Thomas "Tommy" Markell, con man extraordinaire, says he knows a sucker when he sees one.
And, he says, he saw a sucker in Michael Georgini, the director of Mid-Florida Community Services, an agency that gives surplus food, emergency aid and other assistance to poor people.
In 1989, Markell was a stock broker, slick with success. He persuaded his old friend Georgini to give him $100,000 of Mid-Florida money to invest in high yield bonds. Then he used the money to set up a fancy stock brokerage in downtown Ocala.
Now, four years later, a knee-high pile of documents, filed in the 6th Circuit Court in Clearwater, tells the tale of Markell's bogus deal.
The swindle cost the poor people of Pasco, Hernando, Sumter and Lake Counties $100,000. Georgini says it tormented him so fiercely his hair fell out.
In Clearwater, a half-dozen lawyers are trying to untangle the Mid-Florida transaction. Attorneys in Ocala, Jacksonville and Bushnell have waded through Markell's other deeds and dupes.
A whole bunch of Wildwood residents put money into Markell's invisible investments. One man met Markell in a watermelon patch and cut what he thought was a foolproof deal. He now says he lost nearly $50,000.
SouthTrust Bank of Central Florida lost $1.3-million.
Markell's first wife lost everything, including Markell.
Markell's second wife, who wed him the day after his first marriage ended, is divorcing him.
Markell, who spent two years in a federal prison, now works as a bouncer in a Pinellas County bar he won't name.
He says he was only "technically" wrong in spending Mid-Florida's money on his office. He says he's now helping Mid-Florida attorneys with their suit against his old brokerage house.
Georgini won't talk about the lawsuit his agency filed to recoup its money.
But he will talk about being betrayed by a one-time weight-lifter from Wildwood.
"I befriended Tommy (Markell) and knew him and trusted him," he says.
"(Because of this) I've been through three years, to four years of hell . . . .
"If it hadn't been for the good Lord, I probably would have shot him."
The tale begins in an old gym, next to the railroad tracks in Wildwood.
Georgini, who lives in nearby Oxford, trained young weight lifters there in his spare time. He trained the late Jerome Brown, when he was being primed for his career with the Philadelphia Eagles football team.
And he trained Tommy Markell, when Markell was a 10th-grade football player at Wildwood High School.
Markell went from high school to Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, where he studied history. Later, he repaired telephones and served in the National Guard.
In 1987, he went to work for a Clearwater investment company.
He was 23.
Markell says he was a top producer, rapidly rising in the business. In the next three years, he bounced through half a dozen brokerage firms.
Wildwood folks didn't know about the job hopping. They just knew what they saw: Markell was rolling in money.
He bought a house in town for his mother, and one near the Rolling Hills golf course for himself.
His wife drove a BMW; he tooled around rustic Sumter County in a $70,000 red Lotus, peddling stocks and making deals.
Car dealer Bennie Strickland bought some stock from Markell. Insurance agent Doug Childers bought some. His good friend John Middleton gave him money to invest and introduced him to building contractor Lenard Powell.
"He was just a little boy who went to school here. Then he got some money," Powell says. "I never thought much of the guy. Nobody blossoms like he did without something smelly going on."
Markell wanted Powell to remodel a Wildwood restaurant.
"I turned him down time after time," Powell says.
"One day we were standing in a watermelon field and (Markell) was after me again. I said, "You put $20,000 in my checking account and we'll talk.' I thought that would run him off. He said, "Meet me at 9 in the morning at First Union.'
"He kinda impressed me that day."
Powell got the $20,000 in April of 1990, but before long, Markell owed him nearly $50,000 for additional renovation work, Powell says.
In September of 1990, Powell called Markell's office and learned Markell had been arrested by the FBI.
A federal grand jury had indicted Markell and a Spring Hill meat broker for defrauding a bank of $1.5-million.
A year before the indictment, Markell met Georgini, his old weight trainer, and offered him an irresistible deal.
Georgini's agency, Mid-Florida Community Services had accumulated a stash of $100,000 in unused job-training money. There was nothing improper in the way the agency accumulated the money, but the federal government has since changed the grant program to eliminate such stockpiling.
In 1989, Mid-Florida's auditors recommended that the agency invest the idle money.
Markell told Georgini he would use the money to buy high-yield bonds. He said he'd match the agency investment with $16,000 of his own _ as a charitable donation.
Markell said "that he would give us $116,000 worth of bonds for $100,000," Georgini testified.
For nearly a year, Markell and Georgini saw each other regularly. They talked about hunting on the Georgia land leased by the Wildwood Hunt Club.
They lifted weights together at the Wildwood gym. They went to a political fund-raiser.
Several times, Markell told Georgini he had joined a new investment company and needed to transfer Mid-Florida's account to his new firm.
Georgini always approved the transfer and always received official-looking forms that documented the transfers. Mid-Florida's accountants, the Brooksville firm of Oliver and Company, also received reports on the investment.
Then communication stopped.
"We called him many times and could not get in touch with him," Georgini said in a deposition filed in the Clearwater court.
Georgini, who lived six miles from Markell, went to Markell's house and left notes and messages with Markell's wife.
Finally, he called the home office of the securities firm Markell said he represented. He was told there was no account for Mid-Florida.
