By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
On the afternoon of September 11, 2008, a few hours before police had him surrounded, Don C. Weir Jr. opened a Microsoft Word document and began to type. He was in his office at HFI Securities, Inc., a small brokerage firm in Clayton that he co-owned. Many knew the 55-year-old financial adviser as handsome and sharp. Friends described him as quiet, loyal and honest.
At his computer, Weir wrote the following:
This confirms all illegal activities involving I engaged in were completely mine alone. None of my fellow employees were at any part of or aware of any part of these activities. The same applies to my family; nobody had any idea what I was doing was in anyway illegal.
I am greviously sorry for my actions. There is no excuse.
Don C. Weir, Jr.
When he finished, Weir called his long-time friend Bryan Schopp. "Don asked if he could come over and borrow a pistol to do some target shooting out in Illinois," Schopp recalls.
Weir drove out to Schopp's modest duplex apartment in Maryland Heights. They were an unlikely pair: Schopp was a grizzled, semi-retired construction worker in jeans and a T-shirt. Weir, his investment adviser, arrived in business attire. But they were the same age — running buddies who'd known each other for nearly twenty years. Both were amateur gun collectors.
"I was his best friend," Schopp says. "That's what he told me."
That September afternoon, Schopp was hoping to talk about his coins. Like dozens of others, he'd taken Weir's advice and liquidated tens of thousands of dollars in securities investments he made through HFI. Schopp authorized Weir to use that money to purchase precious-metal coins. It was a hedge, Weir explained, against a dip in the market.
For months Schopp asked for a sit-down meeting to review his coin investments, but Weir only stalled.
Weir entered the apartment. Schopp had several handguns laid out on the couch. "He picked the smallest one," Schopp recounts, "a beautiful little 22-caliber German target pistol with a white pearl handle."
Schopp asked about his Chinese collectible coins, but Weir kept changing the subject. Frustrated, Schopp said, "Don, I want to sell my platinum pandas!"
Weir: "You have to wait until after the Olympics."
Schopp: "Don, the Olympics were two months ago!"
Weir: "Oh, yeah."
At this point, Schopp remembers, "Don was shaking really, really bad, and I was freakin' out. He asked me for ammo, but I was really confused. I thought, 'Do I challenge him right now?' It was a friend. And he had all my money!" Schopp refused to hand over any bullets. When Weir tried to leave the apartment, Schopp says, he couldn't figure out how to open the latch on the screen door. "I didn't have much time to think," he recalls.
Several hours later, at 7:21 p.m., a young man called the Wentzville Police Department. He said his father, Don Weir, was threatening suicide. At the time, Weir was separated from his wife and staying in St. Charles County with his sister and brother-in-law. In their basement, Weir's son told the dispatcher, his father was on medication and was holding a gun. He'd threatened suicide before, the son explained, but never went through with it.
In short order officers arrived and set up a perimeter around the house, pistols drawn and pointed at the ground. It was raining off and on. Police learned that Weir's sister and brother-in-law were inside their house, upstairs and oblivious to what was transpiring below them.
A dispatcher reached them on their landline and told them to exit. They walked out in bathrobes.
"They were completely dumbfounded," remembers Lt. Manny Borroum.
With a SWAT team and negotiators from the county sheriff's office en route, police spoke to Weir's son and daughter on their cell phones. They relayed what their father had been saying from the basement.
"Father is agitated," the police report reads. "States that he is not afraid of what is happening."
Police called Weir's cell phone and finally got through. One officer lay in the grass across the street for several minutes, his rifle aimed at the front door. "We didn't know what [Weir] had in there," Borroum says.
At 9:02 p.m., Weir flipped on the front porch light as instructed, and two minutes later he walked out with his hands up — "a little disheveled" and "confused," according to Borroum. A group of officers approached and handcuffed him. Weir told one of them that he'd "had a bad day at work."
Officer Rachel Crick sat in the ambulance with Weir on the way to St. Joseph Health Center, a psychiatric hospital in Wentzville. "His expressions were pretty much dead," she remembers. "He was in that give-up stage. Really very quiet."
Two days later, FBI agents descended into Weir's basement and discovered $3.3 million in precious-metal coins and other currency. From 1999 to 2008, Weir convinced 44 clients to invest $13.7 million in these collectibles and promised to safeguard them. Instead, he stole $10.4 million of his clients' valuables, sold them without their owners' knowledge, and created false account statements to cover his tracks.
