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Bad blood

Published Jan. 28, 2005|Updated Aug. 24, 2005

Sheila Geraci was outside the family hunting cabin, walking the dogs in the dark of a January night. A familiar voice rang through the wilderness.

It was her husband Peter's estranged brother, Nick, she would testify later.

"He said, "Won't Peter be impressed with this?' " she said.

Alarmed, Peter Geraci and his ranch foreman promptly scoured the 976-acre hunting preserve. Along the south property line, they found the severed head of a wild hog mounted on a fence post.

Nick Geraci denies he put it there. He denies many other accusations lodged by Peter.

But the hog's head may be an apt symbol of the rancid relations nowadays between the Geraci brothers, who inherited land worth at least $100-million in Lutz, Land O'Lakes and Manatee County and who have become legendary in development circles for their lawyers, lawsuits and hardball negotiations.

Now they have turned those tactics toward each other. Longtime friends and attorneys have been forced to choose sides.

The Geracis' character _ outdoorsmen, gun lovers, individualists _ has boomeranged in court.

Nick, 54, has accused Peter of pulling a 9mm Glock pistol on him. Peter, 51, has accused Nick of firing a rifle near his hunting cabin, and has demanded several of Nick's 100 guns as evidence.

For decades, the brothers had resisted government land regulators. Now, Nick has accused Peter of undertaking extensive development in Manatee without permits on a road easement they own outside Myakka City.

In 1994, the brothers provoked outrage in Lutz _ plus a Saturday court order by a judge _ when they chopped down nearly 1,900 stately pines on their Lutz land. Now, Peter has accused Nick of mowing down more than 1,300 young pines Peter had planted on the road easement.

"They did not do anything but destroy my private property for fun," Peter complained.

These disagreements, and more, have spilled into courthouses in Tampa and Bradenton. Every month last summer, one Geraci brother filed a lawsuit against the other.

Citing the litigation, neither Geraci nor any of their attorneys would grant an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. Several friends declined to be interviewed or didn't return phone calls.

So with two exceptions, this article is based on court records. Quotes are taken from affidavits or transcripts of depositions.

One exception occurred outside a Tampa courtroom on Jan. 11, when the Times asked Nick about the hog's head and other allegations by Peter.

"I didn't do any of that," Nick said. "My son didn't do that, and I didn't do that. I don't know what (Peter) is talking about."

Nick was asked whether he hit Peter in the face, as Peter alleges.

"No," Nick said. "He wouldn't look the way he looks today if I had done that. He'd have steel on the side of his face."

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The brothers' feud has fractured a vintage American success story.

Their grandfather emigrated from Italy nearly a century ago and began selling fruit from a mule-drawn wagon in Ybor City. Eventually, N. Geraci & Co. was importing bananas by the freighter-load for sale to supermarkets.

The next generation of Geracis was already wealthy when Florida's land bubble burst in the 1930s, and bidders could snatch up vast tracts simply by paying the delinquent taxes.

Nick Geraci Sr., father of the current Geracis, and Louis Geraci, their uncle, bought more than 5 square miles between Van Dyke Road and State Road 54.

Nick and Peter Geraci inherited it all.

Each lives on family land with a wife and a teenager. Each enjoys a spacious home with a private ski lake, gun range and hundreds of acres of wilderness. Each has pocketed millions by selling off the inheritance.

In 1985, the Geracis sold the land that became the Calusa Trace subdivision and Northgate Square shopping center for $11-million. In 1997, U.S. Home Corp. paid the Geracis $6-million for what became Heritage Harbor. In 2000, Idlewild Baptist Church paid them $4.365-million for 144 acres off Van Dyke. Lesser transactions have generated a million here, a million there.

Yet all those sales look like appetizers for the deals the Geracis made last year. In June, they signed contracts to sell 464 acres south of State Road 54 to Pulte Home Corp. for $21.5-million. In July, they sold 450 acres immediately south of there to Centex Homes for $17.4-million.

And much land remains in the Geracis' hands, including the brothers' plum parcel at the northeast corner of Dale Mabry and Van Dyke. There, 252 acres are designated in Hillsborough County plans for the biggest shopping complex north of Citrus Park.

Ten months ago, another family sold the southeast corner of the same intersection to a shopping center developer. The numbers: 29 acres sold for $7.8-million, or $269,000 an acre. If that value held true for the larger Geraci tract, it would be worth $68-million.

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Court records don't explain what originally divided the Geraci brothers. But it goes beyond trees and guns _ to land and money.

Six years ago, the brothers began dividing land they had held jointly. They split up their 3-square-mile hunting preserve near Myakka City in 1999.

Then they signed a deal in 2001 that converted jointly owned land near each brother's home into the sole ownership of the brother living there. Peter, who already owned 190 acres off Geraci Road in Lutz, got another 70 acres between there and Dale Mabry. Nick, who lives on 265 acres west of the Lake Como nudist resort in Land O'Lakes, got 94 acres west of that land.

Conflict sprouted from both decisions.

The Manatee split granted each brother access to a 60-foot strip containing a dirt road, which runs for 2 miles on the edge of their properties.

In a deposition, Nick said Peter soon initiated a year of road work without permits, and Nick feared penalties from the government. He told his brother: "Peter, that's it. No more. You're not digging any more on my property without a permit."

Permits eventually cost Peter about $100,000 and several years of red tape, Nick testified.

In Lutz, meanwhile, Nick was doubting whether the land he got in the 2001 "partition" was as valuable as the land Peter got, which had been their intent.

