By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
The downtown launch party for The 9s, a new St. Louis men's magazine, was the place to be on January 9. Cardinals third baseman David Freese showed up that night at Jim Edmonds 15 Steakhouse. So did several Rams players, plus fashion designer Ola Hawatmeh and local social-media stars Chris Reimer and Aaron Perlut. As flashbulbs flickered, revelers mingled with the young co-publishers: pro baseball player Bobby Keppel and his wife, Suzanne.
Yet one magazine staffer was hiding in plain sight, a native St. Louisan whose reputation is so toxic that on the masthead he goes by a pseudonym: "Executive Editor Matthew Morton." His real name is George Bertram "Matt" Mathison IV.
"The 9s wouldn't be here without Matt," confirms The 9s editor in chief Kim Gordon. "But the focus of our efforts is producing The 9s; it's not about the past. That's why Matt didn't want to put his real name out there. He wanted to protect Bobby and Suzanne from that."
Over the past seven years, the 42-year-old Mathison has tried — and failed — to launch three different golf magazines, both in St. Louis and in Atlanta. In the process, he has left behind a trail of litigation, debts and bad blood.
His most recent attempt was Avid, a St. Louis publication geared toward affluent men and bankrolled by Richard Riney, son of Scottrade founder Rodger Riney. That venture disintegrated in 2011 amid bitter allegations of fraud and stealing. Riney declined to comment for this story through his attorney, Chris McDonough. But the lawyer himself didn't hesitate to sound off.
"He's a con man," McDonough says of Mathison. "That's not my opinion. That's an adjudicated fact."
Neither Keppel nor Mathison wished to talk at length about their personal relationship. And it's not entirely clear how much Keppel, a De Smet Jesuit High School grad and former first-round pick in the 2000 Major League Baseball draft, knows of Mathison's past. But both have hinted that behind the scenes of their magazine is the story of a baseball pitcher whose Catholic faith compels him to throw lifelines to people like Mathison.
"I made mistakes in my life," Mathison admits today. "With the Keppels, being good people is not something they just try to do — it's just something they are. And I've learned a lot from them."
The question is: Has he?
Dan Michel recalls his first meeting with the founders of Avid. In hindsight he also sees the warning signs.
It was the late summer of 2010. Richard Riney had asked the then 26-year-old Michel to stop by the St. Louis Bread Company in Brentwood to hear his new business idea. The two traveled in similar circles and had crossed paths while following the jam band Phish on tour. But at the meeting, it was a stranger with salt-and-pepper hair — Matt Mathison — who ended up doing most of the talking.
"He was very charismatic and passionate about what he wanted this magazine to be, and how he thought I could help," Michel says. "And he was very rushed to get things started."
At the time, Michel was writing ad copy for St. Louis Magazine. Mathison offered him a big step up: the editor in chief position of a golf magazine called Avid. He accepted.
Soon, Mathison, Michel and other contributors were gathering daily in an office complex in west county, hustling to put together a 100-page first issue. Riney very rarely came into the office, Michel says. But court records show he pumped in at least $125,000 before a single page was printed.
By November 2010 the inaugural issue was ready for release. Mathison hired the local PR firm Common Ground to throw a launch party, with a month's notice, at Bar Napoli in downtown Clayton. He bragged to them that Australian pro golfer Steve Elkington would show up, so they announced it in a press release. Elkington never showed.
Nevertheless, the party was "packed," recalls Denise Bentele, co-owner of Common Ground. "It was a huge success."
The hangover soon followed.
Despite repeated assurances from Mathison, Bentele couldn't get paid.
"Every day Matt had a story," she says. "The best was when he said his car overheated on the highway, and I think it was eight degrees outside. That was pretty funny." (Bentele's firm persisted and managed to collect.)
A free publication distributed at retailers, restaurants and golf courses, Avid generated all its revenue from advertising. But Michel says the first issue contained only a handful of paid ads. The rest were giveaways, and even securing those was a challenge.
Yet Mathison didn't appear too worried about money: He moved his family into a rented house in Ladue that was recently appraised at $778,200. (Court records indicate he was later evicted from that home and from two subsequent houses in Chesterfield for non-payment.)
For the spring 2011 fashion issue, Avid hired the high-end local photographer Tuan Lee to provide some art. Afterward, Lee complained about not receiving compensation. So did the Centro models who posed in the shoots. So did Avid's layout designers, based in Chicago. So did several writers and photographers.
"Everybody was coming to me," Michel recalls. Mathison promised his editor he was sending checks, and suggested the culprit might be errors at the bank or the post office.
Then Michel's own paycheck bounced. "I wanted it to work out so badly," Michel says. "I told myself, 'He's going to pay me back.'" Then the paychecks of other staffers bounced, too. Refusing to lose faith, Michel used his personal funds to stanch some of the bleeding.