A regular churchgoer, Weir used the cash to send his children to an expensive Christian school. He also spent large sums of the money he bilked from others on family cruises and ski trips to Canada. Then there were the home improvements, including a backyard pool and a kitchen remodel on his Town & Country dwelling, whose value exceeded $1 million.
Some of the loot he gave away freely, according to assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Schelp, making so-called "Robin Hood payments" to friends and acquaintances he thought needed it.
Weir has pleaded guilty to one count of felony mail fraud and is scheduled to be sentenced on July 22. He faces a prison term of six to eight years. At his court hearing, he said he suffered from depression and bipolar disorder.
Weir is an eccentric man, rife with contradictions. He has a brown belt in martial arts and is an avid collector of Nazi, Russian and North Korean memorabilia. He purloined millions from old friends, but could be quite generous with strangers. He was devoted to his family, but he also had affair with his high school sweetheart. From dozens of interviews and review of official documents, what emerges is a portrait of someone who, over the years, enjoyed a life that others often paid for.
And now the bill has come due.
"Don was one of the cheapest guys I've ever known," remembers Jim McKee, a classmate who ran cross-country with Weir at John Burroughs School in Ladue. "You'd go out and get a six-pack of beer, then you go through hell trying to get him to pay his 80 cents."
Weir, who declined to be interviewed for this story, grew up on Sherwood Drive, a well-heeled corner of Webster Groves. His father had risen to the rank of Army colonel in World War II, and later became a renowned radiologist at Saint Louis University. "There was a lot of pressure on Don to be a doctor, but he never seemed to be into it," says Jeff Fort, who met Weir in seventh grade at John Burroughs. "Don's dad was kind of harsh, and Don was the only son."
As an undergraduate at Creighton University, Weir abandoned pre-med and took a different path. After marrying Marguerite "Babe" Hill in 1975 and finishing graduate school at George Washington University, Weir got his first taste of the perks of the financial world.
Employed in Mercantile Bank's international department, he traveled often to Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s. "He bragged about the fact that he was representing Mercantile," says Fort. "He'd go to these countries with huge loan packages. They'd pick him up in limos and wine and dine him. He was like the gringo Santa Claus of Central America."
Weir then thrust himself into high-profile business dealings. In 1986 he and partner Jim Winkelmann created Longrow Securities, a relatively small firm. Ten years later they bought Huntleigh Securities Corporation, a reputable brokerage company three times the size of Longrow.
They moved their headquarters to 8000 Maryland Avenue, one of the most prominent structures in Clayton at the time, and had the words "Huntleigh Financial Center" emblazoned across the top of the building. "It was hot times in the old town when those two took over," recalls Juli Niemann, then a board member at Huntleigh.
According to Niemann, "WinkelWeir" — as the new owners were referred to within the firm — ushered in a "freewheeling, free-spending time" at Huntleigh, which until then had been conservatively run.
The partners created a subsidiary company called Moses.com. The goal was to develop an online platform where customers could manage their retirement plans and trade securities for a monthly subscription fee.
The idea attracted many boosters, including the burly Jeff Fort, whose grandfather cofounded Malt-O-Meal. Fort invested $50,000 in Moses and was hired in early 1999 to help out with operations and security. Fort says that as investors poured in money, Weir and Winkelmann transformed the seventh story of the building on Maryland into the "Moses floor" almost overnight. Nearly $2 million in computer hardware was purchased, and a team of software developers was brought in from out of state.
Fort claims Weir began to show signs of paranoia and was very concerned about security, demanding video surveillance of his basement parking spot, as well as biometric hand scanners to control access to Moses' operations.
"Don never told me about any specific threat," Fort says, though there was one exception: As Y2K approached, Weir asked Fort to collect estimates on emergency generators for the roof of the building. "I had an unlimited budget for security. No one ever asked me for bids." Fort maintains he was asked, however, to root through the trash of the public-relations firm that promoted Moses to see if they'd been over billing.
Meanwhile, the developers weren't achieving workable software. "They had all these clown programmers who were supposed to be the smartest kids on the block," Niemann says. "But when you went down there to the seventh floor, they were throwing spitballs. It was like one huge frat party."
In late 1999, according to Fort, staff members were notified that Moses was ready for its media rollout. "That was news to us in operations and development, because it didn't work," he says.
