Black Bear Reserve community rebuilds after developers arrested for theft

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By Jayna Omaye

Published May 17, 2014


When Richard Sibley Sr. moved into Black Bear Reserve in 2008, everything seemed fine. He got along with his neighbors and the community was safe, he said.

"It looked good, and I got an acre of land here," said Sibley, 76. "A lot of other places, the houses are built close to each other. There's a lot of space between the homes."

But after attending several homeowners association board meetings, Sibley said he started to notice something amiss at the development east of Eustis off county roads 437 and 44A. For example, Sibley, who previously worked in construction, said the water-utility fees developers charged seemed high.

Suspicions developed among residents and spawned a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation into possible wrongdoing. The probe culminated May 2 when Black Bear developers Mark Carson, 58, and his wife, Lee Ann Carson, 57, were arrested on charges they stole about $1.5 million from residents through the Black Bear Reserve Water Company and the homeowners association.

Every time he turned the tap, Sibley, who moved to Black Bear Reserve from the Orlando area, knew something was wrong.

"I didn't use too much water," he said. "I used to check the meter and they [developers] used to say, 'you used this much.' I said, 'no, I didn't.'"


The Carsons and Mark's daughter, Ashley Carson, served as the board of directors of the Black Bear Reserve homeowners association, which oversees the Upson Downs, Villages and the Lakes communities, as well as the water company for a decade after the development's inception in 1999. Ashley Carson has not been charged.

In 2009, Sibley said he and other residents hired a lawyer to investigate Mark and Lee Ann's management of residents' funds. When the Carsons served on the board of directors for the homeowners association, Sibley said he paid dues of about $140 a month. Now since new management has taken over, he said he pays about $62 a month.

Officials believe the couple, who face 25 counts of grand theft and one count of money laundering, hid some of the stolen funds in shell accounts called Chalcopyrite Investments, Inc. and Rapid Retrieval, Inc.

Deborah Spicer of the Black Bear Reserve homeowner association has worked to stabilize Black Bear Reserve, where developers were arrested on charges that they drained homeowner association accounts of $1.5 million and tried to hide the money in shell companies. Mark Carson, 58, and his wife Lee Ann, 57, both of Apopka, each face 25 counts of grand theft and one of money laundering. Spicer became homeowner assocation president in 2011 and has tried to clean up finances ever since.

The Carsons resigned from their leadership roles in December 2009 as complaints swirled about mismanagement. However, they were still able to access association funds shortly after resigning, officials found.

In December 2011, the FDLE reviewed a complaint filed by Deborah Spicer, the new president of the homeowners association's board of directors, alleging the couple embezzled funds from the association and the water company's accounts.

"When we first moved into the community, we personally weren't aware of these issues," said Spicer, who moved there with her husband in 2006. "But probably in 2007, and certainly 2008, the concerns in the community escalated."

When reviewing the association's bank accounts and records, Patricia Linn, a certified public accountant hired in March 2012, said she found little documentation explaining why homeowners' money had been transferred to the Carsons' personal business accounts.

"Once they [residents] found out the magnitude, I'm sure you can imagine they were quite appalled," Linn said.

Sibley said he noticed that some residents put their homes up for sale in the community, which features an 18-hole golf club designed by renowned architect P.B. Dye.

"There were…residents who moved out because of the Carsons," he said. But he said he noticed a change in the community after developers resigned.

"Once we got them [Carsons] off of the board, there was a relief," Sibley said. "The [association and water] rates dropped down."

Spicer said one positive outcome of the mess is that more residents have gotten involved and are making their voices heard through participation in various committees at Black Bear Reserve, which has 287 homes and 63 available lots.

"We would love to recapture the money that was taken," Spicer said. "We don't know. We're unsure unless the judge requires that they return some money."