Episode 17: Frauds and Fakes

The sentences for the defendants in Fort Myers raise suspicion about the court’s integrity and Delia learns startling facts about members of the prominent family.

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Episode Transcript

Delia D’Ambra: This is Episode 17: Frauds and Fakes.

*SFX of typewriter*

In January 1992, when Lee County circuit court Judge Elmer Friday typed up his final ruling for Phil, Danny, David, and Paul Hawley’s sentences, the news was shocking.

Despite the jury finding all of the men guilty of multiple felonies worth years in prison, Judge Friday doled out extremely lenient sentences.

According to records I pulled from the Lee County clerk of courts, Phil was sentenced to 120 days in jail, which he served mostly on the weekends, and was required to be on probation for 20 years.

But, according to documents I found, the court only made him report to a probation officer for 12 years. The probation was officially terminated in 2004.

The judge gave Danny, David, and Paul no prison time.

The news bewildered Lee County sheriff’s detective Tom Kontinos.

Tom Kontinos: At some point, if Eric stayed alive he would have found out this property was taken out from underneath him through a crime. Through criminal activity by the Hawleys. It was proven, they were found guilty of stealing this guy’s piece of property…

When you go to trial and you’re found guilty…you’re going to prison. I mean it’s not like there’s a plea deal where it says okay I’m going to plead to this, that and a lesser sentence…you go to trial and you’re doing prison time…and when the sentence came down we were shocked at the extremely lenient sentence.

Delia D’Ambra: Almost immediately, Tom says investigators with the state attorney’s office became suspicious that Judge Friday was partial to the Hawley family…

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 and that’s the last I heard of it.”

Delia D’Ambra: Judge Friday is not alive for me to ask him, so I’ll never really know why, contrary to state sentencing guidelines, he gave the Hawleys such light sentences.

His ruling was so strange, that even reporters like Sheldon Zoldan at the Fort Myers News Press were questioning if the judge was corrupt.

In your knowledge and experience of proofing stories and seeing coverage, to see people convicted on multiple counts of fraud and forgery charges to not get significant jail time was that surprising at all to you or the paper?

Sheldon Zoldan: I, I think it was surprising to everybody. Yeah, I think it, you know, everybody sort of said ‘Whoa…why is that happening’…and again it’s a white-collar crime. I mean and it just doesn’t get some of the sentencing if it would have been something else…but I think it did raise some eyebrows.

Delia D’Ambra: Jason Dawson, Eric’s youngest son, was devastated that the Hawley men never served significant jail time for the crimes they committed.

Jason Dawson: Just a slap in the face to my family.

It’s a joke. I mean, when you’re well-connected in a small community you have advantages and that’s exactly what happened.

Delia D’Ambra: According to property records, to this day Phil, David, Danny, and Paul still have homes and businesses in southwest Florida.

Jason even bumps into them every now and then.

Jason Dawson: Being at Lowe’s or Home Depot…running into one of the sons or running into you know Phil and his wife, and I don’t believe they know what I look like as an adult and if they do, they’re pretty good actors of course. Because I’ve run into them multiple amount of times in public.

Delia D’Ambra: Jason is convinced the Hawley family had some connection to his father’s murder.

A crime for which they have been the only named persons of interest by local authorities.

Jason Dawson: Just tell the truth…that’s it. Just tell the truth. You will be judged one day, but, while we’re on this earth, you know, you claim to be people that you are then walk the walk and talk the talk

There’s no doubt that their guilt is true. I’ll go to my grave knowing that. It’s just a matter of its God’s will and his will will be done. *chokes up*

Delia D’Ambra: Tom says as each year and decade has passed, he’s realized, Eric Dawson may never get justice.

Tom Kontinos: Someone committed the perfect crime… at this point because no one has been prosecuted for it and the suspects are right there in front of us. They’re right there. We know who they are. I know who they are.

Delia D’Ambra: Because Eric Dawson’s murder is still labeled as unsolved, the Lee County sheriff’s office and the medical examiner claim it’s an active case and have sealed all of the files related to it.

The sheriff’s office also declined my requests for comment on the status of the cold case.

Every few years Tom and Jason request updates but the sheriff’s office hasn’t responded to their inquiries in the last few years.

A journalist who briefly attempted to re-investigate Eric’s case in 2018…ran into the same closed doors.

His name is Michael Braun.

Michael and I have known one another since my days as a tv news reporter in Fort Myers.

He’s a veteran journalist, who still writes for the Fort Myers News Press.

Back in 2018 Michael spent eight months looking into the case and collected as many news clippings from his employer’s archives as he could. He published a long article about Eric’s case on the 30th anniversary of the murder.

