In the front row sits Wiley Scruggs. For the 28 years he's been a mechanic, Scruggs has rarely been spotted in anything but what he's wearing today: a navy-blue coverall with "Wiley" stitched onto his breast pocket. A plain black cap is plopped lifelessly on his head.
"They said we're the ones who are destroying the company because we're asking questions," he says. "Now listen think about that."
He pauses, letting his words hang in the air like a guillotine blade. Then he stands. "You tell me you've got a company worth $300 billion," he cries, quoting one of the company's wildest claims. "It'd be the third-largest company in the world. But you're passing the hat at the Holiday Inn!"
Mention of the hat which is passed around at Petro shareholder meetings to collect money for the meeting room sends an audible ripple through the audience. The more affirmation Scruggs receives, the louder he gets. "You should have a credit card!" he says. "You should have a line of credit! Holiday Inn? We should be meeting at the Muehlebach!"
There's no hat at this meeting. Scruggs and other investors pooled their money to rent this space. After being encouraged by friends, Petro's founder, and their ministers, the people here most of them working- and middle-class folks from Kansas City's inner city invested anywhere from $100 to $5,000 in Petro, which investigators now say is a multimillion-dollar scam that's lined the pockets of the company's founder and his friends. There's a minister sitting in the front row, his head bowed. There's a woman in dental-hygienist scrubs, and a striking young professional in a blazer. An older woman shushes two young girls she brought along as the girls turn their chairs into jungle-gym equipment.
"So Mr. Hawkins will be invited to these meetings?" the young professional asks, referring to the company's founder and CEO, Owen Hawkins.
"We invited him to this one," Scruggs says. "We're open to him coming and explaining himself."
But he's not here, and neither is anyone else from the company, so the meeting goes nowhere. Toward the end, another investor issues a final word.
"It's important that nobody's here to bash Owen," the man says. "When it's all said and done, whatever his vision was, he did give something viable to all of us. There's something going wrong. And that's the purpose of us being here right now, to find out what was wrong so that his concept and what we all believed in can come true."
Owen Hawkins wouldn't return The Pitch's calls, and a reporter couldn't track him down at Petro's tiny, empty headquarters on Main Street. At a modest home in Kansas City, Kansas the house Hawkins lists as his address a man standing outside shouted at a reporter to "write something good" about Petro. But at the door, Hawkins' father said his son wasn't there and was too busy to talk anyway.
There was a time when Hawkins would've bathed in the attention.
Hawkins, 55, made a name for himself in 2002, when he tried to resurrect the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival. After 11 years, the festival didn't have the money to continue. Hawkins vowed to bring it back, promising to fetch soul singer Oleta Adams. But he failed to book his headliner, and the festival fell apart. Hawkins blamed the event's flop on the organizers of another music festival, claiming they were out to sabotage his festival.
The jazz-fest failure was just the latest for Hawkins. In 1991, court records show, a judge ordered him to pay $15,000 to Doretha Bryant, niece of barbecue legend Arthur Bryant, after Hawkins tried to strong-arm his way into the family's barbecue business. Hawkins hasn't filed a personal income-tax return since the mid-1990s, he has told investigators, doesn't have personal bank account, and until the mid-2000s lived in subsidized housing. Not long before starting Petro America Corp., he filed for bankruptcy, court records show.
Hawkins created Petro in 2007, when sky-high oil prices were dominating the news. Billing it as a "global crude oil marketer" and "energy arbitrageur," he built a shiny website with the slogan "world success unrivaled."
In 2009, Hawkins told Forbes magazine that Petro was valued at about $100 million, and in recent months he's told investors it's worth $284 billion, according to documents filed in federal court a figure that would make it the second-largest company in the United States. The company also claimed to have hundreds of acres in oil and gas leases in Missouri, plus partial ownership of eight gold mines, a granite mine, and a purchase order for 2 million barrels of crude oil. There are subsidiaries, too, the website boasts: an alternative energy company, a financial services provider, a packaging company, a tech company, an insurance company and an electric-car company. Hawkins' goal, he has said, is to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
But investigators have revealed Hawkins' promises to be empty. The U.S. Attorney's office recently filed an affidavit from a Treasury Department investigator, who says that while investors have pumped more than $5 million into the company, only a small fraction of that revenue was reinvested in Petro. The rest was spent on houses, luxury cars, a $5,700 fur coat, a $37,000 boat, a $5,200 piece of Louis Vuitton luggage and other extravagances. The company has no significant revenue, according to the affidavit, and no realistic plan to create any.
