To Clare Barry, the deal seemed right -- no matter that she parted with a big chunk of her insurance check before she'd even left the agent's office.
But Wade N. Willey was one insurance broker who rarely missed a chance to sell his latest moneymaking proposition.
"He had a great idea: financing in high-risk insurance," Barry said, recalling the evening she drove to the Bel Air offices of the Wade Willey Wade Insurance Agency to pick up a $20,000 benefit check after her fiance's death in 1988. "He said the bank is reaping the money. He felt like he could make some money and his -- what would you call them? Shareholders? No, his investors -- could make some money."
For a while, Willey's investors did. Now, Willey sits in a Harford County jail cell, charged with embezzling at least $2 million from clients like Barry.
His Jan. 9 arrest culminated a yearlong investigation that began after Willey's uncle complained that he'd been cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. State insurance officials, stung by criticism from the grand jury that indicted Willey, are looking into their handling of a 1996 complaint against the 50-year-old insurance broker.
Barry, who continued to invest money with Willey after her fiance's death, is not sure what happened. The 58-year-old Aberdeen woman knows that the interest payments on her investment came to a halt more than two years ago and that she has lost more than $60,000.
"When the news really hit me, it hurt," she said. "Deep down inside, I took him to be a friend. The older I get, the more I find out you can't have friends."
Authorities provide few details of Willey's alleged crimes. A review of court records, with interviews with family members, former clients and business associates, provide a portrait of an ambitious -- if overmatched -- businessman with the will and the ways to coax money from investors.
'Talking about his faith'
Many who know him say he is religiously devout and says grace before breaking bread at a business luncheon.
"He'd run into people at the supermarket, tell them a few jokes and then he'd start talking about his faith," said Willey's 20-year-old son, Ryan. "He's a very outward type. He wanted to let people know what he believed."
The mailbox outside his Bel Air home says, "JESUS is the reason for the season" in bright Christmas colors. In the driveway is a black Mitsubishi Mirage with license tags "PSALM." He is a member of Mount Zion United Methodist Church near Bel Air.
In Harford business circles, he was known as a relentless salesman.
"You'd see him out in the parking lot and he'd say, 'Hey, you ought to get in on this, you ought to see what we're doing,' " said Joan A. Ryder, a real estate broker in Harford County whose office is in the same complex as one of Willey's former offices. "He always had things going on, as far as things he was" -- she paused -- "peddling, I guess I would say."
Willey's associates say he followed his father into the insurance business. He added an extra "Wade" to his company name, making it "Wade Willey Wade."
Several years ago, the younger Willey moved his offices to the top floor of a stone building on the outskirts of Bel Air. By then, it was clear he would not be limited to brokering policies for the huge Nationwide insurance company.
Group health plans. Mortgage services. Auto financing. Financial planning. Willey tried to make money from them all. When he was arrested, he was working on a plan to market some of his moneymaking ideas to other insurance agents, a business associate said.
One of the alleged victims named in indictments said she invested more than $6,000 in a mortgage services company in which Willey owned a stake. When the woman, Loida Garcia, said she had inherited money and had more to invest, Willey had another suggestion: Help back a friend's fledgling singing career.
Lured by promises of a 50 percent return on her money, Garcia wrote a check for $120,000. She has seen no money since but believes Willey earned a hefty commission from her investment.
"He made us believe we were doing the right thing and that he was going to do right by us. I thought he was a religious person," she said. "Now I see he just used it to trick people."
Some of Willey's business associates were not impressed with his forays outside insuring lives, homes and cars.
"He's ever the wheeler-dealer, smug almost," said Charles Serrini, a data processing company president who said he has limited his ties with Willey. He said Willey, who remains a minor shareholder in the company, Accupay, fell short on his promises to bring business to the company. Company Vice President Neil Nemser said, "He dreams big, but he doesn't come through."
The conduct that seems to be at the heart of the charges against Willey was an offshoot to the insurance business.
Through his contacts in the office and at church activities, Willey solicited loans to bankroll Agency Systems Inc., the company he set up to finance the hefty car insurance premiums that poor drivers are required to pay.
Insuring poor drivers
Dorsey Brandenburg, a 70-year-old retired nightclub owner and construction company owner, started buying insurance through Willey about 1990. When Willey pitched his bad-driver financing business as an investment, Brandenburg arranged for his wife, Joy, to lend Willey $50,000.
She made 14 percent interest, while Willey lent the money for 22 percent to high-risk drivers, Brandenburg said. For a long time, everybody won.
"He had a good thing going," Dorsey Brandenburg said in an interview at his 42-acre home outside Havre de Grace. "I don't know how he could lose."
The payments of more than $500 a month stopped, and in 1996, Joy Brandenburg sued Willey. Joy Brandenburg, who died last month, collected on a judgment for more than $50,000.
She is one of three former clients identified in indictments to sue him. One man won a judgment of more than $200,000. Willey also satisfied that claim, but by then it was clear his finances were sinking.
'Thought I could trust him'
His uncle, 82-year-old Russell Willey, said he lost about $1.9 million in his nephew's investment ventures. He said he continued to invest money after his nephew told him he "had taken money out of his finance company to use for himself."
"I still thought I could trust him," Russell Willey said. "I was a real idiot."
Several of Willey's associates say he complained that his finances were devastated when he was cheated by an investment scheme and that the swindlers had been investigated by the FBI. Authorities said they have been unable to verify that.
Joan Willey has been president of her husband's insurance company for years, but she said he provided her with few details of his financial problems.
"He told me that he was working on some big business deal," she said. "But it just never happened, and he lost a lot of money. I don't know how much, but I think that's when things started going wrong."
Evidence of the downfall became abundant about 1996. The couple struggled to pay bills. The bank foreclosed on his office.
At the court hearing last week at which he was ordered held in lieu of $150,000 bail, Willey said he had been aware that his dealings were being investigated and added, "I know God wants me to work this out."
Willey has been indicted on 49 counts of theft and misappropriation, two counts of filing false Maryland income tax returns and one count of failing to file a state tax return.
In issuing the indictments, the Harford County grand jury criticized state insurance officials for making no attempt to audit Willey's businesses after a former employee told them Willey had misappropriated investors' money.
'Turned out wrong'
Clare Barry, the Aberdeen woman who invested in the business, said Willey was her fiance's insurance agent. She said she was named as a beneficiary on her fiance's life insurance policy. After initially lending Willey $10,000 from the life insurance payment, she lent him $50,000 more -- and for years earned monthly payments of nearly $500. The payments stopped in 1996.
Last year, she was called to testify before a grand jury.
Now disabled, she could use the $60,000. Still, her faith in Willey is not shaken.
"I can't honestly and truly say he was a con man," she said. "He was just a man who was out trying to make some bucks, and he thought he was doing the right thing, but it turned out wrong."
Sun staff writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/17/99