From the time county officials realized that Corky Yager's Volkswagen Graveyard — an institution for 25 years — was illegally zoned, they tried to figure out a way to clean up the 10-acre junkyard without having to saddle taxpayers with the cost.
Code Enforcement Supervisor Patrick Phillips testified in court that for two years Yager had not complied with an order to clear the property of its 800 or so junked cars. Yager, 83, had removed 150 vehicles from the junkyard, but Phillips said that barely made a dent.
"The judge had been giving Mr. Yager so much time," Phillips said. "I think he wanted Corky to clean it himself. I mean, we had three or four contempt hearings — any one of which could have ended up with incarceration. And no one wanted to see him in jail."
At the Dec. 9 hearing, a heavyset, white-haired man with a beard sat in the courtroom. Paul Roark was the county's Santa, offering to clean up the Sunray Bugs site for no charge. Circuit Judge William Sestak signed the court order giving Roark's company, T & J Salvage, the "sole discretion" to dispose of everything on the site.
Phillips had never heard of Roark or T & J Salvage. "I really don't know who, what, when, or how," he said. "We went to court several times, and the day the judge gave us the order to clean up the southern quadrant, he was there. That's when I found out T & J was the contractor. That's when I found out the costs wouldn't be paid by Corky or that the county wouldn't have to pay it."
Roark may not have charged for the cleanup, but he wasn't working for free. Yager's family estimated the value of the scrap metal he removed from the site at $80,000.
"My father didn't understand what he was signing," Tina Mazzarra, Yager's daughter, said. "He didn't know the county could come in and seize half his business. What they did to my father was a crime."
Assistant County Attorney Kristi Wooden, who worked on the case and drafted the court order, couldn't be reached for comment. Code Enforcement Officer Sherri Ewald, a 25-year veteran of the department, recommended Roark for the job.
In an email to Wooden, Ewald assured the legal staff that Roark alone had the equipment and manpower to do the job "at no cost to the county."
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County officials didn't know Roark was a convicted felon on supervised probation. In September, he had pleaded no contest to filing a fraudulent insurance claim — his second felony conviction in three years.
In an email to The Tribune, Ewald said she had inspected Roark's junkyard in the past, and it was always in compliance. She knew he had legal issues in the past but wasn't familiar with the details of his criminal record.
Ewald said it never occurred to her to contact Cross Environmental Services, the local salvage company that has the standing contract with code enforcement for demolition and clean up of blighted properties.
"I have only experienced Cross doing construction demolition and I know that they get paid for that demo," she wrote. "I never thought to call them in reference to metals and vehicles."
Cross Vice President Chuck Gray said his company could have performed the cleanup, but Gray said they wouldn't have done it for scrap.
"I don't work for free," he said. "We would have charged the county and had them put a lien on the property."
Roark has purchased scrap from the county's Fleet Maintenance Department, but he has never bid on a county contract before, purchasing director Scott Stromer said.
Roark and his wife, Deanna, owned a salvage company in Hudson for years, but they had sold it. Their new company, T & J Salvage — named for their daughters Tia and Jada — was incorporated about a month before the Dec. 9 court hearing. Tia Roark is the president.
Roark's contract didn't go through the Purchasing Department, Stromer said. Since the county didn't pay him, he didn't have to meet the same qualifications as other vendors.
"As a general rule, we have pretty high standards," Stromer said.
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The county typically doesn't do business with convicted felons — let alone those who committed fraud against the county, which Roark did in 2005. He pleaded no contest in 2008 to six counts of grand theft and two counts of scheme to defraud.
According to court records, Roark opened five separate checking accounts for his excavation company, Dirtworks. He passed more than $90,000 in bad checks — including a $10,083 check to Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Olsen, which he used to register his company vehicles.
Tia, who was 21 at the time, also was president of Dirtworks. She told investigators she knew nothing about the transactions, but she identified her father's signature on the checks.
Paul Roark also illegally excavated more than 5,000 cubic yards of his neighbor's property and sold the fill dirt at various construction sites.
He was sentenced to 10 years of probation and was ordered to pay more than $120,000 in penalties and restitution for the dirt and the bad checks. His probation was terminated early — in October 2008 — after he made the final payment.
Less than a month later, he committed insurance fraud by staging a car accident at his salvage yard. According to court records, Roark rammed a piece of heavy equipment into a woman's car in exchange for a portion of her $25,000 insurance payout. He was arrested in October 2010 and pleaded no contest last September. Roark was ordered to pay more than $15,000 in fines and restitution and sentenced to supervised probation for 18 months.
Attempts to reach Roark for this article were unsuccessful.
County officials praised the job he did clearing the Sunray Bugs site. Phillips said Roark and his staff worked for five days to clear the southern half of the property.
The process was methodical. Roark used an excavator to flip each vehicle to make sure the gas tank had been punched and drained. Then the excavator would lift the vehicle into a compactor that had been brought to the site. The crushed cars were then loaded into truck to be transported to a scrap yard in Tampa, Phillips said.
"I think the most he got in a single load was 23," Phillips said. "When you crush a VW Bug, they don't take up a lot of space."
To Yager, the week was devastating. "They stripped me of almost everything."
Judge Sestak gave Yager until Feb. 15 to clear the northern half of the property, and Mazzarra said they will meet the deadline. She said she'll never get over the pain of seeing her father's expression when Roark started crushing the cars.
"What we went through that day — and knowing what I know about (Roark) — it just adds insult to the injury," Mazzarra said.