The Secrets and Scandals Inside Sarasota’s Famous Mansions
By Robert Plunket Updated 12/22/2020 at 9:43am Published in the December 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine
Sarasota is famous for more than its beautiful beaches and cultural riches. The homes here have their own mystique. All over town you will find impressive showplaces that by their very size and style tell stories about money and power. Just driving around in, say, Harbor Acres or the north end of Siesta Key is a tourist attraction in itself.
A select number of Sarasota’s homes have more than great curb appeal. Something special happened within their walls. Secrets, scandals, moments in history. Let’s take a look at seven homes, each with a special place in the story of our town.
For sheer drama it’s hard to top the Gotti estate on Casey Key. For years there was a code of silence about this house. For the town’s realtors and journalists, it was a subject you just didn’t bring up. Why cross the Gotti family? It was too dangerous.
Exactly who owned the house is hard to decipher due to endlessly vague and misleading deeds and financial documents. But court cases have established that it was built in 1986 by Joseph Watts, aka “Joe the German.” Called a “cold-blooded killer” by a federal judge, Watts became the righthand man and most trusted confidant of crime boss John Gotti. After Watts helped engineer the assassination of a rival Mafia boss, he was given a lucrative loan sharking operation, the profits of which, heavily laundered in a Swiss bank, were allegedly used to build the home.
The estate is a Mafia compound gone tropical, with two houses, a pool, tennis court and nine bedrooms, all surrounded by a 10-foot-high concrete wall. In its heyday a pair of Dobermans were constantly on patrol, and old-timers can still remember Joe and his buddies racing each other in their speedboats. Those days seem to be over, though. The compound has new owners and Watts is currently in prison for conspiracy to commit murder.
It’s looking a little shabby these days, its famous garden surrounded by a chain link fence, but this home on Delmar Avenue was once the most glamorous place in town. Back in the 1950s, the governor would show up one week, Bette Davis the next, then Prince Rainier or Dame Edith Sitwell. The host who was able to draw all this star power? Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., the first director of the Ringling Museum and a legendary figure in modern art.
As a young man he carved out an impressive career, championing some of the great artists of the time: Picasso, Miro, Dali, Calder. When he got to Sarasota in 1946 to breathe life into the Ringling, he didn’t let its small-town reputation dissuade him. He championed all the arts and was famous for his bold ideas, like bringing an old theater over from Italy. The very first rehearsal of the new Asolo Theater Company took place out by the reflecting pool.
But more than anything he was noted for his great personal style. His Rolls-Royce graced the driveway, and inside a series of rooms—including a 40-foot-long ballroom and a glassed-in porch decorated with Chinese Chippendale fretwork—he provided a sophisticated setting for his memorable parties.
The home also tells a poignant love story. Austin was married to a wealthy woman who didn’t care for Sarasota. They were said to be devoted to each other, but while in Sarasota, Austin’s companion was a young man named Jim Hellyar, who had worked as a magician’s assistant. After Austin’s death in 1957, Hellyar never seemed to regain his footing and ended up a salesman at Maas Brothers.
Lost Love and Glamour
The Githlers were the power couple of the 1990s boom. There were others who may have been richer or better connected politically but none who quite so looked the part. Charles had a Kennedy-esque chiseled chin and grin. Kim was a glamorous blonde with perfect hair and glowing make-up. A common guessing game of the time: Which one had the brains?
It turns out they both did. The empire they built was all the more remarkable because neither attended college. It was a perfect merger of two entrepreneurial spirits. Their most noteworthy accomplishment was creating the world’s largest network of investing shows and seminars, known today as MoneyShow. Real estate then entered the picture, and it seemed that they were part of every deal in town.
In 2005, at the height of their success, they built the ultimate trophy home, known as Villa Solstice. Right on the bay, with 11,000 square feet, it was the definition of a showplace, built with lavish entertaining in mind. When visitors puzzled over how small the kitchen was, Kim would take them down to the lower level and show them the other kitchen; it was set up to cook for 300 people and had its own loading dock. The wood-paneled library was for more intimate discussions with people like Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, in town in search of big Republican money.
Then two things happened. The Githlers got divorced and their house burnt down. The stage setting for Sarasota’s golden age was gone. Not so the Githlers, who are very much around but with lower profiles. But the ruins of their mansion are still there, a monument to an era that is fast disappearing.
Lottery Winner Fantasy
On April 18, 2012, Merle Butler walked into a convenience store in Red Bud, Illinois (population 3,700) and spent $3 on a quick pick Power Ball ticket. The next day while reading the paper, he jotted down the winning numbers on the back of an old Christmas card and checked them against his ticket.
They matched. Butler and his wife Patricia didn’t sleep a wink that night. In fact, Patricia couldn’t stop giggling. “She giggled for four hours straight,” Merle recalled. The next morning he took the ticket to the bank and put it in a lockbox. There were two other winning tickets, but the Butlers’ share was $218 million.
