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Problems splinter a family

There for all the world to pick over and purchase was a household of family belongings, from the elegant to the sentimental. The brass cage with a bird that once sang when wound by delighted children.

The Chickering parlor grand piano.

The Oriental rugs.

The Christmas ornaments.

The Roy Rogers toy gun.

All sold to the highest bidders at public auction.

And so the family heirlooms of Thomas Gardner Bayless Sr. and his wife of 62 years, Mary Louise Fleming Bayless, went separate ways _ just as their heirs had done.

"All of us were very upset," said Shelton Jenkins, the couple's 36-year-old grandson.

Even more upsetting for Jenkins and other family members was what they suspected was happening outside the public eye. While strangers bought family belongings to satisfy the bank, state prosecutors investigated possible embezzlement from the $4.5-million family estate.

Suspicions bitterly divided the offspring of the senior Baylesses, who were respected and unpretentious members of St. Petersburg society.

On one side, those being investigated: the senior Bayless' only son, Thomas Gardner Bayless Jr., and his youngest daughter, Michelle Bayless Carson. On the other side: the remaining Bayless grandchildren.

Last week, 19 months after the March 1989 estate sale, Bayless Jr. and his daughter continued to stick together _ behind bars. Within several hours of each other, the pair surrendered to authorities at the Pinellas County Jail.

Bayless Jr., who will be 58 on Halloween, was charged with violating the state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act and with abusing, neglecting or exploiting an aged or disabled person. He remains jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail.

Carson, who turns 25 Monday, was charged with violating the RICO Act and taking false acknowledgment (notary fraud). She was released after posting $15,000 bail.

Neither Bayless Jr. nor Carson could be reached for comment.

"It's just an unfortunate circumstance all the way around," said Jenkins, the nephew of Bayless Jr.

"I just view the whole thing as a family tragedy," said attorney Daniel Schuh, who has represented Bayless Jr. in numerous civil cases between Bayless Jr. and his kin.

A family divided

At least, relatives said, the senior Baylesses never knew of the estate sale or criminal investigation. Mrs. Bayless died in 1988 at age 81. Bayless Sr. entered a nursing home in 1984 and, by the time of his death at age 88 a few days after the estate sale, he was senile.

"If Mary Louise knew ... it would have really killed her," said Nell Crawford, Mrs. Bayless' sister.

The senior Baylesses had been well-known in St. Petersburg as members of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and numerous civic organizations. They attended First Presbyterian Church.

Bayless Sr. founded the St. Petersburg Little Theater and was a partner in the Grant-Bayless Ford dealership before joining the Army Air Corps during World War II. In 1965, he retired as a mortgage loan officer with First Federal Savings and Loan.

Mrs. Bayless was a sportswoman long associated with tarpon fishing. Through the years, she won 30 tarpon trophies. The year before her death, she caught a 114-pound tarpon.

Both brought family money into the marriage. Both were frugal with their small fortune.

They had two children, Elizabeth Ann "Betts" Bayless Jenkins and Bayless Jr.

The daughter reared her children blocks away from the senior Baylesses and often went tarpon fishing with her mother. She died at age 50 in 1981.

"She was very close to both her father and mother," said James Groves, a fishing companion and close friend of the Baylesses. "When she died, that knocked the props out of Mr. Bayless."

Bayless Jr. became a Pan American World Airways pilot and remained distant from the family.

Then, at least 20 years ago, Bayless Jr. and Bayless Sr. had a falling out when the son sued the father over the handling of a family trust fund.

"That's when his father disowned him," Groves said.

Bayless Jr. wasn't even close to the three children from his first and relatively brief marriage, said Connie Bayless Raisse, one of those children.

"We are his natural children, but we were not raised by him," she said. "I probably saw him once or twice in my childhood."

In recent years, the distance turned to mistrust as Mrs. Raisee, now 31, and her brother and sister accused Bayless Jr. in a lawsuit of abusing a trust fund by withdrawing "excessive" amounts of money. The lawsuit, which asks the court to remove Bayless Jr. as a trustee of their great-grandmother's trust, is pending.

Relatives said they have long been disappointed by Bayless Jr. and puzzled by his actions.

Attorney Schuh said Bayless Jr. is a man merely misunderstood, a man unjustly accused.

Bayless Jr., he said, went broke trying to bail his parents out of stock market losses and remained devoted to his financially unsophisticated mother and his senile father until their deaths.

But friends and relatives of the senior Baylesses said Bayless Jr. remained estranged from his father until his father's feeble mind wiped away the bitterness.

Even the death of Bayless Sr. was tarnished by accusations of foul play.

Attorney Richard Earle told St. Petersburg police he believed Bayless Jr. and his daughter Carson were with the senior Bayless shortly before his death, according to a police report. Earle, who represented First Florida Bank, the guardian of the Bayless estate, said he thought the pair "somehow possibly caused his demise," according to the report.

Police investigated and uncovered nothing suspicious. They ruled the death was from natural causes.

Millions lost

Today, Bayless Jr. and Carson, a daughter of his second marriage, are accused of setting up a sham corporation to "illegally siphon funds" from the senior Baylesses' accounts, according to the sworn statement of David A. Kurash, a Pinellas-Pasco state attorney investigator.

The allegations include stealing at least $2,170,706 from the senior Baylesses and improperly using and managing $155,663 of the senior Bayless' money.

For instance, Kurash alleges in his sworn statement that the pair charged the senior Baylesses at least $450,000 for 3{ years of tax preparation _ yet not one federal income tax return was filed.

A St. Petersburg accountant previously charged the senior Baylesses just $250 for tax work, Kurash wrote.

In addition, Bayless Jr. and Carson are accused of forging the signatures of either Bayless Sr. or Mrs. Bayless on 43 documents, including stock powers, disclaimers and a codicil to Bayless Sr.'s will. They also are accused of fraudulently notarizing 24 of the documents suspected of bearing forged signatures.

Two of Bayless Jr.'s other children worked for him, but are not under investigation, authorities said.

Bayless Jr. is not faring well in jail, said attorney Schuh.

"He's a mental basket case, and putting him in jail is not helping society or him one bit," Schuh said.

Shelton Jenkins, nephew of Bayless Jr., said he is content to let justice run its course.

"I don't have anything negative to say about any of my family, because I care about all of them," he said. "There are some problems here with Tom (Bayless Jr.) and Michelle (Bayless Carson) that I think are being taken care of.... I guess it's for the courts to decide."