The owner of a therapeutic spa company in North Tampa faces up to 30 years in prison on a charge that he defrauded more than two dozen elderly, disabled and dying customers of nearly $168,000.
William J. Becker, 47, pleaded guilty last week to organized fraud. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Denise Pomponio is to sentence him at a March 18 hearing where several of his victims are expected to testify.
"I hope he gets every punishment they can possibly throw at him," said Donald Schoenberger, 74, of Valrico. Schoenberger said he paid Becker $4,000 for a spa for his wife, Frances, who was hurt in a car accident, but never received a thing. He plans to attend the sentencing.
"If my wife is able to go, I'm bringing her in there in the wheelchair," Schoenberger said. "I want the judge to throw the book at him."
Becker owned Able Walk-In Tubs.Com Inc., which was registered with the state at addresses on Bearss Avenue and Waters Avenue at different times. He also had a storefront on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa in 2007.
That year, Becker sold custom walk-in tubs designed to make bathing easier and safer for elderly, infirm and disabled people, authorities said. He collected deposits of $2,300 to $10,500 from 27 people, promising that tubs would be installed in as little as eight weeks.
But no one ever received a tub, and authorities say Becker vanished with the money.
More than half the victims were from Florida, and five were from Hillsborough, mainly Valrico, Brandon and Sun City Center. The rest were scattered across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Montana.
In a telephone interview with the Times after his plea, Becker said he never intended to take anyone's money without delivering the product. But he said his business could not overcome delays at the factory in China, where the spas were being custom made.
"I love my customers," he said. "I wanted to give them the best possible product. But I was unable to deliver it due to circumstances beyond my control. This was a case of entrepreneurship that went bad. I tried and I failed."
Becker said the money he took from customers went to rent, payroll, developing a Web site and marketing.
But Hillsborough County consumer protection investigator Debra Osterbrock said in a sworn statement that bank records she reviewed showed "no identifiable expenditures indicating Becker had ordered any products to substantiate the manufacture, purchase or delivery of the tubs sold to the customers."
"The bank records show Becker wrote checks from the business accounts payable to himself for payroll and travel expenses, as well as writing some checks to cash," Osterbrock said. Other expenditures "include rent, payroll, travel, meals and hundreds of debit card transactions for what appear to be personal items."
Osterbrock also noted that walk-in tubs were available from at least three other companies, two of which Becker had done business with before.
Among his customers was 82-year-old Edwin Brusstar of Brevard County, court records say. After learning about the company online, Brusstar gave Becker a check for $4,995, he told investigators.
"My wife was in considerable pain as her disease (lung cancer) progressed, and I was not able to give her the relief we expected her to gain by using a walk-in tub," Brusstar said in an affidavit. "I am retired and do not have the ability to replace the $5,000 I lost to Bill Becker. In addition, I have been diagnosed with stage four bone cancer and would have benefited from the tub myself."
Brusstar died in September 2009, two months after he made the statement.
"It's very sad to hear the relatives say how (customers) were still waiting for the tub" when they died, Osterbrock said. "They didn't purchase the tub just because they wanted to spend the extra money. They really needed it."
After receiving a complaint, Hillsborough consumer protection investigators interviewed dozens of witnesses and victims, reviewed bank records and subpoenaed other records before getting a warrant for Becker's arrest in June 2008. Authorities eventually tracked Becker to Colonia, N.J., where he lives now.
After Becker posted bail in December 2008, authorities became concerned that he might slip away again. He had listed an address on W Waters Avenue that actually belongs to a UPS store, authorities said.
Becker said he gave the Waters Avenue address as his address after a long ride in a corrections van back to Florida. He told the Times he is a strict vegetarian and had received little that he could eat or drink during the trip. In a daze, he said, he thought authorities wanted his mailing address.
"I was completely incoherent at the time," he said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403.