‘It’s morally wrong:’ Eatonville leaders question real estate deal with vulnerable man

Agency took ownership of man’s property despite concerns of his ‘mental capacity’

EATONVILLE, Fla. – While passing through Florida’s oldest Black incorporated town, visitors might encounter Tommy Dixon riding his bicycle along the community’s streets.

Dixon, 66, has resided in a small home in this historic town for nearly all his life and is familiar to many Eatonville residents.

Those who know Dixon well believe he may suffer from cognitive impairments, although it is unclear whether he’s been formally diagnosed with any medical conditions.

“He has some challenges,” said a former town council member during a public meeting.

Dixon himself acknowledges he may not be capable of making big decisions.

“No, not really,” Dixon told News 6 during a brief interview outside his home, which was originally purchased by his late father in 1957.

Despite concerns about Dixon’s mental capability, members of an Eatonville agency entered into a complicated real estate transaction with the vulnerable man in 2020, records obtained by News 6 show.

Just days before Dixon’s home was scheduled to be sold at auction due to delinquent property taxes, Eatonville’s Community Redevelopment Agency, or CRA, crafted a unique agreement that transferred ownership of the property to the government agency for future “redevelopment opportunities.”

In exchange for the CRA obtaining Dixon’s property at a fraction of its market value, Dixon was granted permission to reside in the home for the rest of his life.

More than a year after deeds to the property were transferred to the Eatonville CRA, Dixon claims he did not understand the agreement presented to him by the CRA’s executive director.

“He said, ‘Go ahead and sign it.’ So, I signed it,” Dixon said. “He didn’t explain it.”

Some Eatonville elected leaders are now calling for a state investigation into the real estate transaction while also looking for ways to transfer the property back to Dixon, possibly under the supervision of a guardian.

“There’s something seriously wrong,” Councilmember Marlin Daniels said. “It’s ethically wrong. It’s morally wrong.”

Eatonville CRA proposes real estate deal after Dixon fails to pay property taxes

Following the deaths of his father in 2000 and his mother in 2012, Dixon continued to reside in the family’s home on West Kennedy Boulevard.

Dixon told News 6 he has never held stable employment, claiming seizures he suffered as a teen forced him to drop out of high school and prevented him from working.

It is not immediately known if Dixon personally paid property taxes on the parcels, which were listed under his late father’s name. But records show delinquent real estate taxes were owed on the property since at least 2017.

In the summer of 2020, the Orange County Comptroller’s Office sent a notice stating the property would be sold to the highest bidder at an auction on Nov. 12, 2020, in what is known as a tax deed sale if the delinquent taxes were not paid.

It is unclear how members of the Eatonville CRA first learned that Dixon was at risk of losing his home.

Community redevelopment agencies, like the one established in Eatonville in 1997, generally do not assist residents with paying delinquent property taxes.

Instead, Eatonville CRA’s mission is to “aggressively pursue redevelopment and revitalization activities” within the town, in part by acquiring blighted properties for future development.

During an Eatonville CRA board meeting in early November 2020, the agency’s attorney outlined a unique proposal that would enable the CRA to acquire Dixon’s property for a fraction of its market value while also preventing Dixon from becoming homeless.

“We want to give Mr. Dixon the opportunity to remain on the property,” CRA attorney Jaimon Perry told board members during a Zoom video conference call. “We’re not trying to kick Mr. Dixon out of his house.”

Under the proposal, records show the CRA would use money from its “demolition and acquisition” budget to pay off Dixon’s delinquent property taxes and fees, which totaled $7,571.

In exchange, Dixon would transfer ownership of his family’s property to the CRA.

That property had a market value of $93,773 in 2019, according to county records.

One parcel of Dixon’s land, which sits along Kennedy Boulevard, would be fully owned by the Eatonville CRA.

Another parcel, which contained Dixon’s house, would be owned jointly by the CRA and Dixon’s life estate.

“Once he passes away, he has no more interest in the property, and then it’s fully under the control of the CRA,” Perry told the CRA board.

Since the property was owned by the estate of Dixon’s late father, Perry agreed to simultaneously represent Dixon in a separate probate action that would put the property in Dixon’s name before later transferring ownership to the CRA.

“We’re his only option,” CRA Executive Director Michael Johnson told the board. “If we have not done anything, [Dixon] is going to lose the property to whoever the highest bidder is.”

Johnson did not respond to questions from News 6 inquiring whether Dixon had been advised of other options to pay the delinquent property taxes that did not involve the CRA, such as potentially soliciting financial donations from friends or selling a vacant portion of the land.

CRA board members express concern about Dixon’s ‘mental capacity’

After the CRA’s attorney outlined the proposal to acquire Dixon’s property, one of the agency’s appointed board members questioned Dixon’s ability to comprehend the complicated real estate transaction.

“He has some challenges,” said board member Marilyn Sconions. “And with those challenges that he has, we need to make sure he understands what we’re doing.”

The agency’s executive director also acknowledged Dixon’s potential comprehension problems.

“I did talk to him. I don’t think he understood the taxes and insurance thing,” Johnson said.

“We know – and I know – you have to explain it to him,” Sconions said. “And I don’t know whether he’s going to still understand it once you explain it to him.”

“Probably not,” Johnson replied.

