Episode 14: Fines & Grace

The CounterClock investigation pivots to focus on the disappearance of a man in Southwest Florida seven months before the Pelley murders. Eric Dawson’s story is integrally important for the remainder of the series.

Episode Photos

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 14: Fines and Grace.

So far this season I’ve been focusing entirely on the murders of Bob, Dawn, Janel, and Jolene Pelley.

I’ve laid out a lot of information for you about the investigation into the crime, Jeff’s trial, and the aftermath.

Part of understanding all of that meant I had to investigate the Pelley’s backgrounds, their lives before moving to Indiana.

Most importantly, Bob’s life.

What I found is that in the late 1980s Bob Pelley wasn’t the only person connected to Landmark Bank in Fort Myers, who died a violent execution-style death.

There was another man, named Eric Dawson, who had all those things in common with Bob.

For the next few episodes, I’m going to tell you his story, and I promise it ties back to the Pelley family, so just stick with me because Eric’s story is incredibly important to understanding the big picture and all of the characters involved.

*SFX of seagulls & construction*

In the mid-1980s, Fort Myers, Florida, the neighboring city of Cape Coral, and all of Greater Lee County was booming.

*SFX of traffic*

Developers from across the country were racing to the area to build condos, golf course communities, and strip malls.

The frenzy to find land and transform it was at an all-time high.

One man who had his sights on getting a piece of the pie was clarence Eric Dawson, who everyone called Eric.

In 1983, Eric was 38 years old and wanted to make a name for himself as a land developer.

Eric’s background was in insurance, estate planning, and selling securities. But his real passion was real estate.

He knew south Florida was prime for buying land, but the area also offered rounds and rounds of his favorite hobby, golf.

*SFX golf teeing off*

After serving in the military in the 1960s Eric had picked up the sport and by the ’80s was a semi-pro golfer.

*SFX of birds chirping*

Eric’s endgame was to move his wife Susan and their three kids from the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan to sunny southwest Florida before the end of 1983.

He’d been thinking about the idea long before that though, in 1981 he started raising capital to build a hotel in Lee County. His plan was to put it near southwest Florida International Airport and call it the Airport Sheraton Hotel.

Eric and five other men from Michigan took the plunge and formed a company called Green Tree Properties. They put $815,000 of investors’ money into the hotel project, but within a year things went south.

Eric and his crew struggled to pay the hotel’s $4.3 million mortgage and the bank foreclosed on it.

*SFX sound of public auction gavel*

A few months later, another developer ended up buying the hotel at auction and renamed it the Airport Ramada Hotel.

When the dust finally settled, Eric and his friends were left in financial ruin. They argued and eventually disbanded their investment firm.

By the time Eric and his family moved to Lee County in late 1983, he’d filed for bankruptcy, the bank had taken their home in Michigan, and to make matters worse the National Association of Securities Dealers had fined Eric $30,000 for selling securities he’d misrepresented to investors.

Eric didn’t let this slow his dreams down though.

In 1985 he created his own company called Enterprising Developments Inc and was determined to succeed in Florida.

By 1986 Eric had raised enough capital from investors to get a half-a-million dollar mortgage on a 72-acre tract of land on a major thoroughfare in Fort Myers called Winkler Road.

The area is just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico, posh Sanibel Island, and back in the ’80s was ripe for residential development.

One by one, Eric continued collecting properties, taking out million-dollar mortgages on large parcels of land.

He promised his investors double return when the projects were completed.

By spring of 1987, Eric held the deeds to three major properties in southwest Florida.

One was the Winkler Road project, which I just told you about.

The second was land on Fort Myers beach slated to become a condo complex called Bac-Bay Health and Racquet Club.

Eric’s third property was a swampy patch of land off of Corkscrew Road in south Lee County. He had plans to develop that into a Christian residential community called Familyland.

Things were looking good for Eric, except for one thing…

He still had that $30,000 fine from the national association of securities dealers looming over him.

He’d been dodging it like the plague.

Which brings us to the summer of 1987, when Eric Dawson met Phillip Hawley.

I’ve already explained in the show how Phil ties into Bob and Jeff Pelley’s lives, but now I need to tell you about his connection to Eric Dawson.

Trust me, it is vitally important to this investigation.

In 1987, Phil’s business, the Fort Myers Credit Bureau, had been hounding Eric to pay his fine.

For months, Phil and his five sons who worked at the credit bureau had been trying to get Eric to pay up or at least schedule payments.

Tired of the non-stop calls, Eric eventually went to the credit bureau office in person to address his debt.