"I can remember the exact moment. I'm in the back of the room watching them pop Champagne to toast this software that didn't exist," he continues. "For Don, it was all about raising the money and spending the money. That's all that mattered."
Weir rarely left his office, Fort continues, except to greet prospective investors. According to media reports at the time, the Moses project raised about $9 million from 165 parties — many of them private individuals who were clients of Huntleigh.
"That's what really hurt me," Fort says. "Don was preying on rural people, elderly people, people from his church. It got to the point where they'd ride up the elevator with Don, then ride down with me, and I'd say, 'Don't do it.'"
By early 2000 Moses had failed. A pair of investors took control of Huntleigh, and Winkelmann and Weir relocated their offices a few blocks away to their new company: HFI Securities, Inc.
On one occasion, Fort reveals, he wondered aloud to Weir whether Moses had been a fraudulent operation from the beginning. Weir responded that he cheated no one and, as a manager, had a right to make bad decisions.
"There's a fine line when you trust your money with someone," Fort says. "Did he make tactical mistakes, or were there other issues? I think he was just taking as much money out of there as he could."
During their heyday, the Don Weir clan lived in luxurious home in Town & Country, a six-bedroom brick house with four white pillars in front. Around back, their one-acre lot bordered the woods of Queeny Park.
They bought the house in 1999, the same year Weir began extolling the virtues of precious-metal coins to his clients. He offered to buy the coins and then hold them while they appreciated. And the clients — from Texas and Tennessee to Colorado, Michigan and Missouri — trusted him.
Over the next several years, some invested tens of thousands, others hundreds of thousands. A St. Louis-area client and close friend of Weir's had more than $1.1 million in coins added to her portfolio between 1999 and 2005. (She asked that her name not be included in this article.) One Tennessee couple, Mike and Sherri Miller, went so far as to sign up for nearly $4 million.
Bryan Schopp remembers accompanying Weir on New Year's Day 2006 to purchase a large metal safe. "Don never said why he wanted it," Schopp recalls. The following year Weir was warning of "gargantuan cracks" in the country's economic foundation and "impending trouble with the U.S. stock market." But Chinese precious-metal coins, he wrote to another Tennessee couple, Peter and Michelle York, were enjoying a "spectacular bull market."
He assured the Yorks that all coins purchased for clients were stored in a secure vault off Lindbergh Road. A safe-deposit box was designated for each client, Weir promised.
According to Albert Watkins, Jim Winkelmann's St. Louis-based attorney, Weir followed protocol with his coin trading. He registered it with financial authorities as an outside business activity unconnected to HFI. Yet Weir issued many clients coin-investment statements on HFI letterhead. He told the Yorks, for example, that their coins had appreciated by more than a quarter of a million dollars, effectively doubling in value.
Peter York is an executive at the Nashville-based EMI Christian Music Group, a record label whose artists include Amy Grant. "I thank the Lord," Weir wrote to him, "that you and Michelle granted me the leeway to dramatically reshape your entire portfolio."
In e-mails to other clients, Weir would sometimes conclude with the phrase, "In His Grip." According to Mike Kennison, associate pastor at Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Creve Coeur, those words are understood among believers to mean, "I live under God's control and in His care."
Says Watkins: "The way Weir played on people's religious affinities was particularly distasteful."
Kennison says Weir and his family would often sit up in the balcony during Sunday church services. "He was very private and did not talk much to the other attendees," the pastor says, adding that Weir was active in his faith. He led Bible-study groups for high school students, through the church and on his own. He also donated money, Kennison says, to help the church's youth group go on missionary trips to Juárez, Mexico.
Don and Babe sent all five of their children, including two adopted from Russia, to Westminster Christian Academy in Creve Coeur, where yearly tuition now exceeds $11,000. Friends say the family planned a special vacation each time a child graduated from high school.
At the time, Weir was a regular at Scotsman Coin & Jewelry Buyers in Creve Coeur. The shop's owner, Jay Woodside, says Weir would stop in ten or twelve times a year, mostly to sell Chinese coins for several thousand dollars.
One day, Woodside set up a donation box near the shop's front door to collect funds for a friend who'd suffered an aneurysm. Weir was there and asked for details. Before leaving, Woodside says, Weir discreetly slipped a $500 check into the box.
On another occasion, Weir pulled the shop owner aside. He informed Woodside that another customer near the counter was using foul language and thought he should know about it. "I like Don quite a bit," Woodside says, denying any knowledge of where Weir was storing his coins. "He acted professionally at all times, and I could see how people trusted him. I did."