Last year he agreed to meet with me in downtown Fort Myers to discuss his quest for answers.

Michael Braun: Jason, his son, in 2018, in January, January, February 2018 sent me an email asking if we would look into it and I didn’t know anything about this case whatsoever. Nothing. So, I started looking into it and the more I looked into it the more interesting it started getting and from that point on until November when the story appeared…I started digging into it. Looking into old stories. Trying to get a hold of people and I got ahold of every facet involved in the story in some way, shape, or form.

Delia D’Ambra: He interviewed Jason, Tom Kontinos, and even briefly spoke with Phil Hawley on the phone.

Michael Braun: He disavowed any knowledge of the murder. He claimed that it was likely a mob hit. That Eric had connections to the mob.

None of that stuff could ever be confirmed. Of course, I’m not sure you could confirm a mob investment in anything, but that was his take on things…and we signed off amiably. There was no anger. He said he was framed for the fraud stuff only because he had been an investor in the Dawson case.

Delia D’Ambra: Right before publishing his article, Michael, Jason, and Tom decided to visit Corkscrew Road.

*SFX of car driving*

They wanted to try and find the cypress clearing Eric had been buried in.

In 1988 it was remote wilderness, and even today no one really knows exactly where the location is. But Michael hoped taking Tom out to the general area would jog his memory.

Michael Braun: We had no idea. We were going to go out 4 miles from I75 on Corkscrew Road where the body was supposedly, not supposedly, where the body was found…being 30 years later things had been built up out there quite a bit and we really had no specific information on the exact placement where the body was. So, we drove out there I think we were on this one road…I think it was Gardener Road I believe it was and we were sitting there just kind of got out of the car we’re walking around talking about the case. Then all the sudden this car drives up and we’re all kind of looking at each other going, what’s this?”

Delia D’Ambra: What happened next, made each of the men stop dead in their tracks…

In 2018, while reporter Michael Braun, former LCSO detective Tom Kontinos and Jason Dawson were standing on a dirt road near the woods where Eric Dawson’s body was buried 30 years earlier, a man came out of a house about 100 yards away…

*SFX of pickup truck idling & door opening*

He pulled up in a pickup truck and approached them.

*SFX of boots walking on gravel*

Jason Dawson: He acted as if there was a disruption at his, in front of his home which I’m sure anyone normal would do. Checking things out, you know, what is this guy with a recorder doing at the end of my driveway? Let’s check it out.

*SFX of crickets chirping & truck idling*

Tom Kontinos: The person comes up and comes up to us and says hey guys you know may I help you? He was very polite. And Mike said yes, I’m Mike Braun with the news press and we’re just doing a segment on a murder case…and that’s when I piped in and I said, ‘How long have you lived out here?’…and the guy goes ‘Oh I’ve lived out here for like 20, 30, 40 all my life almost I think he said like that…I said ‘Oh really? Do you remember a body being found out here back in the ’80s? It was kind of a big case back then. I said ‘Do you know where that was?’…you know… ‘Do you remember the location? Are we close to where it is?’…and there was this huge silent pause… and a smirk came across his face and he goes ‘Maybe we should start this conversation over again and let me introduce myself.’…I was kind of curious about that…he goes… ‘My name is David Hawley.’

Michael Braun: It was odd. It was unusual. It was…Tom Kontinos and I just looked at each other like this is surreal. It’s almost like a twilight zone episode… It’s really hard to describe when somebody who’s a principal in a murder case from 30 years ago all the sudden shows up when you’re looking for the body. The site of the body where it was buried.

Delia D’Ambra: It was one of the wildest stories I’d ever heard.

I checked out Lee County property records and sure enough, David Hawley owns a home on acreage off of Corkscrew Road, not far from where Tom remembers Eric Dawson’s gravesite being.

I left asking the obvious question, why would someone who was convicted in court of stealing from Eric right before his murder live on land so close to where his body was found?

If it was me, I’d want to be as far away from Corkscrew Road as possible.

But Tom says David owning that home and stumbling upon the group that day in 2018 doesn’t surprise him at all.

Tom Kontinos: They are very. They’re in your face kind of family. They’re not…they’re not afraid of anything. They’re really not.

It’s almost like, ‘Yeah we got away with it and I’m living on the property that we did it.’ I mean, it’s just, that’s how they are.

Delia D’Ambra: In the end, the only thing that is provable and was proved in court is that Phil, Danny, David, and Paul were involved in stealing land from Eric and forged his signature on a fake land deed.

But I have to agree with Tom a little bit, living on Corkscrew Road is still a bold move.

