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.