Both parcels were proposed for development that would raise the values, if the county governments approved. If not, the brothers had agreed, either of them could trigger a revaluation of the two properties within three years.

Last March, Nick tried to do that. Peter refused, noting that the Pasco County Commission had approved a massive development off State Road 54 that included Nick's new land and the 111 homes expected for it. But the county and state hadn't granted final development rights.

Nick filed suit in June. Three weeks ago, Circuit Judge Vivian Maye refused to dismiss the case.

Peter got his property rezoned for apartments soon after the brothers' original deal. Nick's lawyer contends it's worth much more than Nick's land. If so, a revaluation would entitle Nick to compensation from Peter.

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A month after he filed the suit, Nick discovered cause for another.

The brothers and their attorneys gathered in a lawyers' conference room last July 9 to close the $17.4-million Centex sale.

In affidavits, Nick and his attorney said they were surprised to discover among the closing papers new documents granting $500,000 of the Centex money to John Lund, the brothers' longtime general counsel. Peter's explanation: Lund had been underpaid since 1991.

Nick threatened to walk out. In affidavits, Lund and Peter said Nick threatened to beat Lund up. Nick denied that, but admitted he accused Lund of stealing. (See related article.)

The parties agreed to hold the $500,000 in an escrow account.

Nick's lawsuit in this case has encountered rough sailing. N. Geraci & Co. was the legal decisionmaker in the sale. Although the brothers own equal shares in the company, Peter was president.

Circuit Judge Herbert Baumann has repeatedly forced Nick's attorney to rewrite the suit.

"I need a statement," he said in the last hearing. "What was violated?"

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Peter, on the other hand, hasn't gotten far in Bradenton, where he filed a lawsuit complaining that Nick hit him.

Each brother tried to have the other criminally prosecuted. But the Manatee County State Attorney's Office declined.

Circuit Judge Marc Gilner, after a hearing that consumed 1{ days last October, refused Peter's request to ban Nick immediately from Peter's property, including the road easement, and from shooting guns across the property.

Peter, Gilner concluded, initiated two of three confrontations between the brothers. Evidence didn't establish that Nick put the hog's head on the fence post, the judge wrote.

Gilner did conclude that Nick hit Peter.

The brothers' contrasting depositions agreed on a few things: in a confrontation over Nick's tree-cutting, somebody caused Peter's glasses to hit the ground, and Nick picked them up for Peter.

Peter said it was Nick's open-handed left to his right jaw.

Nick said Peter was daring him to strike a blow, throwing his face side to side.

"And before long, he touches his glasses and slings them off on the ground," Nick testified.

In the tree disagreement, both brothers testified they were thinking of the future.

Nick readily admitted he cut the trees in the easement. Eventually, he wants a wide, well-drained road there, with ditches. He wanted the trees out of the way while they were young enough to mow down.

Peter said he had planted them thinking of future timber income for his daughter.

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During the 1980s and 1990s, Richard and Bonnie Hoffman led a crusade in Lutz's Crenshaw Lakes neighborhood against the Geracis' plans for a full-scale shopping mall at Dale Mabry and Van Dyke. They persuaded government agencies a dozen years ago to allow only enough stores for half a mall.

But the Geracis didn't give up the fight until the U.S. Supreme Court refused in 2000 to hear their case.

"These are two fellows who just kind of lost perspective," Richard Hoffman said when told of the current feud.

They are young enough to enjoy life and their wealth, he said. "Instead, it appears to me that they are making each other miserable."

"There's an old biblical saying that you should never be too rich or too poor," Hoffman mused. "Maybe this is one of the reasons."

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coatssptimes.com.

Exactly what did Nick say?

In a major real estate closing, Nick Geraci was angered to discover that $500,000 of the proceeds were being set aside for attorney John Lund, who previously represented Geraci and his estranged brother, Peter. What happened next? Here are excerpts of varying accounts.

Nick Geraci's deposition:

QUESTION: Did you, in fact, threaten to kick John Lund's a_ at that closing?

ANSWER: No, sir ... I did tell him. I said, "Johnny, you're the damndest individual that I've ever seen that purports to be a Christian and a big deacon in the Idlewild Baptist Church and ... you're stealing $250,000 from my son's trust?"

John Lund's affidavit:

During this closing, Roy Nicholas Geraci threatened the undersigned with physical violence by stating that he was going to kick my a_ and beat me up to teach me a lesson ... I advised his attorney, Al Lopez, that I believed he had just committed a crime and that he should instruct him not to make any further threats.

Peter Geraci's affidavit:

During this closing, Roy Nicholas Geraci threatened the John E. Lund with physical violence by stating that he was going to kick his a_ and beat him up to teach him a lesson.

Nick's attorney's affidavit:

I have no present recollection as to whether or not ROY N. GERACI JR. said anything about kicking anybody's a_ at the time of said closing.

FURTHER AFFIANT SAYETH NAUGHT.

Peter Geraci, 51, lives in the home where he and his brother grew up in Lutz, with a private lake and 260 acres.

Nick Geraci, 54, has a home and private lake in Land O'Lakes on 359 acres he owns.

This is a photograph that was introduced in a legal dispute in Bradenton: a hog's head stuck on a fence post at Peter Geraci's hunting preserve. Nick Geraci denies he put it there.

Peter, left, and Nick Geraci stand, before they couldn't stand each other, near their plum parcel at Dale Mabry and Van Dyke, which may become the county's largest retail complex north of Citrus Park.

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