LITTLE ROCK — A developer accused of defrauding real estate investors in Sharp County was arrested at a Houston airport Monday as he returned from Mexico, where he had been living for four years, the Sharp County sheriff said.
Wayne Watkins, 63, was arrested by Harris County, Texas, deputies on a 2007 warrant from Sharp County charging him with theft by deception, Sheriff Mark Counts told The Batesville Daily Guard.
Watkins waived extradition in a hearing before a judge, the sheriff said, and arrangements are being made to transport him back to Sharp County.
Larry Kissee, Watkins’ lawyer, told the newspaper that Watkins was returning to see his seriously ill father, and knew he would be arrested on the 2007 theft-by deception warrant.
“We’ve been negotiating with the prosecutor for several weeks trying to arrange it so he could drive up here and give himself up,” Kissee told the newspaper.
As far back as fall 2009, the attorney had been negotiating with law enforcement officers to return Watkins to Sharp County.
But Kissee said Watkins apparently felt he was running out of time to see his father as the negotiations went on and simply boarded a plane Monday.
Watkins’ lawyer said the developer’s mother was living in Mexico when she became seriously ill in 2007, and Watkins went to see her “and just didn’t come back.” His mother has since died, Kissee said.
Counts and Kissee didn’t return phone messages to their homes from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Monday evening.
Authorities said Watkins, who spent more than two decades developing family and camping resorts along the Spring River, sold land to an unknown number of buyers through installment contracts that allowed him to automatically withdraw monthly payments from their bank accounts.
Watkins used the land as collateral to take out $2.6 million in loans, then defaulted on the loans and the land was seized, authorities said. Officials said Watkins and the money disappeared, along with any legal claim the buyers had to the land.
Officials said more than 50 buyers, most from out of state, have contacted the Arkansas attorney general’s office over the past four years to file complaints against Watkins. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel sued Watkins and his business associates in 2008, claiming they had violated the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
The Sharp County warrant stems from a complaint filed by Lake City residents Pat and Billy Mann, who signed a contract with Watkins to buy hunting land in Cherokee Village for $10,000.
Billy Mann and his brother in-law paid for the property over 10 years but later learned that Watkins had used it as collateral for a loan from Regions Bank. The bank foreclosed on the property in May 2006 and sold it to someone else before the Manns received a deed to the property from Watkins.
Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press and by Andy Davis and C.S. Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.