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Monday, December 22, 2003

A little non-fiction from work

On March 24, 2003 Carolina Investors closed its doors after nearly 40 years in business.

Representatives of the investment company told nearly 8,000 customers they weren't sure how Carolina Investors could repay the nearly $280 million customers had invested.

Since that time, Carolina Investors and its parent company, HomeGold Financial, have filed for bankruptcy protection, leaving Carolina Investors' customers in the dark about whether they will ever see their money again.

In November 2003, the South Carolina statewide grand jury indicted Carolina Investors president and CEO, Larry Owen. So far, Owen is the only person to be criminally charged in the case.



THE KING OF THE COUNTY


To hold the degree of respect Larry Owen harnessed in Pickens County, most people would've needed to take their first breath inside the county line. The hardworking people of Pickens County don't just give their life savings to someone who rides in on a rail and starts asking for money. People need to know they're putting their money in hands worthy of South Carolina trust, someone who has lived their whole life within a few miles of the county seat. That's part of what makes Larry Owen's story so remarkable.

Owen's first memories are of mountains. Born in Brevard, NC in 1943, Owen lived his first 14 years in the little community of Balsam Grove, situated beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway and surrounded by some of Transylvania County's best waterfalls. It could've been a grand place to live out one's life. Instead, his family followed Owen's father down the mountain and into Easley, SC.

Owen enrolled in Easley High School and graduated in the early 1960s. Instead of riding down Highway 123 to Clemson or making the greater journey to the University of South Carolina, Owen found his future in Easley's First National Bank. Five years later, the United States Treasury Department hired Owen as a federal bank examiner.

For three years, Owen traveled all over the country inspecting banks for the federal government. At home in Easley, he married and eventually fathered a daughter.

"I'd be gone for a couple weeks at a time," Owen said, "and when I'd come home I'd see how she had grown and I missed that."

Watching a child grow in two-week snapshots was not Owen's vision of fatherhood. He bade the feds goodbye and signed on with a young Pickens County company called Carolina Investors.

The date was March 17th, 1970.

Owen settled back into his Easley home and worked as Carolina Investors' Easley branch manager until 1974. In four years, he had earned enough trust to be named Executive Vice President. With his promotion came the responsibility of running the daily operation of the entire company. Though he might not have known it, that promotion came with one more unspoken title: King of the County. He was now controlling the several million dollars worth of investors' money.

Owen hadn't lived in South Carolina for two decades when his business sense and honor became the purse for a community's life savings.

His career with Carolina Investors would span another 29 years, during which time he would eventually be crowned company president and CEO.

"As far as I know, in the 33 years I was there," Owen said, "I never had an enemy as an investor. I was very, very proud of that."


DETHRONED

The circumstances that led to Carolina Investors eventual bankruptcy are still a matter of debate (CLICK HERE TO READ THE STORY OF THE DOWNFALL). Larry Owen's role in the crisis is similarly confounding (Coming Tuesday: What Owen Knew and When). The exact details of responsibility aside, according to Larry Owen, the final moment came down to one final phone call.

Owen said the phone rang at 2pm, Friday March 21. The phone line ran from Columbia, SC to some satellite in the sky, to Larry Owen's Pickens County office. The voice traveling the many miles belonged to the CFO of Carolina Investors' parent company, HomeGold. The message was as clear as it was devastating.

"They were out of money," Owen recalled the voice saying. "They would not be able to fund Carolina Investors anymore and we needed to seek a conservatorship."

Carolina Investors reputation sat on a bedrock of nearly 40 years of honest business. It collapsed under the weight of that final phone call.

"I was crying like a baby," Owen said.

He recalled seeing the blood drain out of a Carolina Investors' board member's face, then calling all of his offices and telling the managers to put a sign on the door saying all employees would be in a staff meeting until the end of the day.

"And we all went home," Owen said, his voice cracking. "That weekend was pure hell."

Owen spent a frantic two days trying to reach an attorney who was on a ski trip in Colorado. When he finally found an attorney who would speak to him, the only advice he could find was not to show up at Carolina Investors' offices on Monday morning.

"It wouldn't be safe," Owen recalled the attorney saying.

