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Investigation of Lotto winner's death entangles lawyer who 'hit the skids'

PLANT CITY — D. Howard Stitzel III lived large in this small town.

He practiced law with a former state House speaker, raised money for Republican candidates and sat on a prestigious committee that helped pick judges. He built a 3,200-square-foot home, bought a Harley-Davidson and boat, and traveled to Alaska and France.

Then his heyday came to a halt. In the past three years, he sold his toys, lost his truck and saw his home go into foreclosure. He fell more than $60,000 behind in child support, owed creditors at least $275,000 in court judgments and got pushed out of his law firm.

"I hit the skids, man," Stitzel, 45, said last week.

On his way down, he met Dorice "DeeDee" Moore, the woman charged Friday night with the murder of Polk County lottery winner Abraham Shakespeare. The body was found in the back yard of Stitzel's law practice.

Stitzel figures prominently in the probable cause affidavit supporting Moore's arrest. The lawyer is one of several people she blamed for the killing, and he helped transfer assets and property from Shakespeare to Moore's medical staffing company. He also told detectives that he spoke to Shakespeare by phone in October — six months after the lottery winner's presumed death.

Authorities said "there is no credible evidence" linking anyone other than Moore to the murder.

But they continue to investigate all the potential players. They seized Stitzel's law office and records, and he now has attorneys of his own. He and his attorneys deny any wrongdoing on his part.

"I feel like I've been victimized in this whole thing," Stitzel said. "I know nothing about all this other craziness."

• • •

Young love brought Moore and Stitzel together.

The romance wasn't theirs. They have teenage sons who at different times dated the same Plant City girl. Shannon Gunn, the girl's mother, got to know and like both of the boys' parents as a result of those relationships.

In December 2008, Moore asked Gunn if she knew a good lawyer. Gunn suggested Stitzel.

"I don't know if he's good," she recalled saying, "but I know he needs some clients."

Stitzel, a Stetson University College of Law standout known as a respected and gregarious general practice attorney, was indeed going through a rough patch. He had separated from his second wife after three years of marriage, and their home on Keysville Road was in foreclosure. A credit union had repossessed his 2006 Dodge Ram.

Things got hairier in January 2009. First, Stitzel learned that his driver's license would be suspended because he was delinquent on child support payments from his first marriage. Next, his law partner — former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd — booted him from the firm the two had formed 3 1/2 years earlier.

Byrd said Stitzel had ongoing health and family problems.

"He wasn't showing up for work," Byrd said. "I actually had to fire him over the phone."

Stitzel said business disagreements with his partners led to his departure.

Byrd said it was a sad turn of events for a man he described as having huge potential.

Before they became Byrd & Stitzel P.A., the friends had doled out money to Republican candidates as trustees for the Committee for Responsible Government. In 2002, during Byrd's tenure as speaker, he appointed Stitzel to the board of directors at the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute in Tampa.

Stitzel donated $4,000 to Byrd's failed U.S. Senate bid, records show. Later, after Byrd returned to Plant City, the men bantered about politics on Byrd's Saturday morning conservative radio talk show.

Around the time the men parted ways, Stitzel began facilitating the transfer of property and mortgages from Shakespeare to Moore's company, American Medical Professionals. Moore, a Plant City native, befriended Shakespeare after the Polk County man won the $31 million jackpot in 2006.

Stitzel, in a brief interview with the St. Petersburg Times, said Moore paid him to prepare the documents but that he didn't counsel the parties on any transactions. The probable cause affidavit made public Friday said Stitzel received three checks in February 2009 totaling $17,500, all from the Abraham Shakespeare LLC and signed by Moore.

Stitzel said he saw Shakespeare only twice.

"I was a transactional attorney," he said. "All I did was prepare deeds."

Byrd is listed as the preparer of a Jan. 9, 2009, quitclaim deed that transferred Shakespeare's nearly $1.1 million gated community home to Moore's company. But Byrd said he did not prepare the document and that his name appears only because the deed came from an office computer program that automatically included it.

He said he never met Shakespeare or Moore.

When Stitzel left the firm, he took Shakespeare with him, Byrd said.

Stitzel said he essentially started over from scratch in the middle of a tough economy. It took him two months to set up a solo law practice on Alexander Street in Plant City. "But since then, I've tried to work," he said.

Stitzel wore shorts and flip-flops to his new office and visited only intermittently, according to real estate brokers who work in a suite across the hall. They said they saw his clients more than they saw Stitzel. Some clients were angry because Stitzel had not shown up for court hearings, said Tom Sash, one broker.

In two court documents filed in the fall, Stitzel's first wife and a former client's mother said they were told Stitzel was using drugs. Stitzel denies the allegations. He has no arrest record or disciplinary history with the Florida Bar.

Sash recalls Moore arriving distraught on one occasion, crying that Stitzel had not done something he was supposed to do. In addition to the property transactions, Stitzel represented Moore in her divorce from her husband of 17 years.

Moore wasn't simply his client. Stitzel told the Times that he borrowed money from her. He wouldn't say how much. Gunn and Sash said Moore told them she loaned the lawyer $25,000.

Moore, who is being held without bail and also faces a charge of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder, declined an interview request from jail. Gunn, who spent a considerable amount of time with Moore while their kids socialized, remembers her friend speaking highly of Stitzel but worrying about his health and ability to repay her.

Moore wanted to help Stitzel get his life back together, Gunn said, and figured the best way to do that was to make sure he was working. In the summer, Stitzel moved his law office to a home owned by Moore's boyfriend on State Road 60 — a property authorities say was bought with Shakespeare's money.

Investigators would later find Shakespeare's body buried beneath a 30-foot by 30-foot concrete slab in the law office's back yard. Authorities say the lottery winner was killed April 6 or 7 in the single-story home next door.

In June, Stitzel filed documents on Shakespeare's behalf in a Polk County small-claims dispute. He wrote about the lottery winner in present tense. At a child support hearing in August, Stitzel told a Polk County judge that his client was out of the country, authorities said.

Late last year, the attorney told both detectives and the Ledger in Lakeland that he last spoke to Shakespeare by phone in October. When detectives asked Stitzel how he knew it was the lottery winner, the attorney said that he was familiar with his client's voice.

"I firmly believe he's alive," Stitzel told the newspaper, according to the report. "I firmly believe he's hiding because he doesn't want to be found."

Stitzel wouldn't discuss that phone call last week. Detectives say it never took place and that Stitzel made an implicit admission confirming his misrepresentation to authorities during a controlled phone call with Moore.

Stitzel's attorney, Pat Courtney, said, "He had no reason to believe that (Shakespeare) was anything other than alive until law enforcement came to search that property."

On Monday, a hearing officer held Stitzel in contempt for not paying child support since 2008. In court, Stitzel said he was just starting to get his finances together when the murder case knocked him back down.

He is once again looking for new law office space. His Stitzel Law Firm shingle sat propped last week on the porch of his two-story house, just half a mile from where Moore's parents live.

"I feel, like, totally duped, too," he said.

Times staff writers Jeff Testerman and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Investigation of Lotto winner's death entangles lawyer who 'hit the skids' 02/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 20, 2010 11:08pm]
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