July 21, 2003 12:00 PM

For years the parents at Tampa’s prestigious Berkeley Preparatory School had whispered about a puzzling mystery: Who was the enigmatic, unseen husband of Hillary Carlson, the wealthy mother of two alumni and a major campus benefactor? Though Hillary led an active social life, no one could recall seeing her with Donald Carlson, the spouse who she said frequently traveled for his job with the State Department. “There was not a single picture of her husband in her house,” says a friend. “Believe me, we checked.”

Eighteen miles from the Carlsons’ sprawling rural estate, another Berkeley family harbored its own mystery. Road-construction magnate Douglas Cone—father of three Berkeley graduates and grandparent of two more—seemed to have a close bond with his wife, Jean Ann, also an active school booster and a vivacious socialite. But Cone, 74, would depart the couple’s million-dollar home in affluent south Tampa each Monday on business and, for reasons no one exactly understood, not return until Thursday.

Both puzzles might have gone forever unsolved if it weren’t for the death of Jean Ann, 75. On March 20 she was found dead at the wheel of her Rolls Royce, parked in the couple’s garage. The doors were locked, the ignition switch was in the on position, and she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Then came the coup de théâtre: Just 15 days after his wife’s death, Douglas Cone drove 48 miles to rural Bushnell, Fla., where a county clerk oversaw his marriage to none other than Hillary Carlson, 56—with whom he’d been secretly conducting an affair, and raising a second family, for 27 years. That turned the whispers into shouts, says Claire Sutton, 60, a former Berkeley parent who served on its board with both women. “We were absolutely stunned.”

Even more surprising, in retrospect, was how closely the two women in Douglas Cone’s world had conducted their separate lives. In the years after her children attended Berkeley in the 1970s, Jean Ann served on its board of trustees and chaired the capital campaign that in 1978 built the school’s new campus. With her husband she gave upward of $350,000 to the school, where a library bears her name. Years later Hillary Carlson was a frequent volunteer at the library and also one of 30 trustees on the board; she and her phantom husband made a hefty donation that helped build the campus baseball complex, Carlson Field. Both women drove Rolls Royces, and Jean Ann was a trustee of the Tampa Museum of Art, where Hillary was a volunteer docent. At one point Jean Ann’s granddaughter even shared a French class with Hillary’s daughter. “Did my mother know about my father’s other life?” asks son Rammy Cone, 47, the youngest of the Cone children. “The honest answer is that I really don’t know.”

Perhaps the only person who does is Cone, whose family business, Cone and Graham, did more than $212 million in road construction in Florida in one 11-year stretch. After graduating from Georgia Tech, in 1951 he married Jean Ann Ramsdell, a former college cheerleader who soared in Tampa’s elite social circles, heading the Junior League and serving on the United Way board. “She was such a lovely lady,” says neighbor Karen Richardson. “The whole community loved her.”

Her real passion was the New York Yankees, whose spring-training games she frequently watched in Tampa. In July 2002 her children marked her 75th birthday by taking her to New York City for a game. But Douglas Cone stayed home. “Dad was not a sports fan,” says Rammy. His hobbies? Fishing and hunting—pursuits he happened to share with Hillary Carlson, whom he apparently met in 1976, when she was a married secretary at one of the companies Cone’s family runs. She divorced her husband in 1977 and had two children with Cone—Fred and Carolee, both now in their 20s, who were raised on a 66-acre estate protected by an electronic security gate in nearby Lutz.

That is apparently where Cone was on March 20 when Julianne McKeel, 50—his oldest child with Jean Ann—called his cell phone to say she’d found her mother. She’d been dead for two days. On March 18 Jean Ann had been drinking wine at a meeting to plan a museum fund-raiser, and an autopsy showed her blood-alcohol level to be twice the legal limit. Police, who investigated twice, ruled the death an accident, and when Douglas Cone arrived he was “visibly shaken,” says Tampa police detective Julia Massucci. “He was in tears.”

He recovered quickly, though, marrying Carlson on April 2 in a ceremony that might have gone unnoticed if a local paper hadn’t printed it in its public announcements. Apparently alerted to the item, Hillary Carlson, after lunching with six of her closest friends April 15, gave them the whole story. “You could hear a pin drop,” says one of the women. After offering support, the friend recalls, “we hugged her goodbye and then went into the ladies’ room and said, ‘Did we just tell her this was okay?’ ”

The news came harder, of course, for Cone’s family. “I’m shocked, angry and confused,” says his son Rammy. “I’m just trying to go on with my life.” So are his four children, aged 12 to 24, to whom Jean Ann was a doting grandmother who proffered gifts and surprise vacations. “They’re angry—they want to let people know how badly it hurts,” says Rammy’s wife, Linda, who also worries about Hillary Carlson’s children. “To me, everybody loses,” she says. “It’s going to take a lot of time to heal.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Jeff Truesdell and Don Sider in Tampa

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