Outrageous fortune

Walt Disney World was eight years old in April 1979 when Fernand-Georges Philippart and his wife, Anna, boarded a plane in Brussels, Belgium, for a trip to Orlando. And while the Belgian native was happy to see the sights in this tourist wonderland, his real motive was to beat the inflation then ravaging Europe. He was an investor.

And so when he wasn't in the Magic Kingdom, Philippart scouted land. He settled on a site in Osceola County near Disney World called Lake Davenport Village where, he recalls, a salesman promised a subdivision to include a beach house and tennis courts. Philippart bought the pitch; three months later, he paid $8,995 cash for a 1.25-acre lot. The seller was Central Florida Investments, whose motto was "A company that can be trusted."

But 20 years later, there is no subdivision, no beach house and no tennis courts. There is not even dirt-road access to Philippart's lot. Moreover, the land remains zoned for "agricultural-conservation" use, meaning that he couldn't build a house there on fewer than five acres even if he wanted to.

Worse for Philippart, his investment did not beat inflation. Today, the Osceola County property appraiser values his land at $6,750 -- or $2,245 less than Philippart paid for it. Now a widower at 80, Philippart "would like to sell the lot so I can give the money to my daughters before I die." But he can't find a buyer.

In a recent written reply to an inquiry from Orlando Weekly, Philippart describes the long-ago purchase as a "very bad deal."

It was a deal that never would have happened if not for the determination of David Siegel (see 'Don't tell me I'm the bad guy...'), an Orlando philanthropist and one of Central Florida's richest men, to market "investment opportunities" with tactics that prompted scrutiny more than once.

A 1995 profile in the Orlando Sentinel celebrated David Siegel as the "blue-collar king" of Central Florida's time-share industry, a man who stands alone at the helm of Central Florida Investments, His 6,000-employee company today is valued from $175 million to $1 billion. Moreover, CFI is on the verge of making an initial public offering on the stock market, which would convert it from the world's largest privately owned time-share company into one of the largest publicly owned time-share companies. In its annual list of the region's top employers by job count, the Sentinel last year ranked CFI 11th, just ahead of Marriott International.

With children who work alongside him and a son born seven months ago to Jacqueline Mallery, whom he married on Jan. 2, Siegel boasts of a "dynasty" that will carry the family business forward.

He incorporated CFI on Dec. 17, 1971 -- two months after Disney World's opening -- to broker 1,800 acres subdivided into 1.25-acre lots for a company called Land and Leisure, which sold land over the phone. "I sold it out," he says. "I sold close to 1,000 [lots] myself. I had people selling all over the country."

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Siegel and CFI then sold another 2,000 acres for a company called Devco Land Corp., Siegel says. When he was almost out of inventory, he asked for more and was told by the owner to get in line -- or to supply him with a home entertainment center, Siegel says.

Instead, he went into business for himself, buying 1,200 acres in Polk County and carving them into 1,000 acre-and-a-quarter-sized lots. By 1975, he had sold them out -- for 10 times what he paid, records indicate. "I thought I'd retire," Siegel says.

He didn't. He bought the Mystery Fun House, a minor attraction off Kirkman Road in Orlando's tourist corridor. But he also kept selling land -- including part of the 240-acre Davenport Creek Swamp in Osceola County, which he marketed to Philippart and dozens of other hopeful, mostly Belgian investors as Lake Davenport Village.

Profits piled up.

In Lake Davenport, for example, Siegel was able to take land that he bought in 1974 for about $700 per acre and resell it six years later for more than $5,000 per acre.

Then he bought 400 acres off State Road 474 in Lake County and sold it at a similar profit.

In the early 1980s, he even resold 120 of his original 1,200 acres in Polk County.

Records of these deals are incomplete; most of the deeds have not been recorded. But available documents indicate that between 1972 and 1982, Siegel grossed at least $3 million with these land sales. If he "sold them out," as he now says he did, Siegel's gross income from these three subdivisions easily topped $7 million.