The attorney eventually gave the wording for a sign that he instructed Owen to put on every office door. It was the same wording that Carolina Investor's customers would hear over and over again when they reached an office answering machine. It began, "We are devasted," and continued with simple language that explained the situation as Owen understood it. HomeGold was out of money and Carolina Investors' customers may be as well.

Late that Sunday night, Owen and his wife sneaked out into the Pickens County night and attached the signs to all the office doors. At 1:30 in the morning, they fell into bed and prepared to begin a new life of hell.


GOING DOWN WITH THE SHIP

By the following Tuesday morning, the local news papers and television stations had already been running the story with the story for 24 hours. People Owen had known for years were calling with panicked questions. As company president, Owen knew he would have to start answering.

He eventually found himself at the Easley office, patching a broken window. He explained to those who asked that a woman shoved her fist through the glass after reading the sign on the door.

"I probably would've done the same thing," he said.

For those who showed up in the parking lot, Owen did his best to answer their questions. He could only promise to do everything he could to get their money back.

The next day he received another call from HomeGold CFO, Karen Miller. She asked him to meet with her and some other people at HomeGold's Columbia office. When he asked her why, he recalls her saying, "You'll see when you get here."

Within a few hours, he was seated around a conference table as Miller delivered the news.

"She told us that they were going to go ahead and file bankruptcy and they felt like Carolina Investors needed to do the same thing," Owen said. "I used an expletive and slammed my hand on the table and said 'No, it's not going to happen.' I was madder than hell to be quite honest with you."

The assembled attorneys explained to Owen that if his customers were going to get anything back, it would only be through the bankruptcy process. Grudgingly, Owen asked for the name of a good bankruptcy lawyer and started the process by which Carolina Investors' would be dismantled.

Though he wasn't sure whether to think it at the time, after a few months of consideration, he couldn't help but think the people he'd been taking advice from were the same people he would eventually blame for the downfall.

"They raped our company," Owen said.


CRAZY, DEAD, OR ON THE LAM?


Owen said the following nine months were like a nightmare from which he couldn't awake. Rumors filtered in and out of public conversation. Somebody said Owen had checked himself into a mental hospital. Somebody else said he had a heart attack. There was also the rumor Owen and his wife had cleaned out their house, taken all of Carolina Investors money, and fled to California.

In fact, Owen was still in his house, not necessarily hiding, but not advertising his continued residence in the county.

"We can't go out to a restaurant and eat in Easley or Pickens," Owen said.

And then there was the death threat. A single page of type that said the writer had a certificate that was supposed to mature in August of 2003. It continued, "if I don't get my money, you will be dead one year from that date."

The one-time king of the county had become a pariah. His job, obviously, was gone. So was the $70,000 and 52,000 shares of stock he had in Carolina Investors. His family lost a combined $750,000. Worse than that, nobody liked him anymore.

"My 42-year reputation is gone," Owen said.

To make ends meet, he and his wife, who also worked for Carolina Investors, filed for unemployment and started trying to sell insurance to a community that believed the husband and wife were liars and cheats.

Business has not been good.


INDICTED

Bad news tended to come by phone.

Owen was driving to Spartanburg when his attorney phoned in November. The South Carolina statewide grand jury had indicted Owen on 23 counts of securities fraud. According to Owen, SLED was preparing to send two agents to Pickens County to arrest him. He suspected he would spend the night in jail and then be paraded in an orange jumpsuit in front of television camera the next morning.

"Thank goodness that didn't happen," Owen said.

Somebody pulled some strings and allowed Owen to surrender himself in Columbia the next morning. There, in front of the television cameras, Owen stood before a judge, indicted and on his way to trial.

Through tears, Owen said, "I never in my wildest dreams ever thought my life would be reduced to this. I've never had any brushes with the law more than a speeding ticket in my life. It's just not right. I feel like I'm the sacrificial lamb."

Sometime in the next year, Owen expects to tell his story in front of a jury. He said his honesty and integrity are his best defense.

"If I ran a letter through the postage machine at the office, I put 37 cents in the petty cash drawer," Owen said.

If Owen should convince a jury to spare him a conviction, he will still face, perhaps, a greater challenge: Convincing the people who once thought him a king to once again trust and respect him.

"You know, with my reputation having been slammed like it has, no financial institution is going to hire me," Owen admitted. "But I'll do something. I'll survive and hopefully be happy."

Graciously reprinted fromThe Carolina Channel

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