On November 15, 2001, an intern with the Harris County District Attorney's office handed veteran in-house investigator John Lemerond a file on a couple of seemingly shady travel Web sites called Myowntravel and Academy Travel. Both of those sites were run, in whole or in part, by a 29-year-old two-time ex-con by the name of Brian Edgar Culwell, who was then on federal probation after being convicted in 1995 of four counts of bank fraud.
According to a detailed report the district attorney's office later produced in the investigation, Lemerond Googled Brian Culwell and found a listing on Classmates.com. There he discovered that Culwell was also involved in a Web site called Olajuwon.com. Lemerond clicked on over, and was directed to an eBay auction page for a site run by Culwell under the user name DreamKids.
On the DreamKids page, Lemerond saw listings for purportedly valuable diamond jewelry at insanely low prices, the proceeds of which were supposedly going toward various charities run by then-fading Houston Rockets basketball great and rising real estate magnate Hakeem Olajuwon.
According to one of Culwell's employees mentioned in the report, terminally ill children were to be spirited to sporting events in limousines through the proceeds of these sales, but that same employee would tell Lemerond that he never saw these magical evenings transpire. But that revelation would come much later in the investigation.
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. UCF Knights Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 29, 11:00am
Meanwhile, Lemerond contacted the Houston Better Business Bureau and asked it about the travel sites and the DreamKids page. The BBB files were bulging; there were approximately 15 complaints about the three companies, a remarkably high number for businesses that had been open for as short a time as those three — especially considering that Houston BBB president Dan Parsons says each complaint his office receives represents 20 rip-off victims who don't report to his group.
Lemerond next contacted an investigator with PayPal who told him that PayPal had been hit with numerous charge-backs from people who had attempted to buy jewelry through the DreamKids eBay site. (According to Lemerond's investigation, these charge-backs had run to "many, many thousands of dollars.")
Under subpoena, eBay sent Lemerond the DreamKids sales information from August 2000 to November 27, 2001. The investigator e-mailed a questionnaire to every customer he could find. He received no fewer than 270 responses from angry customers. At the same time, other complaints were streaming in to the BBB and the Harris County District Attorney's Consumer Fraud division, about both DreamKids and the travel sites.
Out of those complaints, the alleged DreamKids scam emerged as the largest. Lemerond successfully identified 215 people who paid a total of $54,879. In almost every case, they thought they were getting valuable diamond jewelry at a 90 percent discount. People saw pictures of glittering baubles reportedly valued at $5,500 but available through DreamKids at the low, low price of $500 or less. It would later come to light that Culwell would pay his Sharpstown Mall supplier $136 for the very same one-carat diamond solitaire rings he would tout as being worth more than $5,000. Layne Wehmeyer, an Anahuac man who purchased what he had hoped would be his engagement ring through DreamKids, told the Houston Press that what he received looked like it had come from a gumball machine.
In a sense, Wehmeyer was lucky. Lemerond reported that 183 people (who paid a total of $44,373) received nothing at all. Thirty-two other people (who paid a total of $10,506) reported that they got cheap, industrial-grade diamonds that they attempted to return for a promised 85 percent refund that was never sent to any of them. Culwell didn't simply ignore these returns, however. According to the report, Culwell's employees told investigators that Culwell would have them remove the returned jewelry and send it on to other customers.
Lemerond reported that many of these people had made their purchases with their credit cards and had successfully challenged the payments. That didn't mean Culwell didn't get the money, Lemerond reported. The investigator found that Culwell had already received payment of $67,833 from such customers, and by the time his merchant credit card company came calling, that money had been whisked away to shelters unknown.
On December 4, 2001, Lemerond had a search warrant and he and five other investigators raided Culwell's FM 1960 offices. Almost two years later, on September 11, 2003, the DA's office finally charged Culwell with second-degree felony theft on and ten counts of deceptive trade practices.
All those cases would be dismissed, thanks in large part to other criminal charges both state and federal authorities brought against Culwell.
In November of 2003, Culwell's federal probation was revoked. After serving 42 months for his 1995 bank fraud conviction, Culwell was on supervised release for the next five years. Under the terms of his federal probation, Culwell was barred from making cash transactions or issuing commercial paper over $200 without the written permission of his probation officer.
