ST. PETERSBURG — Like the secret ingredients of his barbecue sauce, Timothy "Big Tim" Walters chose his friends carefully. For everyone else, he asked only one thing: leave him alone.
"He did not play," said longtime friend Elzo Atwater. "He was straight, no-nonsense business."
The owner of Big Tim's Bar-B-Que, a restaurant he opened in 1968 and replicated in several mostly successful ventures since, Walters attracted hungry admirers and at least a few enemies over 41 years. Despite arrests over the years on assault, burglary and racketeering charges, Walters will most likely be remembered by locals for his garlic and molasses barbecue.
Mr. Walters died on Saturday at St. Anthony's Hospital. He was 66 and had heart trouble and diabetes.
"He was a shrewd businessman," said Richard Escobar, a Tampa lawyer who was representing Mr. Walters on a 2005 racketeering charge. "If he saw a legal opportunity to make some money, he took it. A lot of times, that rubs people the wrong way."
Besides his restaurants, Mr. Walters invested in real estate, Escobar said. He owned an auto repair shop next door to Big Tim's at 530 34th St. S, which authorities claim was operated as a chop shop, reassembling and selling stolen automobiles.
"I think he probably made a lot of enemies throughout the years, and as a result these allegations surfaced," said Escobar, who insisted his client was innocent.
Mr. Walters' supporters paint a portrait of a misunderstood man who donated food and money to churches and troubled families.
Mr. Walters grew up in Gainesville and went on to play football at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Teammates knew him as "Mean Big Tim," Mr. Walters told the Times in a rare 1977 interview.
He followed a girlfriend to St. Petersburg in 1964 and found a steady but unsatisfying job with a drug company. He started a janitorial service before investing his savings in a restaurant on Tangerine Avenue and 31st Street S.
At the time, Mr. Walters was dissatisfied with the available barbecue and longed for his grandmother's recipe.
His 22-ingredient sauce made the first Big Tim's Bar-B-Que a success, even if trouble brewed in the parking lot. More than once, Mr. Walters, who weighed a solid 240 pounds, ventured outside to break up disturbances, returning with weapons he had confiscated.
Customers came from outside the neighborhood, too. "I do recall that the white customers was always begging me, 'Tim, move on into a different area,' " Mr. Walters said in 1977.
Over the next two years he opened up two more restaurants, both on 34th Street S. Another Big Tim's in Tampa lasted for several years, and a Big Tim's across from Tropicana Field opened in 2000 but closed within a year.
Mr. Walters' tastes mellowed over the years. Whereas in the 1970s he drove a Cadillac Coupe de Ville with wire spoke wheels, he later favored a pickup truck and a Mercury Grand Marquis.
Away from work, he enjoyed Cornish hens with cherry sauce and lobster tails. He relaxed with trusted friends who didn't want to borrow money or meddle.
"When you are in business, everybody is coming at you a thousand different ways," said Atwater, 53, whose family owns Atwater's Cafeteria. "You've got to hold your position. He wanted you to come in and enjoy his barbecue and not try to pierce and interrupt his life."
In 1976, he was accused of assaulting a fire inspector who told Mr. Walters to clean his grill once a month instead of once a year. More recently, according to court documents, Mr. Walters threatened a witness not to steal from him.
"My temper?" Mr. Walters said in the 1977 interview. "Sure I've got a temper. I know it. It's a hell of a temper. I just don't want people messing with me."
His racketeering affidavit alleges crimes ranging from dealing in stolen merchandise to paying for a murder, charges that could have put Mr. Walters in prison for life. He had been free on bond since 2005, and his trial had been delayed due to his deteriorating health.
But even as the law closed in, police were known to eat at his restaurant. Said Atwater, "Everybody goes to Big Tim's at one time or another."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.