Bellinger Dead in Alabama Hospital

Embattled Okaloosa County TDC Director Mark Bellinger died in an Alabama hospital this morning after being found in a car on a rural dirt road.

Authorities said he died of a suspected drug overdose.

He was found unconscious about 11:20 a.m. in a car on a dirt road in Pelham, Alabama, which is near Birmingham.

Paramedics were able to revive Bellinger but he died a short time later in a hospital.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, in conjunction with the Northwest Florida Mortgage Fraud Task Force, had obtained an arrest warrant for Bellinger on Friday morning.

Sheriff's investigators allegedly developed information that Bellinger had used TDC funds to purchase a home in Destin.

The $747,000 home is located in the exclusive, gated Kelly Plantation neighborhood of Destin and was purchased in August of 2011. Information indicates that some of the funds used to purchase the home may have come from moneys provided by BP to the Tourist Development Council following the oil spill in 2010, according to the sheriff's office.

A search to locate Bellinger started Thursday afternoon after his wife returned to their home and found a suicide note, the sheriff's office said. His wife called authorities and said Bellinger and his car were missing.

Bellinger's vehicle was described as a 2011 Subaru Legacy four-door sedan, bearing Florida Tag 262NFS. Authorities did not initially indicate whether Bellinger was found inside his car in Alabama, or whether it was another car.

The Northwest Florida Mortgage Fraud Task Force is comprised of members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the OCSO and investigates white collar fraud related to the Mortgage Industry.

Bellinger was a well-respected, well-liked, successful TDC director when, late last week, Okaloosa County received title for a 44-foot yacht that Bellinger bought using TDC money.

Bellinger appeared before the Okaloosa County Board on Tuesday and attempted to explain the purchase of the $710,000 yacht as a promotional campaign he had developed.

Records indicate Bellinger bought the boat from a Destin yacht broker in December and took delivery of it in January. The boat, which sleeps six and has staterooms with full baths, including showers, has been docked at the Marbella Yacht Club in Destin.

County board members initially attempted to fire Bellinger on the spot but opted instead to allow him to resign as of May 11.

On Thursday, county workers told NewsChannel 7 that Bellinger had turned in his keys, his cell phone and other job-related items and left. Later that day, his wife reported him missing.

Okaloosa County Sheriff's investigators launched an investigation into Bellinger's purchase of the yacht. He told commissioners he used county bed tax money to buy the vessel without telling anyone in the TDC or the county.

According to an invoice from a Tallahassee-based advertising and marketing firm used by the TDC, the Zimmerman Agency, the yacht was purchased as a " promotional package" which included giveaways, campaigns and contests.

"I purchased the boat at the end of December with the authority that was invested in me through the TDC ordinance, and the contract with the advertising agency that we have, which is Zimmerman" Bellinger said at Tuesday's commission meeting.

County commissioner Wayne Harris interrupted Bellinger and asked if he was authorized to buy a boat. Bellinger responded saying "not authorized to buy a boat, but a dollar amount."

City officials say Bellinger told them the yacht was only used twice, but did not know who was on-board, how many hours were put on it, or who paid for the gas or the captain.

The yacht is now considered county property. The county says it does not intend on keeping it and are exploring all of the legal options to get the bed tax money back and get rid of the boat.

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