United States Judge Lynn Hughes ruled Culwell had done just that by endorsing a check for cash in the amount of $1,000. Hughes didn't restrict himself to just making a ruling, either, as a transcript of that proceeding attests.
At one point Culwell tried to say that the check he wrote himself for $1,000 cash was anything other than what it was. He attempted to claim that it was for expenses, payroll, whatever. He tried to blame his CPA and QuickBooks. He said he wasn't sure what that check was for because the DA took all his records. It might have been an "advanced compensation bonus," Culwell further told the court, and then after some prodding by Hughes about why he didn't make any such note of that in the memo space, Culwell charged ahead, claiming that he paid taxes on that money and that he had stopped compensating himself in that manner on the advice of his CPA, but only after it was too late.
"That's nonsense, what you just said," Judge Hughes replied. "I just feel like I want to mention it so nobody thinks that I believe that."
Hughes ordered Culwell back to prison, and gave him a fresh sentence totaling six years. (It's a little unclear when he got out; a government document lists his release date as January 22, 2009, but either he or his wife told the Houston Chronicle that he was out starting Gold and Silver Buyers four months before that.)
The State of Texas had another case against Culwell. On April 27, 2005, Culwell was sentenced to two years in state jail after he was found to have essentially stolen a Heights property and deeded it over to a diamond-seller to whom he was in debt. (Culwell was on the losing end of a civil judgment in that case as well.)
But before the DreamKids affair was all over, Culwell would drag the names of a veteran cop — Edward "Skip" Oliver, then a Harris County sheriff's deputy and now a captain in the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable's Office — and one of Houston's most sacred sports legends through the mud. Although well-known attorneys Rusty Hardin and Dick DeGuerin would make appearances on his behalf and the two men are usually media magnets, the case (and the Heights property case) attracted minimal media attention. And hundreds of people would allegedly get ripped off, many of them even after Lemerond's squad raided Culwell's FM 1960 lair.
"I guess everybody has one of those times in their lives that makes 'em cringe. That was mine," says Oliver, the cop who then helped run the Houston Rockets' security detail and who introduced Olajuwon to Culwell.
Whether he got out of prison in 2008 or the following year, by 2009, Brian Culwell would be back in business, bigger and richer than ever. He had walked out of prison and straight into the largest and most lucrative gold rush this country has seen since California in 1849. In August of 2008, the very first Gold and Silver Buyers location opened in an H-E-B.
By the company's own reckoning, as of this writing there are 75 Gold and Silver Buyers locations across Texas, from the unofficial flagship in the Galleria to the Rio Grande Valley, Longview to San Antonio, many inside or next to H-E-B, Kroger or Randalls supermarkets. They've brought in celebrity endorsers Mickey Gilley, Spanish-language talking head Jose Luis, Anglo KTRH talking head Michael Berry, and Sunny 99 radio personality Dana Tyson.
In an interview with the Houston Chronicle in March, Culwell and his wife and business partner Amelia reported gross revenue for 2010 of approximately $16 million, and they said that they expected to nearly double that amount this year. Today this three-time felon is living in a $1 million Tomball manor that looks a lot like the Ewing family's Southfork ranch. Motor vehicle records show that he owns three BMWs, a Yukon and a 2011 Cadillac Escalade.
Earlier this year, on our Hair Balls blog, I wrote about Culwell's previous life as a burglar, fraudster, con artist and thief. As with this feature, the blog post was based on official documents, interviews with law enforcement officials and attorneys, and other sources close to the case.
Gold and Silver Buyers responded on multiple fronts to the blog post. Odd anonymous comments appeared on our blog, some very much like the five-star reviews his gold business almost unanimously receives from commenters on the Internet. And then I got a hot letter from his attorney, Chris DiFerrante, basically telling me to zip it and accusing me of collaborating with one of Culwell's competitors, someone who had bought an ad in the Press.
I denied that allegation — it was not true — and continued work on this feature. And then Gold and Silver Buyers bought a full-page ad with the Press, one that you might have perused before you read this. After my repeated efforts to speak with the Culwells were rebuffed, I was instructed to direct our questions through a local public-relations firm, to whom I sent several questions.
