TARPON SPRINGS — Fred W. "Bill" Howard made a name for himself in his native Tarpon Springs as a real estate developer in the 1980s.
But he left the area after a series of controversies, from his dealings with the Church of Scientology to a failed business venture that ended in bankruptcy, several longtime Tarpon Springs residents said this week.
"He disappeared off the face of the Earth," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. "I hadn't seen him in over 20 years."
Howard, 62, who rose to prominence in the 1980s, made headlines again this week when he was arrested Tuesday at his Tarpon Springs home, accused with three other men of defrauding Florida investors out of $1.3 million by selling fraudulent promissory notes.
The grandson of the late Fred H. Howard, a four-term Tarpon Springs mayor for whom Fred Howard Park is named, he was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on Tuesday and transferred to Sarasota County, where the warrant for his arrest originated, on Thursday.
He was being held in the Sarasota County Jail in lieu of $44,000 bail Thursday evening.
The fraudulent investments were sold through offices and employees of First Liberty Group LLC, where Howard worked as a salesman, according to Mike Morrison, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
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Howard attended local schools before becoming a well-known real estate developer in the 1980s.
In 1978, while serving as the president of the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, he was elected to the City Commission and served until 1981.
But rumors of Howard's connections to the Church of Scientology began to circulate during his tenure on the commission. Howard, some said, was trying to help the church buy property in Tarpon Springs.
"I always thought, for the city, he did a great job," said Jim Kolianos, who served on the commission with Howard. "I know there were some shady things, and we busted him pretty good about being a Scientologist. It was taboo back then."
In September 1980, as some community leaders were expressing their disapproval of the church, Howard released a statement that said he had taken some Scientology courses and had found the church to be "positive" and "ethical."
He later said that he never became a church member and that he decided not to run for another term on the commission because of the controversy his statements had stirred up.
Also in 1980, Howard, called "Young Bill" by many in town, was accused by three of his fellow commissioners of violating the state's Sunshine Law. He was accused of approaching them privately to lobby for a zoning change that would benefit one of his clients. The zoning change was not approved, and the commissioners declined to file a complaint.
Legal and financial troubles began to mount for Howard by the mid 1980s.
He was convicted of drunken driving in 1984 and 1987. In the later case, Howard was later charged with violating the terms of his probation, accused of failing to comply with a judge's order that he remain on house arrest for one month.
In a February 1987 St. Petersburg Times article about the violation, Howard denied the allegation, saying, "It's popular and fashionable to get Bill Howard right now. I'll be glad when that's over."
A judge sentenced Howard to another year of probation with several restrictions on his activities. Instead, Howard chose to spend 30 days in jail.
Between the DUI arrests, in 1985, he was cited for leaving the scene of an accident after his Mercedes was found crashed into a utility pole. Howard was not with the vehicle, but came to the scene later and told police the car had been stolen.
He was charged with filing a false police report, but the case was dismissed, court records show.
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Howard also came under fire for some of his business dealings with Anclote Property Corp., a real estate development firm he formed with lifelong friend John Tsavaris.
When reached by telephone Thursday, Tsavaris said he was too busy to talk, but said he had not heard of Howard's arrest.
"Fred's a nice guy and a good friend, and I wish him well is all I can tell you," he said.
The company developed a solid reputation in the city, where it developed one of the largest subdivisions, built condominiums overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and spearheaded the renovation of the old Tarpon Springs Arcade building.
But by 1986, Howard and the company were in trouble.
Performers and vendors at a spring festival sponsored by Anclote Property complained that Howard did not pay them as promised.
The city paid the bills until Howard eventually came up with the $11,000 about nine months later.
Meanwhile, Howard's company was being sued for nonpayment by various creditors. In March 1987, Anclote Property filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $12.9 million and assets of $11.8 million.
The corporation was officially dissolved in 1988.
Howard disappeared from news articles and Pinellas court records shortly thereafter.
So, too, did he disappear from Tarpon Springs, those who knew him said Thursday.
Former Mayor Anita Protos said she hadn't seen him "in years" until she ran into him at Publix a few months ago.
"I didn't even know he was back in town until I read (about his arrest) in the paper," Kolianos said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.