"My credit-card debt was going through the ceiling," he says. "I had contributors breathing down my neck. Everything was dangling by a thread."
Then, on May 17, 2011, Michel woke up to smoke wafting into his bedroom and flames licking the ceiling. He survived unscathed, but the freak fire that burned down his home rattled him.
"I wondered, 'If Matt is not paying my paychecks, what else isn't he paying?'" Michel phoned his health-insurance carrier. He says he learned that he'd lost coverage months earlier.
Mathison admits that there was "a small gap" in coverage for Michel.
"The fire was the world's biggest reality check,'" says Michel. "I needed to get my life together. I thought, 'Where has all this money gone?"
Investor Richard Riney was wondering the same thing. The previous fall he'd given Mathison around $100,000 to acquire GolfBuzz, a social-media platform that could host online content for magazines such as Avid. Mathison told the investor the deal was basically sealed. However, by the spring of 2011, Mathison had nothing to show for it.
In mid-April of that year, Riney demanded all documentation relating to GolfBuzz.
According to court records, Mathison first offered Riney only a "series of lies and half-truths" for not having it. He finally admitted that the "deal" had "fallen through," and agreed to return the money. But each time they scheduled to meet up at Riney's bank, Mathison failed to show or canceled at the last minute.
Riney accused Mathison of trying to obtain credit in Riney's name without his knowledge or consent. Mathison hit back by changing the locks on the office doors and locking Riney out of the computer system.
Finally, the investor gave Mathison a hard and fast deadline of April 29, 2011, to return the GolfBuzz investment. When Mathison missed that deadline, Riney hired attorney Chris McDonough to file a temporary restraining order to shut down the magazine and demand a full accounting of Avid's finances.
If only it were that simple. The process server tried multiple times to serve a summons at Mathison's residence, then wrote to the court: "Defendant / his adult family member refused to open the door."
Riney was shut out — for the moment.
Matt Mathison got his first look at a publisher's lifestyle while living in Dallas in the mid-2000s. At the time, he was spending a lot of time swinging clubs on the manicured greens of the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Dallas — home of the HP Byron Nelson Championship, a stop on the PGA tour. There he came to admire fellow member Craig Rosengarden.
Rosengarden owned the AvidGolfer magazine chain that had branched out from Dallas to establish sister publications in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Colorado.
One day Mathison approached him about opening up shop in Atlanta, where he'd spent part of his childhood. Rosengarden liked the idea. The publisher says he offered to provide the new magazine's content as long as Mathison sold ads and kicked in some start-up capital. So Mathison gathered funds from other club members and headed east.
The Georgia incarnation of AvidGolfer debuted in March 2006 at a launch party north of downtown Atlanta. Some five hundred well-wishers attended. Rosengarden says his partner swore the gala wouldn't cost a dime. Yet within a month Rosengarden says he was opening bills from the restaurant that hosted the event, from Heineken (which provided beer) and from the PR company that organized it. Combined, these bills ran into the thousands, he says.
Then Rosengarden examined the magazine's bank account. He noticed that the company had paid for Mathison to hire a dog-sitter and get his house cleaned.
Mathison says today he doesn't recall any misunderstandings about the launch party, or about his personal expenses being covered by the company. "All I can say about it is that the relationship didn't work out."
After only a few printed issues, Rosengarden decided to sever all ties to Mathison. But soon the publisher's phone started ringing. Other club members told him they'd lent Mathison money and couldn't get it back.
One of these golfers was David Pfaff. Pfaff had put $100,000 into AvidGolfer in Atlanta, and Mathison had signed a promissory note to repay him. However, according to a lawsuit Pfaff filed, Mathison failed to deliver over and over, despite "repeated promises" and a "myriad of excuses."
Eventually, a mutual friend of Mathison and Pfaff agreed to lend Mathison $100,000 to make Pfaff whole. Mathison took the money but never paid off Pfaff — nor repaid the mutual friend. Pfaff won a default judgment against Mathison for the full amount, but has yet to collect anything.
"We've all lost money in business," Pfaff tells Riverfront Times. "Not every project turns out rosy. But you just feel violated by this guy, because the lies don't stop."
Mark A. Du Pont, a real-estate developer in California, tells a similar story. He, too, met Mathison on a Dallas golf course and invested in his Atlanta edition of AvidGolfer.
But when the magazine dissolved, Du Pont was willing to put money into Mathison's second attempt at an Atlanta publication, this one called simply Avid. Du Pont says he flew out several times to Atlanta in 2006 and 2007 to survey Mathison's operation.
"He had a team, he had a website," Du Pont recalls. "I thought he was a great salesman, that he would hustle and make this happen."