Sconions told Johnson to have a private phone conversation with the attorney to explain Dixon’s “challenges”, a recording of the meeting shows.

Johnson requested a short recess to call Perry.

About ten minutes later, Johnson and the lawyer reappeared on the Zoom video conference.

“Talking with Director Johnson, I think [Dixon] has a basic understanding of what’s happening with the transaction,” Perry told board members. “Going forward, I think it’s fine.”

Johnson did not respond to questions inquiring about what was discussed during the phone call with the attorney and whether his opinion of Dixon’s comprehension abilities changed during their brief conversation.

Perry did not respond to a request for comment.

During the recess, while Johnson and Perry were offline having a private conversation, CRA board members remaining on the Zoom video conference openly expressed concerns about Dixon.

“Yeah, he’s got some challenges,” said board chair Donovan Williams. “As I grew up in the community, I thought he was a fireman because he used to have all the gear on like he was a real fireman. But as I got older, I realized that stuff was not real. And that’s when I knew what was going on.”

Linder Greathouse, who has a background in caring for vulnerable adults, suggested the board should consider a different proposal due to Dixon’s “mental capacity”.

“This is not right to take this property for $7,000 if it’s worth $100,000,” Greathouse said. “I work with mental illness people every day. This is what I do. And I just feel he’s being taken advantage of.”

As the board members began discussing alternate ways to structure the real estate deal, a CRA project manager interrupted them to warn about Florida’s statutes governing public meetings.

“I would really caution having this discussion because of Sunshine laws,” Brian Clarke said.

Williams noted that Dixon’s home was days away from being sold at auction.

“On Nov. 12 there’s going to be a tax deed sale, and people all over the world are going to bid on that property,” Williams said. “Whoever wins that bid, regardless of [Dixon’s] mental capacity, they’re not going to care.”

Board member Kathy Baldwin speculated the buyer could tear down Dixon’s home.

“Someone else could come in and take it ruthlessly, or the CRA could take it and pay the taxes and then still be able to support [Dixon’s] well-being,” Baldwin said.

Sconions worried about how the community might view the real estate deal.

“I want to make sure it doesn’t go where they’re saying we have taken something from [Dixon],” Sconions said.

“I think if he stays in the home, there’s certainly going to be some positive feedback in regards to that,” Baldwin replied.

When Johnson and Perry returned to the Zoom video conference call, the attorney discussed what could happen if Dixon later claimed he did not understand the agreement.

“If somebody comes back and says, ‘Hey, he didn’t have the mental capacity to know what he was doing, it will be up to him and whoever is his advocate on his behalf to come up with that fact at that time to prove it,” Perry said.

Minutes later, the board voted 3-0 in favor of authorizing the Eatonville CRA to acquire Dixon’s property.

Williams, Baldwin and Sconions approved the measure, records show. None of them immediately responded to phone calls from News 6 offering an opportunity to comment.

Greathouse and two other newly appointed board members were reportedly barred from voting on any CRA measures that day.

“This is the best way to protect [Dixon’s] interest and our interest,” Johnson said after the vote. “I appreciate the board being compassionate but also understanding we have to protect ourselves, also. And I think this is the best common ground that we could find to protect our interest.”

Dixon tells News 6 he did not understand real estate transaction

More than a year after Dixon signed deeds transferring his late father’s property to the Eatonville CRA, the 66-year-old claims he did not understand what he was doing.

“He didn’t explain none of that to me. He didn’t explain it,” said Dixon, apparently referring to Johnson.

Dixon said he believes he can buy back the property from the Eatonville CRA at any time by paying back the money the agency spent to cover his delinquent taxes.

Johnson insists he never made such an offer to Dixon.

Despite his uncertainty about the transaction, Dixon does understand what will happen to his home when he dies.

“I guess the city gets it,” he said.

Eatonville councilmembers seek to return property to Dixon

In the 15 months since the Eatonville CRA took possession of Dixon’s property, the town has experienced swings in political power among its elected leaders.

Late last year, an Orange County circuit court judge overturned the results of a nonpartisan town council election, citing illegal votes.

When Marlin Daniels was sworn in as a new council member in December 2021, the balance of power shifted on Eatonville’s five-member town council.

In January, the council disbanded the sitting Eatonville CRA board, which had been fully comprised of appointed members since 2020.

The current CRA board has returned to its original makeup of five Eatonville town council members and two appointees.

During a CRA workshop last week, new board members proposed transferring Dixon’s property back to the 66-year-old, possibly under the supervision of a guardian.

“I’m upset,” Daniels said. “I’m upset because I think of other seniors this could have happened to.”

The board also discussed filing a complaint about the incident with the Florida Commission on Ethics.

“I felt that the intentions were well, but once we heard [Dixon] may not have understood what was going on, it should have been a time out,” said Eddie Cole, the town’s outgoing mayor who recently lost a reelection bid and will be replaced by mayor-elect Angie Gardner next week.

“It’s my hope to fix what I consider a wrong,” Cole said.


About the Author:

Emmy Award-winning investigative reporter Mike DeForest has been covering Central Florida news for more than two decades. Mike joined News 6 just as Florida officials began counting hanging chads in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. Since then, he has covered some of the biggest news events in Central Florida.