Chutes and Ladders

Bill Stallings, the mastermind behind the Chase Hotel renovation and one of St. Louis' biggest movers and shakers, has tumbled hard

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Six years ago Bill Stallings had the world by the tail. Just 35 years old, the hotshot developer was heralded in gossip and business columns as the man behind the redevelopment of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. Mothballed since 1989, the landmark hotel had long served as the playground for visiting dignitaries and celebrities staying in St. Louis, and now Stallings' $65-million renovation would restore it to its former glory.

Stallings wasn't going to stop there. As fast as his Mercedes SL500 convertible, a gold-plated notion raced through him: Bill Stallings -- real-estate magnate. By 1998 Stallings was speeding down the freeway to financial glory. In an article recognizing him as one of the city's pre-eminent businesspeople under the age of 40, the St. Louis Business Journal reported his holdings, in addition to the Chase Park Plaza, to include thirteen shopping centers and strip malls, and a warehouse on Washington Avenue that would soon be converted into a nightclub and condos.

What a heady time it was -- perhaps right up there with Stallings being the St. Louis Steamers' top draft pick after he graduated from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. All told, Stallings laid claim to more than two million square feet of property in St. Louis. Not quite Donald Trump, but not bad for a kid from north St. Louis County who started with nothing.

Bill Stallings' life has long been a game of "Chutes and Ladders." And for quite a while, he's been riding the chute.

Chase ownership blacklisted Stallings soon after the hotel reopened in March 1999, basically telling him not to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out. Local developers say Stallings' brash personality, the many precarious financing arrangements and the millions of dollars in cost overruns all played a part in Stallings' getting the boot.

Stallings' most recent venture, the WS Hotel at Fourth Street and Washington Avenue downtown, is in bankruptcy.

Last month, he began serving a two-month sentence in a Memphis federal prison for his second felony conviction in the past four years.

"Getting the Chase done was an amazing accomplishment that at the time earned him a tremendous amount of respect," says one downtown developer. "It was a very bold and courageous thing to do. That said, Stallings has been pretty much a non-entity for the past three years. Following his latest felony, everyone in the development community thinks he's a joke."

Other developers say they never put much stock in Stallings and questioned his ability to tackle such an ambitious project as the Chase renovation.

"His partner in the hotel, Jim Smith, is well-respected as first-class guy," says Pete Rothschild, a major St. Louis developer. "Stallings was the complete antithesis."

During the Chase renovation project, Rothschild recalls, the three developers met to discuss the sale of some property Rothschild owned in the Central West End. Everything was going fine until Stallings burst into the room.

"Immediately he says in a dismissive and arrogant way that the price we were kicking around was too high, and that if he wanted the property he would take it by eminent domain," recounts Rothschild. "It was one of the ugliest business meetings I ever attended, and later I called Jim and told him, 'If you sleep with dogs, you get fleas.'"

Rothschild says he was hardly surprised to learn a few months later that Stallings had been cut loose from the Chase Hotel.

Both of Stallings' well-documented felony convictions stem from real-estate transactions. But much of his more egregious behavior has gone largely unreported, including allegations of date rape and bribing a police officer.

Stallings is suspected in July 2003 of paying a former Florissant cop, James Cox, $1,600 to arrest his ex-girlfriend, Christine Lambert, on trumped-up charges of credit-card theft. Stallings did it, claims Lambert, in order to undermine her chances of winning a bitter child-custody battle over their twenty-month-old daughter, Sydney. The two currently share custody of the girl, but Stallings is looking to gain full custody.

"He's a total fucking control freak," says Lambert, who argues that Stallings never showed much interest in the child until well after she was born. "Now he'll stop at nothing to get the baby, and he knows I'll eventually run out of money to fight him in court."

When the credit-card charges didn't stick, Lambert alleges, the ex-cop and the embattled developer cooked up a plan in which Stallings would pay Cox $1,000 to plant drugs on her. Others involved in the case, none of whom would talk on record, also identify Stallings as the man who approached Cox.

