Episode 16: Copy and Paste

Bombshell testimony from Eric Dawson’s former secretary and an undercover informant reveals the suspects’ depth of deception in stealing Eric’s land days before he vanished.

Episode Photos

Episode Source Material

  •  “Man In Cement Died of Gunshot” by Peter Franceschina and Phil Fernandez for Fort Myers News-Press, December 16, 1988 via Newspapers.com
  • “A Trail of Broken Promises, Debt and Death” (Page 1) by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 6, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “A Trail of Broken Promises, Debt and Death” (Page 2) by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 6, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Land Theft Trial of Hawleys Gets Underway” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 11, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Signature of Dead Man Key in Theft, Forgery Trial” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 12, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Lawyers Discuss Murder In Forgery Trial” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 15, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Signature Is Key to Hawley Trial” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 19, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Lee Land-Theft Trial Defense Attorneys Cross-Examine Ex-Employee of Accused” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 22, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Hawley Defense Frustrated by Experts on Handwriting” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, October 30, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “No Smoking Gun Revealed in Trial” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, November 4, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Theft, Forgery Deliberations Begin” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, November 22, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Hawleys Convicted of Forgery” by Peter Franceschina for Fort Myers News-Press, November 23, 1991 via Newspapers.com
  • “Mystery of Murder and Money” by Peter Franceschina and Phil Fernandez for Fort Myers News-Press, December 18, 1988 via Newspapers.com

Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 16: Copy and Paste.

*SFX of typewriter*

On July 19th, 1989, ten months after Eric Dawson disappeared, Tom Kontinos charged Phil Hawley and three of his sons, Danny, David, and Pau, with several counts of felony grand theft, forgery, and lying to police.

It had taken him nearly a year, but Tom finally had what he legally needed to arrest the men for photocopying Eric’s signature on a land deed and then stealing that land three days before he vanished.

Despite uncovering that the Hawley family stood a lot to gain from Eric’s demise, Tom did not have enough probable cause to arrest them for murder.

Tom Kontinos: You don’t steal several million dollars piece of property three days before a guy allegedly disappears from planet earth only to find him dead two months later. You have to think about it…They steal this guy’s property…if he stays alive at some point he’s going to realize ‘Hey the Hawleys stole my three million dollar piece of Shangri-la that I was going to build out there off of Corkscrew, I’m calling the cops.’…I mean, I don’t know how much, how more basic you can say ‘We stole this guy’s land, he’s missing three days later, he had to be missing…he had to disappear or else their crime would have been discovered of stealing the property.

Tom and the Lee County state’s attorney both knew that rationale made a solid circumstantial case for homicide charges…but at the time they lacked physical evidence tying the Hawley family to Eric’s murder.

No matter how hard Tom tried, he was unable to find a Hawley family member who would break.

Tom Kontinos: We came to realize that the Hawleys were an extremely tight-knit family.

We knew that it was going to be extremely difficult to crack into that family unit. You know, we weren’t going to get a Hawley turning on a Hawley. It just wasn’t in their nature. We just sensed it. We saw it. In talking with them, we weren’t going to break them.

We just needed one or two pieces and it just, it just didn’t come.

Delia D’Ambra: Lee County prosecutors told Tom it was too risky to take the Hawleys to trial for murder and possibly lose.

So, the better course of action was to indict the men for the forgery and land theft crimes and at least convict them for that.

According to Florida sentencing guidelines at the time, each of the forgery charges carried a minimum of anywhere between two and a half or five years in prison. The grand theft charge could have meant a max of 30 years in prison.

Phil, Danny, and David were facing multiple counts each, which meant if jurors found them guilty, they’d be going away for at least 15 years each, possibly more.

Tom and the prosecutors were banking on that.

It wasn’t a murder conviction but it would suffice.

*SFX of courtroom & judge’s gavel*

When the trial began in October 1991, the stage was set for a showdown.

Phil had hired one of the most expensive defense attorneys in Fort Myers and so had his three sons.

