Photo by Steve Jansen Jerry Hart
"Sometimes I wake up and it seems like a bad dream," says Hart, who stirs his iced tea as high school kids from St. John's and Lamar catch up on the latest gossip at the surrounding tables. "What can I say? This has been a five-year odyssey."
Barring a judicial miracle, Jerry, 68, and his wife Wynonne, 64, will be going back to prison to serve the remainder of their 14-year stints. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied a petition for a retrial. Now, the Harts' fate is in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.
Even for a riches-to-rags story, the Harts' tale ranks up there as one of the most dramatic falls from the elite.
Jerry Hart was raised by antiquing lifer Samuel Hart, who was the dean of Texas auctioneers. "I worshipped my dad and he was my stepfather -- a lot of people don't know that," says Hart.
Instead of taking a similar route, Hart studied medicine at Tulane. After the Bellaire High graduate flunked out of college in 1964, he joined the Army, spending six years in field hospitals.
In the '70s, he moved to Dallas for a Corporate America gig. While there, he met a flight attendant for Braniff International Airways named Wynonne. The two, who raised three children, have been married 38 years.
After Samuel passed away in 1975, Jerry moved back to Houston to take care of the messy business affairs that had deteriorated due to his dad's health episodes and his mom's unwillingness to do what it takes to keep a business afloat.
"Mom was one of the people who would sleep until 1 in the afternoon. She would never come into the store. She wanted me to go to her house to conduct meetings almost every other day," remembers Hart, who adds that he quit when his mom insisted that they hire a guy that gave Jerry the creeps.
"Mom said hire him or you're out, so I left. He ended up taking all kinds of advantage of my mom," says Hart. "I was basically on the street with a new house, new baby and about $4,000 or $5,000 in the bank."Hart and his stepbrother, who has since died, eventually pooled the money that they received from the family estate and started Hart Brothers Antiques, where Jerry would be in charge of prestigious jobs such as the Wortham estate and auctioning valuables owned by Candy Mossler, the controversial blond bombshell and River Oaks socialite.
Jerry's success continued at the Hart Galleries/Antique Pavilion, which opened in 1982 and is still hanging on at its location at 2311 Westheimer. The auctions, which were Houston's version of Sotheby's or Christie's, became big to-dos and featured appearances by some of River Oaks' most known VIPs.
The Harts were well off for a while, but then the debt began piling up. As a result, the Harts began using customers' money to pay off other customers.
When the Harts filed for Chapter 11 protection, the DA's office investigated and painted the Harts as classic Ponzi schemers. In 2007, based on the "bad advice" of one of their lawyers, the couple pleaded guilty for what they hoped was a lighter punishment. It didn't happen.
Today, Hart, who didn't expect to get off scot-free, feels that he's been made into an example of a deviant white-collar criminal.
"I've tried to take a detached view and I can see how someone who was against me would say 'Ponzi,'" explains Hart when asked if he committed Ponzi. "But part of the equation is the purpose of the Ponzi, one that is less than honorable because a classic Ponzi scheme artist is doing something for his own personal gain.
"I'm sure there has been months in your adult life where things got a little tight and you didn't have the money to make the payment that needed to be made, yet there was something that was going to work out down the line," continues Hart. "Mine was a larger amount...but I don't look at it like I'm stealing because I know I'm going to make good down the line.
"That never made any headway whatsoever with [Assistant District Attorney Markay Stroud] or [District Judge Randy Roll] and I think my good intentions is absolutely significant.
"Am I really the crook and the monster they make me out to be? Regardless, my life, from a business perspective and otherwise, is ruined. My wife's as well."
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Unless the U.S. Supreme Court responds to the certiorari, the Harts are due to go back on June 18.
"I'd never thought I would say this, but I'm tired," says Hart. "I'm lying on the floor with a nine count and I see the hand coming down with the ten. I don't see any way of getting off the floor to continue the fight."