"Gold-buying is a business that relies on trust," I explained to the PR people. "Why should Texans trust a man who has been convicted of three felonies relating to theft, burglary and fraud; who spent all but 30 days of the 1990s under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and who got out of prison about four years ago?"
I also asked about Culwell's relationship to Skip Oliver, his reaction to being accused of misusing the logo of the Houston Better Business Bureau, and if he would comment on another case he lost in both civil and criminal court.
The company stonewalled. Company Chief Operating Officer and President Larry Gray (also Brian Culwell's father-in-law) sent the following boilerplate statement:
"Gold & Silver Buyers, Inc. is honored that our customers have made us the largest precious metals buyer in Texas, in large part due to word of mouth referrals. Gold & Silver Buyers is very proud that since opening and servicing hundreds of thousands of Texans, we have never received a customer complaint to the Better Business Bureau. In reference to the other questions, they do not pertain to Gold & Silver Buyers, Inc. or its directors."
I wrote back, asking the company to clarify that last part. How then was Brian Culwell affiliated with the company?
"Mr. Culwell's primary responsibility includes scouting new locations for the company," Gray responded through his public relations firm.
I then pointed out a March 2011 Houston Chronicle article that stated that Brian and Amelia Culwell "founded Gold & Silver Buyers" in 2008. The story went on to state that "the local couple began hiring and training appraisers and in August 2008 leased space inside an H-E-B in Copperfield for their first store. In addition, they own the Galleria-area refinery, whose location they don't want disclosed for security reasons."
The story went on to state that it was Brian and Amelia Culwell who hired Gray to run the company for them.
After reading all of that, I had a couple more questions. "Someone with the power to hire a President and COO is seldom a mere real estate scout," I wrote. "The way that report reads, Mr. Gray is an employee of his daughter and son-in-law. Is that not the case? Could Mr. Gray fire either of the Culwells?"
At that point, Gray directed me to his original statement.
A few days later, after I searched for "Bryan" Culwell instead of Brian, I found another story on Inc.com's Web site. Gold and Silver Buyers was touted as one of America's Top 10 companies by growth rate, and Culwell was interviewed and photographed in his position as company CEO. I sent the link to that story back to their PR firm and have yet to hear back.
I also asked some of Gold and Silver Buyers' celebrity endorsers what they knew about Culwell's past. Mickey Gilley never responded. Michael Berry called back and said he was shocked to learn about Culwell's criminal record. He said he would have a private investigator check him out and that he would get back to us after that. So far he has not. As of mid-September, the testimonials of both Berry and Gilley remain on the Gold and Silver Buyers Web site.
We also had wanted to know what H-E-B thought about renting space to a guy with a past like Brian Culwell's. I sent their spokesman a letter detailing Culwell's criminal history. I got no response from H-E-B at first. Then I was notified that Culwell and Gold and Silver Buyers, Inc. were suing me personally.
Culwell's suit contends that my e-mail to H-E-B constituted defamation of character, libel, business disparagement and negligence — specifically cited were my questions to H-E-B about Culwell's involvement with DreamKids (for which I erroneously believed he had been sent to prison), Lemerond's investigation into his travel sites, and an unexecuted, six-figure judgment hanging over Culwell's head stemming from the Heights property case.
The suit also claims that Culwell is not "an officer or director of [Gold and Silver Buyers]." According to the suit, he is simply "a member in a Texas limited liability company which has an ownership interest" in the company.
And in truth, I had been mistaken when I asked H-E-B if they were aware he had gone to prison after defrauding people in the DreamKids case. In fact, he had gone to prison for getting Delores Hawkins, a stroke-addled and heavily medicated old lady, to give him power of attorney over her affairs, then using that document to deed her property to a man whom he owed money, who was then left holding the bag when Culwell was found to have criminally misused that document. The DreamKids case was dismissed in all this criminal procedure traffic and so Culwell was never convicted of those particular charges. Culwell was already in federal custody when the Hawkins criminal verdict came down; in 2003, he was found to have violated the terms of his probation in a 1995 bank fraud case.
