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Magnate's empire collapsed before shooting

J. Robert Ward, the prominent developer charged with second-degree murder in his wife's shooting death, appeared perfectly at ease over the weekend in a videotaped jail visit with family members.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Orange County Jail is a far cry from J. Robert Ward's seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom home in the exclusive gated community that is home to Tiger Woods and Shaquille O'Neill.

But the prominent developer charged with second-degree murder in his wife's shooting death appeared perfectly at ease over the weekend in a videotaped jail visit with family members.

The 61-year-old modeled his blue jail jumpsuit, danced and started to unbutton his shirt. He chatted about who would make a good character witness, whether he could buy anti-dandruff shampoo at the jail commissary and even where the family should celebrate Thanksgiving.

His daughter and sister-in-law giggled, belying the seriousness of the accusation against him. Police say he killed his wife in the master suite of their home on Sept. 21, then called 911 to say he had shot her. His attorney, Kirk Kirkconnell, has since raised questions about whether it was a homicide or a suicide. Kirkconnell did not return calls for comment Monday.

Self-made millionaire
Diane Ward's death is a disturbing turn in the life of her husband, a self-made millionaire who in recent years had suffered crushing financial troubles. J. Robert Ward hadn't paid the $16,841 monthly mortgage on the estate in over a year, and had filed for bankruptcy after his business — developing vacation and resort home communities in five states — failed.

He may have had other demons as well. Dianne McClintock Callahan of Marietta, Ga., dated Ward some 25 years ago but kept in touch over the years. She said he was well-liked, kind and generous — until he drank.

"He was mean," she said, describing their final night together, during which Ward allegedly pointed a gun at her and beat her with a bedpost he had ripped off her bed. Callahan recalls talking to police from a hospital, but doesn't remember whether charges were filed.

"He was like the perfect man, other than that temper," she said.

Ward was born in Daytona Beach, the son of a gas station owner. According to his profile on the LinkedIn Web site, he majored in business at both Florida State University and Georgia State University. While heading a mortgage company in Atlanta, he met Callahan, who worked in the office. They dated for five years.

"He's always been successful," she said. "He could turn a dime into a million dollars."

Callahan said Ward enjoyed traveling, shopping and nice cars — when they dated, he owned two BMWs at the same time. But his temper drove her away.

Real estate empire
A few years later, he married Diane Cardinale and they had two daughters. Ward continued to amass a real estate empire, becoming a member of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce board and at least one civic group.

In mid-2005, court documents show, his Land Resources Group was developing 16 communities with 5,282 homesites. Ward had 250 employees and built high-end developments on properties that stretched from Cumberland Harbor in Georgia to the mountains of West Virginia.

But by 2006, people weren't buying as many vacation homes. In 2007, Ward and his wife relocated to central Florida, saying that they wanted to be closer to the lucrative timeshare industry popular in Orlando.

The Wards bought their 8,708-square-foot home in the Isleworth development — the same home where Arnold Palmer once lived — for $4.3 million that same year.

They also bought cars — BMWs, Mercedes, Cadillacs and at least one Lexus, court records show.

A year later, Ward and Land Resources Group filed for bankruptcy. The company was down to 14 employees, $115 million in assets and $214 million in liabilities. The lavish home with a pool and formal gardens was put on the market with a $5.2 million price tag.

An insurance company that issued bonds for Land Resource Group projects sued, saying Ward and his wife used the money to fund their lavish lifestyle, according to court filings.

In July, Callahan heard from Ward for the first time in decades. He asked her to lunch in Georgia, where she learned a few things about her old flame. He was proud of his two college-age daughters, one a national equestrian champion. He was also in financial trouble, but seemed confident he could work it out.

‘He just blew it’
Ward mentioned that his wife liked to spend money and complained that she once couldn't pick him up from the airport because she was getting her nails done. Callahan wonders if he snapped under the pressure of losing his business and his wife's attachment to the good life.

"I feel sorry for him," she said. "He had so much, and he just blew it."

According to sheriff's reports, Ward dialed 911 around 8 p.m. on Sept. 21.

"I just shot my wife. She's dead," he said, according to an affidavit. When deputies arrived, they found shattered glass and liquid on the floor of the back patio. Ward had a red stain on his polo shirt, and when deputies asked if it was blood or wine, he said he wanted to speak with his lawyer.

After that, a detective inside the house overheard Ward on the phone, telling whoever was on the other end that Diane had killed herself.

He is being held without bond at the Orange County Jail, where his daughter, Mallory, and sister-in-law told him he has their support during the videotaped visit.

"We're completely here for you," Mallory Ward said.

Her father assured her he would be released from jail soon.

"What do you think the plan's going to be for Thanksgiving?" he said. "No one's thinking that far, I guess. Atlanta, or what? If we could have it in Atlanta, that's where I'd like to have it. That would be nice."

Said Mallory Ward: "I know that mom would enjoy us all to be at our house and hopefully we can have the holidays there."