By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By this time, the stepdaughter who was the subject of the Fort Bend abuse allegation was again living with Ross and her mother. The reunion was not without its problems. In late 1992, the stepdaughter filed a petition for injunction against domestic violence, which was quickly dismissed. After she filed again in early 1993, the petition was granted. In 1994, Donna Ross filed an identical petition, which she quickly withdrew. The couple divorced in 1995.
While family life may have been rocky, Ross had worked his way into the glitzy world of Palm Beach real estate. A big coup was befriending one of the most prominent brokers in town, Jeff Cloninger.
In 1999, Ross agreed to pay Cloninger $250,000 for his interest in what might be rightly described as an extremely ridiculous plan to relocate a historic mansion. Known as La Encantada ("The Enchanted"), the home was owned by Amway founder and Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos. DeVos wanted to demolish the 8,000-square-foot mansion, but Cloninger approached him with a proposition: He'd round up investors to buy the home and move it about 80 miles from the tiny community of Manalapan in Palm Beach County to Sewall's Point in neighboring Martin County. Cloninger wasn't able to proceed on his own; he sold his rights to Ross, who got a Maryland-based thoroughbred owner and horse breeder to invest the bulk of the money.
Ross told reporters he decided to save the mansion after his 14-year-old daughter Lauren saw it while she was attending a birthday party nearby. She wanted to save it from the wrecking ball, and Ross, a loving father, wanted to fulfill his little girl's wish. Newspapers in southern Florida loved the ensuing drama, as the mansion was chopped into three sections and placed on barges headed to Sewall's Point. The Stuart News reported that, almost immediately, the barge carrying the first chunk of historic architecture plowed into a sandbar, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection fined the investors $86,000. This was followed by the town of Sewall's Point — the mansion's destination — denying the necessary permits. The barges spent the next year trolling up and down the Intracoastal Waterway, seeking sanctuary.
Reporter Bob Markey II, who followed the story for The Stuart News, was there when the first section found its home in 2001. Ross had been on the tugboat hauling the home, and when it arrived, he hopped onto land, hugged his partners and knelt to pray.
A few months later, Ross's business partner James Moran filed a lawsuit accusing Ross of defrauding him out of a few hundred thousand during the purchase of the mansion, and the home sat vacant while its ownership was hashed out in court. Ross denied the allegations. The case was settled out of court. Robert Critton, the attorney who represented Ross's business partner, said the settlement was for "mutual relief" and no money changed hands, because "my client wouldn't have paid him a nickel." As for Critton's client agreeing to the settlement, Critton said, "We settled because [Ross] didn't have a pot to piss in." Twenty-one months after its journey from Manalapan to avoid the wrecking ball, the historic mansion — the apple of Lauren Ross's eye — was demolished.
Ross seemed to find business prospects in everything, and Hurricane Ike was no exception.
A few months after the storm, Ross found himself sitting next to a contractor on a flight from Florida to Houston. Brian Fines was a manager of Palm Beach-based Watlee Construction. The Houston office was repairing homes damaged by Ike, and they tried to relieve homeowners' headaches by dealing directly with insurance companies.
Now that Ross was a River Oaks mainstay, he could drum up business for Watlee, as long as he got a commission on each referral. One of these referrals was a home belonging to John Kloss.
It's not clear why, but in June 2009, Kloss granted Ross power of attorney. Ross subsequently acted as liaison between Watlee Construction, Kloss and Kloss's insurer. Ross wanted to be on top of repairs to Kloss's home, as well as an assisted-living-expenses application he submitted to USAA on Kloss's behalf. The payments would go to cover Kloss's rent while he waited for his home to be repaired.
On June 19, Ross e-mailed two Watlee managers, stating that he now had Kloss's power of attorney. "Please DO NOT talk with USAA, including [insurance adjuster Carlos Cortinas] without us discussing it first. Wherever [sic] either of you speak with John, please continue to remind him NOT TO TALK WITH USAA, and I will instruct them not to call John as well."
In a July 3 e-mail to the same managers, as well as the president of Watlee Construction, Ross describes "a call that I had received from Ms. Amanda Kelly, who identified herself as a 'special investigator' with USAA." According to the e-mail, she asked about a lease form submitted to USAA that suggested Kloss was actually living in one of his other properties, but was still trying to get money out of USAA by "attempting to lease back to himself."
That's when it appears Ross kicked up the charm: In the e-mail, Ross states he denied any knowledge of the lease, and "I spent an additional fifteen minutes speaking with her concerning Mr. Kloss' medical condition...She seemed much more at ease with me and we continued to chat about many unrelated things."