Cox pleaded guilty for his role in the conspiracy two months ago, but the FBI and U.S. District Attorney continue to keep a tight lid on the name of Cox's accomplice.

Those who know Stallings -- many of whom declined to be identified in this story -- express no surprise that he might try to send the mother of his toddling daughter to prison on false charges.

What most astounds them, though, is that he wasn't put away sooner.

"I've talked to prosecutors in the city, and they all express surprise that he hasn't been charged for more," says a downtown developer who's kept close tabs on Stallings since the late 1990s.

But then, many share a similar theory on why Stallings has been able to skirt the law as long as he has. -- and it's the same reason the feds won't release his name in the Cox case.

"He snitches," says a former acquaintance. "That's how he gets out of trouble, and it amazes me he's gotten this far. Honestly, I'm surprised no one has killed him."

Maybe someone tried. At 3:06 on the morning of November 12, 2002, police responded to an unusual emergency call in the quiet and privileged hamlet of Ladue. Someone had driven by Stallings' home on Log Cabin Lane -- arguably the most prestigious neighborhood in St. Louis -- and fired three shots through his bedroom window.

There's Sunday-morning Bill, and there's Saturday-night Bill, say former friends, business associates -- and enemies. There's the guilt-wracked, Bible-reading, devout Catholic who watches religious TV shows while recovering from an all-night bender.

There's the one-time ATF agent, who during his two-year tour in the late 1980s with the agency, was picked up in Maryland Heights for breaking into his ex-girlfriend's home. There's the devoted father fighting for custody of his daughter. And there's also the owner of a sleazy nightclub, the huckster playboy with leopard-print chairs. Behind it all, there's the Machiavellian risk-taker.

Stallings declined interview requests for this story, as did his father and business partner, William H. Stallings.

To his supporters, Stallings is a victim of his own success. They say St. Louis is a small town, and when the ruling class sees a kid making it big, the natural reaction is to knock him down. That's the reason, they say, that Stallings was chased from the Chase, and why his felony convictions have made the local headlines.

"They are all potshots," says Dan Krekovich, a friend of Stallings since the early 1990s. "Bill's a survivor and a self-starter, a north-county kid who hasn't been spoon-fed. He's accomplished a tremendous amount, created a lot of jobs in St. Louis and kept a lot of big projects going. To me, that's a measure of success."

Krekovich points to Stallings' accomplishments, like starting a successful printing company and using the proceeds to invest in real estate. His first acquisitions came in the form of foreclosed apartment buildings and later graduated into strip malls and office parks, located mostly in north and south St. Louis county. This is the portfolio Stallings used as collateral when pursuing the Chase redevelopment -- a project so complicated it scared off larger and more established developers.

But getting into the nightclub business? Never should have done it, says Krekovich.

"I can see why he did it. I mean, what single guy doesn't think at some point in his life about opening a bar?" asks Krekovich. "The problem is, the minute you get in that type of business, they compare you to Jack Ruby."

If renovating the Chase was Stallings' crowning achievement, then the nightclub business was the beginning of his downfall. The year was 1998 and Stallings was falling out of grace with the Chase ownership group. Desperate to salvage his reputation and prove his mettle as a businessman and developer, he set his sights on a dilapidated building along Washington Avenue. The new project combined Stallings' taste for work and play. Why not a nightclub anchoring the ground floors and luxury apartments occupying the top?

The nightclub, from the outset, was a smash on Washington Avenue -- quite literally, in fact.

"The opening night, their door staff threw a patron out a plate-glass window," recalls Tom Gray, co-owner of the nightclubs Velvet and Rue 13 across the street. Gray, who has taken a perverse pleasure in following Stallings' downward spiral, says Stallings' nightclub quickly marred the reputation of all the bars along Wash Ave.

Others say Stallings' club changed the face of the city's old warehouse district, making it a real destination spot. And thanks to a team of street peddlers who gave away drink coupons to any and all, Stallings' club, The Monkey Bar, soon became the "in" place for downtown clubgoers.