The men claimed they had nothing to do with the forged deed, despite it having their signatures on it next to Eric’s.

On top of the forgery charges, the state had added on additional criminal usury counts after discovering the men had also altered mortgage agreements in relation to their business investments with Eric.

The case seemed straightforward, but the prosecution faced a lot of challenges from the start…

First, because of the high-profile nature of the case and the fact that the Hawley’s were a prominent family in southwest Florida…a few of the judges had to recuse themselves from overseeing the trial.

After several delays, the court ended up bringing a judge out of retirement to preside over the case.

The second hurdle for the state was that the defense lawyers had won a pre-trial motion to exclude any discussion about the circumstances of Eric’s murder.

Prosecutors and witnesses were only allowed to mention the date that Eric disappeared when his body was found and the fact that he’d been shot with a .22 caliber gun.

The judge banned any talk of how Eric was encased in a makeshift Tomb and that he’d been lured to the property.

So, with those critical things out of play, the prosecution had to carefully weave together their case against the Hawley’s without emphasizing that everything the family was accused of doing…was also strong motive for murder.

As the Hawley’s forgery trial dragged on for seven weeks, it remained the top news story in Fort Myers.

Here’s Sheldon Zoldan, a former reporter for the Fort Myers News Press.

Sheldon Zoldan: It would have gotten a lot of page views if there was internet back then. It was the top of the news. I mean I think, I’m not sure how many people understood it maybe and the significance of it but I think it was very popular. It was something that I think made our front page many days and it was a big deal.

Delia D’Ambra: I have copies of as many depositions, transcripts, and documents as the Lee County court clerk would give me, but because this trial took place 30 years ago, huge chunks of the record are missing.

The clerk told me that a lot of the material was purged from the archives years ago.

Thankfully though what I did get, is good.

The most important witness who took the stand was a former FBI forensic handwriting expert.

The defense attorneys originally asked this guy to be their star witness and explain how Eric’s signature was not a photocopy, but after studying the land deed in question this expert concluded it was in fact a photocopy and ended up testifying for the prosecution.

It became clear after he explained how a person can transpose and photocopy a signature onto a document, that that was exactly what one or more of the defendants had done to the quit-claim deed.

The expert said Eric’s signature from a document he’d actually signed back in early 1988 when he was alive, was photocopied onto the fake deed.

When the expert compared the two signatures, he could tell without any doubt that the signatures were an exact match.

He said an exact match was impossible because no person signs their name the same way every time.

He’s was certain that the signature on the deed was a photocopy.

On top of that, this expert also showed how the defendants had altered mortgage documents to indicate they’d invested more money with Eric than they actually had.

For example, mortgage notes the Hawleys originally executed with Eric that stated they’d given him $70,000 had been changed to say $90,000.

Prosecutors could prove this because they’d found the original promissory notes while raiding Phil’s home and the Fort Myers credit bureau office.

By the time the FBI expert left the stand, he had given jurors a lot of solid proof that several of the defendants had committed forgery, criminal usury, and grand theft.

The other main charge the state wanted to prove was that the Hawley’s had knowingly lied to law enforcement throughout the criminal investigation.

Prosecutors needed to prove that Phil and his sons had known before they filed the quit-claim deed on September 1988 that Eric wasn’t operating above board and they needed to recoup their losses.

The state had to convince jurors that the defendants had openly lied to police when asked about their knowledge of Eric’s business schemes, before filing the deed with the Lee County land records office.

To help prove that, Tom Kontinos had prepared a star witness.

Someone who’d worn a wire inside the Hawley’s inner circle…

*SFX of microphone feedback & door opening*

A few months after Eric Dawson’s murder, Tom Kontinos finally got an insider in the Hawley camp to crack.

It wasn’t a family member, but Tom figured this person was the next best thing.

The man’s name was Barry Crowe.

He worked for the Fort Myers credit bureau in 1988 and 1989.

