Eighty-three-year-old W.C. Eckles limps around the outside of his house, pointing to the holes in his walls. He stuffs them with rags. He covers them with plywood. But wind, rain and mosquitoes still find their way through, tormenting his sleep, he said.
The trouble began in 2004, when a salesman knocked on his door and offered a new mortgage that would cut his monthly house payment in half. It would also provide $30,000 for renovations -- a new roof, new windows, new floors.
That salesman worked for mortgage broker Scott Almeida, who stole most of the money, court records show, but not before his construction crew had descended on the Bartow house and torn gaping holes in the walls.
Now, the place is uninsurable, Eckles said. ''I feel pretty rough. I don't see my way out no more.''
One of Almeida's 30 victims, Eckles never knew that his broker was a convicted cocaine trafficker who got his license straight out of federal prison. Nor did others -- not the brain-damaged ex-boxer confined to a wheelchair, not the woman whose loan proceeds paid for Almeida's engagement ring.
But they are among thousands of economically vulnerable Floridians, living on the edge of financial survival, who suffered as the state's mortgage-fraud rate became the nation's highest.
At least twice during Almeida's five-year estimated $13 million crime spree, state regulators got credible warnings about his predatory practices. But they did nothing to stop him.
Louise Winters, 80, of Tampa, reached out to regulators for help after Almeida sold her a 30-year mortgage that was supposed to pay off her existing home loan, settle a few bills and provide $10,000 for renovations -- to be done by a construction company Almeida's ran.
''I been here 42 years and I decided I wanted new floors,'' Winters said.
Almeida's construction manager slapped down some loose linoleum in a tiny front room, then covered a single step with an ill-fitting spare scrap of the material.
Winters never saw him again.
Her daughter, Lois Robinson, spent the next nine months trying to get Almeida to complete the promised work or refund the money.
That's when Robinson noticed that Almeida had lied on the loan application, listing her mother as 60 when she was actually 76. He also made up a job at a retirement community that allegedly paid Winters more than $30,000 a year.
Winters hasn't worked since her husband died in 1990, she told The Miami Herald.
Not knowing where else to turn, Robinson wrote to the state's Office of Financial Regulation in July 2004, exposing the lies that Almeida had included on the loan application.
''My mother and I would like this transaction to be investigated,'' Robinson wrote. ''My mother was defrauded of a considerable amount of money.''
But regulators closed the complaint with no action, their records show.
Winters said she was surprised to learn that the state had granted Almeida a license shortly after his release from federal prison. ''They couldn't possibly have been doing their job,'' she said.
Four months later, the OFR received an almost identical warning from the Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency. Investigator Eric Olsen had discovered that Almeida lied about another customer's income to get a loan, then diverted the proceeds.
Over a span of five months, Olsen made at least 48 calls to Almeida's company, trying to get the customer's money back, records show.