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House for sale — escape tunnel and all

BROOKSVILLE

Picture yourself lounging on the screened porch of your new five-bedroom home overlooking a pasture east of Brooksville.

Cook family meals in a spacious kitchen, sip coffee by the great room fireplace, and relax under vaulted ceilings in the second-floor loft.

And when you need to hide or make a quick getaway, scramble into your very own wormhole or ride a tiny hidden elevator to an underground bunker and escape tunnel.

The former lair of an international criminal is now on the market.

The seller is the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, and the condition is "as is" — escape tunnel and all.

"I've been in real estate for 10 years," said listing agent Heinz Bauer as he stood in the back yard recently, "and I've never seen anything quite like this."

In February, sheriff's officials gave reporters a tour of the 2,400-square-foot home near Hill n' Dale, providing details of a months-long investigation that forced the property's former owners, Eugene Paull and Subrena Spence, to hand it over.

Now Bauer, an agent with Century 21 Alliance Realty, is providing tours to prospective buyers.

Nearly all of the people Bauer has taken through the house knew at least a little of the story behind the property and its features.

"For them, it's like a little bit of, I don't know, Disneyland," he said, laughing. "People are just fascinated by it, that somebody would go through all this elaborate trouble just to feel secure, apparently."

Paull's career in crime began in 1968, investigators say. He was convicted on a drug charge five years later. Instead of showing up for his sentencing, however, he fled to Jamaica, where, authorities say, he started trafficking marijuana.

In 1978, Paull obtained a passport under the name of Robert Harris. He later fell in love with Spence, a teenager at the time, who also got a fake passport. The couple moved to Hernando, paying $350,000 for the 4-year-old house on 2.7 acres at the end of a narrow, rutted road off State Road 50.

Paull, now 67, would later tell investigators he came here because he felt safe and hidden.

From the front, the property looks normal. Visitors passed by a call box, through a gate and onto a circular brick driveway surrounding a 6-foot-tall fountain. Built into the side of a hill, the block home with gray siding features a mother-in-law suite in a walkout basement.

Paull feared law enforcement would come for him one day, so he got to work.

He enclosed the bottom of a spiral staircase to create a closet-size hiding space in the basement — he called it his wormhole — accessible through a hidden door in the floor of the family room.

He outfitted doors and windows with black, inch-thick steel bars, and mounted about a dozen security cameras.

Paull's pièce de résistance: an underground bunker, accessible by an elevator roughly the size of a dumbwaiter hidden in the wall of a front bedroom. A span of plastic culvert pipe led away from the bunker, serving as an escape tunnel to the outside world.

When the SWAT team came for him in March 2011, Paull was working to bury the first tunnel and on his way to completing a second section that would have allowed him to pop out of the ground hundreds of feet away from the house. Officers barged in seconds before he could secure the bars on the door leading to a garage and scamper into his wormhole.

Authorities could only prove that Paull and Spence stole a pair of dead people's identities, the original tip from federal authorities that led to the raid. The couple avoided prison time because they forfeited most of their assets: two Hernando homes, three vehicles, two campers, a pair of custom motorcycles, a 48-foot sailing yacht and nearly $20,000 in cash. All of the assets were in the name of Spence's stolen identity.

The other house is a tiny block home near Hernando High School in Brooksville. Built in 1960, Paull and Spence paid $114,000 for it in 2006. The current market value is $32,888, property records show.

One of the vehicles, a black 2007 Dodge Charger, has been converted to an unmarked patrol car. The Sheriff's Office donated another — a custom motorcycle adorned with images of war, fake weapons and a sidecar that looked like the nose of a fighter jet — to Disabled American Veterans Chapter 67. The yacht, named Veteran, sits in the backyard of the house, awaiting removal.

Spence, now 32, was deported last November to her native Jamaica. Paull received two years of probation and moved to Miami.

He hasn't been arrested in Florida since then, records show.

• • •

Gary Schraut, the co-owner of Century 21 Alliance, is handling the sale because a prospective buyer had asked Schraut to inquire about it, said Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Denise Moloney. It went on the market this summer and is listed for $230,225, about $60,000 more than the market value, property records show.

Schraut said he lowered his fees for the Sheriff's Office because the agency can use proceeds from the sale of seized property for equipment and training.

"We want to get as much as we can because it benefits their programs," he said.

The custom features sound cool, but they're actually liabilities, Schraut said.

"I can't use those as selling points," he said. "I don't think any of those things were done to (county) code."

To build the bunker and tunnel, Paull unearthed and dismantled the septic system. He apparently rigged a secondary system, but it's unclear how it works.

The elevator is tiny. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall and 145 pounds, Paull told detectives he could use it, but barely, said Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Kraft.

"It's not meant for comfort," Kraft said. "It's meant for disappearance."

One recent sizzling day, Bauer bent over and followed a reporter through the tunnel and into the roughly 8- by 8-foot bunker. A moth fluttered around a burning floodlight. The concrete walls were bare, and a small puddle had collected near a drain in the floor.

Prospective buyers are welcome to check it out, too — with a warning, Bauer said.

"We accept no liability," he said.

The house has some other drawbacks. The master suite is curiously undersized, the cabinets need updating, the carpet is shot, and some mold has sprouted from a wall in one of the basement bedrooms.

The lush grounds and brick driveway payers are choked with weeds. The backyard pond, once stocked with catfish and tilapia, is covered in green scum.

Bauer calls it a blank slate.

"It's going to take the right buyer, and it's somebody who's going to have to want to do some work," he said.

Joe Giarratana, owner of Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant east of Brooksville, lives in one of the other four homes on the road. Paull had to pass by Giarratana's driveway on his way in and out.

No one expected a raid, Giarratana said.

"He was always very pleasant," he said. "It was a shock for everybody."

Giarratana said his son considered purchasing the property and waited nearly a year for it go on the market. He eventually bought a home in Wesley Chapel.

Now Giarratana is left to wonder about his future neighbors.

"I'm hoping somebody decent will move in there," he said.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431.

House for sale — escape tunnel and all 09/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 22, 2012 12:18pm]

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