TAMPA — Seven years have passed, and Tamesha Stubbs can still barely talk about that rainy Sunday night when her husband, Dion, lost control of his car on the way to work and crossed into oncoming traffic. Rushed to Lakeland Regional Hospital with serious head trauma, he died the next morning.
The loss sent the then-30-year-old widow spiraling into a deep depression, her sole solace knowing she and her 6-year-old daughter had a financial lifeline. Dion had left behind a Navy reservist policy, two life insurance policies, and nearly $90,000 in retirement benefits from his job as a Verizon technician— a total of $1.05 million in survivor benefits.
On the advice of a cousin, Tamesha contacted a financial adviser named Phil Freeman, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver who, she was told, had helped professional athletes set up financial plans.
Then her new nightmare began.
Sitting down with the Tampa Bay Times to tell her tale, Stubbs said she realizes now that she acted rashly, that she was far too trusting and far too emotionally vulnerable to being deceived.
"The hardest life lessons for me," she said, "have hit me in my pocketbook and in my heart."
First rule of thumb for investing: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. But in the months after her husband's death, Stubbs was hardly thinking rationally.
She was so severely depressed she couldn't leave the house. She couldn't even get out of bed. Her mother had to take care of her young daughter, leaving Stubbs feeling even more isolated.
In December 2007, just a couple of months after the car accident, Freeman came to Stubbs' home in Brooksville. Stubbs calculated her monthly expenses at about $3,800, so she figured she needed to draw about $4,000 a month from the $1 million nest egg to live on as she took care of her daughter and pursued a college degree.
No problem, said Freeman, who came back a week later with a financial plan in hand.
Beyond putting $443,000 in mutual funds, he also recommended a $250,000 direct investment in oil and gas-producing properties. A document accompanying the plan indicated the direct investment would have a 12 percent rate of return.
Stubbs said she asked Freeman why she would she invest in mutual funds if oil and gas is such a good thing.
"He smiled and he agreed," she said. "He said oil and gas is a very hot thing right now and the price per barrel was sky high. He assured me I couldn't lose with those investments, that I'd never have to work again. And that I could sell them at any time for no risk."
Freeman remembers the conversation differently. It was Stubbs, he insists, who was eager to put more money into oil and gas than he had recommended because she was wary about the stock market.
In either case, Stubbs said she didn't know Freeman had established a side agreement with businessman Robert W. "Bob" Robinson promising him a 10 percent commission for selling certain oil leases in Texas.
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Stubbs said she met with Freeman and Robinson at Robinson's Tampa office. They told her one of Robinson's companies was already pumping oil out of the ground on two Texas properties. They gave her a geological report purporting to indicate deep oil reserves on the land along with an article saying one of Robinson's other companies, Rothschild Oil & Gas, was poised to capitalize on rising oil prices.
In return for writing a check for $250,000, she received a minor lease interest in the Texas properties.
At the time, Stubbs didn't know that neither Freeman nor Robinson was licensed to sell securities in Florida. She didn't know Freeman had filed for bankruptcy nine times or that — in the same month that she handed over that check — Freeman was being barred from the securities industry. She didn't know Robinson had a long legal history that included allegations of scheming to defraud and grand theft. Or that Robinson had a $3.8 million judgment against him in a 1999 case involving Rothschild Oil & Gas, which had dissolved that year.
The $250,000 was just the first hook.
Over the coming months, she became friends with Freeman and his wife, along with Robinson. They went to a comedy club together and dined at restaurants like the Columbia in Ybor City.
That budding friendship led her to trust Freeman and Robinson more. And invest more, signing another $225,000 check in February of 2008 toward the Texas leases.
The leases were real; but she was grossly overpaying for her tiny stake.
Documents showed that, in return for her $475,000 investment, Stubbs received a partial lease assignment of 4 percent in two Texas properties. Robinson, meanwhile, had paid $35,000 for more than an 80 percent interest in both properties.
In reality, the properties were duds. They produced so few barrels of oil before the leases expired that Stubbs was entitled to only two small payouts in late 2008 from the properties — about $830 from one and $280 from the other.
That's not what her investment advisers told her, though.
In June of 2008, she received a check from Robinson for $5,600. She said she was falsely told that it was a monthly payout from the wells producing on the leased property.
It was actually just an inducement to invest more.
She was persuaded to write another check for $195,500 to double her lease interest from 4 percent to 8 percent. "I'm thinking that the $5,600 paid to me is going to double, that I'll be receiving over $10,000 a month," she said.
In early July, Robinson made a pitch for another property he called the "Yellowcake" parcel because it supposedly had uranium ore under it. She withdrew $108,500 from a MetLife account to invest.
In August, Robinson approached Stubbs seeking a loan to ramp up production. Over the next few months, Stubbs agreed to lend $182,000 to one of Robinson's companies, Virginia Capital LLC, which he said would be used to increase production on the oil wells.
"(Robinson) gave very specific details about what he could do to get those wells pumping," she said. "He was just very convincing for some reason. I think I was hitting peak depression at that point … and I just bought it."
