'A Story About A Real Tragedy In Our Family'
TAMPA - A prominent Tampa businessman and philanthropist, with red, teary eyes, sat at his attorney's conference table Wednesday morning and told how his sister, brother-in-law and niece betrayed him through a plot to extort $1.2 million. South Carolina and Florida authorities have arrested the three on conspiracy and extortion charges. All will be extradited to Tampa. Don Wallace, noted co-founder of the Lazydays RV SuperCenter near Seffner, said the family members made false claims that he repeatedly molested his niece, helped her get an abortion when she was a teenager and later fathered her child. "That's a lie," Wallace said Wednesday during an emotional news conference at lawyer Barry Cohen's office. "None of that happened."Wallace, who owns an $8.6 million Bayshore mansion, helped to found Lazydays, a behemoth RV dealership. His success led to a foundation that donated $5 million to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute for a breast cancer department and $400,000 to Kids Charity of Tampa Bay for an emergency center, among other charities. After an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Marion "Connie" Strickland, her husband, Clyde, and their daughter Samantha were arrested June 4 in South Carolina. Samantha Strickland, 26, also faces a South Carolina charge of filing a false report that detailed her allegations. Mark Dubina, FDLE assistant special agent in charge, said investigators believed Wallace's version of the events over the Stricklands' after an intense investigation. "It's not one act," Dubina said. "There's a pattern of acts that's consistent with extortion." Wallace, 59, said the past six months have been trying. "This is a story about a real tragedy in our family," Wallace said. A Family At Odds In 1976, Wallace said, he, his brother and his father co-founded Lazydays RV SuperCenter. The business's Web site boasts that it is the largest single-site RV dealer in the world. A 2001 article in The Tampa Tribune said Lazydays accounted for 4 percent of the $12 billion RV industry. The Web site also states that Wallace's mother and sister were co-founders of Lazydays. In 1989, Wallace's brother died, the stimulus for a rift in the family, he said. Wallace's sister, Connie Strickland, expected to be brought into the family business as a partner, he said Wednesday. He did not want that. Wallace said he had seen his sister's volatile temper. When she got mad, he said, she would make up vicious stories. As the company grew more successful, Wallace said, his sister grew more jealous and angry. Wallace's wife, Erika, told reporters the Stricklands were not poor. Samantha had new cars, lived in nice houses and always had a closet full of new clothes, she said. Despite keeping Connie Strickland out of the family business, Don Wallace said, his parents had given her millions of dollars over several years. He said he did not know exactly how much she had been given. Occasionally, Wallace tried to mend fences with his 61-year-old sister, he said. They would never stay close for long. "I just got to the point where I just started thinking of her as my nutty sister," Wallace said. "Every brother's got one and every sister's got a nutty brother. "This was different." Wallace said his sister's eccentricities were accentuated in his niece, Samantha Strickland. He shared copies of e-mail messages with law enforcement, and now the media, to back his claims. Dubina said the FDLE investigation included the e-mail but also relied on other communications, including phone calls between Wallace and his niece recorded by agents. The e-mail messages document Samantha Strickland's bipolar disorder. Connie Strickland writes that she is worried about her daughter, who had made up incredible lies, including seducing men and accusing them of impregnating her. She was committed to mental hospitals on more than one occasion, the e-mail messages state. Accusations And Demands In 2002, Wallace said, Samantha Strickland came to Tampa from her South Carolina home for Gasparilla. As soon as she walked in the door, Wallace told reporters, his wife noticed that she was visibly pregnant. Samantha Strickland denied it, saying she had a genetic disorder that distended her belly, he said. A couple of months after she returned home, her mother called Wallace. Samantha Strickland had given birth to a daughter. In e-mail between Wallace and his sister, they discuss Samantha Strickland's accusation that a man named Rob is the father. A DNA test shows he is not, an e-mail states. This year, Wallace said, Samantha Strickland pointed the finger at him. On Jan. 24, Wallace said, his sister called him and said her daughter was claiming that her baby was his. Wallace said that was "crazy" and "untrue." Connie Strickland pressed on, he said, asking him to suppose it were true. He refused to accept the hypothesis and she hung up on him. The next day, Wallace said, he got an e-mail from his sister that said she believed her daughter. Wallace said it seemed unbelievable given Samantha's history of mental illness and lying. Wallace said he wrote to his sister, telling her he would take a DNA test to prove he was not the father. That didn't seem to satisfy Connie Strickland. According to FDLE reports, she responded by e-mail, writing that she had contacted a lawyer and filed a report with the Richland County Sheriff's Department in South Carolina. Connie Strickland demanded a financial settlement, according to the reports. The accusations escalated. Wallace provided a copy of the sheriff's report. In it, Samantha Strickland claimed that Wallace had molested her since she was 9 years old, that he took her to a clinic when she was 16 and signed off on an abortion and he is the father of her daughter. Truth And Consequences Wallace said he flew to South Carolina and took a DNA test. He provided a lab report, dated May 13, that shows he is not the baby's father. He said he noticed in the sheriff's report that Samantha Strickland identified the abortion clinic where she claimed he had taken her: White Knoll Women's Healthcare Facility. Wallace did some research. Florida Department of State records show no such business exists in Florida. Wallace provided documents from South Carolina that show White Knoll is the name of a subdivision, high school and several businesses in Lexington, S.C., 15 miles from Columbia. According to the FDLE report, Connie Strickland e-mailed Wallace again on May 19 and 24. This time she wrote that despite the DNA results, "This is not over." She continued accusations and said she did not want to "drag our family history and problems through the press," according to the report. On May 27, Wallace went to the FDLE. Agents wrote in their reports that they recorded phone conversations between Wallace and Samantha Strickland. In the calls, she demands $1 million and says if it is paid, she will not go to the press with her allegations of molestation. She also says she will split the money with her mother and father, according to the reports. With the help of FDLE agents, Wallace wrote a four-page document and asked Connie Strickland, her husband and daughter to sign it. The handwritten document states that none of them will make false statements to disgrace Wallace. Samantha Strickland signed an additional portion that said the sheriff's report she filed was untrue. If they signed, Wallace agreed to pay them $1.2 million. All three signed the note; all three were arrested. One of the witnesses interviewed by detectives was Kami Baldyga, Samantha Strickland's close friend. Baldyga said she met Samantha Strickland at a Methodist church. The more Baldyga talked to her, the more she doubted her stories. Samantha Strickland told everyone she was a child psychologist and a doctor, Baldyga said, but Baldyga never saw her hold down a job. She once told Baldyga that her mother beheaded a horse, Baldyga said. "Honestly, I kind of felt sorry for her at first," she said. Before Samantha Strickland's wedding, she asked Baldyga to be maid of honor but wouldn't let her talk to the groom. Samantha Strickland was afraid Baldyga would let it slip that the bride was unemployed, not a doctor, Baldyga said. On Christmas 2006, the husband found out, left her and started annulment proceedings, Baldyga said. Three months ago, the two women went out for a walk and Samantha Strickland dropped a bomb. "'I have to tell you something,'" Baldyga said, quoting her friend. "'My uncle molested me and I finally came to terms with it.'" Samantha Strickland said Wallace molested her when she was younger and the two had an affair more recently. Wallace, she told Baldyga, was the daughter's father. Baldyga said she didn't believe her, especially because she had identified other men as the girl's father. Samantha Strickland told Baldyga that she asked him for $10 million to keep quiet. "When this uncle thing came up, I said, 'Enough is enough is enough,' " Baldyga said.