TAMPA — Don Wallace, a prominent Tampa philanthropist who made his fortune selling RVs, called a news conference Wednesday to announce that three of his relatives had tried to extort $1.2-million from him by claiming he had molested and impregnated his niece.
Wallace, 59, categorically denied their accusations. He and his attorney, Barry Cohen, released a stack of documents — police reports, DNA tests, family e-mails and witnesses' phone numbers — that affirmed his innocence and painted his accusers as mentally unstable liars.
Flanked by his wife and mother, Wallace said he wanted to get the story out before the local media discovered it on its own. His sister, niece and brother-in-law were arrested last week in Columbia, S.C., where they live.
His sister Marion "Connie" Strickland, 61, her husband Clyde Buford Strickland, 67, and their daughter Samantha Strickland, 26, are charged with extortion, conspiracy and making threats, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated the case and conducted a sting operation on Wallace's relatives.
"This story is about a real tragedy in our family," Wallace said, adding that his estranged sister had held a grudge against him for years because he wouldn't set her up in the RV business. "I got to the point where I just thought of her as being my nutty sister. ... But this was different. This was something that could devastate my children and my family."
A founder of the huge Lazydays RV SuperCenter on Interstate 4 in Seffner, Wallace owns the biggest mansion on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard and is well-known in local political and charitable causes. Just last month, he and his wife gave $2-million to Tampa General Hospital.
Visibly emotional at times, he spoke at length Wednesday about the blackmail plot.
In 2002, he said, his niece visited during Gasparilla and stayed with his family. "As soon as she walked in the house, my wife, Erika, said 'Samantha, you're pregnant,' " Wallace said. His niece denied it, but after returning home she gave birth to a daughter, Sabrina.
This past January, Wallace got a call from his sister. "She said, 'Samantha said you are the father of Sabrina.' I told my sister that that was crazy and absolutely untrue," Wallace said.
In February, his niece filed a police report in Columbia, S.C., alleging that Wallace had molested her since she was 9; impregnated her at 16; took her to get an abortion at "White Knoll Women's Health Care Facility" in Florida; and impregnated her again years later.
"None of that happened," Wallace said. The Florida Secretary of State's Office has no record of any White Knoll women's clinic ever existing in the state. However, there's a White Knoll area near Columbia with businesses and schools named after it.
An FDLE report summarizes numerous e-mails that Wallace and the Stricklands exchanged in recent months. Wallace repeatedly offered in e-mails to take a DNA test and to pay for his niece and her child to be tested. His relatives put him off.
"It would appear that you are under the impression that if the DNA testing concludes you are not Sabrina's father then all of this will just go away," his niece wrote on May 14. "I want you to know that I am not going to let that happen."
A DNA paternity test found last month that Wallace is not the father of his niece's child.
On May 24, after his sister sent a lengthy e-mail full of threats, Wallace went to the FDLE. Investigators monitored phone calls and e-mails in which the Stricklands demanded money and said they would go to the press if they didn't get it.
They agreed on $1.2-million. The Stricklands were arrested after they signed a notarized agreement and mailed it to Wallace last week, the FDLE said. In the agreement, Samantha Strickland wrote that her accusations against Wallace were untrue.
The Stricklands have since bailed out of jail. Calls to their home were not returned.
Wallace's wife, Erika, said the couple had tried to explain the situation to their 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. "We've told our kids the truth in terms they'll understand," she said.
She was asked if she had ever doubted her husband. "Not one second," she said.
Wallace said that his niece is bipolar and has a history of lying and that his sister knew better than to believe her. Among the documents that Wallace released Wednesday were e-mails from his sister describing her daughter's psychiatric problems.
Searching for answers in the case, detectives contacted Samantha Strickland's ex-husband and the maid of honor at her wedding. They got an earful.
Greg Koenig, 36, met Strickland at a church picnic. He says she told him she had a medical degree and worked as a child psychiatrist. She dressed in scrubs and told him about her patients. She said the father of her young daughter, Sabrina, was a doctor she knew from school. Koenig left her after three weeks of marriage. "Everything she ever told me was a complete lie," he said.
Her maid of honor, Kami Baldyga, 41, told a similar tale. She said Strickland initially told her the girl's dad was a man in Atlanta. Then she said it was Wallace. Baldyga didn't buy it.
"If you ask me, they were just looking for money," Baldyga said. "They didn't care whose lives they ruined to get it."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.
Who is Don Wallace?
Wallace, 59, is best known as a founder of Lazydays RV SuperCenter on Interstate 4 east of Tampa. He sold portions of the business in 1999 and 2004 but remains a primary stockholder.
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