For decades, the West Side Cleveland landmark was the subject of ghostly rumors - a murder in an upstairs bedroom; a banshee's face in a turret window; human bones in a hidden passage.
Today, it is a gutted, boarded-up structure with no signs of life or afterlife.
The owner, Michelle Heimburger, who lives in Canada, shows little interest in what's happening with the property. And the caretaker, Charles Milsaps, is marketing the place as an exclusive, members-only social club, but the club does not exist.
He was recently pictured on a Web site seeking nude models. Milsaps said that he has nothing to do with nude models and that a friend set up the Web site without his knowledge. The friend confirmed Milsaps' claim.
Milsaps, who lives in the carriage house behind the castle, has said for three years that he has arranged to buy the property from Heimburger for $650,000 and plans to spend $3 million to renovate it.
Milsaps hosts a Web site that markets the castle as a beautifully restored 19th-century Victorian mansion where members can indulge in the club's amenities: fine dining, fancy overnight suites, limousine service, a Florida beach house and a 72-foot yacht.
But in reality, the towering stone building remains a dilapidated hulk with no signs of renovation, not to mention a concierge or a chauffeur.
The place does not even have running water.
When asked why parts of the Franklin Castle Web site describe the club as if it already exists, Milsaps' lawyer, Edward LaRue, said that's "just puffery." Milsaps has not collected a dime from anyone who visited the Web site and inquired about joining, he said.
Two contractors are trying to collect money from Milsaps. Chris Demkow, owner of an interior design company, won an $11,500 judgment against Milsaps.
Demkow sued Milsaps for failure to pay him and his five-man crew for work done at the carriage house.
The Cleveland Lumber Co. also has placed a lien on the property, claiming $1,650 in unpaid lumber bills.
Milsaps said the lumber company provided supplies to Demkow, who Milsaps said did get paid for some work. But Demkow, he said, thought he was worth more.
"That's ridiculous," said Demkow. "He knew how much it was going to cost."
Heimburger, in a recent telephone interview, said, "I didn't realize the liens are still there."
She bought the property in 1999 and wants to sell it for $300,000 more than she paid for it.
Neither she nor Milsaps could say when the sale might close.
She pays the property taxes. He pays utilities.
Three years ago, Milsaps told The Plain Dealer and Crain's Cleveland Business that he had sold 50 memberships to his yet-to-be-built private club. In a recent interview, he said, "Maybe I shouldn't use the word 'selling.' We're reserving memberships."
Lifetime memberships will cost up to $5,000.
Milsaps calls himself a real estate developer, but he owns no property.
He said he has managed some real estate for his parents.
He said the Florida beach house in his club advertisement is owned by his parents.
He said the yacht is owned by relatives.
The picture of the yacht on the Web site is not a picture of the actual yacht, he acknowledged.
Pictures of Milsaps, 34, appeared recently on a Myspace.com site, describing him as a producer seeking models for Voodoo Media Group, a Cleveland company that deals in nude photographs and adult films.
Myspace is a site where people post photos and messages to each other.
Pictures of Milsaps appeared with a profile that matches his, but the name listed was Chad Lazeroff.
Last month, a message from Lazeroff was left for another Myspace.com member, saying, "All the girls/guys say HI and of course we miss you around the Castle."
Milsaps explained that a friend, Tony Board, 25, used Milsaps' computer to create the Lazeroff profile on Myspace.com, using Milsaps' pictures and personal information.
"He didn't think anybody would notice," Milsaps said.
Lazeroff's "My Pics" page contained four photos of Milsaps, which disappeared from the site after The Plain Dealer placed a phone message to Milsaps, inquiring about them.
The site also says Lazeroff produces and packages nude modeling for more than 60 Web sites.
The Myspace site identifies Lazeroff as a producer for Voodoo Media Group, which has produced at least two lesbian porn movies available for sale on the Internet. The site recently announced that Chad Lazeroff is a new producer and talent manager, handling "all of our gay, bi and straight male talent."
A Voodoo Media principal identifying himself as Michael Sinclair, but who acknowledged that the name is fake, said the name Chad Lazeroff is also fake, made up by Voodoo's new talent scout. He refused to disclose Lazeroff's identity.
Board said he is Lazeroff. "I didn't want my face associated with Michael's studio," said Board, adding that he put the pictures on the site without Milsaps' permission.
"I really messed up," he said. "I should not have put his pictures up there."
Milsaps said his business is not pornography. It's the castle.
He said renovation and construction - including installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system - would start within a few months. By next year, he said, the private club - complete with 30 rooms, a gourmet restaurant and an 8,000-bottle wine cellar - will be a reality.
"He's got a business plan," said Milsaps' lawyer LaRue. "In a few short months, he'll be there."
But not if City Councilman Joe Cimperman has his way.
Cimperman said neighbors, especially the church-run halfway house for men next door to the castle, were opposed to an upscale private club.
"He's pushing crazy stuff that doesn't even exist," said Cimperman, vowing to block a liquor license for the castle. "The guy has done nothing. Stop the nonsense."
Milsaps tried to market his plan to residents in the Ohio City neighborhood through a neighborhood e-mail system. "The memberships are limited to 400 and ARE selling now," he wrote in March 2005.
The same month he wrote: "The extensive services and amenities that the Club offers are far beyond the cost of the onetime initiation fee.
"From the Club's Sand Castle vacation home and 24-hour limousine and car service to the Sea Castle Yacht and the Club Concierge service, most people have found the cost to be well worth the added value to their lives."
Bob Shores, safety coordinator for the nonprofit Ohio City Near West Development Corp., said his group initially backed Milsaps' venture and helped him present the plan to skeptical neighbors.
But after three years with no signs of renovation at the castle, said Shores, he suspected Milsaps was all talk.
"He presented this as a great asset to the community," Shores said. "We all held high hopes, but then we became suspicious. There were a lot of red flags."
To see how the Franklin Castle Club is marketed, visit www.franklincastleclub.com.
News researchers Jo Ellen Corrigan and Cheryl Diamond contributed to this story
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