Siegel says some of his land investors made a lot of money. "I sold off that property where Westgate is -- to people in Mexico -- as low as $16,000 an acre," he says. "And I bought it back for as much as $150,000 an acre."

But there's another side to the story. An examination of subdivisions that Siegel owned and sold during the 1970s and 1980s found land that is still undeveloped -- and some that is not even suitable for development, according to environmental regulators, county planning officials and private appraisers.

How did Siegel sell it at up to 600 percent markup?

By touting its proximity to Disney World, mostly. And by offering buyers easy terms: Most of Siegel's land customers financed their parcels over 10 years, paying him sometimes less than $100 a month. Siegel also cut roads through some of his land and promised to "improve" it. He even launched a boat into Lake Davenport.

When some buyers eventually began to doubt the promises they were given and sued, Siegel made heavy use of the statute of limitations. Even when federal regulators told him to offer some of his customers their money back in 1975, Siegel refused to pay. Several investors went to court and got at least part of their money back. But in dozens of cases, buyers of Siegel's property lost both their money and their land.

The celebrated story of Siegel's rise to riches overlooks those who say they were trampled in his climb. It is a cautionary tale for would-be investors, an illustration of the old maxim that the buyer beware.

The most impressive features of Lake Davenport Village are the "Marina" and "Proposed Beach Club Site" on the map that was drawn by project planner Ronald C. Dale, shown to potential buyers and that clearly depicts three tennis courts. There is also a proposed canal that runs through 10 of the subdivision's lots. The land sits just a few miles west of Walt Disney World. It looks very good on paper.

In November 1981, Belgians Mr. and Mrs. Frederich Koch and Beryl Hall together bought a five-acre lot in Lake Davenport Village. The buyers paid $7,600 down, with 20 biannual payments due of $2,410.50, for a total price, including interest, of $55,810.

They paid their debt two years ahead of schedule. Then the problems began.

The Kochs and Hall couldn't get CFI to send them the deed. They wrote letters to Siegel. They waited. They wrote more letters. They waited some more. Years went by. They contacted a lawyer.

Part of the problem with Lake Davenport was that "It did not exist in reality," Koch's lawyer, Samuel M. Nelson, charged in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 11, 1996. Although Koch's lot number existed on a CFI map, the map was legally meaningless. The property hadn't been formally platted, subdivided or developed, the suit continued, and CFI did not inform the Kochs that the land was not suitable for a residential subdivision.

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"Ours was a basic breach-of-contract case," says Nelson.

Asked about the Kochs, Siegel at first says he won the case. He says he swapped their Davenport land for a lot in Bay Lake Ranch, a Siegel-owned subdivision that does include roads and houses. Siegel made the offer in several letters to the Kochs between 1994 and 1995, but the Kochs rejected it.

In the lawsuit, Siegel presented five defenses. The contract Koch signed, Siegel argued, stated that any claims made by salesmen or anyone else about tennis courts and paved roads are meaningless. Siegel also took the position that his customers should not have been so trusting: "The status of the platting of the subdivision could easily have been ascertained by the Plaintiffs through an examination of the public records of Osceola County," said his defense. In other words, it was the buyer's responsibility to verify what the seller was saying.

Four of Siegel's five defenses cite the statute of limitations.

"That's what Siegel was basically doing sending these letters," says Nelson, "keeping the negotiations going, until the statute of limitations was up."

He almost made it. Nelson says the Koch suit missed the four-year statute of limitations on fraud, but was filed just in time under the five-year statute on breach of contract. "We beat it by a month," he says. "These people just happened to wake up with a month left."

In October 1997, Siegel paid $74,000 to settle the case. "Basically they were made whole," says Howard Marks, one of the lawyers who worked for Koch and Hall.

Reminded of the outcome, Siegel tries to distance himself from the deal. "First of all I didn't sell them -- a broker in Belgium sold them," says Siegel, whose signature appears under the word "seller" on the Kochs' agreement for deed. "I don't know what the broker in Belgium told them. I know what I told the broker."