Phil and Eric struck up a friendship, Eric agreed to make small payments and overtime Phil became interested in investing in some of Eric’s land projects.

It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

According to court records, by summer 1988 Phil claimed to have invested two million dollars with Eric to develop two large properties.

According to financial records filed with the Lee County clerk of court, between 1987 and 1988, at least three of Phil’s sons, Danny, Paul, and David invested money with Eric too, ten thousand, twenty thousand dollars, and even more than that.

The Hawley family also owned a construction company and so as part of this mutually beneficial relationship, Eric drew up documents ensuring the Hawleys would be an official contractor

*SFX of construction site*

When construction got underway in early 1988, Pierre Hawley, Phil’s eldest son, actually lived in one of the property’s condo units while overseeing the build-out.

It wasn’t just finances and promising investments though that brought Eric Dawson and Phil Hawley’s lives together…

They were both devoutly religious.

Both men claimed to be Christians with good character, who were active in their communities, churches.

They both were viewed as honest men when it came to their business dealings.

Phil and his family attended Fort Myers First Church of the Nazarene, where they were close with the Pelley family.

Eric and his family attended Mcgregor Baptist Church in Fort Myers.

Both churches still exist today and draw in hundreds of members each week.

Eric was very charismatic about his faith, he often prayed with potential investors before sealing deals and promised them that their decisions were, “the lord’s will.”

According to financial records, a majority of Eric’s investors were from his church or other religious organizations in Lee County. He also had clients living in nursing homes that invested thousands of dollars of their estates.

Phil on the other hand didn’t really mix religion with his business, and I should actually say businesses because according to Florida Sunbiz Records, Phil Hawley and his sons operated 17 registered entities or businesses in the sunshine state.

Three of which are still active today.

Most of them were collection agencies, construction firms, investment companies, corporations, and a private investigation firm.

Phil’s main business, the Fort Myers Credit Bureau, would pursue debtors for delinquent accounts. For every payment they received, they earned a commission.

Like a lot of creditors, it wasn’t a trade of grace or mercy.

According to a lawsuit Phil filed in the 1970s, his private investigations business allowed him to wire tape and surveil people.

Not a very compassionate or popular line of work.

But just because Phil and Eric had different approaches to their careers, didn’t mean the two families weren’t close.

Phil’s sons, Pierre, Paul, Danny, David, and Martin were close to the same age as Eric’s kids.

Eric’s oldest, Robert, was 19, then Barbara and Jason were a few years younger than that.

Jason Dawson is now an adult and still lives in Lee County.

I cold-called him last year to talk about his dad.

Just minutes into our first phone call…

He invited me to he and his wife’s house for an interview.

Right off the bat, he explained the Dawson family makeup.

Jason Dawson: I’m technically the only child. My father adopted my brother and my sister.

Delia D’Ambra: Susan marrying Eric after already having had two kids, explained the eight- and six-year age gap between Robert and Barbara and Jason.

Jason says from the moment Eric adopted his siblings, he considered them his and made sure to show it.

Jason Dawson: We would attend church Sundays, Wednesdays…so, we were active in the…my parents were involved in the Sunday school with others.

He was always involved in coaching. If he wasn’t coaching, he was coming to the basketball games…yeah, so he was always there.

Delia D’Ambra: But on September 9th, 1988, Eric wasn’t there for his family…

He wasn’t there for anybody.

Eric Dawson vanished…

*SFX of crickets chirping & basketball dribbling*

Jason Dawson: It was a Friday night. I had come back from playing basketball at a neighbor’s house.

He was supposed to come home that evening and go to dinner with some friends of the family and seven o’clock came, eight o’clock came, nine o’clock came…I think at probably 10 o’clock that’s when you knew something, just the atmosphere was very dark and it was something that we knew wasn’t right.

Delia D’Ambra: Jason Dawson remembers vividly the panic that set in next…

Jason Dawson: That evening my mom called the Lee County sheriff and they said we can’t file any reports. It has to be 24 hours before we file a missing persons report.

Delia D’Ambra: That’s a common line law enforcement agencies tell people who are trying to report a missing person—especially a missing person who’s an adult.

A lot of agencies today tell people that, but it should not be that way.

Unfortunately for Susan Dawson back in 1988, that is what happened.

She had to wait until Saturday evening September 10th, 1988 to report her husband missing.

Despite the 24-hour delay in getting Eric in the system, the family spared no time in launching their own search efforts.

Susan, Barbara, and young Jason stayed put hoping Eric would come home and calling his car phone over and over again.

*SFX of car doors shutting & car starting*

Robert Dawson went looking for his father accompanied by members of the Hawley family.

