Stalking Back

Trying to collect a half-million-dollar debt from Floyd Warmann, the hunter becomes the hunted

For three years now, John Foley has been flying in and out of St. Louis: Three years of airline meals and hotel rooms. Three years of stalking his quarry. On his latest visit this winter, he found himself driving down boulevards and narrow side streets, his 6-foot-3 frame wedged behind the wheel of a rented Saturn. To the Omaha native, St. Louis seems like a maze at night. Streets twist and bend, start and end like broken spokes of a wheel. It's an older city, after all. The neighborhoods patched together like a crazy quilt, layer upon layer, follow the contours of the land leading to the Mississippi. Up Skinker, down McCausland, over Southwest -- strange names to an outsider.

Cutting over Macklind Avenue, Foley asks what first drew Italian immigrants to the Hill. It is one of the few times he allows his mind to stray from the purpose of his visit. He is soon reminded of his task. Turning east, he passes slowly by the small frontyards of well-kept bungalows. At the corner of Elizabeth Avenue and Edwards Street, Foley stops to look at a light-colored brick storefront adorned with green awnings over the front and side windows. In the past, Floyd C. Warmann used the address as a mail drop for two of his companies. Foley has made it his business to find out about these corporations and the man who owned them. At first sight, the location doesn't seem like the kind of place that would ever be associated with multimillion-dollar business deals, but Foley knows better. He knows better because he's spent a good portion of his time over the last three years investigating business transacted here. It's a fragmented tale that involves politicians, banks, casino interests and a lucrative riverfront lease. Foley came to understand the size and shape of the story by patiently gluing it back together like the shards of a fractured vessel. Before the man from Omaha came to town, nobody had taken the time to find the missing pieces.

Buying other people's financial troubles for pennies on the dollar has been a profitable enterprise for Foley. The 47-year-old Nebraskan's company, Interim Holdings Inc., specializes in collecting "nonperforming" loans. By definition, Foley's work involves forensics, making him a modern-day bounty hunter. His experience as an assistant director of banking in his home state prepared him to enter the field. To Foley, investing in bad debt is no different than owning an apartment complex or dealing in real estate.

In 1997, Foley bought a package of bad debt that had landed in the lap of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., just as he had done many times before. Among the encumbrances was a tab of nearly $500,000 attached to Warmann.

When Foley purchased the bad debt, he had never heard of Warmann, never seen Warmann's name dropped in the gossip or society columns of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Warmann at the opera, Warmann dancing at a charity ball, Warmann tipping glasses with patrons of the arts, Warmann dropping by a benefit for the Humane Society of Missouri, Warmann attending a St. Louis History Museum gala, Warmann dining with the late Gov. Mel Carnahan. He didn't know that Warmann's brother Gene served on the St. Louis County Police Board or that Warmann himself would be appointed to serve on the board of the St. Louis Zoo-Museum District. Foley was unaware that Warmann contributed heavily to candidates running for city, county, state and federal offices or that his generosity has helped forge longstanding alliances with influential elected officials at all levels of government.

Foley had no idea of Warmann's connections or his clout, but he was about to be given an expensive civics lesson, courtesy of the old school of St. Louis business and politics.

Earlier in the evening, he had lugged a satchel full of legal documents into Riddle's Penultimate Café & Wine Bar, on Delmar Boulevard in the University City Loop. Foley had just come from his lawyer's office, where the latest deposition had been taken that afternoon. In his trench coat and a Stetsonlike hat, Foley looks the part of a high-plainsman. His features are sharp and angular, and his height adds to his commanding presence. When the waitress suggests a small corner table, he asks instead to be seated in the middle of the room, at a table set for six. Once he is seated, there is no time for small talk. He immediately digs court exhibits from his bag and starts explaining the finest details of the case, barely taking time to eat part of his pork chop when it arrives. Over the course of the next few hours, he recites names, dates and places with the certitude of an IRS accountant.

Beyond the legal parlance and bottom line, the saga that Foley tells is rife with shattered promises and unbridled greed. But Foley is less concerned with those matters than he is with his singular pursuit. "I want to be paid," he says flatly. "I want my money back. The judgment is for a half-a-million dollars." With interest, the outstanding debt is approaching $1 million.

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