I corrected myself in a second letter to H-E-B. I told them I had been mixed up about why Culwell had gone to jail and pinpointed the exact causes — the theft case and the federal probation revocation. I also told them that I was in possession of an official state document indicating that Brian and Amelia Culwell were listed as the sole directors of Gold and Silver Buyers, Inc., on the date the company was founded and that the document further identified Graymeiren Holdings, LLC as that company's registered agent.
H-E-B declined to comment, saying it was not a party to the suit.
Brian Culwell graduated from Spring Westfield High School in 1989. He spent a grand total of 30 days in the 1990s free and clear of the criminal justice system. For all but that single month, he was either on bond, behind bars or on some form of supervised release.
On January 31, 1990, Culwell was arrested and charged with burglary of a building. While Culwell was out on bail for that case, on July 19, 1990, the State of Texas filed civil suit against Culwell personally and in his role as agent for a partnership called Chrystelle, accusing Culwell of running a direct-mail scam in which people were promised big awards in return for purchasing $397 worth of cosmetics from a catalog. In October of 1991, an interlocutory default judgment was signed against Culwell for his role in that operation; the 157th State District Court ruled that the whole thing was a scam, and Culwell and some of his cohorts were ordered to pay civil penalties of $10,000 and attorney fees of $6,125 and to make restitution of $19,886.37.
Two months prior to that adverse judgment, in May of 1994, Culwell was arrested by the Houston Police Department and charged with check forgery and tampering with a government record, both felonies. After those two third-degree felony charges were filed, Culwell's probation was revoked. The State of Texas sent him to prison for seven years on the 1989 burglary charge, and the new felonies were dismissed. The feds wanted a piece of Culwell, too; that was when Culwell was sentenced by Lynn Hughes's court in the Southern District of Texas to 42 months in prison for four counts of federal bank fraud. At least some of that sentence ran concurrently with his state time.
All of which brings us roughly to 2001, when Culwell, then still on supervised release from federal prison, decided to get in the online jewelry sales business.
Officer Oliver tells the Press that Culwell was running an eBay sales storefront on Stuebner Airline in north Houston when they met. It was one of those places where tech-naives could bring in their unwanted merchandise and have a tech-savvy person sell it for them and arrange the shipping and handling in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. Oliver sold a few items through Culwell, and was happy with the outcome.
Meanwhile, Oliver says that Olajuwon told him that he had a whole warehouse full of sports memorabilia he wanted to sell. "It was a whole lot of, I don't want to say crap, because those guys think it's worth something, but that was kinda what it was," Oliver remembers. Oliver checked around at some memorabilia shops, and also told Olajuwon that Culwell could sell it direct through eBay. He set up a meeting between Culwell and Olajuwon. (Olajuwon did not return a phone call left with one of his charities, and reportedly spends much of his time in Jordan these days.)
According to the report Lemerond generated for the DA's office, on meeting the towering Nigerian, Culwell quickly went into hustle mode. The Lemerond report and Oliver agree that Olajuwon and the cop both say Olajuwon okayed a deal wherein Culwell would sell the Dream's signed keepsakes and some personal effects. Olajuwon scribbled his name on some items, and later told Lemerond that he then pretty much forgot about the whole thing.
And for a time, Culwell confined himself to what he was authorized to sell, Oliver remembers. "Signed stuff, like basketballs and guitars," Oliver remembers. "And there at first, there was some other stuff that was Hakeem's personal stuff, like jewelry and a college ring that had actually belonged to Hakeem."
And then Culwell evidently decided that was not making the sort of nut he required. And Culwell's employees would later tell Lemerond that Culwell didn't stop his Internet tomfoolery even as Culwell was on supervised release from the feds and knew he was in the DA's crosshairs. According to the district attorney's memorandum, in late December of 2001 and January of 2002, Culwell continued full speed ahead.
According to Lemerond's report, after the search warrant was executed on December 4, 2001, a Culwell employee called the DA's office and told them that Culwell was holding seminars in which he taught people everything he knew about Internet jewelry sales, Brian Culwell-style. And soon enough, the investigator started receiving e-mails from previous Culwell victims, saying they were seeing new offers on the Web that were uncannily similar to the ones they had been seduced by. The sites were called classicdiamonds.com, classicjewels.com and turningpointe.com.