Jason Dawson: The next morning my brother contacted the Hawleys and actually went riding around with one of the Hawley, one of the boys.

Delia D’Ambra: Susan and the family had last seen Eric around 4:30pm on Friday.

He’d come home from work, quickly changed his clothes, and told Susan he had a business meeting.

He said that earlier in the day a man had called his office interested in buying the Corkscrew Road land.

Eric didn’t tell Susan who the guy was but insisted he had to meet the potential buyer at the property at 5:45 for a showing.

He promised to be back before their dinner plans.

*SFX of sports car cruising off*

Jason remembers hugging his dad goodbye and watching his dark-colored Datsun 280-z sports car zip out of the driveway.

15 hours later, Robert and the Hawleys were searching for Eric.

The group looked for him at his office in Fort Myers, but neither he nor his car were there.

Next, Robert and the Hawleys looked for Eric at the Corkscrew land.

*SFX of frogs croaking*

It was a completely undeveloped parcel with nothing for miles in either direction.

Back then Corkscrew Road was a glorified dusty trail in the middle of cypress swamps and palmetto brush.

The search group looked around for a bit but didn’t see Eric’s car.

Because the property was so close to the local airport, Jason says his older brother Robert made a suggestion…

Jason Dawson: They went out to the Corkscrew land and then my brother was like ‘Hey, why don’t we check the airport?’

Delia D’Ambra: And bingo…just like that, came a critical clue.

The day after Eric Dawson vanished, his son Robert and a few members of the Hawley family found a major clue.

Jason Dawson: They eventually went to the airport and that’s where they found, you know, my dad’s car.

Scrubbed clean. Nothing in it. Not a hair left behind. As if it was professionally detailed and left in the short-term parking.

Delia D’Ambra: Within hours of that bizarre discovery, Lee County sheriff’s deputies finally stepped in and began investigating.

Eric’s sports car being at the airport pretty much told them all they needed to know…

Eric had clearly left southwest Florida.

One look into his current business dealings, confirmed, at least for police, why the 43-year-old father would want to disappear.

According to court records, in the spring and summer of 1988, Eric’s investment deals and projects were falling apart.

By all accounts, Susan Dawson and the rest of the family had no clue that multiple people had filed lawsuits against Eric leading up to his disappearance and that old investors from Detroit were hounding him or that he’d defaulted on the mortgages to all his Florida properties.

Eric Dawson, was very much in debt…

So, right away, investigators looking at his disappearance figured he was on the run.

Jason Dawson: That’s when the rumors started, he skipped town to, you know, because he owed so much money…he was involved in something with the mob. So, all those different stories were formulated in that short period of time.

Delia D’Ambra: And for months, that’s what everyone assumed happened.

Everyone except Susan Dawson. She insisted to anyone who would listen that Eric would not leave her and the kids.

He loved his family…

Jason felt the same.

Jason Dawson: *sniffles* “He loved his family too much to do that.” *sniffles*

Delia D’Ambra: He would not have left on his own free will you mean?

Jason Dawson: No…*cries*…No…*sniffles*…I mean, he had a beautiful family. He had no reason to leave…and every reason to live. *cries*

Delia D’Ambra: In the weeks that followed Eric’s disappearance new articles and reports detailed Eric’s questionable investment strategies and how much money he’d allegedly swindled from investors.

Robert, Barbara, and Jason bore the brunt of the community’s judgement.

Including people from their church.

Jason Dawson: I would go to someone’s house to play basketball and I was questioned who I was. A lot of people were fearful of whatever they were fearful of, so,…questioning, ‘Are you Eric Dawson’s son’ and…

Delia D’Ambra: Thinking that whatever happened to him could happen…

Jason Dawson: Is going to follow the children and the family.

Delia D’Ambra: That’s tough.

Jason Dawson: Yeah. I mean 11 years old and you’re just trying to play basketball…

Delia D’Ambra: And you lost your dad….

Jason Dawson: Yeah…I mean it was a pretty *****  experience.

Delia D’Ambra: Law enforcement kept Eric’s case open but weren’t really working it.

As more and more bad news that came out about Eric, the more deputies became certain he’d skipped town and that he was gone from Florida forever.

But as fate would soon reveal, Eric Dawson was much closer to home than anyone thought.

Tom Kontinos: I remember that initial scene. It was kind of like a cypress head and realizing that we’ve got some digging to do.”

Delia D’Ambra: In the next episode, Hogs and Snakes, Eric Dawson’s missing person investigation turns into a homicide.

Listen, right now.