BROOKSVILLE — Matthew Senge, a prospective owner of the landmark Rogers' Christmas House Village property, was arrested Wednesday on an Alabama warrant accusing him of failing to appear in court on a charge of theft by deception.
Senge, who along with Karen Hyde is scheduled to close this week on the purchase of the Christmas House property, was arrested by Brooksville police about 10 a.m. at the downtown business. He is being held without bail in the Hernando County Jail.
Senge, 38, who also goes by the name Matthew Hyde, is expected to be extradited to Baldwin County, Ala., in a case that alleges he received $14,000 in 2005 for the sale of a car that didn't belong to him.
Senge's arrest casts a cloud over the proposed deal to buy the Christmas House from present owner George Weiland Rogers. Earlier this month, Senge told a Times reporter that the sale would close on Friday.
Rogers said on Wednesday that he had not spoken to Senge in several weeks and that the matter was being handled by their respective attorneys.
"I don't know what's going on," he said. "It doesn't look good right now."
Attempts to reach Hyde on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Senge and Hyde's pending deal with Rogers includes only the buildings and the land. They have a separate agreement with George Rodriguez, who owns the Christmas House business, to buy 49 percent of the operation. The status of that deal is uncertain.
Rodriguez said Senge has been upfront with him about his past. "I believe everyone is entitled to a second chance," he told the Times earlier.
Late last year, Senge and Hyde began introducing themselves around Brooksville as potential buyers of the Christmas Village's five houses, an 8-acre parcel in back, plus the historic Scarborough House on an adjacent parcel.
Their plan, Senge told the Times earlier this month, was to restore the declining business to its glory days of the 1980s when founder Margaret "Weenie" Ghiotto Rogers ran the operation. The couple planned to add a tea room, a deli and a restaurant.
Brooksville Business Alliance president Sally Petrie said that despite the hopeful news, there was a certain skepticism among people who met with Senge.
"He was a little intimidating to people," she said. "It was like he wanted you to be afraid of him. It was very unsettling."
A Jan. 19 article in the Times about Senge's criminal history caught the attention of Oregon private investigator Jennifer Maghinay, who had been tracking his movements for more than a year. She contacted Assistant District Attorney Robert Nichols in Baldwin County.
"He was very happy to get that information," Maghinay said Wednesday. "They've been after this guy for a long time."
Senge's arrest Wednesday involves an allegation that he sold his girlfriend's car without her permission for $14,000. The buyer said Senge was supposed to return the day after the sale with the car's title, but never did.
Senge later did not appear for two court hearings on the matter, prompting the warrant.
This is not Senge's first brush with the law.
Public records show that during the past 15 years, Senge has faced misdemeanor and felony charges on check fraud and theft in Florida and Maryland as well as the Alabama charge.
According to court records, Senge pleaded guilty in 2008 to two counts of fraud in Hillsborough County in a case involving the purchase of equipment with fraudulent checks. He was ordered to serve two years' probation and pay more than $15,000 in restitution. Judgment was withheld.
Senge's arrest in Hernando in 2008 on an organized fraud charge 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.
Senge pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight months in jail. His sentence later was reduced to two months of time served, with his promise to pay $8,164 in restitution plus $13,300 in court costs.
Although Senge claimed two weeks ago to have paid in full, court records indicate the case was sent to a collection agency.
Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn said that though she had not met Senge and was not aware of his past until recently, she hoped the Christmas House would be able to carry on.
"It's a treasure in our community," she said. "You just hope that at some point the best interests of the Christmas House will be looked after."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.