Yet the magazine foundered. The real-estate market was tanking too, and Du Pont's financial manager was looking more closely at his expenses. She noticed charges on his Citibank credit card for airline tickets to and from Atlanta. Some tickets were mailed to Mathison in paper form, then returned at the airport for a cash refund.
This befuddled Du Pont, who swears he'd never given credit-card info to Mathison. (Mathison insists that he had.)
Du Pont says he spent fifteen months trying to "rectify the absolute nightmare" of $34,000 in what he considers fraudulent credit-card charges. All told, Du Pont estimates he invested more than $400,000 in Mathison's ventures in Atlanta.
"I'm a big boy," Du Pont says. "I've lost fifteen to twenty times that in real estate since 2007. It's not that $400,000 isn't a chunk of change. It is. But I'm telling you all this because I don't want anyone to get hurt again."
Du Pont says he approached authorities in California and Texas about pressing charges against Mathison. But ultimately, he gave up — partly because he had bigger worries in real estate, and partly because Mathison was already facing punishment for something else.
In late 2008, Mathison was arrested and charged in Tarrant County, Texas, with having embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from Bentwaters Construction, a firm where he had worked during the early 2000s. He spent 43 days in jail during the proceedings.
Court records show that Mathison felt justified in taking the money because he believed he was owed commissions from the company's CEO, Jon Aubrey. Nonetheless, Mathison ended up pleading guilty to felony theft of property. The trial judge put him on ten years' probation, and ordered him to pay $193,700 in restitution. Mathison challenged that amount, but a Texas appeals court upheld it.
But it wasn't just CEOs the likes of Jon Aubrey and Mark Du Pont who felt burned. Smaller players also got stiffed.
Patrick Coulson was the founder of GolfBuzz.com. All told, Coulson says, GolfBuzz billed $30,000 worth of work to Mathison's second magazine, but only collected a third of it. Over and over, Mathison insisted he'd already shipped payment. And over and over, he blamed the shipping carrier when it failed to arrive.
After months of dodging, Mathison finally wrote Coulson a breathless e-mail in August 2007.
"My apologies for just getting back to you," Mathison wrote. "I flew out to Houston first thing this morning to be with my sister. Her husband (age 31) had a stroke late last night." Things were so bleak, Mathison wrote, his mother and stepfather had chartered a helicopter to return early from an Alaskan cruise. "It's a mess."
Mathison now admits to RFT that this family-tragedy story was "an atrocious lie."
Says Coulson: "Matt's actually quite charming. And if he put his mind to positive use, he'd actually be pretty decent. But you can't take anything he tells you as the truth."
As Mathison was attempting to start — and restart — his publishing career in Atlanta, Bobby Keppel was doing the same in baseball.
Back in high school, when major-league scouts outnumbered the spectators at some of his games, Keppel kept a smiley-face sticker inside his ball cap. It would help him stay relaxed during tense moments. It worked: The seventeen-year-old led De Smet to a state title in 2000, then earned a $1 million signing bonus a few weeks later when the New York Mets swooped him up as the 36th overall pick in the draft. But by the spring of 2006, the six-foot-five-inch Keppel had trouble summoning the confidence he'd shown as a teen.
He now wore the uniform of the Kansas City Royals. And despite getting called up to the majors for the first time with the KC club, he struggled to make a mark on one of the worst teams in baseball.
He remembers thinking: "If I can't make it with them, what am I doing here?"
After compiling an 0-4 record with the Royals, Keppel was demoted to the minor leagues. There, he fell into a brief Internet gambling addiction.
"I felt like it was a way to finally control my life and provide a lifestyle that I had encountered in the major leagues," he says. "But after a series of losses and sleepless nights I finally confessed to my fiancée."
With Suzanne's help and patience, Keppel eventually conquered his demons. "She had the opportunity to say, 'I'm done with you,'" Keppel says. "But she took the time to see it through with me."
Suzanne's belief in him when he was at his lowest now has Keppel believing in second chances — for himself and for others.
After a year in Kansas City, Keppel had short stints with the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins and Minnesota Twins organizations. His best season came in 2009 when he pitched 54 relief innings for the Twins and compiled a respectable 4.83 ERA. In 2010 he took a gamble by agreeing to play in Japan — a country where other MLB players have honed their skills and returned to form.
Keppel was in his second season playing for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters when an 8.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Japan and unleashed a tsunami that triggered a nuclear fallout. Soon after the September 2011 tragedy, Keppel's team played in a charity game in the devastated region of Sendai. Although he was a foreigner in a famously insular country, Keppel was asked to make a pregame speech. It was broadcast throughout Japan.
He recalls standing at the microphone, thinking of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a.k.a. "The Little Flower," a tiny nun whom Catholics revere for trying to do good with even the tiniest acts. He didn't mention her by name that night. ("I'm not a sign-of-the-cross guy" while on the field, he explains.) But he urged the fans to shower the victims with kindness.
