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Missing bankruptcy lawyer arrested

Less than a year ago, Ronald J. Harris seemed to be doing big business at U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tampa.

The fast-talking, former New Orleans lawyer had built a Tampa practice by helping consumers file in the busy court.

But when he suddenly vanished in November, a different Ron Harris came to light. This one had a past of controversial deals and allegations of unethical conduct.

This one, some angry clients said, had absconded with thousands of dollars.

After more than six months of searching nationwide, the FBI arrested Harris on Friday afternoon in Creve Coeur, a prominent suburb of St. Louis. No bail was set for Harris, who appeared before a U.S. magistrate, said Michael M. Roman of the FBI in St. Louis.

It was not clear late Friday if Harris will be extradited to Tampa.

Harris disappeared Nov. 11, the day he was supposed to attend a real estate closing in New Orleans with $143,000 in clients' money.

In Tampa, the Florida Bar began an investigation and appointed lawyers to notify hundreds of clients that their attorney was missing.

Later, two of Harris' clients in Tampa filed complaints with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, saying Harris took more than $45,000 intended for a mortgage lender and the Internal Revenue Service.

Both the Sheriff's Office and FBI issued warrants for his arrest. The FBI picked up Harris on charges that he had violated the federal wire fraud statute, stemming from allegations that Harris defrauded client Janet Contreras of Tampa by taking $42,000 intended for the IRS.

In February, the Florida Supreme Court issued an emergency order suspending Harris from law practice in Florida.

Harris, 42, moved from New Orleans to Tampa four years ago. He practiced 19 years in New Orleans, where public records show he was accused of thievery, physical and emotional abuse, fraud and lying under oath.

He also filed bankruptcy for himself and related companies five times between 1980 and 1982. Another bankruptcy petition he filed in New Orleans in 1989 was pending at the time he vanished.