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Fugitive developer on way to Ash Flat

Theft count awaits after Mexico stay by C.S. Murphy | February 23, 2011 at 6:07 a.m.

— A Sharp County deputy is driving fugitive developer Wayne Watkins from Texas to Ash Flat today to face a felony theft charge and one-time clients who say he cheated them out of thousands of dollars.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Sharp County Sheriff Mark Counts said Tuesday. “I won’t be the most excited person to see him. There are so many victims around here who have been swindled over the years.”

Authorities believe that Watkins has been living in Mazatlan, Mexico, for at least three years.

Watkins returned to the United States on Monday, landing at a Houston airport, the sheriff said. Harris County, Texas, deputies arrested Watkins when he arrived. Watkins, who waived his right to fight extradition, was returning to see his seriously ill father and knew he would be arrested on the 2007 theft-by-deception warrant, Counts said.

A bail hearing will likely be scheduled for Thursday morning in Ash Flat.

One of Watkins’ former clients, Lake City resident Pat Mann, said the idea of allowing him out of jail on bond is outrageous.

“If they set bond for him, he’ll set out to Mexico. You know he’s going to go again as soon as he gets a chance.”

The Sharp County warrant stems from a complaint filed by Pat and Billy Mann, who claim that Watkins swindled them out of thousands of dollars.

Reached Tuesday, Pat Mann said her husband died in October before knowing whether Watkins would ever face them.

“I didn’t think they’d ever arrest him,” Mann said. “I felt he had too many friends and that he’d done too much to help develop that area.”

In addition to the felony charge, Watkins faces a lawsuit filed by Arkansas’ attorney general. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel filed the suit against the developer and three of his business partners in 2008, accusing them of “unconscionable” behavior that violated the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

On Tuesday, a spokesman for McDaniel said Watkins’ return to the United States will add momentum to the case.

“We have completed depositions and discovery and are hopeful that his return to the state will allow us to conclude this matter,” said Aaron Sadler,McDaniel’s press secretary.

Watkins spent more than two decades developing family and camping resorts along the Spring River. He sold hundreds of parcels of land, mostly to out of-towners.

The Manns were among an unknown number of buyers who lost their money and the land they thought they were buying when Watkins defaulted on $2.6 million in loans, which he obtained by using the land he was selling as collateral.

“He’s hurt a lot of people,” Mann said. “He stole a lot of money. I doubt they’ll get any of that money back. It’s sad but it’s true.”

In 1995, Billy Mann and his brother-in-law signed a contract with Watkins to buy hunting land in Cherokee Village for $10,000 using an installment land contract.

Such contracts allow the buyer to pay monthly installments, usually to the seller, without seeking a mortgage. The seller keeps the deed until the land is paid off.

Ten years later, Mann and his brother-in-law made their last payment to Watkins for the property. It took the family 10 months to get the deed to the property from Watkins, and they filed it at the Sharp County Courthouse.

The Manns didn’t know that Watkins had used their land as collateral for a loan in 2002. When he failed to repay that loan, Regions Bank foreclosed on the property in May 2006 and sold it to someone else. That deed had been recorded before the Manns received their document.

Watkins’ attorney, Larry Kissee, has been trying for more than a year to negotiate a deal with Counts to bring Watkins home. Kissee didn’t return calls to his office Tuesday.

Arkansas, Pages 11 on 02/23/2011

Print Headline: Fugitive developer on way to Ash Flat

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