But whatever Siegel told his broker -- and, indeed, whatever the broker told the Kochs -- Lake Davenport Village remains an excellent investment, Siegel insists.

"They're foolish," Siegel says of the Kochs. "We sold it to them as speculation land without any improvements being promised. [But] today they're developing like crazy out there, and the land is worth 10 times what they paid for it." That would make the Kochs' former lot worth half a million dollars, an unlikely figure for land still zoned agricultural/conservation.

Siegel continues talking and estimates the property today is worth "$30,000 to $40,000 an acre," or three to four times what the Kochs paid. The property-tax assessor values other parcels in Lake Davenport no higher than $8,000 an acre, but, oddly, only 16 of the 69 lots depicted in the most expansive CFI-produced maps of Lake Davenport Village are recorded on Osceola's tax maps.

"Anybody can sue anybody," Siegel concludes. "What it boils down to is, we sold them property at the value it was at the time. It's not our fault that the value didn't go up immediately.

"We had a lot of buyers for it," Siegel says. "They're the only ones who were unhappy."

That isn't true.

On March 13, 1985, another Belgian couple, Oscar and Silvia Frolich, filed suit in Osceola County against CFI, claiming that CFI falsely told them that Lake Davenport Village "could be used for residential purposes and that a plat had been recorded."

The Frolichs bought Tract 26a, a 2.5-acre parcel on Oak Island Road, just around the imaginary corner from Philippart's lot and 2,500 feet from the Kochs' land. The Frolichs liked the prospects of Lake Davenport so much that they also bought a second, 1.25-acre parcel called lot 23a, located in the woods about 660 feet east of Oak Island Road. On Feb. 26, 1980, the couple put $7,800 down on the two lots, agreeing to pay $39,000 for both, plus 8 percent interest over 10 years. They had paid $28,535 by the time they filed suit.

That suit claimed CFI told them Lake Davenport Village was zoned for residential construction, and that roads were being constructed. "As a result of CFI's representations, the Frolichs have been damaged by the difference between the value of the property as represented and the value of the property in its actual condition," the complaint stated.

As with the Kochs, Siegel claimed that the statute of limitations barred any action. Still, the couple won a $97,991 judgment. Siegel appealed, but before the appeal was heard, the parties settled for an undisclosed sum.

How did these people get the idea the place was more than the "raw land" solely for "investment purposes" it is declared to be in the small print of their forms?

Perhaps they read the big print.

"OVER 8 BILLION DOLLARS IN CONSTRUCTION UNDERWAY," reads a pamphlet sent to the Frolichs and made part of their suit. Philippart received a glossy, 20-page brochure with a gold cover depicting "fabulous Florida, the growth state" and including a centerfold map depicting 16 "CFI choice properties." The brochure, with text in English, Spanish and French, features before-and-after photographs to give the impression that the entire region is an unstoppable boom town.

Then there were the maps. Although CFI prepared at least two distinct maps of Lake Davenport Village -- one with 48 lots and one depicting 69 -- both show the proposed tennis courts and beach club.

Siegel in his earlier newsletters had referred to "progress being made on the construction of roads in the Lake Davenport Village," but by the mid-1980s he admitted that no development was forthcoming there -- at least not from his company. "It was speculation property and depending on what happened in the area, if this area developed, this Lake Davenport Village could become a campground or -- it's not out of the realm of possibility -- choice apartment property," Siegel said in a 1986 deposition. "There was never any plan for the use of it. It's just in a very good area."

Although the property was purely speculative, "we went ahead and put in the boat ramp and cleared the property and put a boat in the water," Siegel told the Frolichs' lawyer. "You always show the property to its best advantage."

In some cases, apparently, that meant not showing it at all.

Siegel has claimed under oath that he sold lots in Lake Davenport only to foreigners and that he "did not personally make any of the sales," but there was at least one exception, a young Cuban immigrant named Jorge Casas.

