Wayne's back, but not to the welcome he had become accustomed to in the past. This time, the once respected businessman, was back in cuffs and orange stripes to answer charges related to Spring River Beach Club land transactions.
Real estate developer Wayne Watkins, 63, whose name has become synonymous with the Spring River Beach Club land scandal, was arrested last week on a return flight from Mexico when he landed in Houston. After being a fugitive for nearly four years, the wanted man was extradited back to Sharp County by Chief Deputy David Huffmaster. Watkins was arrested on a bench warrant for theft of property by receiving, a Class B felony.
District Judge Mark Johnson held a bond hearing Feb. 24, Watkins appeared tired but in good health, after spending the night in the Sharp County Jail following his return to the county. Watkins' attorney, Larry Kissee, Sheriff Mark Counts, Huffmaster, Watkins' cousin, Virgil Griffin and Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tom Garner testified at the bond hearing, which at times seemed more like a trial, as whether Watkins was still a flight risk was debated. After nearly an hour of discussion, Judge Johnson set bond at $106, 910.20, exactly ten times the amount owed to the victims of Watkins alleged crime.
Watkins, admitted he knew he would be arrested but came home to visit his critically ill father, who lives in Craighead county. Kissee told Johnson he had tried to facilitate Watkins' return to Arkansas for several weeks, to save the county the cost of going to Texas to pick Watkins up, but had been unable to finalize the surrender.
During the bond hearing, the state originally requested no bond to be set, but later suggested $2.5 million would be fair due to his four years as a fugitive and the fact a bond amount is required for the charge Watkins is facing. Kissee suggested a $10,000 bond.
Watkins' arrest stems from an outstanding 2007 warrant for theft by receiving in land deals associated with property on the Spring River Beach Club. The charge alleges Watkins collected money over a period of years from people who made down payments for lots on the Spring River Beach Club. The investors signed contracts allowing Watkins to withdraw payments from their bank accounts on a monthly basis. He also used the land as collateral for $2.6 million in loans which went into default. Officials with the Attorney General's office, investigated and filed civil suits when Watkins unexpectedly fled, leaving the once thriving vacation spot to become a ghost town.
Judge Johnson said he ran a criminal history on Watkins prior to the proceedings and found no prior criminal record. Johnson went over several of the factors used for determining bond and had witnesses testify as he weighed the factors.
The main issue seemed to be the fact that Watkins fled the country. Dressed in orange and white jail garb, Watkins denied fleeing to avoid arrest. He told the judge he took some personal belongings to Mexico, but argued he couldn't have gotten across the border had the warrant been issued at that time. Johnson responded by saying, no matter qwhen Watkins left the country, he knew charges had been filed.
Watkins' cousin, Virgil Griffin, who wasa partner with Watkins in the Beach Club, before Watkins bought his portion, was called to the stand. Griffin admitted that Watkins had been in contact with him over the last four years, but he could not return Watkins' phone calls in Mexico. Griffin also testified that, if released, he would insure Watkins had a place to stay and would transport him to court appearances. Griffin also told the court Watkins went to Mexico to care for his aging, now deceased mother.
The main concern during the hearing was how to figure Watkins' current flight risk in relation to what the bond amount should be. Griffin was asked by Deputy Prosecutor Tom Garner whether Watkins had traveled in and out of the country during his disappearance. Griffin replied, "Yes." He was also asked whether he would have contacted authorities had he known Watkins' whereabouts prior to his arrest. Griffin stated, after a brief pause, "If I had been asked."
Defense attorney Kissee emphasized there was only one criminal charge against Watkins. Kissee claimed Watkins tried to fulfill his obligations until the bank foreclosed on the land and, when Watkins offered land of equal value, owners refused. Kissee argued the bond should be set relative to the damages and amount of money the state incurred, asking for the $10,000 bond amount.
Huffmaster then took the stand at the request of Garner. Under oath, Huffmaster told the judge locating Watkins had been a long ordeal, and the sheriff's department had put in countless hours on the case.
At one point Kissee suggested the department had simply been sitting on the case and Huffmaster was aware of Watkins' location.
The chief deputy replied, "As were you."
Huffmaster explained the process of extraditing fugitives from Mexico had to involve the FBI, and international cases are very complex.
"It isn't like the department can drive down and pick up a suspect," Huffmaster told the judge. Huffmaster aded he had concerns with how easy it would be for Watkins to Mexico, even if he were to surrender his passport.. Huffmaster requested no bond due to his flight risk.
