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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ronnie Sheppard: The Fall of a Sleazeball

Television news is not a glamorous business. It's cheap, it's tiring, and it makes you old before you're supposed to be. It's not what you see in movies. It's not romantic, dangerous, and sexy.

Except for when it is.

There was a two-year period of my TV news career that I spent fielding anonymous phone calls, meeting Deep Throat sources in dark offices, chasing paper trails, nailing the big interviews, and watching people go to prison.

The Carolina Investors saga began after I was already established as a reporter here in town. Twenty-four hours into the story, I was assigned as the lead reporter, a role I would both relish and hate for the rest of my TV news career. How many stories did I file? I don't even know. Although this page will give you some idea.

Re-telling the whole story would take way too much time. I do remember the first few months, though, when I realized the whole thing started well before I was born with the death of a child.

Dwight Holder stood in the middle of the small plot of land and stared down at his first child's grave. Weeds grew up around the headstone. Holder looked up and surveyed the graves around him. In such a place, weeds are unwelcome.

Holder had returned from World War II and service on a PT boat.

The idea that would define the rest of his business life came as he stood in the middle of an overgrown graveyard in the middle of Pickens County.

Holder was a good man, as were the many men who ended up following in his footsteps. I wrote the first long piece on the Carolina Investors story in May of 2003. In a world where only blood, guts, and gas price stories made it to TV, it was a challenge to make a story about an investment scam interesting enough for people to watch.

The simple fact was, however, that what was once a venerable investment company had turned into South Carolina's version of Enron. The hard-working farmers and mill workers of this community lost a combined $280 million. One investor committed suicide. Other folks thought about it.

I got to know an old preacher during my time on the story. He was one of the investors.

The Rev. Joe Trotter stood in a northern Greenville County fish pond and guided a young boy's head under the water.

The ceremony was one of seven baptisms Trotter performed in his first year as a minister at a small mission church.

The boy would eventually grow up to be a minister himself. It was the beginning of Trotter's life's work.

While he worked for his Lord, Trotter also worked to live. The early days of his ministry did not provide enough to put food on his family's table.

"They would take up offerings sometimes and I'd get 50 cents," Trotter remembered decades later. "Sometimes I'd get nothing."

So, Trotter worked, sometimes in a mill's cloth room, sometimes as a carpenter.

"Jesus was a carpenter," he reminded an afternoon visitor as he discussed his various careers.

During his time as a mill worker, Trotter grossed about $32 a week.

Pennies went to Social Security. Trotter put as much as he could afford into savings. He saved for his retirement.

Over time, Trotter amassed a working man's fortune, the dollar amount of which his wife of more than 60 years begs him not to discuss.

He put almost all of it into a reputable investment company called Carolina Investors and felt it was safe there. Each month of his retirement, he received a check to complement a small Social Security benefit.

He bought his daughter a car, put a grandson through college, and paid private-school tuition for his great-grandchild. He did it all while spending 40 years preaching the gospel.

On a sunny April 2003 afternoon, Trotter struggled to explain how his life savings had disappeared.

"I've helped everybody and led so many to the Lord," he said. "Now everything's gone."

Watching an old man cry on his front porch helped me realize that, even if TV drained every bit of my spirit, I was at least telling stories that needed to be told.

While there was a lot of fault to go around in the story, it was clear after a few months of investigation that the chief villian in the saga was a 9th grade drop-out who had somehow become CEO of a mortgage company that bought out Carolina Investors. For several years, he cooked the books, got rich, and, essentially stole the life savings of people who had lived in this community their entire lives. While I've known this to be fact since late 2003, I was never able to really say it until now.

Nearly four years since Carolina Investors closed its doors, Ronnie Sheppard is in prison, sentenced to 20 years for a variety of securties fraud and conspiracy charges.

There are days I miss being a TV news reporter. This happens to be one of them.

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Blogger Drizztdj said...

I don't think a lot of people understand just what money represents to the working-class.

Its the cuts, callouses, and tired bodies that went into buying the food on the table or clothes on their kids' backs. Its pride that their work gave tangible rewards.

Everytime I see my father's fingers and arms full of these cuts and bruises from working construction, I'm reminded of this and end up wholefully guilty for wasting a stack on a flush draw.

Thank you Otis for sticking with the story.

4:13 PM  
Blogger G-Rob said...

I dunno. I like the new guy they put on the story after you left.

10:25 PM  

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