"It's in the little things that you do with your families that, put together, will make the biggest difference," he said, his amplified voice bouncing around the stadium. "Whether it's a donation of your time, your money or just a generous smile, no charity is too small."
Keppel and his wife practice what they preach, says Steve Allgeyer, vice president of Life Teen, a Catholic youth ministry in which the Keppels have both been active.
"They're quite possibly the most generous people I know," says Allgeyer. "Not just with their time, but with everything they do."
Although the couple spends most of their time in Japan, they still volunteer in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, prepping engaged couples for marriage and urging natural family planning. They also own several rental properties in St. Louis County, some of which they lease to friends who've fallen on hard times.
It was while making a maintenance call to one of his rental properties last July that Keppel first had an inkling of becoming a publisher. On that day he visited a tenant named Matt Mathison, who had found the place through a realtor service. In the garage of the Mathison residence, Keppel spied a box full of Avid magazines. He picked up a copy and thumbed through it.
"He came over to me, held it up and said, 'What's this?'" recalls Mathison.
Mathison explained the concept of Avid, and his hopes to one day revive the magazine. Keppel was intrigued. Like his real-estate holdings, a magazine seemed like an investment that just might pay off in the long run.
He left with a copy to show Suzanne.
On May 24, 2011, Richard Riney got his wish. A St. Louis County judge froze Avid's assets and halted any further publishing. Dan Michel, the magazine's editor in chief, was present when Mathison heard the news.
"I'd never seen Matt so livid," Michel recalls. "His face was beet red. He just went on and on, mindless cussing and name-calling."
The final two issues of Avid for May and June were completed in digital format but never saw print. Within months the magazine was sued for not paying rent at its office complex. Scorch, a local social-media agency, also filed a lawsuit for an outstanding bill of $8,500.
In the end, Mathison signed a consent judgment in Riney's lawsuit, thereby conceding to counts including fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty. According to the case file, he still owes Riney more than $200,000. [A correction ran regarding this paragraph; see note at end of story.]
Michel took Mathison to small claims court and settled for $7,000, less than half of which has been paid, he says. Eventually Michel packed up his stuff and moved to New York, hoping he'd heard the last of Mathison.
Then came the release last month of The 9s that included articles Michel had edited during his time at Avid. The former editor couldn't believe his eyes. How could Mathison possibly have founded yet another magazine?
Technically, he didn't. He pitched the idea for another golf magazine to the Keppels, but they felt golf was too restrictive. If they were going to get involved, they wanted to do it their own way and cover sports of all kinds, plus travel, fashion, culture, food and business — all with an eye toward men's self-improvement.
"In the baseball world, I know guys who are different places," Keppel says. "But I've seen how men can influence each other. And I think that morality — in terms of doing good, and thinking of others first — all of us have that in us. So I thought, 'Why can't we have a magazine distributed in St. Louis that helps men be better men?'"
The very first issue of The 9s featured an article on Cardinals star Matt Holliday discussing his Christian faith and an advice column fielding questions such as: "My wife just bought skinny jeans, but they don't fit on her right. How do I tell her without hurting her feelings?" The issue also contained content from Avid contributors whom Mathison had never paid; Keppel had stepped in and made them whole.
"I'm the owner of this business," Keppel explains, adding that Mathison is only a consultant to The 9s. "One of my goals is to give Matt a way to pay back all those people their money. What's the better option? That he just goes to jail and can't support his family and no one ever gets repaid? Those are the choices in my head. I feel like maybe I can help this guy."
Keppel says he's already paid off some of Mathison's personal debt. But his influence on Mathison may go even deeper than that.
While RFT was reporting this story Mathison reached out to several people from his past. On February 9 he typed up a long confessional e-mail to Mark Du Pont and David Pfaff — the businessmen who'd invested in his first magazine.
"I used to spend a lot of time mad at the world," he wrote. "Mad at some of you for kicking me when I was down. But the fact of the matter is that I had no one to be mad at but myself.... I realize that I will never be a 'Good Man' but it doesn't mean that I can't be a better man and work towards making things right."
Mathison owned up to some misdeeds, admitting: "The excuses and lies that poured out of my mouth were plentiful and flat-out repulsive."
But he also felt he'd turned a corner in his life. He was now working for a new magazine where he wasn't in control of the finances and might make enough money in the long run to pay them back. Things were looking up, he said — thanks to his new employers, the Keppels.
"I work for an amazing group of people," he wrote. "There is nothing that can be written or talked about that they are not aware of. Quite frankly, these people are my angels."
Correction published 3/1/13: The original version of this story misstated the counts involved in the consent judgment Matt Mathison signed in Avid magazine investor Richard Riney's lawsuit. The above version reflects the corrected text.