TARPON SPRINGS — For years, it has been one of the priciest homes on the market in Tampa Bay — a 20,519-square-foot estate with a movie theater, ice cream shop and 14 tumbling waterfalls.
Several months ago, owner William Baumgart thought he finally had a buyer. A company headed by a Manatee County woman agreed to pay $9.75 million for the house plus memorabilia that included a Muhammad Ali boxing glove, a jacket that John Travolta wore in the movie Grease and guitars autographed by Jimi Hendrix and George Harrison.
Just before the sale was due to close, a dispute arose. The company sued Baumgart and the deal fell through. That should not have been surprising, given the background of the company's president, Lori Ann Nademus.
At the time Nademus was under contract for Baumgart's mansion, her own Lakewood Ranch house was in foreclosure. She faced a $536,360 judgment in California. And she had declared bankruptcy six times in the previous eight years.
But Nademus came out well in the aborted transaction. Baumgart got the case dismissed — by paying her $300,000 "to get out of my life,'' he said.
In Tampa Bay's luxury real estate circles, what happened with the Baumgart estate has sparked talk and concern. Agents with high-end listings say they often are asked to show multimillion-dollar houses to people who may not have the means to buy them.
"I get calls all the time,'' said Realtor Jeff Shelton, including one from an agent whose client wanted to see a $5 million house in Tampa's Culbreath Isles. Shelton wanted proof the client could afford it, but the agent told him it would be insulting to ask.
"I said, 'Look, I can't let you in unless I know,' '' Shelton said. "For all I know, they could be canvassing the house, seeing what points of entry there are, if there's a security system.''
Realtors Ed Gunning and Mary Pond have fended off requests to show a $22 million Thonotosassa estate, the priciest Tampa Bay house now for sale. Among those eager to tour it were some people from South Florida.
READ MORE: Founder of Lazydays RV puts Hillsborough County estate on market for $22 million
"The agent said, 'We drove over from Palm Beach looking for a horse farm,' '' Gunning recalled. "Nobody drives from Palm Beach looking for a horse farm in Thonotosassa, that's total nonsense. They can no more buy a $22 million house than I can.''
Nonetheless, Gunning and Pond asked for a financial statement. They got one — in Chinese.
Although the bay area has more than 15,000 Realtors, only a few dozen routinely handle million-dollar listings. Gunning said agents share information when they suspect something isn't quite right.
"We all know each other and if there's somebody out there not on the up and up, it's going to be known very quickly,'' he said.
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Realtor Rafal Wazio said he always asks for the full names of those who want to see a house so he can research them in public records and on the internet. He also tries to get proof of funds — a letter from a bank or private wealth management firm showing the person has sufficient resources.
READ MORE: Developer Ben Mallah buys former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard's Pinellas home for $16.5 million
Like all Realtors, Wazio must be careful not to violate the Fair Housing Act, which bans discrimination by race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status and national origin. That's why he agreed to show a mansion on Clearwater Harbor even though a broker wouldn't divulge anything about his client. And it quickly became clear that the client couldn't afford the house, valued at approximately $7 million.
"They asked how much the power bill was,'' Wazio said. "That's usually a tell-tale sign of somebody who shouldn't be looking.''
Few Tampa Bay homes are more opulent than Baumgart's Mediterranean-style mansion, situated on 16 wooded acres off Keystone Road in north Pinellas County.
Baumgart, 60, built the nine-bedroom, 13-bath house in 2006, the same year he sold his Clearwater-based TransContinental Title Company to one of America's largest title insurers for an undisclosed amount. Massive iron doors open into the foyer with a 26-foot-high vaulted ceiling. The walls have a Venetian plaster finish; the floors on most of the main level are travertine marble.
Among the home's many unusual features is "The Village,'' an entertainment wing that includes a pub, a poker and cigar room, book store and music lounge. Outside, a 12-foot-deep, 200,000-gallon pool has a rope bridge, water slide and swim-up tiki bar.
READ MORE: Is Florida's biggest backyard swimming pool in Pinellas County?
In 2014, Baumgart put the house on the market for $14.3 million. It went under contract six months later but that sale didn't go through and nothing happened until early this year when he said "these people showed up'' — Nademus and her husband, Keith.
"They said they spent five years trying to find the perfect house,'' Baumgart said.
He said he didn't know that the couple's house, valued at about $215,000, had been in foreclosure since 2007 or that Lori Nademus declared bankruptcy in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016, sometimes twice in one year. On the filings, which stopped foreclosure sales of her home, Nademus said she was a missionary and reported little or no income. The 2014 filing listed her businesses as "The Dunamis Foundation'' and "God's Helping Hands Foundation,'' both of which she had formed and described as religious organizations.
California court records show that in 2011 a San Diego woman obtained a $536,360 judgment against Nademus and five co-defendants. In a lawsuit, the woman said she lost several hundred thousand dollars because of what she called investment "scams.''
Nademus did not return an email or calls for comment about this story; her lawyer did not return a call.
At the time Nademus looked at Baumgart's mansion, she was president of Teras Foundation, a limited liability company she formed in 2015. He agreed to let his Realtor, Diane Swainston, show the house after the couple provided the name of what they said was a lender.
"We don't let anybody see the house unless they can show us proof of funds,'' Baumgart said. "So Diane gets this loan commitment from this guy in New Orleans who says, 'Yes, I've loaned them billions of dollars.' So then Diane says, 'Bill, we can show the property.' So then the whole thing went south from there.''
In March, Teras Foundation and Nademus contracted to pay $9.75 million — $8 million for the house and $1.75 million for the furnishings and celebrity memorabilia. Nademus put $150,000 in escrow and the sale was set to close on May 24.
According to Baumgart, the title agency had received nothing from the lender as of May 23. At 5:15 p.m. on closing day, Baumgart agreed to extend the closing until May 29 so Nademus could obtain financing. But on May 29, she said that the loan processor who was supposed to send the documents fell asleep and lost them.
At that point, Baumgart prepared to cancel the contract and temporarily take the house off the market. But Teras Foundation claimed he had "secretly communicated'' with the lender about a change in the legal description of the property that had not previously been disclosed, resulting in a delay of the closing date. (Baumgart denied any secret communications.) On June 7, Teras Foundation sued Baumgart, blaming him for the closing problems and seeking to force him to go ahead with the sale.
"I tried to give them every opportunity to buy the house,'' Baumgart said, "and at the end they filed a lawsuit so it would stifle me selling the house and then I found a real buyer, a guy who actually has money.''
The sale to the new buyer was set to close Aug. 15. That left Baumgart with two choices: He could fight the lawsuit, which could drag on indefinitely. Or he could pay to get the suit dismissed so he could finally sell the house after five years of trying. He chose the latter, and on July 10 Teras Foundation dismissed its lawsuit, freeing up the house.
"Now we've given them hundreds of thousands of dollars so there's no way they can come back,'' he said.
As word spread about the scrapped sale, other Realtors told Swainston that Nademus had approached them about viewing expensive homes, Baumgart said. (Swainston declined to comment.)
On May 28 — the day before the scheduled closing and the day before her house was again set for foreclosure auction — Nademus declared bankruptcy for the seventh time. She listed assets of $216,275, mostly the value of her house.
Debts? Nearly $700,000.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.