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A few months later, after never delivering the Weisses a landscape plan for their $7,000, Wichman filed suit, alleging he incurred more than $200,000 in costs and expenses while working for the couple. The case would drag on until 2001 when Wichman -- running low on money -- at last dropped the charges.
The Weisses say they barely gave Wichman a moment's thought for years, but that all changed two month ago when they sat down to read the Post-Dispatch.
There, on page six of the May 20 business section, was a half-page story touting Wichman's latest venture in St. Peters -- SPC Playscapes. The article, a question-and-answer piece written by reporter Shera Dalin, included a color photo of a grinning Wichman standing atop one of his indoor displays.
"I saw it and laughed," recalls John Weiss. "It was pure irony."
In 2002, Post reporter Florence Shinkle spent days interviewing residents of Franklin County, including the Weisses, about their unhappy experiences with Wichman. At the time more than a dozen individuals and businesses had filed suit against Wichman -- most all the suits having to do with the three companies he opened and closed in the county between 1999 and 2002.
Among the suits generated from his three-year run in Franklin County was one from Firstar Bank (now US Bank), which alleged Wichman defaulted on $255,000 in loans during his stay in Franklin County. Another suit, filed in 2003, claimed Wichman owed St. Peters attorney Andrew Beeny some $2,500 in legal fees for representing Wichman in felony criminal proceedings related to a bounced check. (Wichman's own attorneys have sued him on three separate occasions.)
Shinkle's story, by all accounts, would have brought these cases to light and more. But the story never ran. Why? Because Wichman convinced Shinkle's editor to spike the story -- or so he claims.
Interviewed last week, Shinkle maintains Wichman had nothing to do with the killing of the story. She says her editor, Carl Green, dismissed the story as not worth pursuing.
"I guess it's my fault for not throwing a temper tantrum," comments Shinkle, who says she "flipped out" when she saw the May 20 story. "I was so ashamed when I saw the recent story. But [the Post] is such a largely unwieldy place, and I'm just a lowly ink-stained wretch. It takes a lot of lobbying and bitching to get people on your side for a story like that. I just couldn't do it."
The soft-ball story came as a slap in the face to others as well. The article quickly made the rounds in Franklin County, opening up old wounds among those Shinkle interviewed back in 2002.
Jim Lewis was one of those who sat down with Shinkle. Lewis, the owner of Patriot Exteriors in Kirkwood, says Wichman conned him out of $8,000 when he paid to display his sunrooms in a store Wichman dissolved before it even had a chance to open.
"He doesn't appear to be a scam artist," says Lewis. "But it's all just a bunch of bullshit."
Greg Hendricks, a regional soft-drink distributor, shares a similar story. He claims that in 2002 he paid Wichman $12,000 for a garage that was never built. Three years later, Hendricks still can't suppress a sour taste whenever he hears Wichman's name.
"If he were drowning, I'd put the garden hose on him," he says matter-of-factly.
Wichman, meanwhile, says Hendricks told him not to build the garage.
But it wasn't just Franklin County locals claiming they'd been bamboozled by Wichman. At least three manufacturers from the Amish community of Arthur, Illinois, say Wichman scammed them out of tens of thousands of dollars in gazebos and cabinetry they shipped to his stores.
They describe Wichman's method this way: Wichman would place an order, paying them the minimum down payment with the promise to pay the full balance once he sold the product. Only after completing the sale, however, would Wichman tell the Amish that the product was sent to him damaged, requiring him to repair it at his own expense. For that reason, he could not pay them the full price for their order. When the Amish then asked to speak to the client directly, Wichman refused to hand over their phone numbers.
Like many of the Amish, Miller never filed suit.
"We checked into it, and someone told us there were dozens of accounts against him," Miller says. "We didn't think we'd get anything out of a lawsuit."
Another Amish craftsman says Wichman still owes him between $25,000 and $30,000 for gazebos for which Wichman paid a small upfront fee, but not the full balance.
"I decided to drop it and get on with life," says the merchant, who asked not to be named in this story. "I know how he operates. The guy has a story for everything. No one is going to catch him, and he won't be brought to justice. Personally, I think he's demon-possessed. A normal person wouldn't sleep at night. Last few times I spoke to him on the phone, I thought I was talking to the devil himself."
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