By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
When a limousine pulled up to take the family to the airport, Chris Boutcher couldn't quite believe it. It was the summer of 2000, Enron was trading at $90 a share, and Chris had a one-way ticket to Houston.
It sucked, sure, that he had to pick up and move halfway across the country right after his freshman year of high school in Wisconsin. He'd done the relocation thing once before, in sixth grade when his mom died. At that time, he and his younger brother Aaron had moved in with their father and stepmother, leaving behind their Indiana hometown.
"Again I was leaving my friends, and I already did that with elementary school," he says. "I wasn't a loser, I had a lot of friends, so it kinda sucked. But I'm one of those, I'm not like the real quiet type, I'm the loud, ob-nah-xious" -- his Midwestern accent projects a backslapping conviviality -- "I make friends real easy, so it wasn't really that bad for me."
And the limo sure was a nice touch. It's not every day you see that kind of thing in Burlington, Wisconsin, population 10,000. His father, Mike, had taken a job as a technical expert in power treatment devices for Enron's energy services unit making $75,000 a year. He got $25,000 as part of the relocation package.
"My dad just told me it'd be a lot better down there; we'd actually get things we'd always [wanted] -- like, we lived all right, but we didn't live real good yet," Chris says.
"I just was really excited," adds Aaron. "And my dad just telling me everything about how good of a company Enron is -- I mean, he's told me about Fortune 500 and everything. Like, I didn't read that magazine at all, but I knew it had to do with business, and I'm like, well, that must be really good."
For a family that had lived off Mike's local utility company salary before, the possibilities were tantalizing. "One of the guys that worked there, he said he worked there for ten years and now he's going to retire a millionaire," Aaron recalls.
That optimism buoyed them, even when Chris stepped off the plane into the steam room that is a Houston August. "It was, like, 97 and I was like, well, at least it's warm down here," he observes dryly. He found his new neighborhood in Clear Lake "beautiful" and loved the vibrancy of his new school, so big and diverse. Another one of the Enron perks, primo Astros seats, blew them away. They sat among movers and shakers and spotted sports legends like Warren Moon nearby.
Both boys athletes themselves, Aaron joined the basketball team and Chris played baseball. They'd never been spoiled kids, Chris cautions, not by a long shot, so when their father gave them a bunch of money to spend at the mall, it surprised them.
"When we first moved down there, he just gave us, like, $500 to go clothes-shop. It's like, wow, this is something new," says Chris. "It wasn't like just throwing money around, but I could notice that things were a lot better than before."
Along with that came a certain sense of pride in their father. They saw him working hard. In good times -- at the height of the "Roaring '90s" -- they figured he deserved it.
Chris first sensed trouble about a year after the move. He would sometimes pick his father up after work at the Park & Ride lot and drive him back to the house. He'd ask about the company, and his father would tell him the project he was working on wasn't going really well.
Neither Chris nor Aaron can pinpoint an exact date when they discovered their father had been laid off. (Mike clarifies the timeline: late November 2001.)
"I heard on the news first," says Aaron. "I don't know, my dad didn't want to tell me for some reason that Enron was going to have to start laying off or downsizing or whatever. And then I asked him about it and he told me he was getting fired."
Chris found out the family was facing eviction when he was watching Nightline one evening in mid-December. However Enron parents had hoped to deliver the bad news to their children, the highly public bankruptcy ensured that if they didn't tell them, the media would. As quickly as Enron had splashed newfound privilege on them, the Boutcher boys' fortunes reversed. Aaron had to find his own money to pay for homecoming. He put off driving lessons and got his license a year late. No more eating out, and "can't go to the mall anymore, that's for sure," Aaron says. Chris chipped in some of his paychecks from a part-time job at Subway to help make their house payment.
"Christmas was real -- that was just nerve-racking because we didn't have any money for any presents for the kids," Aaron says, referring to the younger siblings in the family. Once their plight hit the news, though, gifts from complete strangers began coming in. "I got a few things, I don't remember. They were just kind of small things -- I didn't really want anything," says Aaron. "That was the least of my worries."