Need or Greed

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

Holcomb also pleads ignorance about the $500,000 investment Melson made in England, for which Dorothy Holcomb contributed $150,000 from the Re/Max Gulf Coast escrow account. Within days of Winterhawk's seizure, Melson filed a lawsuit in London in the High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division, seeking return of the investment he'd made on behalf of his friends. The High Court issued an injunction freezing the funds.

On September 19, 1997, Melson and his counterpart in England, World Wide Resources, appeared to have reached a settlement, whereby World Wide would pay Winterhawk $600,000. The only problem was that, upon return to these shores, the money would no doubt be seized by the U.S attorney's office and added to the assets up for grabs in the civil forfeiture proceedings.

The settlement was apparently delayed because on September 27, Dorothy Holcomb faxed a letter to Wayne and Debbie Melson.

"Bill & I were having our coffee this morning & I brought him up to date about the events related to the London refunding of monies -- we think we need more communication between us so that if or when a 'Mr. Jones' calls, Bill would be more prepared to work as a team to support whatever events are occurring at the time."

The following day, Billy Holcomb faxed a second letter with "a further thought with regard to the pending transfer of funds from London." Holcomb noted that World Wide Resources might be "uncomfortable about not using the name of Winterhawk" when it wired the money to Texas Coastal. Holcomb suggested that World Wide use the name Winterhawk, but direct the money to Melson's account.

"It probably would not matter from the bank's point of view under the transfer being made under Winterhawk as long as your business account number is used," Holcomb wrote. "It would need to be wired to my attention and I could see that it goes into the right account."

On September 29, Melson received a faxed letter from Paul Simms, a London attorney for World Wide. Simms wrote that it was "a pity" that Melson hadn't informed World Wide earlier of Winterhawk's seizure, "as it is a duty ... to make full and frank discovery of all relevant issues."

Simms asked to be put in touch with Winterhawk's attorneys, or "if there are no lawyers appointed, then I would like to be able to contact the FBI direct." The following day, Melson contacted an attorney named Alan Tomlin, who was asked to draw up letters for each of the investors stating how much they had invested and that Melson was representing their interests. It was important, Melson wrote, "that I obtain this letter as soon as possible as ... proceedings have already begun in [an] attempt to retrieve the investment funds."

The "proceedings" Melson referred to were actually a new seizure order for Winterhawk, filed in federal court on October 31, 1997, that sought to retrieve the $500,000 invested with World Wide Resources. Apparently, the feds acted too late. On November 17, 1997, World Wide wired $525,000 to Texas Coastal Bank, where the funds were distributed to the original investors.

While the 5 percent return was much less than expected, the Melsons and the Holcombs could hardly complain. They, unlike almost every other Winterhawk investors, did not lose their money.

In September 1997, after spending $18,000 on renovations, Shirley and Bob Harkins moved into a garage apartment adjacent to the house Robert Cord bought them. They were preparing to start work on the house itself when the FBI showed up and seized the property.

Perhaps the Harkinses are the only true victims of the Winterhawk scam. At least it could be argued that anyone who believes they can invest a sum of money and have it come back doubled in 30 days is asking to be taken.

But Bob and Shirley Harkins had long been praying for what they needed. That it finally came in the name of Robert Cord is a quirk of fate the Harkinses are not totally prepared to denounce. After all, they could never afford the house they have now, and though they probably won't be able to keep it, there's still a chance.

According to the Harkinses' lawyer, Norman Van Pelt, the best thing that could happen is that the judge sitting on the forfeiture case will decide Bob and Shirley are "innocent owners," and award them the property. That may not go over well with the other investors, who will ask that the house be sold and the proceeds disbursed among them.

The other option is for the Harkinses to raise $150,000 in donations and buy the house. Of course, that's going to take a lot more praying.

"We could move out and just forget this whole thing ever happened," Shirley Harkins says. "But that's not true faith."

E-mail Brian Wallstin at brian_wallstin@houstonpress.com.

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