The affidavit labels the company what investors like Scruggs have long feared it was: a scam and a get-rich-quick scheme. Its professional-seeming website is a mess of dead links and careless misspellings. Its headquarters is nothing more than a virtual office, with a secretary to forward calls and mail. An office in Kansas City, Kansas, is equally desolate just an empty room in a suite shared with a construction company owned by Hawkins' sister.
An official at Missouris Department of Natural Resources tells The Pitch that Petro has no oil or gas leases in the state. The company's mining claims, meanwhile, are part of a classic gold mine scam, the affidavit says. To substantiate wild claims about the company's worth, Petro adopts wildly high valuations for its mining claims, which are little more than piles of rocks. Its so-called 'interests' in the gold and rock mines are essentially worthless, according to the affidavit.
Petros subsidiaries appear equally flimsy. The company did buy a majority stake in Lenexa-based Performance Packaging Group, one of that company's partners told The Kansas City Star last year. But Petro paid in part with unregistered shares of overvalued stock. According to the Kansas Secretary of State's office, two other subsidiaries an electric-car company and a financial services company are registered to the same address as Petro's empty Kansas City, Kansas, office. Ted Wiley, the former CEO of the car company called Transworld Automation tells The Pitch he quit after Hawkins failed to pay him for two years of work. The former head of PetroAmerica Financial Services says he quit, too, after being denied pay.
All of which explains why regulators, in 2008, started to raise questions about the companys claims of future riches for investors. But by then, hundreds of people had dumped money into the Petro pipe dream. And even after the government stepped in, more and more people wanted a share of Hawkins' million-dollar promise.
Though its high noon outside, sunshine doesnt penetrate the dark back room of Gates Bar-B-Q at 12th Street and Brooklyn. Wiley Scruggs and Jeff Atkins have chosen this table in the restaurants recesses for its isolation from the lunch rush.
"Owen came to my shop in 2007 one day, Scruggs, the mechanic, recalls. He briefly mentioned this, but I didnt bite that day.
But a year later, in September 2008, the pastor at Scruggs' East Side church offered to sell him shares of the company secondhand. Scruggs threw in $100 for 100,000 shares, then waited to get rich.
He soon received what he thought was a stock certificate. He tried to submit it to his E-Trade account, but E-Trade rejected it because of risk management issues. Thats when I got upset, Scruggs says. I knew I was being had. Around the same time, Atkins paid the company $300 for 300,000 shares. He started going to shareholder meetings, soaking up promises about the company going public. As time went by, the information we were getting from the company became repetitive, Atkins says. Its gonna happen in a month. Its gonna happen at Christmas. Its gonna be a good Thanksgiving. We began to question what we got ourselves into.
Atkins and Scruggs eventually teamed up. Scruggs e-mailed a list of 40 questions to Petro; someone from the company responded but said the questions had already been answered at shareholder meetings. Atkins tried calling the office. Its more than impossible to get in touch with anyone down there, he says. No one will answer.
Atkins and Scruggs might be Petro's most vocal disgruntled shareholders, but theyre not alone. In 2008, the securities division of Missouris Secretary of State's office launched an investigation into Petro after hearing from more than 30 investors, spokeswoman Laura Egerdal says.
According to a cease-and-desist order sent to Petro, the office's investigators learned that a man named Martin Roper was sending e-mails to potential investors. Roper is known to Petro shareholders as a minister in his brother's church, Bales Temple Church of God in Christ, near 23rd Street and Interstate 70. But in the e-mails, he appeared to be working for the company.
He explained that Petro was an oil company that would be publicly traded within six months. The shares were worth $2 each, he said, but there was a special deal ending soon! offering new investors 100,000 shares for $100. For a company with $68 million on the books, as Roper claimed, it sounded like a steal. All an investor had to do was send a check to Ropers house. He would get the money to Petro.
An investigator also listened in on one of Petro's weekly prerecorded conference calls, according to the cease-and-desist letter. The call was aimed at religious people, invoking God and inviting listeners to share the blessing of Petro. My personal goal is I would like to create as many billionaires in this as I possibly can, Hawkins said.
As Hawkins peddled a path to easy wealth, investigators sensed a scam. The securities Roper and Hawkins were selling weren't registered, the Secretary of State reported, nor were Roper and Hawkins licensed to sell them. There were other violations, too: The investment's risks werent covered; the basis for the $2 share price wasnt provided; and the history, background and financial condition of the company weren't revealed.
The backgrounds of Hawkins and Roper also werent shared, although that's not surprising. Considering Hawkins string of failed businesses and Ropers 1996 forcible-rape conviction, Gods benediction would have been harder to believe if served alongside the truth about the men's pasts.
