Wild West World investors not surprised by Etheredge's arrest

Wild West World investors not surprised by Etheredge's arrest
BY BILL WILSON - The Wichita Eagle - 5/3/2009 - original
WICHITA - Thomas Etheredge and Terry Fox were inseparable in the year leading up to Wild West World's debut in May 2007.

Fox, the pastor of Summit Church, was at Etheredge's side as the theme park founder roamed the city, promoting the park with his trademark admonition, "Look me in the eyes and hear me well... "

Fox even had an office in the park headquarters while Summit used the Johnny Western Theatre as a temporary church while plans to build a new sanctuary near the park took shape. Etheredge was a loyal member of the congregation.

Today, Fox is among the bitter investors who lost money -- along with faith in a friend -- in the theme park venture that has landed Etheredge in custody.

Several investors, employees and government officials involved in the park spoke to The Eagle last week about the promoter's arrest.

Many voiced little surprise, saying they've known for years that Etheredge was headed for legal trouble.

And they described the Stetson-wearing rancher-turned-park developer in a variety of terms, from "serial con man" to "lost soul."

Fox, several other church members and acquaintances gave Etheredge $800,000 from early 2005 to early 2007, money that is at the core of allegations against Etheredge by the Kansas Securities Commission.

Etheredge, who has previously served time in prison for securities fraud, was arrested Wednesday night at San Antonio International Airport. He is charged with 10 counts of securities fraud.

Kansas Securities Commissioner Chris Biggs alleges that Etheredge made misrepresentations about the park's finances or failed to disclose material facts to investors.

Etheredge will make his first court appearance in Wichita on Monday.

A separate FBI investigation of Etheredge related to the park's failure remains under way, according to sources close to the case.

The investors

Fox said he invested $50,000 of personal money in the park, and the church paid Etheredge $400,000 for nearby land to build on.

"I don't have any real sympathy at this time at all," Fox said Thursday at the church. None at all.

"The history of him speaks for itself. We were taken advantage of, no question."

Wichita physician David Brown, who said he invested $75,000 in the park in March 2007, said he has volunteered to testify against Etheredge in the securities case.

"I'm very pleased about the arrest, actually," Brown said.

Brown said that he can afford to lose the money he invested with Etheredge. But that doesn't ease his anger.

"I'm disappointed in him and disappointed in me, too," he said. "I should have known better. I'm usually a pretty astute investor.

"But I'll tell you what: The people I really feel for are the people who invested money they couldn't afford to lose with him."

Valley Center accountant Mike Porter said he lost his $100,000 investment in Wild West World.

"I believe he absolutely lied and deceived not only myself but other people into putting money into something he didn't have much money in himself," Porter said.

Particularly galling is Etheredge's use of God and the Bible to raise money, Brown said.

"I met him through a person going to Summit Church," Brown said. "Ultimately, there's no question that I did get taken in because of the religious angle Thomas used. I think he preyed on church people's consciences, actually."

And he lied, Brown said, recalling the March 2007 meeting.

"One thing I remember quite clearly was asking Thomas how much debt he carried on the park," Brown said.

"He brought the accountant... to the door and asked him, 'Isn't our total debt $12.5 million or $13 million?' " he recalled. "The answer was yes.

"Now, Thomas claimed he had $30 million in that park, although we all know that he didn't. So how do you get from $12.5 or $13 million to $26 million or whatever all of a sudden?"

The investors described a "master salesman" who used high-pressure tactics to lure them in.

"Oh, he needed the money right there, right then," Brown said. "He asked me for $100,000 and I was going to give him $50,000, so I ended up with $75,000."

Turns out, Brown said, that Etheredge had no immediate need for his money.

"The securities people told me my check went into his personal bank account for three weeks, then into the Wild West World account as a personal investment to show the banks," he said.

Porter described a different brand of pressure.

"What he told me when we decided we'd get in was he was looking for $500,000," Porter said. "Ten folks to put up $50,000 each.

"He'd gotten everything except the last $100,000, and he told me he had a guy who'd do $50,000, but he really didn't want to take his money. There was something about him he didn't like. So he asked us to consider the additional $50,000, and we ended up putting in $100,000." After leaving Wichita following the park's bankruptcy, Etheredge moved to Boerne, Texas, where he ran an alpaca ranch.

Glynn Phillips, the nephew of the ranch owners, said Etheredge spent hours with his family in April trying to obtain money quickly for an alpaca fiber marketing trip to Dubai.

In the wake of the arrest, Phillips said his family will reclaim control of the alpaca ranch and see whether there's truly a market for its fiber.

Brown said newspaper accounts this past week of Etheredge's relationship with the alpaca ranchers resonated with him.

"I thought that everything that's being done in Texas is just repetitive," Brown said. "He's always looking for a con, and hopefully if he's guilty, this will stop that."

Brown and Porter know they won't get their money back. But both said they want to make sure Etheredge doesn't fleece others.

"If all this is true," Porter said, "he needs to go to prison for a long time so no one else loses their money."

The employees

Wild West World's former marketing director said she doubts Etheredge felt remorse on his plane ride back to Wichita on Friday.

"He's rationalized this," said Jennifer Nolte, who promoted Wild West World during its planning phase.

"On the surface, he will be angry, verbal, self-righteous, the true victim. He just believes in his mind that he truly tried to help Wichita, his employees, the Phillips family in Texas. All he was trying to do was make those poor folks some money."

Nolte and Ryan Cole -- who marketed the park after Nolte left -- said they have expected for years that Etheredge would land in legal trouble over the park. But they split on the subject of sympathy for their ex-boss.

"I have absolute pity for him," Nolte said. "There were a few times when I worked for him and I truly saw the core of his being, and I really liked that Thomas Etheredge.

"That person, combined with his incredible intelligence and tremendous entrepreneurial business savvy, if used correctly, could have been a wonderful contribution to a community."

But Etheredge wasn't able to channel his talents, Nolte said.

"And that's why it's been a disaster his entire adult life," she said. "He's lost personal things, professional things, several times. His brain just won't learn the lessons."

Cole said, "Sympathy? No, not at all."

Park City

Etheredge's arrest on Wednesday was a "little bit of a surprise" to Park City Administrator Jack Whitson

Whitson said Park City has "emerged whole" from its park deal with Etheredge: The park's new Florida-based owner, AHG Group, is making payments on the city's $1 million parking lot mortgage, plus another $1 million in special assessments.

"Unless AHG fails, we're fairly whole in the situation," he said. "And if they fail, we get the property so we think we're OK."

Whitson doesn't think Wild West World was a con.

"I truly believe he intended to build the park," he said. "But I think that when he got into trouble... maybe he stepped back into his old culture."

However, Whitson has a theory that follows what some of the private investors said: Christians were Etheredge's targets, not his friends.

"Back in 2005, when Thomas held a press conference up here to talk about being blackmailed (over his 1980s prison sentence for securities fraud), I talked to a guy," Whitson said.

"He told me that Thomas told him, 'If you need a bunch of money, Christians are the best targets because they're so trusting.'

"I didn't take a lot from that until I saw what happened to Terry Fox and his church. And then it began to make a little sense."