Battle Royale

Grab some popcorn — the Vinsons are ready to rumble

American Equity Mortgage

For some time, only the finest thread seemed to bind Ray and Deanna Vinson's tattered union. And that thread snapped on a late September morning in 2004, when the very angry co-founder of American Equity Mortgage boarded his Gulfstream jet and flew to Scottsdale, Arizona.

The couple had been fighting yet again, and Deanna decided it might be wise to clear out of their Creve Coeur mansion for a desert respite. According to the police report she filed September 24, her husband arrived unannounced at 5 a.m. at their $2 million dwelling. He was drunk, she told authorities, and a vicious argument ensued by the swimming pool.

"At one point, Ray came over to where she was sitting and tried to walk up between her legs," the report stated. "She pulled away and 'that set Ray off.'" In a rage, Ray hurled patio furniture into the pool and started tearing apart the home, while Deanna cowered in a bathroom. Following a 911 call, police arrived to handcuff and haul away Ray.

After nearly eighteen months of well-publicized rancor, millions of dollars in legal fees, court documents that fill two large boxes and a budding romance between Deanna and a bodyguard she retained for $500,000 a year, the Vinsons' divorce trial began on Valentine's Day in a St. Louis County courtroom.

The trial, which has the all the makings of a veritable "War of the Roses," is expected to last eight days and will likely center on accusations of sexual misconduct, infidelity, character assassination, financial mismanagement — and even, perhaps, public urination.

At stake is the future of American Equity Mortgage Inc., the Maryland Heights-based company that the now-warring couple founded together in 1992, the year before they were married. Starting with $7,000 that Vinson borrowed from his grandmother, the pair created a multimillion-dollar refinance corporation with more than 40 branches across the nation. In 2004 the couple's combined income was nearly $30 million.

A born salesman, Vinson was the company's pitch man. Though he never held an executive title with the firm, he became a local celebrity for the way he belted out, in his homespun West Virginia twang, American Equity's phone number: "Eight-seven-eight niiinety-niiine, niiinety-niiine!"

Deanna Vinson filed for divorce a month after the Scottsdale blowout. The 42-year-old remains American Equity's president and CEO, a position she has held since the company's inception. Fearing for her safety, the self-assured Vinson, who has a sturdy handshake and a penchant for fur coats and racy cars, later enlisted St. Louis private detective Joe Adams — and his staff of seven — to provide her with round-the-clock protection.

Fifty-five-year-old Ray Vinson, meanwhile, says he too fears for his safety. He obtained an order of protection in St. Louis County Circuit Court in March 2005, claiming that Adams threatened his life inside the American Equity Mortgage building at Westport Plaza. Vinson has also accused Deanna and Adams of conspiring to kidnap the couple's pet dog, Bogey, whom Vinson won in a pre-trial custody battle in January 2005. Vinson and Bogey spent much of last year living at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton. (The couple has no children.)

In a September 2005 letter to all American Equity employees, Vinson wrote, "The plan failed, but the effort was a pathetic attempt to steal my companion and property and disrupt my life."

The embattled couple declined to comment for this story, as did their high-powered St. Louis attorneys.

Last year Vinson created a message board on his Web site (, which invites anyone to offer their own anonymous, critical commentary about his wife and Adams.

"Two top people have testified that Deanna has made some very bad decisions involving the management at American Equity Mtg.," reads one message. "They testified Deanna is a sociopath — that she is making decisions without Ray and the entire company is in trouble."

Also on the site is a photo of Adams' SUV, which bears a license plate that reads: "BYE RAY." Vinson sees this as a threat.

"Yeah, it's pretty cool," confirms Adams of his plates. "He gave me the idea. He's hired these investigators to trail me all day long. Sometimes I have to pull over so they can catch up with me." (Deanna recently paid for Adams to attend a high-performance driving school in Phoenix.) "Deanna will turn to me and say, 'Dump the surveillance.' Then she'll turn around and say, 'Bye, Ray.'"

Vinson has complained in other letters to company employees that Deanna is ruining his good name. In one missive, he describes a trip Deanna and Adams made to see Governor Matt Blunt. "Deanna made a trip to the governor's office in the state of Missouri and told the governor I was involved in a prostitution ring, in an effort to discredit me to anyone I know."

Also on the message board is speculation about his wife's relationship with her bodyguard. It reads, "Joe Adams also attended the inauguration of Gov Blunt with Deanna as her lover not her guard...."

Adams acknowledges that his business relationship with Deanna has turned romantic. "I call it the Patty Hearst syndrome," he says. "Patty Hearst joined her captors. Sometimes I call her Patty. And all that makes Ray really crazy. He's so blinded by rage at me that he can't see straight." Adams has another nickname for his girlfriend — QUEEEN, which adorns the license plate of her silver Mercedes.

Vinson is irate that his wife is not only seeing another man, but that American Equity is picking up the tab for Adams' fee — "which is our money," he complained at a court proceeding last year.

Vinson says he's afraid of his estranged wife, who, he maintains, has developed a fondness for guns. "She knew nothing about guns. She had never shot a gun before." Now, Vinson claimed at the court hearing last March, she owns a submachine gun. (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Guns sits atop a coffee table inside Deanna's living room, near her arcade-style video shooting game.)

Though he hasn't been involved in the company's day-to-day operations for the past six years, Vinson believes his wife is not fit to assume sole control of American Equity Mortgage. He concedes he's an alcoholic. Last year Vinson completed a two-week, $50,000 rehabilitation program in Malibu, California. Court records show he has three DUI convictions on his record.

In the winter of 2004, Vinson was captured on a Las Vegas casino security tape standing at a cashier's window. On the tape, he's shown reaching for his fly, while startled customers point at him and alert a security guard.

"This guy's pissing at the cash-out desk," alleges Adams. "He had his penis out, pissing at the casino." As the videotape continues, Ray is handcuffed and three officers try to remove him from the premises.

Ultimately, Circuit Judge Michael D. Burton will decide which party is fit to retain custody of American Equity Mortgage.

"I am not going to simply roll over and give Deanna my company," Vinson wrote in one letter to employees.

Throughout the long battle, Deanna Vinson has maintained that she and her management team are responsible for the company's success. As she told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last July, "We make the decisions on what markets to go into, and I make the ultimate decision."

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