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ABANDONED MANSION BURNS

The home on Lake Tarpon is owned by a couple going through an acrimonious divorce.

Flames spouted from a mansion on the shores of Lake Tarpon just before 10 a.m. Tuesday.

A UPS driver and a Palm Harbor fire chief noticed the flames and smoke coming from the second floor of the 11,700-square-foot house. Soon the mansion - worth an estimated $3.4-million - was engulfed in flames, sending up a pillar of smoke visible 10 miles away on the Bayside Bridge. The roof collapsed. The inside was gutted. Firefighters from four agencies fought the blaze at 3723 Mullenhurst Drive in the Myrtle Point at Lansbrook development.

By Tuesday evening, authorities were still unable to go inside the house because it was too unstable. No firefighters were injured.

The house was abandoned and no one was believed to be inside. A cause has not been determined.

Arson detectives from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spent Tuesday at the property and planned to return today.

Even before the fire, the house had been a center of controversy.

The homeowners - Gregory Leonberg, 49, of Morrestown, N.J., and Loretta Leonberg, 37, of Tampa - are going through a lengthy and acrimonious divorce.

Court records show the Leonbergs defaulted on a $1.4-million mortgage from Washington Mutual Bank. A foreclosure sale scheduled for Jan. 8 was canceled at the request of Washington Mutual.

Loretta Leonberg said Tuesday she had been living in the mansion as recently as April, but could not keep up with the expenses because of financial problems stemming from the divorce. She now lives with her fiance in Tampa. Gregory Leonberg said from New Jersey that he was not involved with the house because it was the responsibility of his estranged wife.

In 2006, the Myrtle Point Homeowners Association sought and received a Pinellas Circuit Court order finding the Leonbergs failed "to properly maintain the exterior of their home and roof" and had allowed "their lawn to deteriorate." Loretta Leonberg said at the time she couldn't pay for the upkeep because she had not received money from her husband.

On Tuesday, she said the fire at the house was devastating. She lost keepsakes, toys and furniture that had belonged to two of her children who died.

The couple has five surviving children, ages 7 to 17. Four live with Gregory Leonberg in New Jersey. The other lives with grandparents in Pinellas County.

Divorce papers show the couple owned a $400,000 home in Maryland on Chesapeake Bay. Gregory Leonberg also owns a "non-marital home" worth $325,000 in Morrestown, N.J. The Leonbergs co-own a commercial real estate rental company, Cinnaminson Propertiesin New Jersey.

Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

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