The agency's $100,000 was gone.
Markell later testified that he had used the money to open a stock brokerage in the Concord Square Building, a five-story brick building in downtown Ocala that also holds the WESH television station.
The cars, the club memberships, the houses, the furnishings _ all those accoutrements of wealth were paid for by an Ocala bank, according to retired FBI agent Dennis Wicklein, who now works for the Marion County Sheriff's Office.
"He borrowed about $1.5-million from SouthTrust Bank in Ocala," Wicklein said. "He put up stock certificates as collateral _ Campbell's Soup, Disney. And he had altered them. He actually went to New York and bought five shares and (altered) it, as I recall, to 50,000."
Wicklein says Markell also put his name on a client's stock certificate, altered the amount of shares and used the doctored document as collateral.
"It was amazing. He spent the money in less than a year's period," Wicklein said. "I went through his checkbook. We traced the money that came out of SouthTrust and went through his accounts. And we accounted for something like $960,000 . . . ."
Markell's scams came apart when he went back to the bank for more money and the collateral was scrutinized, federal officials say.
As the FBI closed in, Markell's life got crazier.
On Aug. 28, 1990, at about midnight, he showed up _ frantic and bleeding _ at the home of a friend. He said he had been chased, then shot by gangsters driving a black Cadillac.
Later that night, he told the Sumter County Sheriff's Office that, as the vehicles careened along at 65 mph, "the passenger side window of the Cadillac came down and the arm of a white male pointing a blued semi-automatic 9mm or .45 caliber pistol shot three times at him."
Markell took a bullet in the shoulder. Sheriff's investigators looked at the wound and scoffed.
"He had powder burns tattooed on his arm," says detective Travis Farmer. "You don't get shot in the arm and leave powder burns from a drive-by shooting.
"He was just trying to get sympathy."
About 10 days later, Markell drove his truck from the scene of one collision and slammed it head-on into another vehicle.
Three days after that, he filed for divorce from his first wife.
Markell says he sold everything he owned and gave the money to SouthTrust. Which made a dent of $65,000 to $70,000 in the $1.3-million he was charged with stealing.
The only thing he had left, according to the divorce suit, was a $1,600 Honda motorcycle.
In a plea agreement on April 29, 1991, Markell was sentenced to serve three years imprisonment and three years supervised release.
He was told to pay SouthTrust restitution of $1,370,450.
He spent two years at the Eglin Air Force Base federal prison camp in the Florida Panhandle, where he claims he worked in the bakery with corporate raider Paul Bilzerian. The two wheeler-dealers swapped tales, Markell says.
"I thought my story was more interesting," he says.
Last July, he was sent to a halfway house, where he stayed until Dec. 28.
Then he moved to Pinellas County to be with his wife.
On Valentine's Day, his second wife asked the Clearwater court not to dismiss her previously filed divorce petition.
In Bushnell, Lenard Powell tried to get his lost money back by filing a lawsuit. He didn't succeed.
Other Wildwood investors say they just wrote off their losses.
Eunice Neville, chairwoman of Mid-Florida's board of directors, says she has never blamed Georgini for the $100,000 loss.
Markell "was a young man a lot of people had faith in," she said. "There was no reason to fault Michael (Georgini) in that. He's far too dedicated to his work to think he'd be careless."
In Ocala, the attorneys for SouthTrust are trying to recoup the huge loss. They have filed suit against a brokerage firm that employed Markell while he was bagging the bank's money.
They're trying to prove the brokerage firm should have kept better tabs on Markell.
In Clearwater, Mid-Florida's attorneys also want to prove Markell's supervisors bear liability for his actions.
Markell says Mid-Florida's case foundered until he got out of federal prison. Then, he says, he showed Mid-Florida's attorneys how to pursue the case.
Markell claims his employers approved of his actions. "I feel like I was just coached into doing things the wrong way," he says.
He also claims it is common for brokerage houses to use clients' money to open offices. He says that's "technically" wrong.
After moving to Pinellas, he sold carpet and performed manual labor.
Now, he says, he earns about $300 a week as a bouncer in a bar.
He wears gold-rimmed glasses and a diamond-studded watch. His clothes are neat; his hair and facial stubble are faultlessly groomed.
He refused to have his picture taken for this story.
In a lengthy interview, he said the people in the investment community are "a bunch of thieves" and "pirates."
He called Lenard Powell a liar.
He said retired FBI agent Dennis Wicklein is incompetent.
He claimed a long-time pal, who is a Sumter sheriff's deputy, betrayed their friendship.
He said Sumter detectives who investigated his gunshot wound were inept.
He called Mid-Florida director Michael Georgini a perfect victim.
". . . Michael is a nice guy and he is not really the sharpest in the world and he trusted me, so it was rather easy to fool him," Markell declared. "That's why I picked him."
Georgini bristled at the slur:
"He says I'm not too smart, but my a-- didn't go to jail, did it?"
Markell said he doesn't know what he wants to do now.
"If I can just eat and be healthy and take some time and clear my mind, then I'll think of what to do," he said.
"I can do anything. I'm probably the most versatile person you ever met.
"I may offer to do some community service in Hernando County for Mid-Florida, just to ease my mind."