1. Real Estate

This is Tampa Bay's priciest foreclosure, and its history is as twisted as its boardwalk

TIERRA VERDE — Behind a tall iron fence lies one of the most unusual gated communities in Tampa Bay. And within that lies the most expensive and unusual bank-owned house for sale between Crystal River and Sarasota.

The community is called Green Land Preserve. It is on a small peninsula, thick with mangroves, that juts into the bay from the road to Fort De Soto Park. The preserve has only four houses, including the $1.59 million foreclosure that agent Lambdin Freeman was showing a few days before Christmas.

"It's going to take that special buyer," Freeman said. "Somebody who wants privacy, who doesn't want anybody on top of them."

Freeman is handling the sale for Regions. The bank had the house repainted and re-carpeted, and she paid to stage it. Outside, workers cleared away just enough of the overgrowth to offer a tantalizing glimpse of water.

"You should have seen it before," Freeman said. "We took out a lot of stuff but some people like it more full looking so we didn't to take out too much."

Freeman then led the way down a very long, private boardwalk that ends at a secluded inlet. Other boardwalks, maintained by the condo association for the exclusive use of Green Land residents, wend through the mangrove forest until they suddenly open onto sweeping views of the Sunshine Skyway and mullet jumping in the bay.

It took Regions nearly four years to get possession of the house, one of the last vestiges of a foreclosure crisis that wracked neighborhoods rich and poor. And it was a foreclosure with its own unusual twist.

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At the peak of the boom in 2006, a Tampa couple, Stuart and Shawn Suddath, bought the two-story house for $1.6 million. They apparently never lived there — they didn't have a homestead exemption and they put the house back on the market barely a year later for $2.695 million. By that time, property values were starting their disastrous slide and it was not until 2011 that the couple finally got a short-sale contract — for $995,000. Even at that price, the deal fell through.

Their moving business doomed by the recession, the couple declared bankruptcy in 2012. They agreed to give up the house, and the bankruptcy trustee handling their case sought bids on the property. A Tampa company won a quitclaim deed with a $8,500 bid — the house was heavily mortgaged, hence the low price. That company then deeded the house for $20,000 to Locations of Pinellas, Inc. and its president, Samuel Ballinger.

Ballinger had also run into trouble, though not because of the recession.

In 2007, the Drug Enforcement Administration had revoked the registration of a Tampa pharmacy he owned, United Prescription Services. The DEA said the pharmacy had violated federal law by distributing large quantities of controlled substances — including the painkiller hydrocodone — based on prescriptions that it "knew or should have known" were not written for legitimate medical purposes or that were written by a physician not acting in the usual course of practice.

In filling the prescriptions, many of them ordered via the internet, Ballinger's pharmacy "constituted an imminent danger to the public health and safety," the DEA said.

Now, five years later, Ballinger had a quitclaim deed that give him possession of a million-dollar home though the Suddaths were still responsible for the mortgage. He sued to evict Stuart Suddath's parents, who had recently moved in and made some repairs. After Ballinger showed up with a deputy sheriff, they left and the suit was dropped.

During his time in Green Land Preserve, Ballinger did little to endear himself to his new neighbors.

"He would never use a garbage can," said Howard Isaacs, president of the condominium association. "For four years , he would dump his garbage in brown bags. He wouldn't use the plastic bags I bought him twice. He just did everything he could to annoy us."

In 2013, Regions listed Ballinger as a tenant and defendant when it began foreclosing. He hired an attorney to fight the action but as the clock began ticking toward a trial date, he declared bankruptcy in 2016, a move that automatically "stays" or halts foreclosure proceedings.

Two months later, a judge lifted the stay, and Regions resumed its case in state court. By this time, only Ballinger was opposing foreclosure — the borrower, Suddath, had said in an affidavit that he and his wife wanted to "put this matter behind us and begin to repair our credit." (He did not return a call for comment but records show the couple has a new moving business with good reviews.)

In a motion last May, an attorney for Regions alleged that Ballinger also tried to stall the foreclosure by getting a doctor to say he was ill and should avoid court hearings because of the stress. The doctor turned out to be one of Ballinger's business associates, the motion said.

Ballinger and his company "have no legitimate purpose in delaying this foreclosure," the motion said. "They are not paying the mortgage or the taxes or the insurance on the subject property."

The bank obtained a final judgment of foreclosure in May but it looked like the auction would be delayed too after Ballinger filed a notice of appeal. He didn't pay the required fee, and Regions finally took possession of the house on June 19.

Ballinger, a 63-year-old veteran who says he had a stroke and is living on Social Security and VA disability payments, denies he declared bankruptcy to stop the foreclosure. He did it, he said in an email, because "I had no money."

(His bankruptcy case is pending; the trustee has alleged that he has failed to cooperate and tried to hide assets.)

Once the house was vacant, Regions spent three months getting it in shape. The agent, Freeman, listed it in early October: There have been showings but no offers so far.

Freeman, who has handled numerous foreclosure for the bank, said she knew nothing about the home's tortuous history — or that of any other property. That's fine with her.

"By the time they get to us," she said, "everything has been taken care of."

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate