LITTLE ROCK — Hardy developer Wayne Watkins, who is wanted on a felony theft charge in connection with failed land deals and believed to be in Mexico, was reported to have been back in Sharp County two weeks ago, strolling down the aisles of a Wal-Mart.
Sharp County Sheriff Dale Weaver said Tuesday that his office has received a few calls over the past month or two from people claiming to have seen Watkins in the Ozark Mountain county of about 17,000 people.
Watkins had lived in the area for decades while he sold hundreds of real estate parcels along the Spring River to people from across the nation.
Many of his customers losttheir money and the land they thought they were buying when Watkins defaulted on $2.6 million in loans he obtained by using the land as collateral.
A judge signed a warrant for Watkins' arrest on one count of felony theft of property in January 2007 but it remains unserved. Watkins' attorney has said that the developer has been living in Mexico selling real estate.
Weaver considered the most recent sighting two weeks ago to be "credible."
"The guy that told us ... he knows him," the sheriff said. "He would have no reason to lie about it."
The man, whom Weaver did not identify, told the sheriff's office that he spotted Watkins while shopping at the Wal-Mart in the county seat of Ash Flat. The two men did not have a lengthy conversation.
"He said, 'Hey Wayne. How are you doing,' that sort ofthing," Weaver said. "And he answered him."
But the man did not report the sighting for two days, the sheriff said.
"We said, 'Why didn't you call us?'"
About the same time, a person living in Cherokee Village also spotted Watkins, this time near his once-beloved Spring River Beach Club resort.
"I thought, 'This is Wayne. I can't believe he's here,'" said the person, whose identity the newspaper agreed to withhold. "It was the same white truck he always drove.
"No hat. No sunglasses. Just Wayne."
The pickup had a Spring River Beach Club logo on the side.
The person called the Cherokee Village Police Department. A woman working in the office referred the caller to the sheriff's office. The caller, who had last spotted the pickup heading toward Hardy, was told by a sheriff's office employee that the Hardy Police Department would be alerted.
The caller doesn't know what happened after that. Hardy Police Chief Ernie Rose did not return a message for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Weaver wasn't sure what happened with this particular tip but said that his deputies arechecking out every tip they hear about.
Some have wondered whether the people who think they saw Watkins may have mistaken him for his business partner, Howard Baswell. The two men are said to look alike.
"It wasn't Howard," the person from Cherokee Village said. "I know Howard."
The sheriff said his office also has checked on Watkins sightings at the Copper Feather, a restaurant-bar in Cherokee Village that Watkins frequented over the years.
"We sent an officer in there and he wasn't there," Weaver said.
The FBI also is actively involved in the case, said Steve Frazier, agency spokesman in Little Rock.
When Weaver's office recently received a possible address for Watkins, which was outside Sharp County but in the United States, the FBI went there but did not find him.
Watkins' attorney, Larry Kissee, said he would be surprised if Watkins returned to Arkansas because he knows he faces an outstanding warrant and several lawsuits related to the millions of dollars in loans that he defaulted on.
Kissee said he last spoke to his client on April 7. Watkins was inMexico at that time, the lawyer said.
Weaver isn't sure what to believe.
"He could possibly be around here hiding out. He knows the area well," the sheriff said. "At first, I didn't think [he would return] but people will fool you for whatever reason. There's different things that could bring him back."
People with information about Watkins' whereabouts can call the Sharp County sheriff's office at (870) 994-7356 or (870) 994-2211.
Information for this article was contributed by C.S. Murphy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.