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Douglas Cone, road magnate at center of scandal, dies at 86

Douglas Cone Sr. made his name in business by paving notable highways in the bay area.
Published Dec. 2, 2014

TAMPA — Douglas Cone Sr., the bare-knuckles, chain-smoking road construction magnate who made headlines with news of a scandalous double life, died over the weekend. He was 86.

Mr. Cone, nicknamed Diesel for his penchant for puffing endless unfiltered Kools, helped build a dynasty that paved highways across the bay area, including expansions of Interstate 4 and the Suncoast Parkway.

But his wife's sudden and unexpected death in 2003 revealed Mr. Cone had long maintained two families — with both sets of children attending the same exclusive private school and both mothers serving simultaneously as trustees — a story eyebrow-raising enough to make CNN, People magazine and news reports in Australia.

"It was a shock and a shame, obviously," longtime Tampa civic booster Leonard Levy said. "I can't believe someone hasn't written a book about it."

Family members declined to comment but confirmed Mr. Cone's death through a Tampa lawyer.

For more than 50 years, Mr. Cone was married to Jean Ann Cone, a petite South Tampa socialite and philanthropist who was a mainstay at charity events in her green 1979 Rolls-Royce Shadow. Their three children attended Berkeley Preparatory School, where the Cones were generous donors. A library was named for Jean Ann Cone.

Twenty miles away in a secluded million-dollar Lutz estate, neighbors knew Mr. Cone as Donald Carlson, husband to Hillary Carlson, who was 18 years younger. She, too, drove a Rolls and their two children also went to Berkeley Prep. That family's donations helped build Carlson Field for Berkeley Prep baseball.

That secret life began to unravel in 2003 after Mrs. Cone, 75, was found slumped behind the wheel of her Rolls, its ignition on, in the family's closed garage. Previously, she had been to a meeting planning an upcoming gala to benefit the art museum. An autopsy showed she had a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the legal driving limit. An investigation determined Mrs. Cone died from inhaling carbon monoxide.

Investigators said she likely fell asleep with the car running. Her daughter told them her mother was not suicidal.

Mr. Cone arrived on the scene and "was visibly upset," Tampa police Detective Julia Massucci said then. "He seemed like the grief-stricken husband that had just lost his wife."

Then came the stunning news that Mr. Cone remarried two weeks after his wife's death — to Hillary Carlson, the woman with whom he'd had a separate life.

Some friends have said they did not believe Mrs. Cone knew about the other woman or would have put up with it. The Cones' daughter told investigators she did not know, either.

Mr. Cone has been described as a gruff, outspoken man who drank hard and thrived in a bruising business.

"He was just a rough and tough guy," Tampa lawyer Norman Cannella Sr. said Monday. "That's where he got the name Diesel — there was always smoke coming out of his mouth."

When Mr. Cone's son, Douglas Cone Jr., had concerns about his mother's death, Cannella said they sat down with police and prosecutors. In the end, everyone was satisfied with the investigators' conclusions, he said.

Though Mr. Cone had been diagnosed with cancer years ago and was recently in poor health, the specific cause and location of his death were not clear Monday.

According to the school's website, today Berkeley Prep plays baseball on what's now called Carlson-Cone Field.

Times staff writers Amy Scherzer and John Martin contributed to this report.

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