In late May of 2002, Lemerond received an eBay non-delivery of jewelry complaint from a New York-based Fulbright & Jaworski associate by the name of Jim Crawford. Though the complaint might have looked familiar to Lemerond — diamond earrings at a 90 percent discount, customer pays, earrings never show up — at first he didn't connect it to Culwell. This time around the eBay seller was someone called TurningPointe, and therein lies another tale within a tale.
According to the report Lemerond generated for the district attorney's office, a man named Kevin Essett was fresh in town from his home state of Indiana when he met Culwell at the Funnel, an odd Culwell-run strip-mall coffeehouse on FM 1960. The Funnel was nonprofit and ostensibly a wholesome Christian environment where parolees could meet, network and better their lives.
A seminary school dropout and fledgling minister, Essett had come to Houston with a dream. The Lord had told him to come to Texas and start a church. It was, he told Lemerond, a "leap of faith." The trouble was, Essett was broke, toiling away at a La Quinta Inn in The Woodlands.
Culwell could fix that. Essett told Lemerond that he could tell that Culwell was loaded. Culwell told him about his pal Hakeem Olajuwon, and claimed to have gone to his house, and Culwell's office was crammed floor-to-ceiling with high-dollar sports memorabilia.
And Culwell was willing to share. Essett said that Culwell simply gave him $2,500 when they were little more than acquaintances. In December of 2001, Culwell told Essett he could start holding religious services at the Funnel. At some point, Essett found out about Culwell's shady past, but Culwell soothed his worries by saying words to the effect that yes, there were some youthful indiscretions, but they were all behind him now.
After that, Essett said, Culwell invited him to a seminar with a name along the lines of "Seed Growers." It was all about how to prosper through eBay sales. Despite some initial misgivings, Essett joined Culwell's sales team on February 4, 2002, and opened the TurningPointe eBay page.
According to Lemerond's report, Culwell would e-mail Essett pictures of jewelry and written ad copy, Essett would upload the images and verbiage to an eBay page and then administer the mail. It was a sweet deal: He got $1,000 a week in salary plus the free use of a home Culwell either owned or rented, but which would have cost Essett $1,200 a month on the open market.
When money came in, Essett would cash the checks and PayPal payments and turn them over to Culwell, who would occasionally examine the bank statements to ensure that Essett was not cheating him. In February of 2002, Culwell also got Essett to sign a confidentiality agreement with a $500,000 civil penalty as the threat against talking about his business.
At first things ran pretty smoothly, even though, according to Lemerond's report, Essett thought the jewelry he was selling was "pretty crappy." The auctions would typically start at $199 and close in the range of $300-$400, the report went on to say, and Essett said that he was honoring returns, at least at first. Then, suddenly, Culwell stopped giving Essett the diamond earrings he was selling, the report continues. Needless to say, the customers were not pleased at this development, and Essett complained to Culwell. What was he supposed to tell those people? Culwell told Essett he didn't have to tell them a damn thing. This didn't assuage Essett's concerns, as in many cases, it was his name on the line, not Culwell's. Culwell told him not to worry; this had happened to him before — with DreamKids.
And he also told Essett that his buddy Skip Oliver of the Harris County Sheriff's Department would warn him when the heat was coming down. "That's absolutely crazy," says Oliver. "One, we weren't doing the investigation, it was the DA's office, so that would mean that the DA's office would have been leaking information to me for me to be telling Brian."
Oliver sounds genuinely hurt and horrified by Culwell's claim. "I've been in this for going on for 34 years and for somebody to make that kinda allegation, I can't think of anything worse to say about a police officer," he says. "Number one, it's ludicrous and it's just a horrible thing to say about a police officer. I can't think of anything worse."
Lemerond's report has it that between February and late April of 2002, the money was rolling in to TurningPointe: as much as $341,000. The investigator again subpoenaed eBay and contacted 1,200 customers. By July of 2002, 190 had responded, virtually all of whom said they had received nothing after having paid. Lemerond was able to track one customer's check as it traveled from California through a Houston check-cashing service, where the clerks identified Culwell as the man who cashed the check. Lemerond also discovered that the private post office box listed as TurningPointe's address had been rented by Essett's wife. Two employees there identified Essett as the guy who picked up the mail.
