By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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By Jake Rossen
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In the past five years, Wichman has listed at least nine different home addresses, leading several lawsuits against him to be dropped when authorities could not locate him to serve a subpoena. (Wichman refuses to say where he resides currently.) Of the fifteen times a judge has ruled against him -- requiring that he pay plaintiffs more than $160,000 -- Wichman has rarely satisfied the judgments, leaving his many accusers with a legal victory but no financial award, according to court documents.
How, then, has Wichman carried on without any criminal repercussions?
That's the million-dollar question, say authorities. For all the suits and judgments against him in the civil courts, Wichman has managed to fly beneath the radar and, until now, steer clear of criminal investigators.
Jim Gardner, a spokesman for the Missouri Office of the Attorney General, would not comment on specifics of the Wichman investigation but laid out several examples of how an artful dodger might elude justice.
The scams, says Gardner, focus on people who have a general distrust of the government and are less likely to file a complaint or lawsuit. Creditors and clients are strung along with a steady diet of delays and excuses, while the perpetrator constantly moves business addresses and re-incorporates under different names.
In the past twenty years, Wichman has incorporated nine businesses in Missouri, all of them involved in home-and-landscape products. Of the more than half-dozen Amish with claims against Wichman, only one has filed a lawsuit.
So skilled is Wichman at his wily subterfuge that even some of his alleged victims say they've developed a grudging admiration for the man. Frustration has given way to fascination.
"In a perverted way I admire the guy," says John Weiss, who claims he lost about $7,000 to Wichman during the late 1990s. "The fact that he's been doing it this long shows intelligence, imagination, creativity and smarts. It's amazing, really."
"You ever see the movie Funny Farm?" asks Wichman, referring to the 1988 fish-out-of-water film starring Chevy Chase. "Here's this guy, his dream is to go with his wife and write this book in the country, and he comes across the nastiest, meanest, most unethical people in the world. I saw that movie and said to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this is my life!'"
To hear Wichman tell it, all of his business problems can be traced back to the late 1990s, when he decided to move 40 minutes west of St. Louis, to rural Franklin County.
"It was a snake pit of the worst corruption you can imagine," Wichman recalls. "I know it sounds like I'm the biggest screw-up ever. But if you really analyze it, it makes sense. It all comes back to this core group."
Top among those conspiring against him, claims Wichman, are John Weiss and his wife, Sarah. In November 1997 the couple hired Wichman to create a landscape plan for their 55-acre estate in Franklin County. The couple paid Wichman $7,000 upfront, with another $3,000 due once he finished their project.
For months Wichman postponed delivery of the plans. Among the many excuses he used for the delays were claims that he came down with the flu and developed a wicked ear infection while working on the couple's project. When the Weisses balked at paying him the $3,000 balance before finishing the plans, Wichman tied up their fax machine with hundreds of pages of bizarre, rambling letters.
"John, if you keep cutting me off at the knees I can't help you," wrote Wichman in a fax dated January 12, 1998. "I told you before, respect is an absolute necessity between a client and a consultant/contractor. If you don't show respect for me, then people will not feel comfortable about working on this project and I cannot be effective for you."
In a five-page fax sent February 13, 1998, Wichman demanded the couple pay him the $3,000 immediately and further suggested that the Weisses tip him for his service, claiming that a Ladue couple tipped him $6,000 for a similar job.
"I am doing a hell of a job for you, you know?" wrote Wichman. "You haven't said anything, so I am going to say it myself! I will take good care of you and give you the best to be found in this part of the country. I just need for you to take care of me, too. OK?"
Wichman ends the fax: "I am not going to read over this for mistakes. I need to try to have an evening, [and] pretend I have a life and get some of the mud off me. I have gone through four pairs of shoes and most of my clothes on this project."
The couple says the kicker came two weeks later when Wichman faxed them two landscaping proposals. The first proposal called for the Weisses to spend $2 million renovating their property, with $272,000 going to Wichman in consulting and project fees. The second proposal would pay Wichman $468,000 in fees as part of a $1.4 million landscape renovation.
"The guy is completely delusional," fumes John Weiss, who says he told Wichman upfront he didn't want to spend more than $200,000 on the entire project.