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Smooth talker paves trail of charm, crime

Thirty years ago, his name was Angel Alcantara. His ambition? To join a Texas police force.

But he is neither cop nor Angel.

Alcantara, who now uses the name Jeffrey, is at the center of a fraud investigation, suspected of carrying tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars out the doors of Deerwood Academy, a public charter school in Port Richey.

He was the go-to guy at Deerwood; he handled operations, prepared classrooms, hired contractors, bought supplies. He was also an ex-con, a smooth talker who drove flashy cars, wore pricey clothes and hung out at topless bars.

Since his college days in Texas, Alcantara has changed his face once, his name twice and his occupation half a dozen times. He has wooed and won over wealthy investors, then left them holding the bag. He talked people out of their credit cards, then ratcheted up charges. He accumulated convictions in Florida and Chicago for drug possession, for fraud, for theft.

In November 1998, he was released from federal prison; 28 months later, he was selling Deerwood to prospective parents.

Deerwood's bubble burst in October, little more than a year after it opened. Its finances were a mess; outside auditors threw up their hands in frustration.

Hank Johnson, Deerwood's founder and director, was fired. Alcantara was booted from Deerwood's campus along with his ex-wife, the school nurse; his teenage daughter, the school bookkeeper; his brother-in-law, the school food services director; his son-in-law, the school gym teacher, and two of his Clearwater friends.

Alcantara, who turns 50 this month, tells people he was not responsible for Deerwood's disappearing cash, though about $96,000 went missing after he and his daughter began handling the school's business operations.

His attorney George Tragos said no crimes occurred at Deerwood. "I don't think criminal charges will ever be brought down," Tragos said. "As far as we know, all the finances are correct.

"Every expenditure can be documented, and there were no improprieties ever on any financial transactions."

When Deerwood opened its doors in August 2001, Alcantara was there, directing traffic, fixing up the classrooms Deerwood leased from the Unity Church in Port Richey.

Unity's Board president Elva Clark saw Alcantara helping out and was impressed by his hard work. Even today, with all she has heard and read, she bases her opinion on those images.

"I have to believe what I see," she said.

Clark had such faith in Alcantara that she didn't hesitate when he came to her in August with a peculiar plan to bolster Deerwood's finances.

Alcantara sold her four rings for $15,000 _ money he briefly loaned to the school. She picked the rings from a sack of jewelry Alcantara took to her home. She didn't have the rings appraised; she said she's a good judge of diamonds.

And, she said, a good judge of character: Alcantara "always dressed well; he had a nice car. He seemed pleasant, trustworthy."

Fine clothes, costly cars, charm _ with Alcantara they're practically trademarks.

They impressed Stephen Dorsett of Lutz and Pasco County ophthalmologist Frederick Hauber, both of whom joined Alcantara in investment ventures that soured. They impressed the elderly mother of a mentally ill man, who handed Alcantara her credit card to run an errand and wound up with $10,000 in charges. They impressed his fellow bellhops at a Clearwater Beach hotel, who gave him thousands to buy a "hot stock" that wasn't.

In 1972, Alcantara applied to be a police cadet in San Antonio, Texas. By the time he moved to Pasco County in the mid 1980s, he had dropped out of St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas, married three times, divorced twice, sold Schwan's frozen foods, worked as a route salesman for B.F. Ascher & Co. pharmaceuticals and operated drugstores in and around San Antonio.

He'd also accumulated debts, federal tax liens and, in 1986, a Chicago conviction and two years' probation for possession of barbiturates with intent to deliver.

Alcantara and his family bolted out of Texas when "somebody shot into their house," said Alcantara's brother-in-law, James Walsh. "They ran them out of the state."

In Florida, Alcantara formed a commercial investment company, started going by the name of "Ryan Alcantara" and soon hooked up with Dr. Hauber, who had money to invest. He also met Dorsett, who needed financing for a client with a fish-farm proposal.

"It appeared like he had acumen; he was articulate in what he would say," Dorsett said of Alcantara. "He had us going for about six months."

The fish farm deal went nowhere, and Hauber's investments went bust.

But Alcantara stayed busy.

Court records show that from 1990 until he went to prison in 1994, he:

+ Fraudulently charged $2,713.20 to an AT&T Universal Card.

+ Racked up $13,500 in fraudulent charges on Dr. Hauber's Diner's Club Card.

+ Used a stolen credit card to buy $766 in jewelry from Gold Galore in Hudson.

+ Was arrested in Pasco and Pinellas counties for writing worthless checks.

+ Fraudulently racked up more than $2,500 in credit card charges at Tattletales topless bar in Clearwater and other strip clubs.

+ Was arrested in Texas on accusations of swindling several people by "misrepresenting himself as a stockbroker."

Dorsett and Hauber sued Alcantara over their failed ventures.

In 1992, Dorsett, a financial adviser, was awarded $1.9-million. The day Dorsett won his case, Alcantara was in jail in Texas, charged with theft, though the charge was later dropped when he offered to make restitution.

Five months later, Hauber was awarded $1.65-million for Alcantara's "willful fraud" and "theft." The judgments were moral victories only; neither man collected a dime.

Hauber and his attorney declined to comment.

In August of 1994, he started serving his state prison sentence on various credit card charges _ 14 counts in all, according to Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Debbie Buchanan.

He spent two years in state prison, then was sent to federal prison for two more years.

On Nov. 6, 1998, Alcantara walked out of the Jessup, Ga., federal prison. Nineteen months later, back in Florida, he started work as a bellhop at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort on Clearwater Beach. He was 45 years old.

Workers there would later accuse him of scamming them out of thousands of dollars by promising big returns on investments.

By the time Alcantara left the Clearwater Beach resort in June 2001, his daughter Nicole was already working at Deerwood Academy and his son was set to attend classes there two months later. Though Alcantara and his third wife Joanne divorced in 1991, they continued to live together, and she too obtained work at Deerwood.

Every public school employee must undergo an FBI background check, but Alcantara worked eight months at Deerwood before the school's founder, Hank Johnson, checked his criminal history. When the lengthy rap sheet landed in Johnson's lap, Alcantara told him the report was simply wrong. Johnson believed him, and allowed Alcantara to continue working for the school.

Alcantara paid contractors in cash, out of his own pocket. He would later submit the receipts and invoices for reimbursement.

Investigators now suspect that many of those reimbursements were wildly inflated or were based on bogus receipts from phony companies.

The Times and school district auditors have found dozens of similar receipts and bogus payments. The newspaper's review of Deerwood's ledgers showed nearly $96,000 of taxpayer money unaccounted for. The school remains open today only because the Pasco County School District seized control of Deerwood's operations Oct. 16.