Sharp County Sheriff Mark Counts was questioned regarding whether the county would make accommodations to allow Watkins to visit his ill father, if he were to remain incarcerated. Counts assured the court he would see that he was able to visit his father.
Johnson said he was aware of times during death, illnesses and births that the county has allowed inmates to visit or attend funeral services.
Garner then suggested the $2.5 million dollar bond, to which Kissee costated, "$2.5 million is the same as no bond."
The prosecutor suggested that, if he were to be released on a bond, Watkins should be required to wear a tracking device at his own expense. Garner admitted the had never asked for such a requirement but strong steps were needed to insure Watkins' court appearances.
Kissee was less than pleased with the suggestion, stating it was ridiculous considering there are more hardened and violent criminals, including drug addicts, who aren't required to wear the devices.
Johnson then set the bond at $106,910.20 and reviewed the conditions of the bond with Watkins and Kissee.
The terms included the surrender of his passport and no contact with any of the alleged victims.
A March 16 court date, with Circuit Judge Harold Erwin, was set as the next step in the case.
Shortly after setting the bond, Kissee returned to Counts' office with a cashiers check in the amount of $10,690, as well as an unsecured surety bond.
At this point, new discussion began as new questions were raised.
Motion to Increase
Under the advice of Prosecutor Henry Boyce, Counts refused tosign the "court bond". Boyce stated that a court or "sheriff's bond", as it is sometimes called, allows the sheriff "at his discretion" to elect to sign a bond that is equal to 10 percent of the face value bond and give him a property bond.
Many people in the community, who have been asked about the case, say they find it hard to believe, given that Watkins' charges involve property fraud, that he could post a bond using property.
Boyce explained there is a process in which the land used must go through a title search to ensure ownership of the property. He said he advised Counts not to sign the bond.
By the end of the day, the prosecutor's office had filed a "Motion to Increase Bond," claiming the state, as required under Arkansas law, produced evidence showing that Watkins, knowing he was under investigation became a fugitive in Mexico, and that this alone should mandate a higher bond than set by the District Court. The motion also cites Watkins no longer having ties to the state or county. The motion requested an immediate hearing, which was set for Feb. 28, before Circuit Judge Harold Erwin in Walnut Ridge.
Response to Motion
to Increase Bond
A copy was delivered to the defendant's attorney who filed a response Feb. 25. Kissee claimed the criminal charge is theft by receiving, not theft by deception.
The original charge. obtained from the Clerk's office, was filed Feb. 28, 2007 lists theft by receiving. The response also disputes Watkins is a fugitive with no ties to the country, stating he has family in Arkansas. The motion requested a dismiss of the motion filed by the prosecutor, saying it was not warranted under Arkansas law.
Motion for Contempt Citation for Sheriff
Later in the day Feb. 25, Kissee also filed a motion on behalf of his client for a contempt citation to be issued against Sheriff Mark Counts. The document indicates the court ordered Watkins could be released after the pretrial release inquiry, where bail was set. The motion stated stated Counts refused to accept the bond that was in the form of a cashier's check for $10,691.00 and unsecured surety bond.
Many locals who commented on this action praised Counts, stating in one case, "This shows a great amount of integrity on the part of the sheriff." Another woman dining at a local restaurant said, "It is about time the man was held accountable for what he did to those people."
The petition, however, states Counts willfully disobeyed a direct order from the court and should be cited with contempt and ordered to accept the bond.
Others who read news articles and have heard about the Watkins case commented on the fact Kissee is the county's attorney as well as Watkins' attorney. Since Counts is a representative of the county, Kissee is also his attorney, something that brings forth a lot of confusion.
Watkins sought to post cash and property because he has been unable to find a professional bondsman who is willing to write a bond for him, apparently because he fled the country for four years.
One local bondsman who was questioned about the case, simply said, " I wouldn't touch that one."
Feb. 28 Bond
Before Judge Erwin
At the Monday morning hearing, the requested increase in bond was heard by Judge Harold Erwin.
The prosecutor called Sheriff Mark Counts and Chief Deputy David Huffmaster to the stand.
The defense called Virgil Griffin and Barbara McBride, a friend of Watkins.
McBride testified as a character witness for Watkins. The testimony was essentially the same as heard at the Feb. 24 hearing. Judge Erwin determined that the bond amount was sufficient, but made it a cash only bond, due to Watkins' flight risk and his lack of residency in Sharp County.
The contempt charge against Sheriff Counts was not addressed in this hearing. It has been set to be heard at a later date, due to an Arkansas statute that allows Counts 20 days to respond to the citation.