By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
In his yet-to-be-published book detailing some twenty years of business pratfalls, St. Louis entrepreneur Randy Wichman devotes a full chapter to his run-ins with the Amish. Like most lessons put forth in his memoir, the chapter carries a remarkably simple message: Be careful who you trust.
"The Amish are like everyone else," Wichman explains. "There are good Amish, and there are not-so-good Amish."
The not-so-good Amish -- at least in Wichman's mind -- are those who claim Wichman has conned them out of tens of thousands of dollars.
"They're slick people," Wichman warns. "They win your trust, but don't assume anything with these people."
Continuing to break down the subtext of the book, Wichman pokes nervously at a few errant specks of dust dotting his oak office desk. When he moved his company, SPC Playscapes, from a Town & Country strip mall to a cavernous St. Peters warehouse earlier this year, the first thing he did was install a corner office with several large windows.
Wichman confides that he loves to sit in his office and gaze out at parents unloading carloads of children in the parking lot. Invariably the youngsters head straight for the wooden playgrounds in front of SPC. This fills him with a great sense of pride because, he explains, the entire goal of his business is to bring families together.
On a blistering hot morning last month, the playgrounds sit empty, and the only car in the parking lot is Wichman's gold Jaguar XJ8. As the sun beats mercilessly onto the hood, beams of honeyed light reflect into the office where Wichman sits illuminated in a casual short-sleeve shirt and cotton slacks.
The 52-year-old Wichman has a soft, gentle voice that's prone to dissolve into whines, especially when he's on the defensive -- which is quite often. He wears his thinning reddish-white hair cut short and combed back tight. A scraggly salt-and-pepper goatee spills down his chin.
On the desk in front of him, a flat-panel computer monitor is opened to his company's new Web site, spcplayscapes.com. Another flat-panel monitor off to his side is tuned to FOX News. Behind him, a laptop displays what appears to be music-editing software.
Wichman likes to think of himself as both businessman and artist, which explains all of the distractions in his office. He needs stimulation to help develop his ideas, he says, and SPC Playscapes is an idea 30 years in the making.
The company might best be described as a luxury home-and-garden superstore. In a 25,000-square-foot building that once housed a skating rink, Wichman has on display all the trappings of the suburban good life. Brightly colored koi swim in an artificial pond outside the lobby. A set of custom-made jungle gyms make for a huge indoor playground. Scattered elsewhere are vintage video games, designer spas, hot tubs, vinyl-wrapped gazebos, even a $15,000 race-car simulator.
SPC Playscapes is the sixth such business Wichman has operated over the past five years; the others -- also specializing in home-and-garden products -- pulled up stakes just months after opening. A wake of lawsuits has come on the heels of the business closures, with creditors, landlords, vendors and clients claiming Wichman bilked them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last fall the Town & Country police began investigating a complaint of "stealing by deceit," in which Wichman allegedly accepted a $40,000 deposit from a family for a home renovation that never materialized. The Missouri attorney general's office is also involved in that investigation, and confirms it has received six complaints against Wichman from January to May of this year. No criminal charges have been filed.
When confronted with his legal morass, Wichman's face turns ashen. He rises from his chair, closes the door to his office and, inexplicably, begins to discuss his literary endeavors.
"I'm writing a book about it," he begins. "It's one of the most incredible situations you can imagine. I've considered going to the press with it, but I thought it would be better to just write a book about the experience. When it comes out, people are going to learn a lot."
As with all the allegations that have befallen him over the years, Wichman insists the blame lies not with him. Over the past 18 years, records show, he's been sued 39 times in Missouri on complaints such as nonpayment, breach of contract, tax delinquency and unlawful detainer (when he refused to leave properties for which he had defaulted in rent). Still, for all the accusations, Wichman says he could have filed twice as many lawsuits against his accusers.
"A chapter in the book is about this exact thing," says Wichman. "Rotten people expect for you to fight. Just like in the animal world, it's the weak that makes predators attack. If someone does something to you and you back off, it makes them angry. They want to go after you more. But that's not my style. I don't go after people. I just pick myself up and move on."
His numerous critics say Wichman's view of himself is completely delusional. Like Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the film Catch Me If You Can, they say Wichman lives by the modus operandi: "Take the money and run."