Within weeks after opening in October 1998, Stallings had sold 220 VIP memberships to the club at $500 a pop. Further proof of the club's strength came a month later, when a federal judge ordered Stallings to change the bar's name. This occurred after a famous New York nightclub of the same name sued Stallings over trademark infringement. Stallings relented, and the club reopened as The Cheetah, an even more popular establishment.

Fueling the club's buzz was its "anything goes" atmosphere. "It was a total 'Studio 54' experience -- the partying, the drugs, the sex," says a former acquaintance of Stallings. "It was ten times more intense than any other club in St. Louis, and Bill liked it that way."

It wasn't long before the law also took interest in The Cheetah. During its twenty-month existence, cops responded to more than 100 calls to the club, according to police records, and many went far beyond the average barroom fracas.

Witness the case of Donald Brooks, a club regular who dropped dead on the floor in March 2000. Bar employees failed to turn down the music or call 911 following Brooks' collapse. A club patron finally dialed the police, and Brooks was rushed to Saint Louis University Hospital. He was pronounced dead of a drug overdose. Stashed in his socks were ten green, shamrock-shaped pills: Ecstacy.

Moments before death, according to a report by the state's Division of Liquor Control, Brooks tried to tip the bartender with the drug, but she wanted money instead. Liquor-patrol agents asked the bartender why she hadn't called police when it was apparent Brooks was trafficking a controlled substance into the club.

"You've got to be kidding," she told the officers, barely controlling her laughter. "You can get anything you want at Cheetah. It's all over the place. Everybody does it."

The bartender went on to tell agents that management and employees of The Cheetah orchestrated much of the drug use. Her comments mirror those of a former drug agent who worked undercover in the clubs.

"Every time we'd bust someone along Washington Avenue, they'd mention The Cheetah in their statement," says the agent. "And soon our work focused primarily on shutting down the club."

But drugs were just a means to an end at The Cheetah, according to police and federal investigators. The greater problem was rape, particularly of underage women who gained easy entry into the bar. The women -- girls, actually -- would come in, have a drink and wake up the next morning in one of the apartments above the club.

Another disturbing incident, also in March 2000, came when police officers responded to a report of a nude female knocking on doors to the apartments above The Cheetah. When the police arrived, they found the woman sitting naked in the stairwell. Disoriented, she had no idea what happened to her clothes. She masturbated during the course of the police questioning, apparently unaware of what she was doing. Sober at last, she told police she entered The Cheetah at 12:30 a.m. with a girlfriend, and the two each drank a small bottle of Champagne. Urine samples later determined Ecstasy in her system.

In May 2000, police arrested Stallings on charges that he committed forcible sodomy with a sixteen-year-old girl in his penthouse above The Cheetah. Stallings' apartment had the reputation as a "stabbin' cabin," where he and his hangers-on took impressionable young girls and had their way with them. But like other minors who alleged they were drugged and raped, the teenager did not press charges.

"None of the girls would press charges or testify, and I can't say I blame them," says an official involved in the investigation. "Most of these girls were from the county -- sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. Their parents were angry as hell, but who would want their daughter coming back downtown, pressing charges, being paraded about in the news and going through all that crap? Most just wanted to forget it."

There's a good explanation why the club's improprieties were brushed under the rug so long: Stallings was paying several St. Louis police officers to serve as "security consultants" to the club, says the former drug agent, and everything seemed to be in order when the DEA or liquor-control agents came knocking.

Eventually, things came to a head. In June 2000, documents show that state liquor-control agents were preparing to shut The Cheetah down for a list of infractions, including the consumption of alcohol by minors, drugging of patrons, sexual assaults and allowing patrons to traffic drugs on the premises.

But the big bust never happened. Before the agents could act, Stallings' father, to whom Stallings had turned over the bar a few months earlier for the charge of one dollar, surrendered the license. In effect, Dad took away Junior's keys.

