like a bad Lifetime movie," said Stanfield's granddaughter, Dawn Marler, who along with other relatives is contesting the will. "If it hadn't happened to my family, I wouldn't have believed it."
Last month Curtis traded in gold neck chains for orange stripes, but he doesn't understand why he's still behind bars. He said he has turned over all the records he has to his attorney.
"I thought it was only a $100 fine," the 66-year-old said of the civil contempt order issued by Circuit Judge Linda Babb.
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The jail order is the latest twist in a 12-year war that started when Curtis, a handyman, moved into Stanfield's home shortly after the death of her husband, Dr. Wardell Stanfield, founder of one of the city's first hospitals.
Other than that, Curtis and the family agree on little else.
Curtis told the Tampa Bay Times he knew Kathleen, known by the community as "Miss Kitty," from his years performing as a musician at rodeos. Her family disputes that. He said the two worked together at her interior design business.
Her son, Patrick, tells this story of how the two met: He was at Miss Kitty's Hilltop Lounge — no connection to his mother — near Brooksville when a bald stranger took an unusual interest in his new car, a 2001 midnight blue Chrysler Prowler. The stranger asked him whether his parents were alive, and if so, who took care of them.
"My mother can take care of herself," Patrick said, getting up to leave. But the man pulled on his arm.
"Where is she?" he asked.
"At the club," Patrick said.
"This one?" the man asked.
"No, Lake Jovita," Patrick said off-handedly and walked away.
A few months later, his mother told him she wanted him to meet her new friend. The friend would attend one of her upcoming barbecues, social events she loved to host.
When Patrick arrived, Curtis was there. So was Curtis' brother, Ron, who Patrick said looked a lot like the bald stranger.
"I think she was targeted," he said.
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Curtis' son's country-western group, J.T. Curtis and the Silver Eagle Band, began performing at Lake Jovita. Mrs. Stanfield became attached to the group and let them practice at her home. Soon she was traveling with the band. She wrote checks for two cars totaling $30,000 each, with Curtis listed as co-owner.
When her health took a turn for the worse in 2004 during a decorating project, Curtis took her to the hospital.
"I had to fight for that woman's life," he said. "That's when her kids got mad at me."
The family, he said, "wanted to let her die."
Marler said her grandmother suffered what is known as a ministroke that day. Her life was not in jeopardy.
By 2002, Curtis moved onto the Stanfields' property. He said Stanfield figured she had little time left to live.
"She said she wanted to go out with a bang," he said. "I took her everywhere she wanted to go."
In 2005, as Stanfield was still traveling and enjoying life, a trust was created that gave Curtis power of attorney, and a will left most of her property to him.
Family members went to court, saying Stanfield's mental state made her incapable of making that decision. But they dropped the case, saying Curtis threatened to sue. Family attorney Charlie Waller said a psychiatrist who examined Stanfield found she was in the early stages of dementia, but because the case was dropped the judge never saw the statement.
When Mrs. Stanfield died Oct. 8, 2012, the family waited on Curtis, as personal representative of the estate, to supply a state-required inventory of her estate within 60 days.
He filed papers saying only that the estate had $1,000 in personal effects and property worth $1 million. Repeated letters from the family drew the same response. The family remains especially interested in a $520,000 settlement from Pasco County when it claimed part of Stanfield's property to build a new highway.
Judge Babb finally ordered Curtis to provide a detailed list, along with copies of tax forms and bank records. She also ordered him not to sell or transfer any assets in the trust in the meantime. She ruled that Stanfield did not mean for Curtis to get all 10 parcels of Stanfield's land. He could keep the house and surrounding property, but the rest belonged to the family. On April 30, Babb replaced Curtis as personal representative of the estate.
Curtis' next move? To transfer the deeds for all the parcels from the trust to his name.
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"This has been one of the wildest rides I've ever been on," Waller said.
Zephyrhills attorney Stephen Carle, who replaced Curtis as personal representative, did not return calls from the Times for comment. Nor did Temple Drummond, the attorney who handled the deed transfers.
"I wish Mr. Curtis had talked to me first," said Jon Newlon, the attorney who is representing Curtis in the trust case. "That was a bad move."
Curtis and Newlon told the Times he transferred the deeds so he could qualify for a homestead exemption and lower property taxes.
The transfer outraged the family, who accused Curtis in court papers of trying to sell the property out from under them.
"I now find that Mr. Curtis not only has 'thumbed his nose' at this court's order to provide documents … but has now violated this court's order not to transfer any trust assets and has transferred all nine parcels to himself," Waller wrote in a May 21 letter to the judge.
On May 29, when Curtis again failed to provide detailed financial records, Babb had him jailed until he could produce them.
Newlon, who had asked originally asked the court on April 22 for an extra day to copy records, said he's still working on gathering them.
"So far I have gotten only piecemeal receipts from Mr. Curtis," Newlon said.
Curtis did admit to selling a 10-carat diamond for $25,000, saying ranch bills had to be paid.
But Marler questioned that.
"My grandmother had no debt when she died," she said.
Family members say they'll never know what happened to all of Stanfield's jewelry, china, equestrian trophies, Steinway grand piano, furniture and other items they hoped to pass down to their offspring. Even family photos are missing.
"This is not penny-ante stuff," Patrick Stanfield said. "This is serious."
Curtis, whose wife is driving a Mercedes bought with Stanfield's money, said he did nothing wrong.
"I spent that money how she wanted me to spend it," he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected]