BROOKSVILLE — After years of watching Rogers' Christmas House Village decline, Tricia Bechtelheimer was hopeful when a young, ambitious couple showed up with plans to restore the storied business to its former prominence.
Bechtelheimer, owner of Westover's Flowers & Gifts across the street, on the east end of downtown Brooksville, remembers being impressed by the man who introduced himself as Matthew Hyde when he popped into her business just before Christmas.
"He seemed so energetic, positive," Bechtelheimer said. "I thought, well, this is just what the Christmas House needs."
Over the next few weeks, Hyde made himself known around town, talking with residents about the improvements he and his wife, Karen, were planning, including the addition of a tea room, a deli and a fine dining restaurant. He spoke of tour bus companies once again bringing thousands of guests to the Christmas House, just like the 1980s when founder Margaret "Weenie" Ghiotto Rogers operated the business.
Hyde never divulged much about his past. He said he had a background in law enforcement and he and his wife had recently relocated their business, Endeavor Financial & Securities Group LLC, from Virginia to Florida.
As it turns out, there was plenty Hyde didn't want the community to know, including a criminal history in Florida dating back to 1996 that includes arrests and convictions for organized fraud, battery and obstructing justice. In addition, court records show that Hyde, who until October of last year went by the name of Matthew Senge, has had numerous liens and judgments placed against him by victims in Florida and elsewhere.
Hyde's most recent run-in with the law came last January, when Hernando County sheriff's deputies arrested him on charges of misdemeanor domestic battery of his wife, witness tampering and felony escape from a law enforcement officer.
Hyde, 38, doesn't deny his past, but acknowledged he would rather people not know about it.
"It's an embarrassment to me," he said in an interview last week. "I've changed. I've turned things around, and I want to focus on the future and that includes getting the (Christmas House) deal done."
According to court documents, Hyde is on probation for crimes in Hillsborough and Hernando counties. Also, several statements he made to the Times are at odds with what documents reveal about him.
Although he said two weeks ago that he and his wife had recently moved to Hernando from Alexandria, Va., documents show that Hyde has lived at addresses in Central Florida since 2006.
During that time, he was involved in several businesses, including Falcon Investigations Inc., where he was listed as president during a time he faced felony fraud charges in Hillsborough and Hernando counties.
Hyde's arrest in Hernando in 2008 on charges of organized fraud stemmed from the purchase of 10 radios and seven Toshiba TVs from BES Industries in Jacksonville. Records indicate he paid for the radios with a bad check and never submitted payments for the TVs.
Hyde, who listed himself as unemployed on his arrest form, pleaded guilty to the organized fraud charge. He was sentenced to eight months in the Hernando County Jail, but the sentence later was reduced to two months of time served, with Hyde's promise to pay $8,164 in restitution plus $13,300 in court costs.
Hyde was sentenced to two years of probation for his Hillsborough fraud conviction, which involved the purchase of equipment, and was ordered to pay more than $15,000 in restitution.
Though Hyde says he has paid the restitution in full, Hernando court records indicate the case was sent to a collection agency early this month. His wife does not have a criminal record in Florida.
How all of this will affect the planned Jan. 29 closing on the sale of the Christmas House property is unclear.
Hyde has refused to say how much money he and his wife are putting into the business — or where it will come from. However, he maintains that the deal, which includes purchase of the Christmas House property, plus a 49 percent interest in the business, currently owned by George Rodriguez, is solid.
"Nothing has changed in that regard," Hyde said. "It's going to be the pride of the community once again."
Rodriguez, who took over the Christmas House in 2008 after former owner Donna Jones filed for bankruptcy, said Hyde informed him several weeks ago about his troubled past. He said he has no problems going through with the deal.
"I believe everyone is entitled to a second chance," Rodriguez said. "Everything (Hyde) has told me he would do he's done and more. He's helping the business, not hurting it."
Others aren't sure. Brooksville Business Alliance president Sally Petrie said Hyde, whom she has yet to meet, has been the subject of talk around town.
"I have merchants calling me and asking me if this guy's legit," she said. "With all of the troubles the Christmas House has gone through, you'd hate to see more disappointment."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.