In September 2008, as Stubbs was grieving during the anniversary of her husband's death, Freeman offered comfort via email that her investments would pay off soon. "In my professional opinion, your oil and natural gas investment will not only secure you and your daughter's future, but also the future of your grandkids and their children's future also!"
By late November of 2008 — less than a year after her first investment in the oil and gas leases — all of Stubbs' life insurance proceeds were gone. She had spent nearly $1 million on either the lease investments or direct loans to Robinson.
The new year hit Stubbs hard.
Behind on her mortgage, she began receiving foreclosure notices from JPMorgan Chase, prompting her to move into an apartment in Tampa. She maxed out her credit card after running up $20,000 in debt, and used school loans to help pay bills. She ran up medical bills for treating her depression. She applied for food stamps.
While still pursuing an associate's degree at Hillsborough Community College, she took temp jobs, including a data entry job with Bank of America, to help pay bills.
Still, there was scant return on her Texas investments.
Freeman remained encouraging, promising Stubbs in one email: "Your patience will not go unrewarded,"
By the spring of 2009, Stubbs had run out of patience.
In an email to Freeman, she lashed out that Robinson had only repaid her $1,800 out of the nearly $200,000 that she lent him. "That is absolutely despicable," she wrote.
At her mother's urging, she finally sought legal help. But several attorneys turned her down, saying even if she won, she was unlikely to get any money back.
Scott Ilgenfritz, an attorney specializing in securities litigation at the Tampa firm of Johnson Pope, agreed there was a "collectibility problem" but he took the case anyway. "It was the right thing to do," he said.
Through credit card records, bank statements and depositions, Ilgenfritz unraveled the mystery of where the money went.
More than $500,000 was funneled through four of Robinson's accounts, he said. It trickled out in hundreds of transactions, sometimes a few thousand dollars at a time. In May of 2008, after the $195,500 investment, Robinson bought a Cadillac DTS for more than $35,000. Check card withdrawals showed payments to strip clubs, the Palm and other high-end steak houses and the Tampa Marriott.
During a deposition, Ilgenfritz said, Robinson told him that he was entertaining people in the oil and gas business, but he could not name any of them.
After a bench trial, Hillsborough Circuit Judge James Arnold ruled last month in Stubbs' favor, saying Freeman and Robinson engaged in a monthslong conspiracy to defraud her.
"For the last 30 years, the people of Hillsborough County have entrusted me with this position, and over that time I have heard some pretty egregious cases where people have taken advantage of other people, but this one takes the cake," Arnold said in court. "I'm surprised that no criminal charges were ever brought, but one day you two are going to have to stand before somebody and answer to this."
Agreeing that punitive damages were warranted, he tripled the award, ruling Stubbs was owed $5.2 million.
Though Ilgenfritz doubts Stubbs will ever see that money, he wants to increase the likelihood of some compensation by filing an involuntary bankruptcy against Freeman and Robinson. In bankruptcy, paying back the $5 million judgment could receive priority in settling their debts.
"We might pursue that to shake the tree as hard as we can," Ilgenfritz said. "I told the judge I want to hound these guys for the rest of their lives. … Well, I plan on retiring at some point. But I'll certainly continue to hound them. The judgment is good for 21 years."
Stubbs contacted the Florida Department of Financial Services in 2010 to seek a criminal investigation. After finding out the initial investigator on the case had left, Ilgenfritze rebriefed a second investigator in 2012. But no charges were brought, he said, speculating that it may be tied to the five-year statute of limitations for a case like this.
Freeman, now 51, insists he never knew the investment he pitched would be considered a security — something he was banned from selling. He plans to appeal. He also said he wasn't involved in Stubbs' decision to loan Robinson nearly $200,000, essentially wiping out her nest egg.
"She just kept writing checks to (Robinson) toward the end. I think that was negligent on her part," he said. "She should take some responsibility."
Freeman said he has known Robinson for 20 years and trusted him that the oil leases would eventually pay off. "He's not like a bad guy. I think he realizes he messed up," he said. "I'm not sure it was done maliciously." Contacted last week, Robinson, 71, said he had no comment.
Today, Stubbs works in accounts payable for a Tampa firm, making $17 an hour. She's taking care of her now 13-year-old daughter again.
"I just want to get on my feet again," she said. "A lot of people have lost their houses and a lot of people in America have debt and student loans. I'm not too different from anyone else. But to think about what it could have been? It's tough."
"I lost my grandmother and my father and my husband all in less than three years. Then losing a house and a million dollars on top of that? It can break you."
Stubbs says she realizes going public opens her up to ridicule from those who see her as foolish. But she hopes it increases awareness about how debilitating depression can be, how it can cloud your judgment.
She wants others to learn to avoid making financial decisions when depressed and to seek outside opinions before acting. She wants others to know how to check with agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and FINRA to investigate anyone peddling securities.
And she has one more motivation: to keep Robinson and Freeman from hurting anyone else. "I want people to know their names so they can look out for them."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Jeff Harrington at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3434. Follow @JeffMHarrington.