Jason feels the run-in with David was more than a coincidence too.

Jason Dawson: I think God works in mysterious ways…and so I think that was meant to happen, and for whatever reason, it happened. I’m glad that it happened, I don’t really have either way to say.

Delia D’Ambra: The oddness of the story really struck a chord with me.

I decided to look into the Hawleys’ background more and figure out what Phil, David, Danny, and Paul have been up to since their conviction in 1992.

I met with Tom again because he’s a licensed private investigator.

We combined our resources and information and combed through public records…

Tom Kontinos: Now, this is suspicious to me that he’s used the social security numbers in the past for some reason.

Delia D’Ambra: After a few minutes on Sunbiz, a database that houses records for registered Florida businesses, we made a significant discovery…

Tom Kontinos: You can see here…Family…Familyland Foundation…

Delia D’Ambra: So, Phillip Hawley owns a foundation called Familyland?

Tom Kontinos: Yeah…

Delia D’Ambra: Isn’t that the same name Eric Dawson was going to name…

Tom Kontinos: Yep.

Delia D’Ambra: His development?

Tom Kontinos: Yep….and that’s a recent…see you can view the LLC on that and find out.

Delia D’Ambra: Wow. Familyland Foundation was a filing of January 24th, 2020


Tom Kontinos: Yeah…so that’s recent.

Delia D’Ambra: I pulled the records for the LLC and here’s what I found…

Eric Dawson filed for the business name Familyland Foundation Inc. in November 1987.

After Eric’s death, it went dormant and in April of 1996, Martin Hawley, Phil’s youngest son reinstated it.

The Familyland Foundation company shows annual reports as recent as 2020, and the current registered agent is Phil Hawley.

Again, I have to ask, why would someone who’s been a person of interest in Eric’s murder want to have control over his dormant business name?

Especially the name Familyland, the very name Eric was going to call the Corkscrew Road property if it had ever been developed.

It just seems so odd.

It doesn’t mean anyone in the Hawley family is responsible for Eric’s murder. I’m not suggesting that at all.

But it makes me have so many questions for them.

Something else Tom and I noticed in a data report we pulled for Phil and his sons was an all-too-familiar name.

Likely associations…

Tom Kontinos: Yep.

Delia D’Ambra: Robert Jeffrey Pelley. That is Jeff Pelley who is sitting in prison for the murder of his family from 1989.

Tom Kontinos: Now, you’re going to ask me how does this get associated with this. I don’t know the answer to that.

Delia D’Ambra: I do.

Remember Jeff Pelley worked for the Hawleys in the early 1990s and remained good friends with the family for years.

I explained Jeff’s case to Tom and the fact that the Pelley’s were murdered in Indiana, five months after Tom began Eric’s homicide investigation in Florida.

Tom says back in April of 1989 when he was trying to charge the Hawleys for Eric’s murder, he had no idea the Pelley family had also been murdered.

Do you think it would have been of interest to you to know that a family who used to live here that was also close to the family that you were investigating…

Tom Kontinos: Were murdered?

Delia D’Ambra: Were murdered.

Tom Kontinos: Yeah! That would have been interesting to us…and we didn’t know that.

Delia D’Ambra: What would you have done with that?

Tom Kontinos: Probably the first thing we would have done is contacted the Indiana authorities to find out what the circumstances, you know, what the motives, what the circumstances of that killings were.

We certainly would have been interested in that and maybe if…and law enforcement is like this. They don’t communicate. At least they are better now, not back then. You know, they knew what they knew. We knew what we knew. We probably should have gotten together and shared that information.

Delia D’Ambra: Discussing Indiana triggered Tom’s memory as we talked.

He told me he remembers that at one point in his investigation into the Hawleys in 1988 and 1989, he and an investigator from the Florida state attorney’s office took a trip north to chase a lead…

Tom Kontinos: I know that Jim and I went to Indiana for something.

Jim and I went there to Indiana because we were right there…isn’t Indiana and Kentucky on the border, so we were right there…in Louisville…just on the other side of Indiana…we went there to investigate or to follow up on something but couldn’t have been very significant because I can’t remember why we went there. But we did go to Indiana for something.

Delia D’Ambra: In relation to Eric Dawson?

Tom Kontinos: Yes, yes. Jim and I both went to Indiana.

Delia D’Ambra: I pulled up a map to try and help Tom remember more…

So, you say you stayed in Louisville, right?

Tom Kontinos: Correct.

Delia D’Ambra: And there’s the river…

Tom Kontinos: Mhmm.

Delia D’Ambra: Do any of these towns leading up to Indianapolis look familiar.