Late in 2008, the Secretary of State's office issued the cease-and-desist order, barring Petro, Hawkins, Roper and their agents plus anyone else with knowledge of the cease-and-desist order to stop selling shares in the company. Hawkins scheduled a meeting with the state but later canceled, Egerdal, of the Secretary of State's office, says. Owen Hawkins and Petro America did have an opportunity to tell their side of the story, she says, and they chose not to do that.
In 2009, the Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily suspended the trading of Petro stock, questioning the accuracy of Petros asset claims and warning prospective traders about the stock. Kansas followed suit in April this year, banning the selling of Petro shares but not before it identified 248 Kansans who'd dumped money into the company, to go with hundreds, if not thousands, more in Missouri and around the country. According to the affidavit, in only its first four months of selling stock from August through November of 2008 Petro raised about $1 million.
Much of that money went directly into Hawkins' pocket. The company's only employee, he paid himself $595,000 a year, drawn, according to the affidavit, in random amounts of cash whenever he felt like it. Meanwhile, he used the company's money to live a life ripped from the Robb Report. In an interview with investigators this summer, Hawkins admitted using investors' money to buy a Chrysler 300, a Hummer H3 and a Mercedes-Benz S430, and to rent a lakeside house in KCK. Earlier this year, he paid $5,700 for a lynx coat with fox trim.
Owen Hawkins has very clearly committed fraud, Egerdal says. And ultimately hes going to have to answer to that.
Early on a Monday evening, Martin Roper pulls his black Hummer into a quiet Dennys parking lot off I-70. The car is garnished with massive silver rims an upgrade from his 1997 Pontiac, the only other car listed in his sex-offender registry.
Two identical Mercedes-Benzes pull into the restaurants lot around the same time. The drivers are dressed immaculately and identically. Each wears a tailored jet-black suit, a black vest, a tie and a white straw fedora with red feathers poking from a black hatband. From their gold rings and watches to the white kerchiefs peeking out of their breast pockets, every sartorial detail is synchronized.
The men are part of something called the Ministers Alliance, a group of local clergy known by some Petro investors as Hawkins' Henchmen. According to one Kansas City pastor, who used to host meetings for the Alliance at his East Side church, it was formed to try to be a support to our community and to the city.
But Hawkins wanted the Ministers Alliance to support him, the pastor says. He wanted to make him [Petro] look good. When the Alliance took up the Petro cause, the pastor says he backed out.
Curtis White, a minister and alliance member, says the group formed around the time Missouri started cracking down on Petro. He calls it a group of ministers who are shareholders, who support Petro and support the CEO. Were all just shareholders. Nothing more, nothing less.
Tonight, they've come to defend the company against complaints from angry investors. When the ministers arrive at Denny's there are six of them seven shareholders are already waiting inside. In a private room, the alliance occupies one part of a half-moon table; the shareholders, who invited The Pitch to sit in on the meeting, fill the other.
Allen Collins, a minister at Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, near 63rd Street and Troost, kicks off the meeting. Weve just come to have an open discussion and see whats on your mind, he says.
Jeff Atkins stands. He calmly explains, as he always does, that this is not an Owen Hawkins blast party, that the shareholders just want some information. As Atkins talks, Scruggs waits his turn, gripping a portfolio of unreturned e-mails and government charges.
Despite the cease-and-desist order and ongoing investigations, the company hasn't discouraged new investors. In a message on its website, Petro encourages anyone who sold and/or gifted any of their original Petro America Corp shares to a 3rd party to add those people to the shareholder database.
In fact, investigators say, the height of the scheme came more than a year after Missouri issued its cease-and-desist order from fall 2009 to early this year, a period when the company brought in as much as $700,000 a month in new investments. Hawkins, his fortune growing, made so many trips to the bank that he got to know the tellers, the affidavit says. On one trip, last Christmas, Hawkins handed out checks for $100 and $200 to random customers, the tellers said. He also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to friends, shareholders and consultants, Hawkins told investigators.
One recent investor, Dave, told his story on an October conference call with concerned investors. He and a friend invested this summer, he says, spending a couple of thousand dollars on shares purchased from the Rev. Edward Halliburton, president of the Ministers Alliance and pastor at the small Showers of Blessings Church of God in Christ in Kansas City, Kansas.
We basically were given Pastor Halliburtons information, Dave says. We called him and inquired about Petro America Corporation, and he began to brief us in regards to the company and what it was doing, and how to purchase these shares and what he purchased them for. He told us the process we needed to go through in order to acquire the shares. (Despite attending the Denny's meeting, Halliburton later told a reporter he didn't know enough to talk about Petro.)
Another shareholder says she bought 100,000 shares for $100 from a minister in March. The woman has been unemployed for almost two years and hopes Petro will come through whether it would make me a millionaire or just get me a car to look for a job, she says.
