The ownership of a private island in the Bahamas that was previously a retreat of the late, prominent South Florida designer James Wallace Tutt III — and which has been at the center of a five-year legal dispute — is now in the hands of the Bahamian court.
The Third District Court of Appeal in Miami on Wednesday affirmed three lower court judges’ decisions that the matter has to be decided in the Bahamas and not in Miami.
Tutt, an interior designer and developer whose elegant style attracted celebrity clients including Cher, Gianni Versace, Robert De Niro and Diane von Furstenberg, died in 2010 at age 53 on Harbour Island in the Bahamas. His death was apparently heart related, according to a statement from his family at the time.
Tutt moved to South Florida in the 1980s after working as a lawyer and builder in Washington, D.C.
Here, he gained notoriety for transforming the mansion of the late Italian designer Versace into Casa Casuarina, a South Beach icon.
Tutt and his life partner, Don Purdy, moved to Harbour Island in 2002, where they transformed a 1940s home into a luxury 10-room hotel, Rock House.
Tutt also bought Caribe Cay, a three-acre private island with a home, off Harbour Island, as a retreat.
In 2006, Tutt agreed to sell the island to Guy Mitchell, an investor with a home in Coral Gables, said Tutt’s longtime lawyer Stuart Sobel, a partner in Siegfried, Rivera, Lerner, De la Torre & Sobel in Coral Gables.
Over several months, Mitchell paid $2.9 million of the $2.925 million purchase price but never took title to the island for reasons that were never clear, Sobel said.
Mitchell, who had real estate investments in New York, ran into financial trouble, and two companies that had judgments totaling $57 million against him tried to seize his assets — including either the Caribe Cay property or the proceeds from its sale.
Lawsuits followed and have waged on for years, ultimately resulting in the appeal court’s decision.
“We’re looking forward to delivering the deed to whichever entity the Bahamian court decides is entitled,” said Sobel, who has represented Tutt’s estate in the litigation. “As the court wrote, while the facts were complex and convoluted, the issues were really simple and always have been.”
Calls to several attorneys representing the appellants were not returned.