Tom Kontinos: No. We went right across…I think the border is right here somewhere…we went across the river and met, went to the PD office there…but I can’t remember…I really can’t remember…it was just across the border.

Delia D’Ambra: But was it in Indiana or was it still in Kentucky?

Tom Kontinos: It was in Indiana.

Delia D’Ambra: So we have just these towns…any of those? Charlestown? Sellersburg?

Tom Kontinos: Clarksville sounds familiar…

Delia D’Ambra: And where is that?

So, it was pretty close to the Indiana/Kentucky border…

Tom Kontinos: It was right across, it was right across the border, yep.

Delia D’Ambra: And you say you don’t remember what led you guys there, do you think it had anything to do with looking into any business entities or information related to the Hawley family or to Eric Dawson?

Tom Kontinos: I’m sorry Delia, I can’t, I can’t remember for the life of me why we went there.

It wasn’t a conference. It was work-related.

Delia D’Ambra: Work related to your investigation.

Tom Kontinos: The investigation…

Delia D’Ambra: In Dawson.

Tom Kontinos: I don’t know if we were looking for somebody…because I don’t remember it being productive.

Delia D’Ambra: Yeah

Tom Kontinos: Because our bosses were like ‘well we spent that money and you didn’t bring back anything?’

Obviously, it was important for us to go. To spend those monies for an investigation. So, it was important for us to go rather than do a correspondence or a phone call. We didn’t have email back then or anything like that.

Delia D’Ambra: Because you went to a police department?

Tom Kontinos: We went to a police department.

There’s something in my mind that says, I’m thinking Clarksville. Clarksville, Indiana.

I’ve contacted the Clarksville, Indiana police department and asked if they have any traffic tickets, arrests, or any reports related to members of the Hawley family or Eric Dawson.

The clerk there told me they checked two database systems and found nothing.

They have a microfilm room with records prior to 1990, but the department doesn’t have the manpower to check each film.

They told me I’d need to have a report number for them to perform the search.

Now, if I could access Tom’s case file that’s sealed from public record, I’d be able to find his report from decades ago that explains what the lead was that prompted him and his colleague to go to Indiana.

That report likely contains the information that would allow Clarksville police to narrow down a search in their records.

But because Lee County won’t unseal Eric’s murder case documents, I’ll never be able to know for sure what led Tom to Indiana regarding Eric’s murder.

I find the fact that Tom went there at all though incredibly interesting.

Especially when you think about the timing of his trip.

In December 1989 Tom was building his case against the Hawley family for crimes against Eric, he thought he was going to be able to nail them for his murder.

On April 1st he raided Phil’s home and office.

What was it that Tom had found out between December 1988 and April of 1989 that would have made him travel to Kentucky or Indiana?

After doing some digging, I think I found something that might explain it.

Phil Hawley’s bankruptcy records after he was convicted in 1992 contained hundreds of pages of overdue expenses and bills.

I’ve gone through them line-by-line and I found a statement for a credit card registered to Phil and his wife in 1989.

*SFX of credit card swiping*

According to the card’s transaction history, in 1989 someone used it in Louisville, Kentucky three times.

One charge was for $420 at a Mobil gas station.

Another was for $570 at a Super America gas station.

And the third was for $2,500 at a Saks Fifth Avenue store.

It doesn’t specify what month the purchases happened, but because I know Tom Kontinos arrested Phil and three of his sons in July 1989, I’m going to assume that they weren’t taking any trips out of Fort Myers after that.

Their bail most likely forbid them from leaving Lee County.

So, reasonably the credit card transactions likely occurred before July 1989.

My question is, who had Phil’s credit card in Louisville Kentucky in early 1989, and why were they spending so much money at gas stations and a department store?

I remembered that Martin Hawley had told the Fort Myers News Press back in May 1989 that he’d been in Chicago the weekend the Pelley’s were murdered.

Maybe the credit card swipes happened when martin was driving to Chicago, but again, the charge amounts are for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. That’s too much money for a car or even snacks for a car full of people.

Then I thought maybe the charges were a result of the Hawleys driving to attend the Pelley’s funerals in Lakeville, but according to Jeff and Jacque and Pastor Michael Ross, no one from the Hawley family came to the Pelleys’ funerals.

I’m literally stumped by these credit card records something just doesn’t add up about them to me.

There’s only one way to get to the bottom of it…

And while I’m at it, get some answers about just how close the lives of Phil Hawley, Bob Pelley, and Eric Dawson were?

Delia D’Ambra: Hi, is this Phil?

That’s next, on Episode 18: Factually Based? Listen right now.