A scam artist passes through High Country
January 14, 2014
BASALT — Superman wasn't scammed, but Thomas Clay Wilson tried.
Wilson told folks he was collecting investors to buy 35 acres near Basalt, build greenhouses and grow organic vegetables. The land is owned by actor Dean Cain, star of the television series, "Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman."
Realtor Bob Starodoj is Cain's real estate agent, listing the $5.9 million ranch with Coldwell Banker Mason Morse Real Estate.
Stardoj has been in Roaring Fork real estate for decades and said Wilson's plan "didn't pass the smell test." He steered Cain and everyone else away from Wilson.
“This guy has left a trail of tears and broken dreams from coast to coast,” said Dave Kraft, a Snowmass Village bus driver who said Wilson swindled him.
"This guy is extremely smart. Unfortunately he's on the wrong side of the law," Stardoj said.
Police say Wilson's whereabouts are unknown. Attempts to contact him at some of his phone numbers listed in court documents were unsuccessful.
Wilson's history of real estate cons goes back to at least 1997, according to court documents and his son, Clay Wilson. Court documents list 23 residences in 14 years.
"My father masquerades as a businessman who is looking to build a greenhouse. He will claim to have investors, business partners," Clay said. "But let me tell you the truth: Mr. Wilson is now on the run."
Court records say Wilson tried to pull similar scams in New Mexico, Michigan, Florida and the Pacific Northwest, including one scam involving a hydroponic tomato growing operation in Hickory, N.C., that didn't exist.
Back in Eagle County
Wilson has been through Eagle County before. He was picked up for fraud in Summit County in 2010. The case was moved to Eagle County, where court documents indicate he was under house arrest.
Wilson popped up again in Eagle County earlier this fall, driving a brown Ford Excursion stolen from a New Mexico Ford dealership. He left New Mexico after investors lost $1.3 million in a real estate deal he put together.
"This guy has left a trail of tears and broken dreams from coast to coast," said Dave Kraft, a Snowmass Village bus driver who said Wilson swindled him.
Kraft was camping last summer in the Roaring Fork Valley when he spotted Wilson sitting in a chair across the creek. As they chatted, Wilson also told him he was a hedge-fund manager and was unwinding. Wilson told him he'd suffered a stroke and heart attack, Kraft said.
One night after work, Kraft checked on him and found Wilson with a power cord tied around his neck. The other end was wrapped around a hand hold above Wilson's head with no slack in the line, Kraft said. Kraft cut him down and rushed him to the Aspen hospital.
When Wilson was discharged from the hospital, Kraft offered to share a hotel room with Wilson, to keep an eye on him. Wilson told Kraft that his company would pick up the tab for the hotel the rest of the month. The Pitkin County Sheriff's Office got involved because the hotel bill had not been paid. Kraft said he was eventually stuck with the bill.
Wilson arrived in Eagle County from New Mexico, driving the allegedly stolen Excursion. During May of this year, Wilson spent enough time hanging around the car lot that the employees got to know him. Rich Ford finance manager Braden Ebbesen said Wilson picked a day when he wasn't around, wrote a hot check for the Excursion and drove away. Rich Ford's insurance company covered the loss, Ebbesen said.
"He showed up on the right day with the right story. The law is completely flawed that he could be driving that thing," Ebbesen said.
Ruby of the River Ranch
Wilson also got the Ruby of the River Ranch in his crosshairs, a small resort on the Colorado River in Silt.
Wilson called the owners in early June, saying he was interested in buying their property and that he'd see them the next day. He said he was driving from Pocotello, Idaho, the owners said.
That day turned into two days when he told them he had been mugged and taken to the hospital in Salt Lake City. When he finally showed up, he said he didn't have any identification because the robbers stole everything.
He told them he had reserved a room at the Holiday Inn in Silt and asked the resort owners if they could hold the room until his secretary sent new credit cards in a day or two. He also convinced the owners to loan him some cash, they said.
Wilson hired a prominent Glenwood Springs attorney and an established Basalt realtor to close the deal, the owners said.