"Siegel sold it to him in his living room," Casas' wife, Carol Heller, says.

In January 1979, Casas was a young Cuban immigrant playing bass in a band. He met a girl in a club. Her last name was Siegel. Her father's name was David. "So they went to Siegel's house, and the daughter left the room and Siegel impressed him: You can be rich like me and have a swimming pool, too," says Heller, who married Casas in 1992.

Casas agreed to put $695 down and bought tract 27c in Lake Davenport Village for $9,867.80, including interest. But as a struggling musician, he couldn't guarantee the $76 per month payments. Actually, he didn't have the $695 cash, either. Casas called his father, Jorge Casas Sr., in Puerto Rico, and convinced him to make the investment with him.

"I will need a check in the amount of $695 as soon as possible," reads a letter dated Jan. 5, 1979, to the elder Casas. "You have made a very wise decision in purchasing this property. ... We will keep you informed of all new developments in this area as they happen." It was signed by David Siegel.

Casas went on to become musical director of Gloria Estefan's group, the Miami Sound Machine. He made his payments on time and in full.

Heller, a lawyer, says she was going over some of her husband's financial documents when she discovered a tax bill from Osceola County and asked Jorge what it was. "Valuable land," he told her. Curious and a bit skeptical, she asked to see the land, and the couple visited CFI's offices in 1997 where, Heller says, Siegel dispatched a woman to escort them to Lake Davenport Village.

"They drove us out there, and of course it is under water," Heller recalls. "And to be honest, we didn't even think much about it at the time. She just said, ‘It just rained, I don't want to get my feet wet going back there.'

"She even offered to buy it back," Heller remembers. "But my husband said, ‘Well, we've held onto it this long.'"

Frank Maynard of Toms River, N.J., feels the same about the land he bought from Siegel. "I pay taxes on it every year," says the retired Sears salesman. "I don't want it to revert to him, I dislike him so much."

Maynard's 1.25-acre slice of paradise is nestled in "Devonwood," a 1,280-acre plot of marsh and range land at the southern crossroads of I-4 and Highway 27. He bought it from David Siegel. Maynard remembers being in Siegel's house to make his $599.50 down payment: "He had a huge copper mantel over the fire place," he says.

Maynard did not know at the time that the entire Devonwood development was located in the Green Swamp, an 870-square mile expanse of Central Florida that would later be dubbed an "area of special concern" by state environmental regulators, halting almost all development. [See The Green Swamp]

But Maynard did know what Siegel told him -- with maps, brochures and a three-page "fact sheet" touting Devonwood's prime location, a mere 4.5 miles from Disney and "across U.S. 27 from Crescent Estates, a $100 million modular and mobile home city complete with schools, golf courses, apartments and shopping centers," and which, like Devonwood, was never developed. The fact sheet also boasted that "electricity and telephone lines are on the property," which was not true then or today.

"These are the things he used to sell me the property," Maynard says. "I was young and foolish, you might say."

Siegel was young, too, and although not foolish, very brash. The Florida Department of Business Regulation had issued a "cease and desist" order to Siegel just a month and a day before he sold that lot to Maynard, telling him to stop using misleading promotional materials.

Devonwood was Siegel's first and largest land deal, and for years after his 1973 purchase of the property for less than $400 per acre, Devonwood would be a crown jewel of Siegel's budding empire. But it was nearly his downfall.

With more than 1,200 acres and hundreds of lots, Devonwood promised millions in profit for Siegel. But it also attracted the attention of state and federal regulators who were then cracking down on booming land-sale businesses.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Florida was in the midst of a speculative land boom, in which hundreds of companies subdivided cheap acreage and sold it through magazine ads and telephone solicitation, often with the help of free trips to resorts. With Disney's move into Central Florida, Orlando became the hottest area in the country for such sales in the late 1960s.