Essett was not charged with any crimes in the case, although in 2006, he would be convicted of felony theft by check for an offense committed in December of 2002. He was sentenced to a year in the Harris County Jail. He's moved back to Indiana since then, and did not return a phone message.
There's one last loose end to the Essett story. What about that TurningPointe eBay name? It doesn't seem to make sense. The other eBay pages were run by sellers with names such as classicdiamonds and classicjewelry.
As it happened, Turning Pointe was the name of the church Essett had once believed the Lord had commanded him to found.
How much did the Dream know about all of this? Shortly after Lemerond's raid on Culwell's office, the investigator turned his attention to the hoops legend. On December 5, 2001, Lemerond spoke to Olajuwon and his assistant Pam Greaney on the phone. Greaney and Olajuwon told Lemerond about how he had met Culwell through Oliver. Olajuwon claimed he had no knowledge of the DreamKids site nor the cheap jewelry being peddled there. He denied that any of the proceeds went to his charities. In short, in the Dream's mind, Culwell's brainstorm was very preliminary, chiefly in his own mind, and would benefit nobody other than Culwell himself.
Oliver was also mortified to learn of the alleged jewelry scams. "I was in absolute shock," he tells the Press. "Here was a guy who I had introduced to Hakeem. You know those guys trust me and it made me feel horrible. Especially with me being a police officer. I didn't know what Brian was doing, and to my knowledge I've never had anything to do with somebody who's done something like this."
Shortly after the raid on his office, and after talking to Lemerond on the phone, Culwell lawyered up and shut his mouth. Charges would finally be filed against Culwell in 2003, and then dismissed months later when his federal probation was revoked and another theft case came to light. Olajuwon was never charged with a crime.
As surprised as Skip Oliver was to see that Culwell was doing so well these days, Houston attorney Sylvester Anderson was, if anything, even more astonished. Until the Press brought it to his attention in July, Anderson had no idea that Culwell was enjoying such flush times.
Back in 2004, Anderson successfully sued Culwell and diamond seller Uri Cohen after it came to light that Culwell attempted to repay a $190,000 debt to Cohen by giving him the deed to a Heights property owned by an ailing, elderly woman by the name of Delores Ponzine Hawkins, known as "Dee" to her close friends. Anderson thought that by this time Culwell would be down and out. After all, Culwell was serving federal prison time throughout the whole trial, including the October 2006 day when the judgment came down in favor of Anderson and his client. What's more, state authorities had also convicted Culwell for the same case Anderson litigated in civil court.
Anderson's case and the sworn statements and depositions that went with it show that Culwell could be a cold-blooded cheat as easily in person as he could over the Internet or through direct mail.
In the late 1990s, Culwell met Hawkins's grandson Courteland Congo shortly after Congo got out of prison, or perhaps while both were behind bars (sources vary). Congo introduced Culwell to Hawkins as his mentor, a guy who would help him figure out life while the two shot hoops and hung out.
Hawkins had been a bookkeeper for Exxon when she transferred from Baltimore to Houston in the mid-1970s. After retirement, she picked up odd jobs as a caretaker for incapacitated people.
Hawkins also had a couple of properties and opened up a halfway house in a ramshackle cabin she owned in the Heights. From the late 1970s through much of the 1980s, Hawkins housed ex-convicts and mentally ill people in the house, which she called Halfway Home with Dee. The since-gentrified neighborhood was then predominantly poor and black.
By the early 2000s, even the shack had fallen into disrepair, and Hawkins was no longer running Halfway Home with Dee. A friend named Flora would stay in the house rent-free, occasionally overnight, as a sort of caretaker.
Meanwhile, Hawkins had fallen on hard times. She would later say that because of a $400 debt to a credit card company, she couldn't get credit anywhere and she believed, oddly, that without better credit she wouldn't be able to sell the Heights property.