"We were strongly encouraged to sign the full price offer we received," they said.
Their attorney told them not to sign any contract until they could verify that Wilson and his acquisition company were who they claimed to be.
After two weeks and no documentation, the owners kept going back to the Holiday Inn Express as their suspicions and the hotel bill both grew. Finally, they told the Holiday Inn managers to call the police and check on his Ford Excursion because it had no license plates. They also told the hotel managers to take their credit card off the account until Wilson gave them his own.
The next day, day 12, the Excursion was gone and so was Wilson. He had told the hotel desk clerk that he had to go to the hospital, but would be back.
This tale ends happily enough. The resort owners disputed the charges after they were stuck with the tab for Wilson's entire two-week stay. The charges were reversed, and they never heard from Wilson again.
A son done wrong
Wilson's son, Clay Wilson, lives in the Denver metro area and is outspoken about his disdain for his father, calling him "a cowardly psychopath who has dragged my name, my credit and my ability to function down to the depths of hell."
He said he hasn't talked to Thomas since last October. He said he's trying to resurrect his relationship with his mother, who tried to warn him about his father. Clay was going to college in the Denver metro area when Thomas showed up and asked to stay for a few days, Clay said. A few days turned into a few weeks and a few months.
Clay said Thomas opened checking accounts around Denver using his son's Social Security number, then wrote hot checks all over town. Clay was evicted from his apartment, lost his truck and even his dog.
Thomas put both his dog and Clay's dog in a kennel, then disappeared without paying the bill, Clay said. Eventually, the kennel turned the dog over to an animal shelter.
"He did the one thing I thought no parent could ever do. He used me," Clay said. "I lost everything because I trusted him. I am rebuilding my life. He's nothing more than a sociopath. It's heartbreaking for me to say that, but nothing he can do will surprise me."
New Mexico mess
An Albuquerque Journal story outlines one of Wilson's operations. He's accused of intercepting $1.3 million in an ill-fated New Mexico land deal, and spending most of it. A judge ordered Wilson to turn the money over to the court, but only $300,000 was left.
Wilson's attorneys told the Journal he was entitled to the money.
By the time he was ordered to return the money, Wilson had bought a new SUV, fishing equipment, made home repairs and paid lawyer fees and old debts.
When he missed a court appearance, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Nine days later, Wilson filed for bankruptcy.
His New Mexico bankruptcy attorney, Bill Davis, said he hasn't had contact with Wilson in five years.
Patricia Owens, the managing partner of the New Mexico project, was the biggest victim of that particular deal. She said she tried unsuccessfully to get law enforcement to investigate the New Mexico case, but police told her it was a civil matter.
"This is the most egregious act of fraud, deceit, concealment and thievery imaginable," Owens said in a complaint filed with police. "The halls of justice should be a cruel walk."
A hearing was set for May 29, but Wilson didn't appear. His lawyer Laurence Guggino, told the judge that Wilson was at the Heart Hospital in Albuquerque with chest pain, pain down his left arm and shortness of breath.
Wooed and wounded
Sally Chickering is one of Wilson's three ex-wives. The 60-year-old nurse lives in South Carolina and court documents say Wilson stole her life savings.
The two were married in 2009. In 2011 she uncovered a box of documents outlining some of the frauds Wilson had pulled, and she moved out. By that time, though, Wilson had drained her bank account in Charleston, S.C., court records show.
On April 11, South Carolina's 9th Circuit Court Judge Wayne Creech ordered Wilson to repay that money, plus penalties and legal costs.
So far, Chickering has not received a dime. When it came time for him to explain his web of lies at their divorce trial, Wilson failed to appear, according to Chickering's divorce ruling from Judge William Creech.
Real estate scams date back to at least 1997 when the New York District Court held him in contempt for lying and stonewalling when he was sued for bilking investors in a fraudulent real estate venture that a federal district court judge called a "shabby saga."
Wilson is described by his victims as tall and heavy in the middle. He is 59 years old, dark wavy hair with a touch of gray and no facial hair. He has a dark birthmark on his lower cheek. Chickering claims his IQ is off the charts.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.