The federal Interstate Land Sales Full Disclosure Act of 1968 was enacted to protect investors. That act requires any developer offering 50 or more lots for sale through interstate commerce to register plans with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Further, developers were required to provide each buyer a copy of an approved report disclosing all pertinent facts about the property -- its status as swamp, for example. Anyone found in violation of the law faced a maximum five years in jail, a $5,000 fine or both. Today the fine is double that.

Florida passed a similar law, administered by the Department of Business Regulation's Division of Florida Land Sales. When Siegel was found to be selling lots in Devonwood without a registration, the state issued a temporary cease-and-desist order.

Siegel registered Devonwood and kept selling.

Subsequently, in December 1972, HUD sent Siegel a form to fill out to determine if he must register Devonwood with the federal government as well. "You are therefore cautioned not to engage in sales," the accompanying letter warned, or those sales might be voided by the buyer and Siegel subject to "civil liabilities and criminal penalties."

Siegel later said he filled out the form several times but heard nothing from HUD, which gave him the impression he was in compliance. Then he received a subpoena: Siegel was to appear at HUD's office in Washington, D.C., and bring all his Devonwood files.

Available records do not reveal whether Siegel attended that meeting, and Siegel stopped returning phone calls from Orlando Weekly after a reporter began questioning him about his 1970s land sales. But an undated letter in HUD files from Siegel to Richard H. Heidermann, who directed HUD's land sales enforcement division, refers to a conference that Siegel's lawyer, John Gullett, had with Heidermann on July 8, 1974.

In the letter, Siegel attempts to excuse the development from federal regulations, suggesting that sales did not involve interstate commerce at all: "Of the 325 sales 268 were made in Mexico by an independent broker there. Forty-seven sales were made to residents of Florida and the sales were consummated here in Florida. Only 10 sales were made to people living out of the state of Florida. Nine of these people had come to Florida and actually were in Florida when they purchased the land. All nine had personally inspected the property. The remaining one came from a referral."

The letter added that Devonwood was registered with the state of Florida but was inactive because the property had sold out: "We do not have any plans either now or in the future to do any more subdividing which might be subject to your regulations."

Further, as if Heidermann were a customer, Siegel went on to claim that the Devonwood property was increasing in value, and asked HUD not to make him give refunds, because "it would be very harmful to us financially and would destroy the confidence our purchasers have in us and in their property. Anytime a purchaser receives a letter from the government putting a cloud on their purchase they will automatically assume the worst."

HUD told Siegel to offer refunds anyway. He sent the rescission letters in November 1974.

Mr. and Mrs. Benigno Mon wrote to Siegel taking him up on his refund offer.

Siegel wrote them back on Feb. 12, 1975, but he did not enclose a refund check: "This matter has been carefully reviewed in length by our legal staff," the letter says. "They ... feel that even though we sent out the letters that under Florida law we are not compelled to give back any money because in almost every case, the statute of limitations has expired."

Ever the salesman, "I feel that I must make one final remark," Siegel wrote. "We look for 1975 to be a great year as far as Devonwood is concerned. We have many plans for Devonwood which should greatly increase the value of the property. Now that the economy has started to turn around, anyone who takes a refund at this time would be very unwise. If I were you, I would give this matter serious thought."

Maynard says he never received a rescission letter, even though he was negotiating with Siegel for a refund at the time. But he did receive a letter, dated Feb. 5, 1975, in which Siegel wrote that "what we are doing right now is trying to make arrangements with our representatives in Mexico to buy all of our refunded property in one lump sale and resell it in Mexico."

The statute of limitations on the Land Sales Full Disclosure Act is two years. Maynard's contract was then 18 months old. Like the Mons, he complained to HUD, which informed Siegel of the complaints.

Siegel told HUD to back off: "[Assistant Deputy Administrator] Mr. Kappeler told us ... that it was entirely up to us how and when we refund the money and in the cases that we felt that we did not need to refund the money due to the statute of limitations expiring or other reasons, that HUD would not be a collection agency for my customers."

HUD admitted defeat in its letters to Mon and Maynard. A May 30, 1975, letter from HUD encourages Maynard to sue Siegel, but Maynard waited years before consulting a lawyer. By that time, the lawyer concluded, the statute of limitations really had expired.

