Need or Greed

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

The first thing Cord did after Special Agent Smith left his office was pay his lawyer $2,000. Then he had Holcomb transfer $15,000 from Winterhawk's account to his personal account. On May 13, 1997, Cord used $60,000 to buy a new Mercedes-Benz. On May 15, he bought a $280,000 Texas Coastal certificate of deposit, which he then used to secure a $266,000 loan from Holcomb's bank. He did the same thing four days later.

On May 20, Cord paid Wayne Melson a $32,000 commission. May 22 was a particularly busy day: Cord paid $12,500 to two real estate agents who worked for Dorothy Holcomb at Re/Max Gulf Coast; gave another Winterhawk employee $10,000 for the down payment on a Chris Craft 320 boat; and purchased another $280,000 CD from Texas Coastal Bank, which he used to take out a third $266,000 loan.

On May 29, 1997, Cord sent Karisa Tinsley a check for $53,000, which put the Winterhawk account $52,000 in the red. Yet, on May 30, Wayne Melson was paid $75,600 in commissions. Winterhawk's account was overdrawn by $143,000 before another investment came in, this time from a financial consultant in The Woodlands named Steve Roberts.

Roberts was an avid fan of Winterhawk West Indies; he eventually invested well over $1 million on behalf of his clients. Roberts was also one of those people who liked to check on the progress of his investments. He called Wayne Melson on a weekly basis. Indeed, Winterhawk's own records reflect that Steve Roberts made several phone calls to Winterhawk around June 5, 1997, when he wired a $280,000 investment to Texas Coastal. Roberts would later say he wasn't informed by either Cord or Melson that the FBI had been to see them, nor did Roberts learn that Cord had drained the Winterhawk account, largely to secure personal loans.

After Steve Roberts's investment put Winterhawk in the black again, it took Robert Cord just one month to run it $382,000 in the hole. On June 17 --the day the Harkinses were to close on the property in Montgomery County --Winterhawk's account had a balance of less than $4,800. A few days later, Cord used another $280,000 in investors' funds to buy a fourth certificate of deposit from Texas Coastal Bank, then borrowed another $266,000 against it.

Cord wired the money to the title company on June 24, and Bob and Shirley Harkins's prayers were answered. Robert Cord, of course, gave all the glory to God.

"Bob and I would like to tell you how much we appreciate your faithfulness," wrote Shirley Harkins in a letter she sent to Cord, along with a small plaque acknowledging his gift. "It is very rare to see a businessman that values his integrity to make it a priority to keep his word. We pray that you will be blessed beyond measure."

The Harkinses had no way of knowing, of course, that on June 18, less than a week before they got their house, FBI Special Agent Tony Smith had visited Winterhawk again, this time carrying a subpoena. Smith also served Billy Holcomb and Texas Coastal Bank, seeking records of Cord's transactions and account activity.

After that it was only a matter of time before the lie that created Winterhawk West Indies and the ignorance and complicity that sustained it would lead to its collapse.

Wayne Melson sensed it, and a week after the June 18 visit by Tony Smith, he apparently tried to distance himself from what he had to know at that point was a scam. He did it by writing Cord a "letter from your friend" on June 25, 1997. Melson wrote that "for quite some time" he had been trying to talk with Cord about "serious things," specifically how Cord had spent investors' money to buy the Harkinses their house, as well as jet skis and a car for his love interest, Karisa Tinsley. Melson scolded Cord for not waiting on the Winterhawk investments to pay off before spending the money on "those people."

"God will not bless this kind of giving, it is wrong," Melson wrote. "Robert, the only person you owe anything to is Christ. We owe him our lives. We all fall short. But I feel the responsibility as your friend and brother in Christ to say something when I see you falling ... Let's be accountable. I will pray for you. Your friend, Wayne."

It's curious, as well as a bit ironic, that Wayne Melson could handle the day-to-day business of Winterhawk West Indies for six months -- talking to clients, opening mail, verifying the transfer of investor funds -- and then, one week after an FBI subpoena, suddenly discover his boss was misappropriating the money.

Moreover, while Melson was criticizing Cord for not waiting for God to "provide" returns, who did he think was paying his salary? Indeed, Wayne Melson accepted Cord's job offer on the condition that his commissions be paid "up front" rather than after the payoff.

When he wrote his June 25 plea to Cord, Melson had already been paid almost $225,000. That's money he accepted even as he repeatedly told investors that, to get theirs, they just needed to be patient. Melson was so concerned about accountability that he collected another $82,000 in commissions after his letter to Cord. Wayne Melson was so concerned about God's displeasure at Robert Cord's business practices that he didn't quit his job at Winterhawk until the U.S. marshals seized the files and shut down the office in August 1997.

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