BROOKSVILLE — Matthew Senge first showed up at Rogers' Christmas House Village in November, employees say, an affable fellow offering to help with handyman repairs and interested in learning about the business.
Weeks later, that interest ratcheted up when owner George Rodriguez, who had been renting a house in Brooksville to Senge, said the newcomer had a plan to save the beleaguered local landmark.
He and Senge, who was using the surname Hyde, would become partners, Rodriguez explained. Senge and his wife, Karen, aimed to buy the building and property from owner George Rogers, and 49 percent of the business from Rodriguez.
The couple would add a tea room, a deli and, later, a fine dining restaurant.
It was music to the ears of the workers and owners, who have scraped by in recent years as ownership issues and a depressed economy have wreaked havoc on one of Hernando County's top tourist attractions.
Senge was vague about the details of his past, telling people that his background is in law enforcement, including a stint as a federal agent. But he was gung-ho about his new project, even commissioning landscape improvements for the Christmas House before officially owning it.
As the date for closing on the sale came up, however, the wheels on the deal began to fall off.
A St. Petersburg Times story on Jan. 18 revealing Hyde's real surname is Senge and his criminal past prompted a flood of calls and e-mails from former friends and business associates, including several private investigators who have been tracking him for years.
All told similar tales of being on the losing end of deals with Senge. Some said he still owes them money.
When confronted about the allegations, Senge admitted some, denied others and angrily threatened to sue the newspaper and his accusers.
He demanded a meeting with his attorney and the Times, but the Jan. 27 sit-down was abruptly canceled that morning when Brooksville police led him in handcuffs from the Christmas House.
Senge was booked on a warrant from Alabama in connection with a 2005 theft by deception charge and was sent to the Hernando County Jail on a no-bond status. He is scheduled for arraignment Tuesday. According to court documents, Senge is also wanted in Hillsborough County for violation of probation.
While in jail, his legal troubles are mounting.
Paul Beasley, owner of Treelawn Builders, has filed a lien against Senge claiming he owes him $3,900. It is for the landscaping work that Senge commissioned for the Christmas House.
'He always had something going on'
Born in Prince George's County, Md., 38 years ago, Senge's criminal history stretches from Florida to Pennsylvania, records show. It includes a number of misdemeanor and felony convictions for theft, fraud and passing bad checks. He has been arrested on charges of battery against his former wife and girlfriends.
Senge's arrest in January was on a Hernando County violation of probation charge stemming from a case last year that involved charges of battery, witness tampering and resisting arrest without violence. He was adjudicated guilty on two of the charges and was sentenced to a year of probation; the Alabama warrant is considered a violation of that probation.
People from his past describe Senge as a smooth talker. They tell of his penchant for fancy clothes, luxury cars and expensive electronic gadgets.
Steven Kenny recalls accompanying Senge and a co-worker to Mercedes-Benz of Tampa three years ago to pick out company cars. He watched as Senge walked into the dealership and emerged a short time later with keys to $250,000 worth of luxury sedans.
Three weeks later, Senge said the cars had to go back to the dealership for some work. The cars were never seen again, Kenny said. Senge explained that a bank had frozen his accounts because of a pending divorce.
To Kenny, a former Hillsborough County deputy who had left his law enforcement job for a new career track, the episode seemed both strange and consistent with Senge's impulsive nature.
As the boss of a fledgling real estate investment company called In2Place Investments Inc., Senge swung a lot of big deals during Kenny's six months of employment. Senge tried to buy the Cypress Creek golf course in Ruskin, a nightclub in Brandon called Quench and several houses in Apollo Beach's exclusive Mira Bay subdivision, Kenny said.
Each of the deals fell apart, but Kenny said it didn't seem to matter to Senge.
"He always had something going on," he said. "He seemed able to talk his way into anything."
When asked about Kenny's claims in a phone interview the morning of his arrest, Senge refused to provide specific information, and referred to them only as "deals that went bad."
Toni Burnett, who met Senge in 2007 on an Internet dating site, said Senge had a knack for zeroing in on a person's weaknesses and using them to his advantage.
At their first meeting, she said, Senge bragged about his expensive cars and a second home in Hawaii.
"He was very confident of himself," Burnett said. "He would promise you the moon, but never deliver."
Despite his self-proclaimed success, Senge always seemed to be cash-strapped. "Every time I turned around he needed a loan," Burnett recalled.
She allowed Senge to use her credit card to pay some bills, and within a few months he was more than $87,000 in debt to her. Senge signed a promissory note in 2008 stating he would pay back the money. To date, she said, he has paid nothing.
By then, Senge had left behind real estate investing and started a company called SE Fugitive Recovery Unit Corp.
Although Senge has filed incorporation papers for at least three businesses dealing with either fugitive-recovery or process-serving services, Florida records indicate he lacks the proper credentials to do such work.
A felony conviction for passing worthless checks caused the Florida Division of Licensing to revoke his Class D security officer's license in 2006. An application for another license was denied.
In December, Senge used the alias Scott Matthews to start Endeavor Securities Group, a company that offered process-serving, fugitive-apprehension and bodyguard services. The company carried the address of the Brooksville house that Senge was renting from Rodriguez.
Lee Griggs, owner of Seekers Process Service in South Carolina, said he hired Senge to serve three out-of-state summonses. None of the documents was served, he said. Instead, Senge sent him affidavits with phony signatures and without notary stamps so he could get paid.
Griggs, who had to hire someone else to serve the documents, said Senge dodged calls and e-mails for several weeks.
"It left us in a hell of a mess," he said. "This guy is going to do this to the wrong person some day and it won't be pretty."
Senge also caught the attention of Jennifer Maghinay, a private investigator in Salem, Ore., who said he has been passing himself off as a private investigator for years despite not having the proper credentials.
In an industry that prides itself on a strict code of conduct, people who are perceived as harming the profession's reputation are quickly ferreted out, Maghinay said.
She said Senge has taken money from several clients without performing the services he promised them. "He'll do anything he thinks he can get away with," she said.
Senge's younger brother, Christopher Senge, acknowledged his sibling's ability to charm those around him, noting that his brother's use of the alias Hyde was fitting.
"He's got a lot of good in him, but there's an evil side to him, too," he said, alluding to the infamous Jekyll and Hyde of literature. "He's pretty much been that way all his life."
Christmas House deals are the latest to fizzle
This month, Karen Hyde began operating the Magnolia House Tea Room at Rogers' Christmas House Village. Its cheery, brightly colored room and linen-draped tables recalled a long-ago time when women found respite surrounded by such charm.
The swirling controversy surrounding the Christmas House and people's misconceptions of her relationship with Senge had been taking a toll on her, she said.
Though she says she's had no contact with Senge since his arrest, Hyde said they remain friends. She was at a loss to explain why Senge introduced her around Hernando County as his wife. Or why he decided to take her last name as an alias, although doing so made it easier for Senge to hide his criminal record.
"Deep inside, I think he's a good person," Hyde said. "But he's done some bad things. I really hoped all of that was behind him."
Documents she took from Senge's residence include a contract she says shows that he owns 49 percent of the Christmas House business. Rodriguez, the business owner, has told her he no longer considers the contract valid.
Rodriguez said he'd rather not comment on his dealings with Senge, but said he is searching for investors to put together a deal to buy the business.
As for Hyde, 39, the tea room she and her mother planned to run would become at least one tangible improvement to come out of the grand plans that she and Senge announced last fall.
That all changed last week, when Hyde's involvement in the tea room abruptly ended. She and Rodriguez had a falling out, apparently over money.
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.