Bryan Schopp remembers some rather odd changes in his friend's behavior as 2008 approached. Both men had trained in the 1990s under martial-arts expert Earnest Hart Jr., whose former students include Ozzie Smith and the 1999-2000 St. Louis Rams. But from about 2000 onward, Schopp says, Weir would stay fit mainly by running four or five miles with him on Sundays in Queeny Park. And, adds Schopp, the benefits weren't just physical.
"We're both depressed people," he notes. "But we wouldn't let each other quit running up those hills. We sweated together. It was the best anti-depression medicine there was."
Still, Schopp recalls getting blown off whenever he wanted to talk about his coin investments. In the middle of one Sunday run, Weir mentioned problems he was having in his marriage to Babe. In April 2008 Weir left his wife to move in with his sister and brother-in-law, Candice and Warren Gladders.
That same month, a different marriage was breaking apart. Annie Gardner Imbs — Weir's high school sweetheart — filed for divorce. She'd been married to Joseph Imbs III, chairman of US Bank's Midwest region. In her divorce filing, Imbs listed her temporary address as the Gladders' residence, where Weir was also living. A source familiar with the investigation confirms that Don and Annie were having an affair.
Annie Imbs did not return RFT's repeated calls for comment.
Family friend Carol Lammers recalls sitting beside the family's pool with Babe last August, several months into the separation. "Babe was saying how Don had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, had been fighting with depression and didn't want to be a part of the family most of the time," she says.
Weir showed up at the house, Lammers remembers, and looked different. "Before, he was good-looking and stood straight and tall," she says. "But that day, he looked beat and worn, even frumpy. He didn't ever before."
Don Weir's scheme began to unravel on September 10, 2008.
On that day, says attorney Albert Watkins, Winkelmann received a call from Babe Weir. She asked what she should do with all the gold in her basement. Winkelmann said he'd be right over, Watkins recalls. Once there, Winkelmann looked around and told Babe he needed to talk to his partner immediately.
The next day at the office, Winkelmann confronted Weir and demanded a full account of all the precious-metal coins he'd seen. Weir agreed, but said he needed to run some errands first. By the end of the evening, Weir had threatened to kill himself and was whisked away to St. Joseph Health Center.
That Saturday Winkelmann called Watkins in a panic and explained the situation. Watkins then contacted FBI special agent Kevin Cosentino, who was driving out to Babler Park to do some cycling. Cosentino ditched his workout, corralled another agent and headed for the Weirs' home.
Babe Weir led the agents inside and down to the basement. Spread out in the hallways and scattered around one room with a large safe, were thousands of coins and other valuables. They lay in stacks and plastic storage tubs, Cosentino says, but didn't look organized.
"My first thought was, 'There's no way in hell this gold is supposed to be here,'" he recalls. "When you've got a glass French door protecting it from the outside world, I thought, 'There's no way in hell this is legit.'"
Cosentino and his partner sped out to the psychiatric hospital to interview Weir. "The first words out of [Weir's] mouth were, 'Here's my attorney's name: Scott Rosenblum.'"
Cosentino dialed Babe's number and said, "Get that stuff into a safe and don't let anyone in the house."
Awaiting seizure warrants from the U.S. Attorney, the FBI and local police kept the house under 24-hour surveillance for several days. Once the warrants were issued, a team of federal agents climbed into several vehicles and rolled out to the Weir residence.
U.S. Postal Inspector Doug Boland says what he saw in the basement was "just amazing." Some of the coins had the diameter of a grapefruit, he recalls. One silver coin in Plexiglas had the diameter of a basketball. Many showed ornate engravings of animals and Chinese characters. A one-kilo gold coin depicting a wolf was worth some $80,000, authorities later discovered.
Cosentino says they gathered the coins and filled more than 30 cardboard boxes. The coins were so heavy the boxes needed to be reinforced with duct tape. Within days, federal authorities searched Weir's office at HFI Securities. Under piles of junk, they unearthed even more coins in unopened FedEx boxes, some several years old.
Later, when HFI staff received a package addressed to Weir, they notified the FBI, who returned to collect it. Over the next two months, Boland created a complete history of Weir's coin transactions.
