Need or Greed

A Bible-quoting con man finds easy pickings among those looking for a miracle or a windfall

Holcomb has argued that he never offered such an endorsement, and that any illegal activity conducted by Robert Cord was carried out without the banker's knowledge. If, as the government claimed, Cord had duped investors, he'd duped Texas Coastal too; the bank had no way of knowing what Cord was really doing, Holcomb said, and neither did the bank president.

But Billy Holcomb did have a unique relationship with Robert Cord. The banker and his wife, Dorothy, owned Re/Max Gulf Coast, where, shortly after arriving from Beaumont in the summer of 1996, Cord began to look for real estate investments. Cord asked Dorothy to broker the purchase of a huge tract of land in north Houston by an investor group that wanted to build a Winston Cup auto-racing track. The deal fell through, but by then Cord had become a steady client of Re/Max Gulf Coast. From there, it didn't take much effort for the easy-going, scripture-quoting Robert Cord to befriend the Holcombs, as well as Wayne and Debbie Melson, who worked for Dorothy at Re/Max Gulf Coast.

Over the years, the Melsons and the Holcombs had themselves established a comfortable friendship. Debbie and Dot, as Dorothy was called, had the real estate business to talk about; Wayne and Billy liked to swap fishing stories. Each week, they attended Sagemont Southern Baptist Church together.

Like the Melsons, the Holcombs considered Robert Cord an honorable man. Cord was different, less stuffy and more amiable than most of the local swells Billy and Dorothy had come to know. He drove an expensive car, but his physical presence was unassuming. Cord was about 5'8", and at about 180 pounds, a little paunchy. He often wore a baseball cap and jeans. Cord told his new friends that he had been in the Special Forces, a Green Beret, before dedicating his life to acts of Christian goodwill.

Indeed, Robert Cord's abiding faith in God's generosity touched both the Melsons and the Holcombs on a personal level, but Billy in particular. At the time, Billy Holcomb had been president and chief executive officer of Texas Coastal for 12 years. It was a family-owned institution, small and not likely to get appreciably bigger. Holcomb always figured it would do until retirement, when he could concentrate on his real estate business.

But when Robert Cord opened his Winterhawk accounts, and the investments started coming in, Billy began to think differently, beyond Texas Coastal Bank, beyond Pasadena. Cord suggested they start their own bank. Billy rather liked the sound of that, so in January 1997, around the time Winterhawk West Indies opened its Seabrook office, Holcomb started on a business plan for the new bank, which Cord said should be named Belize City International.

No doubt Billy Holcomb never told the Winterhawk investors who called that he was planning to open an offshore bank with Robert Cord. Nor did he mention that Winterhawk funds were used to pay him a $25,000 consulting fee for his work on the business plan. Holcomb also took three all-expense-paid trips to Belize with Cord, who, on one jaunt to the sleepy Central American country, used Winterhawk funds to bring Dorothy and her stepdaughter Toni along.

Moreover, Billy and Dorothy Holcomb were themselves Winterhawk investors. According to Winterhawk records kept by Wayne Melson, Billy invested $25,000 in November 1996. In April 1997, Dorothy Holcomb withdrew $150,000 from the Re/Max Gulf Coast escrow account at her husband's bank and gave it to Melson, who put up $50,000 of his Winterhawk commissions. His friends, Rusty and Brenda Hellyer, put up another $50,000, and Debbie Melson solicited $250,000 from her friend, Dr. Donald Metz. Melson wired the pot --an even $500,000 -- to a bank in West Yorkshire, England.

Maybe no one understood the details of the transaction -- whether the money would be used to trade paper, secure a line of credit or leverage a surety bond. But, the way Melson figured it, Cord's more sophisticated investors had to know what they were doing, and they were depositing money in Winterhawk's account for those kinds of deals all the time. Never mind that, after four months at Winterhawk, Wayne Melson had never seen an investment pay off. Robert Cord always said it was simply a matter of finding the right financial instrument. Sometimes it takes a while, he'd say, but once it's done, the returns come quickly.

So, that's what Wayne Melson told his friends, who had pooled together a half-million cash investment with the understanding that over the next 30 days, it would turn into a check for $1.5 million.

Bob and Shirley Harkins believe in miracles, but unlike most seekers of the truth, they are utterly dependent on them. For years, the Harkinses have wanted to open a residential crisis-pregnancy center, a Christian home for guidance-hungry young women unsure of their next move. The Harkinses had even opened their own home to provide a limited, and rather cramped, refuge.

But God wanted Bob and Shirley to do more, so they started praying for a 5,000-square-foot house, preferably in Montgomery County. In January 1997, the Harkinses were weighing an offer from a friend, Michelle Crawford, who wanted to make a gift of the home in Clear Lake that her new boyfriend was buying her. But Bob and Shirley wanted to remain close to their church, the Tribe of Judah, so they asked Crawford if she'd sell her new place and donate the proceeds to them. Crawford rejected the offer, but suggested that Bob and Shirley meet with her boyfriend, who, she gushed, was always willing to use his wealth to encourage the good works of others.

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