TAMPA — If you owned one of the Tampa Bay area’s biggest mansions set on a quiet lake in the tony Avila neighborhood, it might be tough to give it up.
In fact, according to a lawsuit filed by a Louisiana bank, former corporate raider Paul Bilzerian and wife Terri Steffen kept finding ways to hang on to their 23,000-square-foot home despite obstacles for some 20 years. They managed to live there despite attempts to seize it by the federal government and at least two sales of the property to apparent third parties.
Observers now wonder if someone else will finally move into the home at 16229 Villarreal de Avila.
A court-appointed receiver has placed the property up for sale. For $6.5 million you can have a piece of Florida history with its own indoor basketball court and a 5,400-square-foot guest house set on Lake Chapman. It’s not clear if the couple will try to block the sale.
Bilzerian is a well-known figure in the American and local business scene. He first made his name as a corporate raider in the 1980s, but ran afoul of the law in 1989 and was convicted of securities fraud and conspiracy to defraud the government. His name may be most associated with the Avila mansion nowadays.
The Securities and Exchange Commission sought millions from him throughout the 1990s, but Bilzerian filed for bankruptcy protection and used Florida law that protects one’s household to shield the mansion from creditors.
A court opinion written last year in Steffen’s own bankruptcy case suggested the couple have maintained control of the mansion several times over the years through transfers of ownership. Typically, the home appeared to changed hands to a third party, but the new owners always had some connection to Bilzerian and Steffen, U.S. Bank Judge Michael Williamson wrote.
For example, in 2004 the couple agreed to sell the house, with half the money going to pay the SEC and half going to Bilzerian. The house sold that year to a limited partnership for the bargain price of about $2.5 million — far less than its value of around $5 million.
Just weeks later, Bilzerian’s in-laws purchased a stake in the limited partnership that bought the house, and another partner in the mansion was a neighbor of Bilzerian. That neighbor, a co-owner of the old car dealership Ernie Haire Ford, allowed Bilzerian and Steffen to keep living there.
A couple years later their connections paid off again. With the home still tied up in litigation, a court-appointed receiver sold the home again in 2006. This time the buyer was an entity called Daer Holdings, which had connections with Steffen’s family, Judge Williamson’s court opinion said.
Eventually, the new buyer hired Steffen to manage the Avila mansion and allowed her and Bilzerian to live there. She never actually drew a salary for managing the house, Williamson noted.
“The debtor (Steffen) and her husband have had access to the Villarreal mansion every day since Daer acquired it,” the judge’s opinion says.
The couple continued to live there at least until May 2010, according to the judge’s January 2012 opinion. It wasn’t clear this week if the couple has lived there since then, although a Realtor hired to sell the property, Dina Sierra Smith, said no one is living there now.
The property was listed for sale this week because the bank that holds the note on the property, Iberiabank, has foreclosed on it and says that current owner Daer Holdings owes it $5.5 million, court documents show.
Several of the banks, attorneys and other people involved in the litigation surrounding the house declined comment or couldn’t be reached this week, including a lawyer for Iberiabank, a lawyer for Daer Holdings and the court-appointed receiver in charge of the home’s sale.
Hillsborough County Circuit Court Judge Richard Nielsen presided over the litigation as the house wound its way through the court system in the mid-2000s. Today, he admits it was hard to follow who actually owned the property as it kept changing hands, even as Bilzerian and his wife kept living there.
“It was absolutely a challenge to figure out what was going on,” Nielsen said.