Weir bought most of his clients' coins from PandaAmerica, located in Torrance, California. When he needed money, he would sell coins, mostly to Scotsman, and usually at a lower price than the clients had paid for them. According to Cosentino his selling-at-a-loss scenario partially accounts for the missing $10.4 million.
The cash that Weir made from the coin sales funded his personal expenses, such as his pool and the tuition payments. It also enabled him to run a Ponzi scheme of sorts, whereby he'd provide some of the cash to clients in order to convince them their investments were profitable, court records state.
In some cases, says assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Schelp, Weir sold a client's coin to a dealer in California. The coin was then marked up, and Weir convinced another client to buy it. As a result, he earned commissions for both transactions. "I'm not saying it was illegal," Schelp says. "But it's unethical."
Weir pleaded guilty on February 20, and pointed authorities to other collectibles in his basement that could be sold to compensate victims.
On a rainy day in March 2009 federal agents returned to the Weirs' home and seized dozens of baseball cards, including three Lou Brock rookie cards. They also took North Korean, Russian and Nazi artifacts, among them a cast-iron bust of Stalin and an autographed photo of Adolf Hitler from the 1920s.
Weir warned them about certain mortar shells and hand grenades they would find amid his other military memorabilia. So the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives brought their bomb technicians who determined the materials were inert. What they didn't expect to find was a Cold War-era Soviet landmine.
Fearing it was still active, the agents cleared out of the basement. Because it was military weaponry, they dispatched the bomb squad from Scott Air Force Base. "It screwed up the seizure a little," Cosentino remembers.
While awaiting sentencing, Weir now lives at his sister's home in St. Charles County. He has surrendered his passport and wears an ankle bracelet. Weir is also under investigation by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, Watkins says, adding that his client, Jim Winkelmann, is not.
Asked about Weir's motivations, Schelp says it was "greed, pure and simple. You can spin it however you want, but the bottom line is, he wanted things he could not afford and decided to obtain those things through crime."
Many of Don Weir's 44 victims knew him quite well — or thought they did.
"Now I can't trust people — he took that away from me," says one defrauded investor in Ballwin, Missouri. She had been Weir's client for sixteen years. "That has hurt me more than anything, more than the money."
Another victim in St. Charles County says she knew Weir from both elementary school and church. "He was the person I would call and ask to pray for someone in my family," she says. "He would ask me to do the same."
Since learning of the scam, she says, she's told her kids to not spend a dime because she can't pay the bills. "I don't know where I'm going to live," she says. "It was all based on money I thought I had, and now it's gone."
She complains that stress from the case has made her physically ill for three months. "Sometimes I pray the people in prison will do whatever they want with him," she says. "I know that's bad, but that's how I feel sometimes, because that's how he treated people he called his clients."
Ed Wiegand was a client who says he went camping with Weir during high school. Wiegand claims to have lost around 85 percent of his securities investments when the economy dropped. The hedge, he says, were the coins he bought from Weir. But right now, he counts those as a total loss.
Wiegand had been a semi-retired handyman in Colorado. Now he's back working full-time. "It's a situation where now you got to bounce back," he says. "But there's nothing to bounce back with."
Some victims suspect Weir has transferred funds to offshore accounts or even buried some gold in Queeny Park. "Based on their information, victims will come up with theories that can't be substantiated," says U.S. Postal Inspector, Dan Taylor.
Bryan Schopp, Weir's former running partner, is still trying to recover from what happened. "There was nobody more trustworthy," he says of Weir. "How could he ruin so many lives?" Schopp wonders aloud, sipping on a can of non-alcoholic Busch beer.
Prints of military aircraft hang on the walls of his living room. Weir had given them as a gift. Schopp had gotten them framed.
In addition to running, they had gone to air shows together. Schopp would do things like help replace a tire on Weir's riding lawnmower because his friend wasn't handy around the house. "We had such a good time together," Schopp says. "It made it so hard to believe he was ripping me."
Weir had assured Schopp his financial gains were more than enough to retire on. As a result, he cut back his hours in pool construction. Now, he says, there's little work left, so he makes money cleaning houses when he can.
He's hoping the courts will grant him and his wife, Linda, enough compensation to stay in their duplex. He also wants to sell some of the coins he's been holding himself, but can't find a buyer. He wishes the man who once called him his best friend would help.
"I've called him a thousand times since this happened, saying, 'Come on, just explain! Tell me how to get rid of these coins without losing my ass.' He's never called back."