One autumn day in 2002, she went out for pizza with Culwell and Congo. Hawkins told Culwell about her credit problem, and Culwell told her he would get back with her. A few days later, he returned, telling her the only way he could help her would be if she gave him power of attorney over her affairs. It wouldn't cost her a dime, Culwell told her.
At the time, Hawkins had recently suffered two strokes and was heavily medicated. She didn't have any idea how granting Culwell her power of attorney would help repair her credit, but he told her it would, and she believed him. He'd always been so good to Congo, after all. On November 8, 2002, she signed it over. Culwell helpfully told her what to initial, so she went ahead and okayed his right to make real estate transactions on her behalf. "He just told me to sign here and here," she said. Again, all she thought it enabled him to do was "fix her credit."
"Do you know what a power of attorney does?" an attorney would later ask Hawkins.
"Yes," Hawkins would reply.
"What does it do?"
"It gives him the power to do what he said he was going to do. Like I said, ma'am, he said sign here, here, here and here; and that's all I did. I didn't read this."
"Is it your testimony that you signed this power of attorney without reading it?"
"I didn't," Hawkins replied. "I trusted him so I did."
A few weeks later, Hawkins met up with Culwell at a Denny's and asked him for a progress report. Where was he, she wanted to know, with fixing her credit? Culwell assured her that he was working on it. That was the last she saw of Brian Culwell until after she got a notice of eviction from the Harris County tax department.
Meanwhile, Culwell was in trouble of his own. He owed diamond broker Uri Cohen a shade under $200,000 for jewels he hadn't paid for, and the Israeli was getting restless, dunning Culwell daily, sometimes many times a day over the phone. Occasionally, Culwell would send Cohen a bad check — eventually $17,000 worth of them, according to court documents. Finally Culwell proposed a solution. As partial payment of his debt to Cohen, the Israeli could take his pick from a portfolio of three properties Culwell owned, at least ostensibly.
One of these was Hawkins's Heights property, and that was the one Cohen selected, on November 14, six days after Culwell had obtained the power of attorney from Hawkins. Cohen agreed that the conveyance of this property to him would negate $55,000 of Culwell's debt to him. Culwell and Cohen met in the office of Cohen's real estate attorney Lana Dieringer and Culwell deeded Cohen the property. (It seemed like a good deal to Cohen: The property was appraised at $47,700 in 2003; $83,400 the following year; and today, the neighborhood is sprouting condos and bike trails. Today, with a swanky 2,700-square-foot townhouse on the lot, the Harris County Appraisal District assesses the property's market value at $425,000.)
Not long after he got the deed, Cohen dispatched a real estate agent to the property. As the agent was planting a "For Sale" sign in the yard, he was confronted by either Flora or Dee Hawkins. The woman and the real estate agent had a short argument about whether or not he had any business sticking that sign in the yard.
A few days later, Hawkins received an official eviction notice. The letter informed her that the Heights property now belonged to a man named Cohen. As Cohen would put it in a sworn statement, "[Hawkins] decided not." Hawkins next confronted Culwell and he said he had nothing to do with it.
According to sworn statements and depositions, Cohen was alarmed to learn that his ownership of the deed was in jeopardy (especially since he had never bothered to purchase title insurance), and he was still trying to get the rest of his money: "[Culwell] was telling me a few times I will pay you, I will pay you, but people owe me, people owe me. Every day I was calling him more than 10, 15 times. And then he disappeared. I don't hear from him nothing. I went to 1960 many times where he used to have the store. I don't see anybody. I talk to the jeweler that used to work with him. Nobody know nothing. People was coming to me and telling me...maybe he was owing more people money."
For her part, Hawkins went to the DA's office. She says she was told that she needed to get a lawyer to get her property back. She did, and after years in court, she finally won. The court ruled that by signing over the deed to Hawkins's property to Cohen, Culwell had breached his fiduciary duty to Hawkins. He was ordered to pay Hawkins $48,400 actual damages and $100,000 as exemplary damages and to return her property to her. (Anderson tells the Press that Culwell hasn't paid a penny of that judgment.) Cohen paid nothing to Hawkins, and was found not to have committed fraud, though he was left on the hook for the property taxes for the time he had the property.
