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LIFE ON THE RUN STOPS IN MEXICO

A former St. Petersburg attorney accused of bilking estates is headed back to Pinellas County.

Former attorney Martin Kirby Watson virtually groveled in court last year as he explained how he drained thousands of dollars from two estates he was supposed to be protecting.

He said he was "thoroughly embarrassed by my behavior." The St. Petersburg man said his actions were "about as low as you can go." He said he would repay every dime because "once you screw up, you've got to step up."

lnstead, he stepped out.

Watson, 49, failed to show up for court in March, five months after making those comments. He slipped out of the country - just before a trial on two counts of grand theft that could have put him in prison for 60 years.

It meant that victims, who saw as much as $500,000 drained from the estates of their family members, did not get to have the day in court they wanted.

At least, not yet.

As it turns out, the case against Watson didn't disappear as easily as he did.

- - -

The case has roots back six or seven years, when a businessman named Steven Beatty, bumped into Watson, an acquaintance, after a movie at the BayWalk complex downtown. They chatted, recalling their days at Shorecrest Preparatory School.

Later, Beatty and his wife, Francesca, recommended Watson for some probate work. Mrs. Beatty's father needed help with the estate of an older cousin, Julia Cooke, who was like a sister to him. She was the kind of frugal and hardworking person who surprises everyone by amassing an estate worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Childless herself, she pinched her pennies and saved her money because she wanted to pass it on to family she loved, Mrs. Beatty said.

Everything seemed fine until her father asked Watson when money would be distributed from the estate. Watson failed to return phone calls, Mrs. Beatty said. Finally, Watson said a judge was holding up the funds.

That made no sense to Mrs. Beatty, an attorney herself. She and her husband called Watson, who repeated his story. But under their questioning, they say, he told them: I screwed up. They say he admitted siphoning cash. The police would later say it was $256,446.

"I was sick to my stomach," she said. "But then I kept thinking, 'How can I get this money back?' And there was no way to get it back."

"The next morning," Steven Beatty said, "I went down to his office and he admitted what he had done. He would not explain what he did with the money."

Beatty, a health drink distributor, said Watson gave him a payment of $30,000 and, later, one of $50,000, but much was still missing.

Watson was arrested in 2007 and charged with stealing from the estate of Cooke, who died in 2006 at 96; and with taking $244,623 from the estate of Evelyn Cromwell, who died at 73. He was disbarred.

During a court hearing in October 2008, Watson blamed some of his problems on the slumping real estate market and said he had worked as a Volvo salesman and in real estate in an effort to pay off his debts.

"I have only one thought, and that is to make these victims whole ... every dime of principal, every fee, every cost, every penny of interest," he said.

"Now you know they're sitting out there today in total disbelief of everything that you're saying," said Circuit Judge Chris Helinger.

"I know," he acknowledged.

This was a hearing in which it was anticipated that Watson might plead guilty or no contest to the charges, in hopes of receiving a lighter-than-normal sentence. But Helinger did not commit to giving him a reduced sentence, and Watson did not plead guilty.

Then, he failed to show up for trial on March 17.

Craig Williams, co-owner of All-American Bail Bonds, said this meant his company was out $20,000. They immediately started tracking down leads that Watson might have gone to Texas, Atlanta or Belize. Or Merida, in the heart of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

At one point, Williams said, he spoke to an American private investigator with an office in Merida. He also sent her pictures of Watson. And she called back with surprising news: I know this guy. She had met him in Merida.

"What are the odds of that?" Williams said.

Authorities eventually apprehended Watson, who has since been sent to a Houston jail. Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said he is not fighting extradition to Pinellas County.

This time, Francesca Beatty hopes Watson receives a long prison sentence.

"I'm an attorney," she said. "I think we need to show that we don't baby our own."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

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