TAMPA — When Ernie Haire III took over the car dealership his father had started, no one thought he was up to the job.
His brother David, who died of cancer in the 1990s, was considered the more businesslike of the two. Ernie was a rowdy playboy who liked fast cars, younger women and ski vacations in Colorado. He also had a past dotted with charges ranging from disorderly intoxication to assault.
Mr. Haire proved the doubters wrong — sort of. As president of Ernie Haire Ford, he took the dealership to some of its best years, albeit while trying to fend off the FBI and racking up more misdemeanor arrests. The business tanked in recent years and was sold.
Mr. Haire died Saturday in Colorado. He was 56. The Pitkin County Coroner's Office did not return phone calls seeking a cause of death.
"Ernie had a lot of little kid in him that never went away," said Paul Bilzerian, whose long friendship with Mr. Haire ended several years ago over legal and financial entanglements.
His friends remember a golf partner who bet every hole and didn't mind losing, a practical joker who rope-a-doped callers on voice mail. "He'd say, 'Hello? Hello? We have a bad connection,' " said Bilzerian, 61. "Even his phone message was a joke."
Mr. Haire graduated from Chamberlain High School in 1973, three years after his father, Ernie Haire Jr., established Ernie Haire Ford on Florida Avenue. The business did well enough for Ernie Haire Jr. to fly his helicopter 25 miles from the suburbs to work each day.
Ernie Haire Jr. died in 1982 after he was shot by his wife. Mary Haire was charged with first-degree murder but claimed self-defense and was acquitted by a jury. After David's death, Ernie Haire III took over as president.
"No one really thought Ernie could do it," said Bilzerian, a former corporate takeover artist who served federal prison time in the 1990s for securities fraud. "But give Ernie credit. Not only did he do it, he expanded it."
Despite his success, Mr. Haire still got arrested from time to time, a pattern that began in his teenage years. Most of the cases were tossed out in court.
Mr. Haire hit a patch of bad luck in 1998 when he bought into a dealership called ValuCar, whose founder was convicted of defrauding customers. At the time, Mr. Haire said that the episode had cost him millions.
With the car lot on the ropes, he borrowed $1 million from a company controlled by his next-door neighbors, Bilzerian and his wife, Terri Steffen. Federal authorities, however, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, were continuing to scrutinize Bilzerian's finances.
In 2001, the FBI seized $69,000 from Mr. Haire's home safe.
In January 2007, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Mr. Haire drove a golf cart to Bilzerian's garage at 5 a.m. and began throwing M-80s onto the yard. He was charged with disorderly conduct and making harassing phone calls and was sentenced to probation.
Ernie Haire Ford filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and was sold in 2009.
Mr. Haire, who was married and divorced at least twice, was back in the news last year with an arrest for failing to pay alimony to Tracy Hendershot — and another arrest after hiding in his closet from deputies who were there to issue an arrest warrant for contempt of court.
All the same, friends since childhood are remembering a fun-loving adventurer who may have gotten into mischief but was good for his word.
"He was absolutely adorable," said Susan Estep, 57, a high-school friend. "We would go out and dance and laugh till we cried. I knew that Ernie. He partied hard but he was a good man."
Mr. Haire's family declined comment for this story.
Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248.