By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Jake Rossen
By Lindsay Toler
From March until June of last year, the Stolzfus brothers shipped to Wichman's Town & Country store as many as ten gazebos. After receiving an initial $7,000, the brothers say the payments dried up.
"He returned in October wanting more gazebos but didn't make one mention of the money he owed us," says Stolzfus. "His message was, 'If you want to see your money, you got to help me out.' He's our largest outstanding debt at $44,000!"
Wichman calls Stolzfus a dishonest man who's caused him a great deal of frustration. On June 15, the Stolzfus brothers filed suit against Wichman in St. Charles County court.
Still, it would be Wichman's interactions with another Lancaster vendor that first aroused the interests of the Town & Country police. John David Fisher first met Wichman in 2003, while he briefly operated St. Louis Playscapes at the St. Charles location. Fisher was working for another Amish manufacturer at the time and came to St. Louis by way of train to teach Wichman and his crew how to assemble gazebos. A year later Fisher and his father started their own gazebo business in Lancaster. While they had heard complaints about Wichman, the fledgling business partners were willing to take a chance.
"When I first met Randy, he was very pleasant to work with and deal with," recalls Fisher. "I knew he had a falling out with another gazebo company, but our business was new and looking for work. I approached him."
Today, Fisher claims Wichman owes him $25,000 for gazebos for which he was never paid.
"We started shipping him product in June or July last year," he says. "First everything seemed good. Then he was slow in paying. Then he was paying just the minimum. Then nothing. We quit dealing with him late last year."
Fisher says what really put him off was a phone call he received last fall from a woman in Town & Country. She wanted to know why her sunroom was delayed and told Fisher she couldn't get a straight answer out of Wichman. She said she'd already given Wichman $40,000 as a down payment for the room.
Fisher knew of the sunroom. Several weeks earlier, Wichman had approached him and his father about building the room, even going so far as to put a down payment of $7,500 toward the project. But Wichman never sent Fisher measurements for the room and later called to say the job was canceled. Fisher says Wichman told him to take the $7,500 and put it toward his outstanding balance.
Fisher says he told the Town & Country woman point-blank that Wichman canceled the order.
"Later she storms into Wichman's office and confronts him about it," recalls Fisher. "She's standing in his office when he calls us yelling and cursing. He knew all along it wasn't built."
Wichman calls the entire episode a big misunderstanding and says he's working with the woman to amend the issue.
Captain Gary Hoelzer with the Town & Country police refers to the complaint against Wichman as "stealing by deceit." Wichman has not been charged with the crime.
Fisher says he hasn't spoken to Wichman since that phone call last fall. Last Christmas he claims Wichman sent a holiday greeting saying he would make good on his debts. But whenever Fisher tries to call Wichman about the bill, he says, Wichman never picks up the phone.
"I'm not sure if Randy has good intentions but bad business practices, or if he's just a con man," reflects Fisher. "I do know that it doesn't bother him owing people money. That's for sure."
Seven weeks ago, the landlord of Wichman's St. Peters store filed suit against him, claiming Wichman owes more than $18,000 in back rent. Unlike his previous scraps with landlords, Wichman says this time he's standing his ground.
Last September, Wichman shuttered his Town & Country business, saying the space wasn't big enough. The leasing agent to the strip mall tells another story. He says Wichman was several months behind on his rent. Even so, Wichman was able to leave owing nothing, thanks to his ties to the principal owner of the shopping center at the time, Steve Notestine.
Wichman claims Notestine, a real-estate investor, so liked his business concept that he sank $250,000 into the company. Reached by phone, Notestine acknowledges investing in St. Louis Playscapes but won't say how much or whether he recouped any of the money. As to Wichman owing back rent, Notestine says it's immaterial.
"He owed back rent, but it doesn't matter," he says. "He left with no obligations."
(In late October -- a month after Wichman pulled out of the Town & Country strip mall -- the St. Louis Business Journal reported that Notestine and other investors sold the shopping center for $56 million.)
This time around, Wichman doesn't have such a sweetheart deal with his landlord but maintains his company will weather the storm. For once in his life, he's got good people behind him.
Last year Wichman married his fifth wife, a woman he describes as the "most wonderful woman in the world." To top it off, he says he's currently in negotiations with consultants who say his business concept at SPC Playscapes has more potential than any company they've ever seen.