In Tarpon Springs lawsuit, judge rules dead man’s signature likely forged

It’s the latest twist in a battle between environmental activists and a developer who wants to build apartments on the Anclote River.
A sailboat remains moored in the shallows at low tide on the shore of the Anclote River on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, where developer Morgan Group has received approval to build 404 apartments on a 74-acre site.
A sailboat remains moored in the shallows at low tide on the shore of the Anclote River on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, where developer Morgan Group has received approval to build 404 apartments on a 74-acre site. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 3

When environmental activist Clay Colson died of a suspected heart attack on Feb. 22, it could have ended his lawsuit challenging the Tarpon Springs City Commission’s approval of apartments along the Anclote River.

But his friend, Chris Hrabovsky, insists Colson planned ahead.

Hrabovsky said Colson gave him a document two days before he died, as he was dealing with cardiomyopathy, that would keep the lawsuit going “in case anything happened to him.”

The one-paragraph “transfer of interest,” dated Feb. 20 and filed with the court March 16, stated Colson’s case should be inherited by fellow activist Theresa Rubalcava. It had Colson’s signature.

On Thursday, Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Muscarella ruled that the document was more than likely “‘manufactured’ by fraudulent means,” and does not transfer the lawsuit to Rubalcava or any other successor. The case now goes back to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which asked Muscarella to rule on the authenticity of the document.

The ruling follows a hearing last month where Scott McLaren, an attorney representing the apartment developer, Morgan Group, accused Hrabovsky of engineering “a fake forgery document” to continue the lawsuit after Colson’s death.

Thomas Vastrick, a forensic document examiner, testified that the transfer of interest was a copy, not an original. He said the signature was lifted from a previous document Colson filed with the court in December when he was alive.

Morgan Group attorneys subpoenaed Hrabovsky to appear at the hearing, but a process server could not reach him at his home, work or City Hall. In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times on Friday, Hrabovsky said he did not manufacture any document or lift Colson’s signature.

“He handed (the transfer of interest) to me on that Monday,” Hrabovsky said. “It was the last day I saw him alive.... He was sick.”

Vastrick said no person can sign their name twice in the identical way. Yet Colson’s signature on the December filing and the February transfer of interest had no deviations, according to Vastrick, who said he examined the two documents at the courthouse.

“The only way that can happen is if they are reproductions of the same signature,” Vastrick said.

Hrabosky said the expert “was paid to say that” by Morgan Group and questioned why the two signatures were not displayed side by side at the hearing.

The ruling is another twist in the lengthy battle around Morgan Group’s apartment proposal that the City Commission approved in November 2021. Separately from Colson’s lawsuit, the Concerned Citizens of Tarpon Springs nonprofit sued the city and developer, alleging the city violated state law and city code by approving housing in a commercial district that allows residential only as a secondary use.

Last November, a three-judge panel upheld the city’s approval. Concerned Citizens’ appeal with the Second District Court of Appeals is ongoing.

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The city has not yet issued permits for the project.

Colson filed his lawsuit in December 2021 against the city, also alleging the approval violated the comprehensive plan. It was dismissed in May 2022 for failure to include Morgan Group, an “indispensable party,” as a defendant. Colson took his case to the 2nd District Court of Appeal and the court allowed Morgan Group to intervene in the proceedings.

In an interview, Colson’s sister, Elaine Colson Powers, said her brother had talked to her about his plan to pass the lawsuit on “because he knew something was going to happen to him” as he was being treated for cardiomyopathy. He died four days shy of his 68th birthday.

During her testimony at last month’s hearing, Powers stated the signature on the transfer of interest was “absolutely my brother’s” but she confirmed she did not witness him sign the document.

Rubalcava said she met Colson in late 2021 at a meeting about the apartment proposal. She said Colson asked her in October 2022 if she would take over the cause if something were to happen to him. She agreed.

She also testified she did not witness Colson sign the transfer of interest and that Hrabovsky hand-delivered it to her after Colson’s death.

Rubalcava said she does not believe Hrabovsky forged the document. She said she is exploring her options to appeal the ruling so she can carry out Colson’s wishes.

“It’s heart wrenching for us to fight for the land and it’s just a profit for the Morgan Group,” Rubalcava said.

Ed Armstrong, an attorney representing Morgan Group, said his team is “outraged” at the events around Colson’s case.

“Some of our opponents have said they would do whatever it takes to stop the project, but it never occurred to us that would include manufacturing fraudulent evidence and filing it with an appellate court,” Armstrong said.