In a June 26, 2000, letter to Bob Kraiberg, the city's excise commissioner, Stallings' father writes:

"As president and owner of The Cheetah at 1224 Washington nightclub, I wish to surrender and give up my Liquor License on this date and to cease operations immediately.

"This business has caused considerable strain on my personal life and that of my family. It is my intention to sell this business in the near future.

"Enclosed please find appropriate licenses."

Stallings' life was spiraling out of control. The nightclub business was just one of his problems. On May 2, 2000, just days before he was arrested for sexually assaulting a minor, Stallings was sentenced in U.S. District Court to three weekends in jail, two years' probation and a $10,000 fine for bank fraud. This was the first felony.

The crime, to which Stallings pleaded guilty, occurred in 1996 when he arranged to sell an apartment complex to a buyer for $600,000. Problem was the buyer, Bradley Hoff, was having trouble getting the financing for the purchase. To get around his predicament, the two hatched a plan to tell Hoff's lender, Southwest Bank, that the sale was really for $800,000. When the bank loaned Hoff $600,000 for the property, it would in essence be financing 100 percent of the deal.

The scheme backfired after Hoff failed to make one of his monthly payments. Hoff got two-years probation.

At his sentencing, a contrite Stallings told the judge that his role in the felony was a "one-time only mistake."

"I will never be in front of you again," he told the judge.

Stallings first began dating Christine Lambert while on probation. Thirteen years his junior, Lambert is an attractive, thin woman with brown eyes, a sharp nose and long dark blonde hair. She describes the Stallings of that time as "normal." He was enrolled in an outpatient drug-treatment program and seemed to have left the demons of The Cheetah behind him. Moreover, he was laying the finishing touches to the $16 million renovation of the WS Hotel, which opened in the fall of 2001.

Thanks in part to Mandarin Bay, the South Beach-themed restaurant and nightclub that occupied the lobby, the WS was the trendiest hotel in town. Like The Cheetah, Mandarin Bay catered to the young and beautiful. In the back of the club, patrons mingled on satin beds that sat hidden behind walls of wispy white curtains.

With the initial success of the WS Hotel, Stallings had visions of doing similar hotel renovations in other markets and soon set his sights on Miami, where he pursued the purchase of a dilapidated Art-Deco hotel on Ocean Drive.

It was during this period that Lambert truly fell for Stallings. Together, the pair jetted off to Miami every few weeks as he filled her head with promises of a long, profitable life together.

"He promised me a lot of things," she says. "It was going to be a fairy tale. We were supposed to move to Miami."

After dating for a little more than a year, the couple decided to have a baby. In the early summer of 2002, Lambert told Stallings she was pregnant. After that, she says, everything changed.

Stallings returned to the lifestyle he lived as maestro of The Cheetah -- carousing with his friends and not returning home for days at a time, says Lambert. Evidence of his old party ways could be found at the WS Hotel, where Stallings kept an apartment. A December 2002 letter to the Better Business Bureau describes just one of the complaints lodged at the hotel during that time. Writes the complainant:

"I'm the company manager for a touring musical production and the member and members of this production stayed in this hotel. On 12/20/02 at approximately 4 a.m. three intoxicated men entered the room of one of my performers. They were able to enter her room even though the deadbolt was engaged. I found out later that the owner of the hotel was having a party and sent his guest to the wrong room. This incident is among other problems we had with the firm. They aren't very organized or professional."

By the summer of 2003, Stallings' personal and professional life tumbled to new depths. As revealed in courtroom documents, his home life had deteriorated into a veritable Jerry Springer episode of conceit and distrust -- with Stallings and Lambert leveling charges of verbal and physical abuse, drug use and a host of other infractions as they struggled over custody rights.

Meanwhile, the WS Hotel was slipping out of Stallings' control. In September 2003, GMAC Commercial Mortgage Corp., one of the lenders to the hotel, filed suit against Stallings when he placed a lien on furnishings and equipment GMAC had provided the hotel through a $1 million loan.