HUD, meanwhile, wanted Siegel to keep it informed of his refund program and, in a letter dated May 9, 1975, cautioned him that "continued non-exempt sales or leases of lots could subject you to civil liabilities and criminal penalties."

Siegel responded that he had not had to take back any lots. "We do not plan to offer any lots for sale," his letter continued. "At a later date perhaps we may take whatever lots are unsold and lump them together and sell them to one purchaser in a large bulk sale." He closed by asserting that Devonwood is an "inactive subdivision."

Yet sales in Devonwood continued.

In a June 10, 1976, letter to Miguel and Jacobo Vestel of Mexico, Siegel says his Mexican sales agent, Jaimie Saad, has a purchaser for their Devonwood property, "and I would like you to know that as soon as the new customer starts paying on the property we will start refunding the money you paid in as we receive our money."

Then, on Sept. 12, 1977, Silvia Pawa filed a lawsuit against CFI in federal court in Orlando, alleging fraud.

Pawa, a Mexican citizen, had bought 10 acres in Devonwood, agreeing to a 10-year contract that totaled $98,268. In the suit, she said she agreed to pay nearly $10,000 an acre in part because Siegel's salesman, Saad, told her the land was zoned commercial, claiming that CFI had already begun to install a drainage system on the land, plus canals, roads leading to each lot, electric utilities -- the works.

Although Siegel has always maintained under oath that his land was sold "raw," without promised improvements, an exhibit in Pawa's suit suggests otherwise: "Central Florida Investment News" features a "President's corner" with a photograph of a dark-haired, sideburn-wearing David Siegel, next to a photo of what appears to be a 1973 Ford Galaxie on a wide dirt road.

As "promised last month we are including several photographs [depicting] the progress being made on the construction of roads in the LAKE DAVENPORT VILLAGE, WESTGATE and DEVONWOOD Projects," the column reads. "Completion, hopefully by the end of the year, will mean a definite increase in the value of all properties concerned. Should any of our clients wish to add to their investment holdings, please contact this office. Now is the time."

The suit was consolidated with those of three of Devonwood's other Mexican customers. On Jan. 24, 1983, all four suits were settled when Siegel agreed to pay $40,000 to the plaintiffs.

By then Siegel was facing new complaints from more recent Devonwood buyers, and trouble from buyers of Siegel-owned land in Lake County. But this time, Siegel had insulated himself behind brokers and salesmen.

From 1980 to 1985, Paul Buzzella was a sales broker and sometime partner in several companies formed by Paul W. Cotton of Fort Lauderdale to sell land owned by David Siegel.

Buzzella sold 96 lots in Devonwood and more than 50 lots in two subdivisions in Lake County, just north of Route 474, also in the Green Swamp. He earned commissions up to 18 percent on the sales. But he also paid a steep price.

"You lose your license, you have nothing to fall back on," Buzzella said one afternoon last summer, standing on the balcony of his modest Plantation condominium wearing a striped bathrobe. "I have the want ads on my desk right now."

On Dec. 13, 1985, Buzzella surrendered his license to sell real estate in Florida. The voluntary revocation was part of an agreement with the state Department of Professional Regulation, and halted further investigation and prosecution of complaints filed against him. Buzzella promised to stay out of the real-estate business for 10 years. He also lost a civil judgment of $158,855.50 for false claims he made in his salesmanship.

But Buzzella's loss was not his alone.

Seven years later, many of his and Cotton's customers in Lake County lost all the money they paid for their land, and the land itself, when Siegel foreclosed on it. The exact reasons are mired in the complexities of the business arrangements among Buzzella, Cotton and Siegel. But in the main, buyers of 42 lots lost an average of at least $18,000 each, with not even swamp land to show for it.