They waited three weeks to claim their prize. During that time, they hired a team of lawyers and financial advisers to shepherd them through the process of becoming mega-rich. Until then their lives had been quiet, middle-class, Midwestern. In their 60s, they were recently retired and had been enjoying camping trips in their Winnebago with their kids and grandkids. And now, suddenly, they were among the wealthiest people in the country. So they did what anybody in that lucky situation would do. They bought a waterfront mansion in Sarasota.
It’s an 8,400-square-foot Mediterranean-style home, located on Hillview Drive in Harbor Acres, one of the top two or three residential addresses in town. The house is set on a half-acre overlooking the bay, with every possible dream home amenity, as befits the $7.5 million price tag. But for all its grandeur, the interior has a homey feel, perfect for an extended family like the Butlers’. Their journey from Red Bud to Hillview is, as the director of the Illinois Lottery put it, “straight out of a Frank Capra movie.”
Where Stephen King Was Inspired
Writer Stephen King is Sarasota’s most famous resident and its most famously reclusive. His estate at the northern tip of Casey Key can be seen only by the seagulls. But it’s not his original Sarasota home. That honor belongs to an equally well-hidden mansion on Longboat Key (pictured at top).
All by itself down a shell road in the mangroves is where King recovered from the 1999 accident that almost killed him (a driver struck him while he was walking not far from his home in Maine) and fought off his addiction to cocaine and pills. It’s also where the plot and the themes of his classic novel Duma Key were born. And most important, it’s where his love affair with Florida first blossomed.
King and his wife, Tabitha, rented the place for three winter seasons in the late 1990s. It’s the tallest private home on Longboat and situated in such a way that all you see is water and mangroves. The glass walls make the view omnipresent. King worked in a walled-off corner of the ground-floor garage, where there is nothing to see but a spooky tree branch outside a high window.
But King’s love for Sarasota comes through loud and clear. In Duma Key the hero is walking along the beach with his daughter when she asks, “Is this the most beautiful place on earth, Dad?”. “No,” he replies, “But you’re young and I don’t blame you for thinking that it might be. It’s Number Four on the most beautiful list but the top three are places nobody can spell.”
The “Ask-Gary” house, as it’s known locally, is the place you love to hate. It’s too big, too ostentatious, too out of place. But it’s also kind of cool—a marble mansion set right on Siesta Beach.
It’s also the most famous house in town, thanks to its starring role in the MTV reality show Siesta Key. The show did not quite achieve iconic status in popular culture, but millions of people have watched it, and the house, once seen, is hard to unsee. Based on the famous 130-year-old Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, its façade is classic and tasteful enough; seen from the rear, it becomes a gigantic pillared terrace overlooking a public beach, with enormous windows offering glimpses into a gilded and ormolu-encrusted interior.
The home was built by Gary Kompothecras, a chiropractor turned ambulance chaser whose legal referral service has made him millions. The series storyline focuses on his son Alex, a handsome young man with a posse of equally cool local friends. They date, hook up, break up, drink beer and margaritas, make out, drive expensive cars and go for boat rides. Lurking in the background is Cousin Pauly, a Jersey Shore-like character and would-be rapper who adds another note of vulgarity.
Like any good reality show, Siesta Key is beset by scandals and bad publicity. Friends of Alex who weren’t in the show were convicted of cruelty to a shark (they dragged it behind their speed boat until it died), and Alex’s racist tweets got him fired. The show’s future is in doubt, but the “Ask-Gary” house, built to withstand the strongest hurricane, will probably last a thousand years.
The 9/11 Mystery House
Our last home is not a mansion. It’s a 3,700-square-foot builder’s model in the gated golf course community of Prestancia. Its current value is, according to Zillow, $690,000. Sarasota is full of homes like this. Four bedrooms, three baths, a pool. But 4224 Escondito Circle holds the greatest mystery of all.
In the late 1990s it was home to Abdulaziz al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud, and their infant twins. None of the neighbors seemed to know much about them. They kept to themselves, occasionally going to nearby Sarasota Square Mall for a movie. They owned three cars, and, judging by the size of Anoud’s diamond ring, seemed to have plenty of money. Visitors would occasionally show up, mostly Middle Eastern-looking young men.
Then, in late August 2001, a strange thing happened. The al-Hijjis vanished. The neighbors fretted about what was going on, but it was not until Sept. 12, alarmed by the destruction of the Twin Towers, that they called the FBI.
Investigators found some strange things inside. “It was like they had gone to the store,” one of them said. The refrigerator was stocked with food. Clothes were still in the washer. Dirty diapers were in the bathroom. The safe in the master bedroom was open—and empty.
The mystery deepened when investigators examined the records of comings and goings at the entrance gate. Names and license plate numbers were checked, and it turned out that the al-Hijji’s visitors had been the same men who flew the hijacked planes into the World Trade Center.
And there the story hangs in the air, never explained, never fully investigated. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has made a crusade of trying to figure out the truth. On it hinges the involvement of the Saudi government in 9/11. But Graham has been sidelined and stonewalled by the FBI and the federal government. Now, 20 years later, the mystery of the house on Escondito Circle remains as murky as ever.
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