If GMAC officials were shocked that Stallings placed their property up as collateral for another loan, even more stunned were they when, during an inspection of the hotel, they couldn't find much of the equipment Stallings had purchased with their money. (More than $50,000 of the gym equipment was later found in Stallings' workout room in his Ladue manse.)

Stallings was also in jeopardy of defaulting on a $10 million loan with Ocwen Federal Bank, the lender who provided most of the financing for WS Hotel. In February of this year, Ocwen took possession of the hotel. Stallings' holding company that owned the hotel filed bankruptcy three months later.

In March federal prosecutors indicted Stallings on wire fraud for his role in diverting funds from the GMAC loan for his personal use. He is currently serving a 60-day sentence.

Many of Stallings' detractors say the unusually light sentence for his second felony conviction is a travesty of justice. He could have served a maximum of up to twenty years for the conviction.

But to Christine Lambert, the sentence makes sense. She says the FBI could have nailed him on the wire-fraud charges a year ago when GMAC filed its civil suit against him. But when the FBI showed up on Stallings' doorstep last fall, Lambert says, he was quick to offer them whatever they wanted to know.

In the game of cops and robbers, the term is called "downward departure." If the authorities have you cornered, you can grant yourself some leniency by offering them information that will lead to other arrests and convictions. In Stallings' case, the former Florissant cop, James Cox, was his ticket out of tougher sentencing, says Lambert.

Lambert still has the police report Cox wrote when he arrested her last July on the fallacious credit-card charges. The report outlines how Stallings first contacted Cox on June 30, 2003, to report that Lambert had stolen his credit-card information. A few days later, Cox picked her up in Wentzville, where she'd been living with her father.

The police report fails to mention that weeks prior to the arrest, Stallings employed Cox as a private investigator assigned to track Lambert's whereabouts.

Lambert says that she suspected something odd about the arrest from the get-go. For example: Why was a Florissant cop arresting her when Stallings lived in Ladue, and the alleged credit-card theft took place in his home? Furthermore, the cop looked vaguely familiar.

"You know Bill, don't you?" Lambert asked Cox on their drive to the police station. Cox denied ever having met Stallings.

Until recently, Lambert says, she thought the credit-card charges were very real. That changed when the federal indictment against Cox made the news in July. It was then that she realized she was part of a greater conspiracy.

When Stallings is released from prison next month, he'll be faced with a load of legal and financial problems. He's still battling Lambert for custody of their daughter, and Lambert says she's in the process of filing a lawsuit against him for the anguish he's caused her throughout their nasty split, including his role in the police conspiracy against her.

The bankruptcy of the WS Hotel is still wending its way through the courts, and Stallings' financial woes do not end there. Files in the Recorder of Deeds' office show he has a $1.2 million lien against his home on Log Cabin Lane -- this despite having purchased the home for $738,000 a few years ago. Now he's attempting to sell the place, but after a year on the market, no one seems interested in coughing up the $1.4 million asking price. The house reportedly needs a lot of work, not to mention a new bedroom window to replace the one that remains shattered from the bullets fired into the house back in November of 2002.

His other business, W.S. Stallings Corp., still lists a handful of properties it owns in the county. But Stallings ever redeeming himself seems doubtful, say members of the real-estate community.

Jim Smith, his former partner in the Chase Park Plaza Hotel, goes out of his way to disassociate himself from Stallings. He refused multiple requests for an interview for this story. Last year he pulled the plug on a documentary on the Chase renovation after the independent filmmaker made the mistake of interviewing Stallings about the project.

Others are less hesitant to hold their tongues.

"He's the business guy that everyone in town knows," says a former business associate who's still fuming over money Stallings owes him. "But he never had much credibility. He was always robbing Peter to pay Paul, and no matter what, he always paid himself first."

Yet Stallings has demonstrated his ability to bounce back.

Says Krekovich: "I think Bill has learned lessons the hard way, but I'm quite confident he'll come back from all this stronger and better than ever."

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