Assistant District Attorney Russel Turbeville — no stranger to Culwell, as he had prosecuted him in the DreamKids case — also filed a felony theft charge against Culwell in the case; it was eventually pled down to state jail felony theft and Culwell got the maximum sentence for that charge: two years in a state jail, a sentence he apparently served in federal prison thanks to his probation revocation.
"Frankly, I thought that was less than he deserved," says Skip Oliver.
We'll give Dee Hawkins the last word on her case: "Mr. Brian was supposed to fix my credit and he didn't," she said in a sworn statement. "And then he went on to sell to Mr. Cohen my property which was not his."
Skip Oliver says Culwell called him after he was released from prison. "He wanted to apologize for everything that he put me and Hakeem through," Oliver remembers. "I told him, 'Good luck, and I'm hoping you've learned something, but Brian, to be honest, because of where I work, we're not gonna be able to communicate.' I just hope he's doin' right by this business."
There is reason to believe that he is, at least so far. We personally investigated them with a little sack of scrap gold jewelry. In one case, Gold and Silver Buyers offered the best price out of three stores we went to that day, though not substantially more.
On another trip, the Gold and Silver Buyers offer was significantly lower than that offered by Houston Numismatic Exchange in Rice Village, but it didn't rise to the level of a rip-off. It does put the lie to their "If you sell your gold or silver to anyone else, you've just lost money" claim. Still, such hyperbole doesn't rise to the level of fraud.
So there's no reason to say that Culwell is still stealing, though one does wonder how he has been able to go from zero storefronts to 75 in three years. Culwell's wife Amelia has stated that it was because renting spaces inside supermarkets is very cheap.
That quote came to light back in March, when the Houston Chronicle produced its glittering profile of Brian and Amelia Culwell. After profiling the Culwells, Ronnie Crocker's article went on to drag the BBB's Dan Parsons into the fray. Parsons's role in the article was to provide expert tips to gold sellers on how not to get ripped off, and he stands by all the advice he gave in the article. (First and foremost, he says, get at least three quotes before you pull the trigger on any sale.)
What Parsons didn't know, and what chaps his hide now, is the fact that his statements were effectively (if unknowingly on the Chronicle's part) used to endorse the business of a man with a very shady past. And that anger turned to a white-hot rage when he discovered that as of August of this year, Gold and Silver Buyers had decided to endorse themselves with the BBB logo on their site without actually being a member of the group
"That's almost unheard of," Parsons tells the Press. "We've had businesses that have moved here from cities where they were members and use the logo, and I can see how that could be a misunderstanding. Or a business can let their membership lapse and forget about the logo. But to my knowledge, this is the first time a business has just claimed to have been in the BBB without ever having been." (Parsons says Gold and Silver Buyers told him that the logo was placed there by mistake by their Web designer.)
And then in early September, just a couple weeks after their misuse of the BBB logo came to light, Parsons forwarded the Press an e-mail showing that Gold and Silver Buyers was trying to sneak into the BBB. The BBB has an online form in which businesses can prequalify for membership. Gold and Silver Buyers attempted to join via that route. Parsons called it a "pathetic attempt to get in through the back door."
Both Parsons and Sylvester Anderson don't like the fact that there is virtually no regulation in Texas governing who can set out his shingle as a gold buyer. Anderson tells the Press that a similar lack of regulation once prevailed over home-builders, and a rash of lawsuits ushered in tighter governance. Parsons tells the Press that he believes any such regulation of the precious metals business is years away.
As for right now, Culwell just might be doing the right thing, for whatever reason. Maybe, as one cynic in the D.A.'s office put it to us, with the price of gold as high as it is, Culwell no longer even needs to steal.
Or maybe he's learned his lesson.
Skip Oliver hopes so, but he's been around the block a few times in his three decades as a cop. "I would hope that somebody who was taken away from their family and rightfully so for however long it was would come out and say, 'Holy shit, I'm never gonna do that again,'" he says. "But I know enough to know that's just wishful thinking on my part, that people actually get rehabilitated in our prisons. People have come out and done okay for themselves and I hope for his sake that he does."
But for now, it's seller beware. As Judge Lynn Hughes once said of Culwell, "I believe you have a new dance, because you are possessor of infinite dances."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.