Tom Kontinos: He was a witness to the quit-claim deed and we brought Mr. Crowe into the State Attorney’s Office and Jim and I interviewed him extensively…and after our interviews, he thought it would be in his best interest, his best interest to cooperate with us.

He was an innocent bystander but you know when you’re a detective and you’re dealing with witnesses and the witnesses believe that they may have some exposure or liability of criminal conduct. More specifically he witnessed the falsifying of an official document that was used to steal property. You know, when you start looking at a person and leading up to the notion and they finally have a light bulb that goes on and says am I going to prison for this, for what I did here?…it gives them incentive to cooperate with us. I think that’s where we went with Barry. We gave him a choice. Be a witness or be a defendant.

Delia D’Ambra: Barry agreed to wear a wire for several weeks inside the credit bureau offices to see if David, Danny, Phil, or anyone in the Hawley family would slip up.

Both Barry and Tom knew the mission came with risks.

Tom Kontinos: Barry expressed concern over his safety with the Hawleys. So, there’s a fear factor there…of him personally. Personal fear factor…but Crowe…he didn’t want anything do with it…he wanted out and his only way out was for him to be a cooperating witness for us.

Delia D’Ambra: According to Tom, after hours of recording, Barry got enough on tape to incriminate the Hawleys for the forgery and land theft crimes, but he wasn’t able to get anyone on tape suggesting they’d killed Eric or hired someone to kill Eric.

According to Barry’s pre-trial deposition, he said at some point the Hawleys had suspected him of wearing a wire.

When he’d come into the office, they would awkwardly hug him to check for a surveillance package.

He believed that within the first week of him wearing the microphone, the Hawleys knew not to say anything about Eric’s death around him, but that didn’t stop them from speaking crudely or negatively of Eric.

I wish I could get my hands on Barry’s wire tapes, but from everything I’ve gathered, I think they’re gone for good.

And I’ve also had no luck in tracking down Barry myself.

The last significant witness to testify at trial was a woman named Honor House.

She’s now deceased now, but back in 1988, she was Eric Dawson’s secretary.

In her deposition, Honor stated she’d known Eric since the early 1980s and had worked with him on several land projects.

She didn’t know Phil Hawley and his sons well because Phil would only come by every now and then to the office.

Honor stated in a deposition that in the year leading up to September of 88’ Eric forbid anyone at enterprising developments from discussing business with people outside the workplace.

She said he became paranoid and secretive.

Honor suspected Eric was getting into unsavory investment deals and not being forthright with clients.

She felt responsible to some of the investors because she’d brought several of them to Eric to make investments. They were her friends and local church members.

Honor said that when her conscience couldn’t take it anymore, she arranged a secret meeting with Phil Hawley.

In July of 1988, she met Phil at a diner and told him everything she suspected Eric was up to.

She revealed that most of the money invested in Eric’s land projects was unaccounted for in one way or another.

Honor said she trusted Phil and because he was Eric’s largest investor, he should know what was going on.

She stated she’d heard Phil was a Christian and an upstanding businessman.

Honor’s words about her secret meeting with Phil in July of 1988 were proof that Phil had known Eric was up to something before he and his sons executed the forged quit-claim deed.

A fact Tom Kontinos says the defendants were not truthful about.

This information was a critical turning point in the trial.

On November 22nd, two years to the day that the hog hunters found Eric’s body sunken in the cypress head-clearing, Phil, Danny, David, and Paul were convicted of multiple felonies.

According to court documents, jurors found Phil guilty of 15 felony counts related to grand theft and forgery.

David and Danny were also found guilty of a handful of felonies…and Paul was only convicted of three forgery counts.

In January 1992 at their sentencing, things took a bizarre turn…

Tom Kontinos: Someone from the state attorney’s office, the chief investigator at the time, had made reference that they received information that something nefarious may have happened involving the judge.

Delia D’Ambra: That’s coming up next, in Episode 17, Frauds and Fakes.

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