The woman won't say which minister sold her the shares, and it's unknown whether the other ministers at the meeting ever sold shares of the stock, or where they got their shares in the first place. But Hawkins told the Treasury Department he has a longstanding policy of 'gifting' shares to certain shareholders. Roper told investigators he was first approached about Petro by minister Collins, who offered Roper 1 million shares for luring more investors. Hawkins told investigators he gave Roper 50 million shares because he is trying to bless a lot of people.
Scruggs says he, too, was offered free shares in exchange for corralling more investors. When he bought his shares from his pastor, the pastor gave him a sheet with 10 blank spaces for names of new shareholders. Every ten entries equals 1,000,000 shares earned/No exceptions, the sheet reads.
Other investors bought shares from total strangers, even though regulators' warnings are just a Google search away. A Canadian man named Dave says he heard about Petro from a friend this spring and paid a woman in Texas $2,000 for 200,000 shares. The only confirmation he received was a text message from the woman saying she'd received his money.
If I go gambling at the card table, at least I know I stand a legitimate chance, Dave says. If I were playing cards with Owen Hawkins, Id be playing with a marked deck.
According to the affidavit, the woman Dave bought from, Teresa Brown, is one of Hawkins' key conspirators. She received in excess of $3 million from Petro America investors, the affidavit says. She routed much of that back to Hawkins, the affidavit says, and spent the rest on a Showcase Showdown's worth of luxury, including a boat, an SUV, jewelry, timeshares and $15,000 worth of merchandise from the QVC shopping network.
As the Denny's meeting wears on, things start to get heated. White steps in, saying the company has not sold a single security since 2008. If any shares have been sold since then, its been privately by other shareholders. And thats not under the cease-and-desist order, he declares, although authorities may interpret the order differently. The company is under a cease-and-desist order.
Scruggs jumps to his feet. Any of yall selling them? he asks, pointing at the ministers. None of them responds.
If the shareholders are so disgruntled, one minister says, they can simply get their money back. Ernest Batiste, a member of the Ministers Alliance who is an elder at Victorious Life Church and who went to jail for passing a bad check in 1997 says later that its easy to get your money back from Petro: All you do is write corporate. Send them an e-mail. We make sure they get their money back. We got people who buy their shares. Well buy their shares, no problem.
But Scruggs is fuming now. Shit, a lies a lie! he says.
At the sound of foul language, a pastor scolds Scruggs. This meeting has been prayed on. Its just like when you're in the church.
No, Scruggs says. This aint church. This is Dennys.
Suddenly, a soothing voice penetrates the brewing yelling match. Its the first time Halliburton has spoken tonight. He puts down the spoon hes been using to scoop up a vanilla-ice-cream-and-caramel sundae.
All we wanna do is just hear your complaints, he says. We're all on the same team, right?
Im on the team of the truth! Scruggs fires back.
Scruggs tirade crescendos until a cacophony of silverware smashes against the table and ministers yell at him to sit down. Finally, Roper asks Scruggs if he wants his money back. Yes, he answers. Plus interest. 'Cause you cant give my money back. This is a glorified receipt for money that we donated to Owen Hawkins, he says, waving around his certificate.
Let it be duly noted that Wiley Scruggs asked for his money back, shouts one of the ministers, to no one in particular. No one makes a move to write it down, and weeks later Scruggs won't have seen a penny.
On a Thursday in early October, the weekly conference call doesnt feature any of the usual guest speakers or sales pitches. Its just Owen Hawkins and the silenced mass of dialers-in.
He starts by thanking those shareholders who are working behind the scenes, like Allen Collins and Pastor Halliburton. Hawkins pauses, then begins his speech: I want you to know Im very committed to this. I stand in the fire every day. Im attacked personally from all phases: regulatory agencies, disgruntled people. Im always constantly under attack.
That, at least, is true. In May, the Missouri Secretary of State's office issued a final cease-and-desist order and imposed fines against Hawkins, Petro and Roper. Combined, Hawkins and Petro owe $37,000. Five months later, Egerdal says, Petro and Owen Hawkins have not paid anything. (Roper has paid $1,500, only part of what he owed.) Last month, the Secretary of State filed a lawsuit against Hawkins, Roper and Petro, trying to collect the money, and the U.S. Attorney's Office continues to investigate Hawkins, Brown and others involved with Petro.
But on his telephonic pulpit, Owen Hawkins plays the martyr.
I want you to know, no matter what they do to me, what they try to do to me or what they say about me, I want you know that Im committed to getting this done, he says. I will stand in the fire for you because I know you are worth it. And Im here to share this vision with you. And I was born for this.
The call is much shorter than last weeks, and it soon comes to a close. We know we have our time, and God has his time, Hawkins says. But I can rest assured that Petro Americas time has come.