A billboard that remained up in Hardy for quite some time saying "Wayne's back" is something about 25 people are wishing they would see these days.
Wayne Watkins, 59, is a wanted man. The developer of Spring River Beach Club, Riverbend Park and several other properties is charged in Sharp County with theft by deception, a class B felony, for allegedly duping hundreds of people out of their hard earned money.
Although the warrant was filed in February 2007, it has yet to be served, meaning Watkins is still not behind bars. Instead, some say he fled to Mexico when he defaulted on $2.6 million in loans.
"I don't know who knows where he is," said Arkansas Deputy Attorney General Jim DePriest. "We don't know where he is."
Watkins' best bet may be staying out of the country. Not only is there a warrant out for his arrest, but Attorney General Dustin McDaniel plans on suing the former business man.
"This is not a great case," he said. "It's a good set of facts but there is little likelihood of any recovery."
Operating under the Spring River Beach Club, Watkins and his sales associates convinced people to purchase property in the many developments along Spring River. Watkins or his employees would often then collect down payments and have the buyers enter into land sales contracts. These contracts often required buyers to make monthly payments, many of which were automatically withdrawn from the buyers' bank accounts.
Watkins' victims didn't opt for an extravagant vacation home. Instead, they chose to purchase a spot to park their RV and camp.
"These were primarily regular working folks," DePriest said.
When buyers paid off their property or checked into the status of their land, they learned they had spent their hard earned money on nothing. Their land claims were no good.
McDaniel said a few complaints began coming into the attorney general's office in the 1990s, long before he took office in January 2007. DePriest said it wasn't until the last few years, primarily the last two years, that more complaints began coming into the state office regarding Watkins.
McDaniel said he became aware of the situation after receiving a phone call from one of Watkins' victims in Sharp County late last summer. The victim wanted to make sure McDaniel was personally aware of what was going on.
McDaniel said he didn't know about the situation but became interested. He then referred the issue to his public protection department. The victim then provided hundreds of documents to the AG's office.
Then in February, McDaniel said he received a phone call from a friend in Sharp County. The friend told him McDaniel's name had been thrown around in regards to the case. There were rumors that nothing had been done because McDaniel was affiliated with Watkins and his business, a claim McDaniel said is untrue. Such a claim infuriated McDaniel.
In late March, the public protection department began giving McDaniel more detailed reports of the department's findings. When the head of the department asked McDaniel how he wanted to proceed via e-mail in April, McDaniel said, sue.
"It's important to me the people who have been victimized know the attorney general's office is doing all that we can," McDaniel said, adding that it is important to at least try to seek justice for victims and deter future scammers.
DePriest said he thinks there are hundreds of people who have fallen victim to Watkins' scam. So far, the office has complaints from about 25 people.
There is not a monetary figure to put with the case as of yet. DePriest said not only were many people making payments to Watkins for property they would never receive, but they were also paying fees to operate facilities which were not used for that purpose.
"I feel terrible for the people who have been taken by this man," McDaniel said. "He's one of the people who must have no fear of the afterlife."
McDaniel said he thinks his office will file the civil suit against Watkins in the next few months for violating the Deceptive Practices Act. Under the act, McDaniel can recover money and seek penalties, up to a $10,000 fine for each violation.
McDaniel said he isn't filing the suit now because Watkins is thought to be out of the country in Mexico. Regulations give 120 days from the time the suit is filed for the defendant to be served with papers. If papers are not served within that time the court can dismiss the case.
"We'll wait long (to file suit) if we need to," he said.
McDaniel said that although his decision is to sue Watkins, there is little hope of getting much, if any, of the victims' money back.
"We think he's squandered, wasted or spent all of the money overseas, or at least out of the country," he said.
DePriest said many of Watkins' victims are from Arkansas but there are also some from other parts of the country. In fact, there may still be some victims who don't know they have been scammed.
If someone thinks they may have been victimized by Watkins they may contact the attorney general's office at 800-482-8982. Representatives will then look into the cases individually. Victims are also encouraged to contact private counsel about the issue.