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 stockbroker, 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 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 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.
A federal grand jury had indicted Markell and a Spring Hill meat broker for defrauding a bank of $1.5-million.