Buzzella's downfall began on July 20, 1981, on the shoulder of Route 474, about a mile from its intersection with Highway 27, in Lake County. On that day and place, truck driver John Hall and his wife, Hazell, put down $1,551 for 3.3 acres of what Buzzella called "prime" land. They agreed to pay $15,510.

And the land before their eyes was indeed prime, high on a ridge and bordering the road. But that was not the land the Halls were buying; their land was more than a mile north and some two miles west, in the low lands near Boggy Marsh Road.

After the Halls discovered that fact, they filed suit in 1984 against Buzzella, Cotton, Siegel and their various companies. The Halls eventually were joined by six other plaintiffs, and accepted an out-of-court settlement.

But the trouble was just beginning.

In 1983, the state Division of Land Sales began an investigation of Devonwood Development Corp., a company Cotton formed to sell land he bought from Siegel in Devonwood. Cotton did not actually own the land he sold; as customers paid Cotton, Cotton paid Siegel. The state eventually ordered Cotton to offer refunds to his Devonwood customers, just as the feds had done with Siegel a decade earlier. Cotton was fined $2,500, and CFI agreed to convey a deed to any of Cotton's buyers, "should [Cotton] fail or be unable to do so."

Eighteen months later, in a trio of related cases, the state ordered CFI to pay a $10,000 fine and send out more than 90 additional refund offers to buyers of Lake County swamp. An appeals court eventually decided that CFI was not liable. But he continued to be tangled up with Cotton's troubles.

Cotton, whose work with Siegel began with a brokering arrangement but included outright purchase and resales of Siegel land, stopped paying Siegel for most of that land by January 1985, according to legal filings.

Cotton's buyers, however, kept paying Cotton -- until May 1991, when a letter told them to start sending their payments directly to Siegel.

Beginning in late 1991, 23 buyers sued Cotton and his wife, Joyce; Siegel and his former wife, Bettie; and their various companies. Most suits were consolidated under the title Jayanandan K. Nair and Subhadramma J. Nair vs. Cotton. Lake County Circuit Judge G. Richard Singeltary eventually dismissed the Siegels and their companies from all the lawsuits. But the Cottons didn't defend themselves.

"We knew there was going to be judgments," says Joyce Cotton. "[Our lawyer] said, ‘Let them get judgments. You don't have assets.'" Paul Cotton had suffered a stroke in 1988, and the couple's accounts had dwindled; they could not pay the eventual judgments totalling $424,242 plus interest.

And in the end, it was Siegel who foreclosed on the Lake County parcels, paying just a few hundred dollars on June 10, 1993, to retake possession of his Green Swamp land.

It's a muggy autumn morning as Randy Rudder walks along State Road 474 in Lake County. Although he bought land in this area in 1981, he is only now getting his first look at it.

"Looks like I got ripped off," says Rudder, a retired Marine sergeant major and former insurance salesman from Holiday, near the Gulf Coast in Pasco County. "It's been a long time, and nothing's going on."

Buzzella sold Rudder 200 feet of "prime" Siegel-owned road frontage on this road. He spent $19,990 for two lots totaling 2.5 acres -- land that the Lake County property appraiser now values at just $5,975. "It was eight to 10 miles from Disney World," Rudder recalls. "It seemed like a good buy."

As with other buyers, Rudder paid for his land over nearly 10 years, and during that time he was sent periodic updates about developments planned nearby. But unlike some others, Rudder did receive his deed, in 1988. He later learned that the legal description on the deed was wrong. Though it was eventually corrected, it didn't matter much; there aren't many likely buyers for Rudder's investment.

In fact, there may be only one.

In March 1994, Rudder opened a letter from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection: The state had placed his property on a list of land to be acquired for safe keeping. It asked his permission for the state to have an appraisal done, so that it might offer to buy his property for conservation rather than development.

It wasn't good news to Rudder. "Someone told me if the government is going to buy it, they'll pay only minimal," he says. "I said I'll let it rot before selling for $3,000."

He peers into the wooded swamp that starts where the land slopes down from the road.

"I wouldn't mind my money back right now," he says.

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