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Loan threatens man's home, stability

Published Sep. 27, 2005

A man described by himself and others as mildly retarded is unable to pay back $20,000. He faces foreclosure.

Tom Szucs, a familiar figure who wears a cowboy hat and boots as he walks downtown streets, has lived in the same north St. Petersburg house since 1952.

Now he fears he will lose it through foreclosure on a loan he received this year. The property, at 782 48th Ave. N, was the collateral.

Szucs, who was the subject of a competency hearing 20 years ago, says he didn't understand the mortgage note he signed in February for a $25,000 loan.

"I didn't really know what I was signing," said Szucs, 59. "They took advantage of the way I talk."

Szucs speaks slowly and makes an effort to be understood. By the accounts of those who know him, he has a limited ability to read, write and reason.

At the request of social workers who didn't believe that Szucs could care for himself, Circuit Judge Alan Anderson in 1980 heard reasons why Szucs should be declared a ward of the state. But Anderson found Szucs not to be incompetent.

"Tom is basically a nice person," said Alfred E. Underberg, a lawyer who is monitoring Szucs' loan situation.

"He doesn't hurt anybody. I've never heard Tom say a bad word at all. He's just a bit of a character. I think some people have taken advantage of his good character. I also think he's naive."

Bay Financial Savings Bank, based in Tampa, made the loan, which after costs brought Szucs a little more than $14,000 on March 1. Another $5,000 was disbursed from an escrow account two weeks later. The money has since been spent or stolen.

Monthly payments of $307.29 were to be automatically deducted from Szucs' bank account, but the money hasn't been there to be deducted.

Szucs gets $665 in Social Security and disability payments each month. He said he occasionally does odd jobs to earn a little more.

Citing federal privacy laws, a Bay Financial spokesman declined to comment on Szucs' situation.

Hinkson-Grimes and Associates, a Tampa firm, acted as the broker. Frank Grimes said this week that the company worked with Szucs for several weeks before closing the transaction, setting up the automatic deductions and making sure Szucs was clear about what he wanted to do.

"I actually sat down and talked with him," Grimes said. "While he does have some problems holding a normal conversation, he readily has the ability to understand what's being said and to respond to questions.

"I'm not qualified to make a decision to determine someone's capacity," Grimes said. "I do know (Szucs) can understand a conversation, carry on a conversation. He can exercise contracts. I'm of a mind that, if there is something, we were there long enough to work with him and answer his questions."

Szucs said that he asked for time to take the loan papers to a lawyer to review, but that the representatives who closed the loan in Szucs' house told him there wasn't enough time.

Said Grimes: "I was there and he never asked that." Besides, Grimes said, federal law allows a three-day "cooling-off" period that would afford time for a legal review.

It isn't clear where all the loan money went.

But Szucs' bank records show it disappeared quickly. About $20,000 went into his account during March, but by May 2, it was down to about $9,600. Later, it dropped to about $18. The account was unable to meet the automatic deductions starting with the July payment.

Repairs to the house ate up some of the loan money, Szucs said. He also has receipts showing he spent nearly $6,000 on dance lessons. And he reported to police that about $4,000 he had kept in cash was stolen from his house in June.

Szucs suspects that a man he had befriended and invited to stay at his house took the money. And he thinks that person may have contacted the mortgage broker to start the process for Szucs.

Grimes said he was aware of the man, identified only as Lee. "The fellow living with Tom had access to his (bank) account," Grimes said.

Szucs said the man disappeared after the $4,000 came up missing.

Szucs has struggled to remain independent through the years. His father killed himself when Szucs was a baby and his mother died of cancer when he was 12. His grandparents took over rearing Szucs in 1952, and when his grandmother, Fern Overton, died in 1981, she left Szucs the house so he would always have a place to stay.

She also left about $20,000 for an account to be managed for Szucs by a family friend. It was used to make repairs and pay real estate taxes. After 20 years, it apparently has run out.

During childhood, Szucs nearly died of a disease that brought a high fever, which affected his speech and mental capacity. He attended Nina Harris Exceptional School until he was 19.

In a 1980 newspaper interview, Szucs said: "I am mildly retarded, different from other people."

Grimes said this week that he could not speak for Bay Financial. But he said he believes the lender would prefer to work out an arrangement that would not involve foreclosure.

"No lender is looking to own property," Grimes said.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.