MEEKER — Nearly three years have passed since Merl William "Bill” Hickman Sr. was sent to federal prison for conning 149 investors out of more than $8 million through a bogus investment scheme.
Since then many of his victims — among them his closest friends and church members — have been forced out of retirement to survive financially, gone into seclusion from embarrassment and lost faith in their fellow man.
Others, like Winnie Bond, 82, of Tecumseh, found refuge in their Christian faith and a greater clarity for what's truly important in this life.
That seems to be the one thing Hickman didn't steal from his investors.
"God has always been there for me,” Bond told The Oklahoman
recently. "So I don't worry.”
No one could blame Bond if she did.
Bond invested her life savings of $132,000 with Hickman, who lured clients into a classic Ponzi scheme by promising sensational interest returns of 15 and 20 percent through the purchase of viaticals. Hickman actually made good on his promise with numerous investors for several years, using their respected names in their communities to endorse his illegal venture.
An anonymous tip to the state Securities Department eventually exposed Hickman's investment operation as a sham. State investigators later revealed Hickman had siphoned more than $5.4 million of the invested money for his own personal use, spending much of his money on gaudy jewelry, houseboats, and lavish Las Vegas vacations.
Hickman's ensuing arrest left investors stunned, ashamed and, in some cases, penniless.
"For several years I got a nice monthly check,” Bond said. "At the end, I was getting as much as $1,500 a month. Then it all stopped. The checks stopped coming.”
What Bond thought was interest from her investment proved to be the stolen money from other investors. Today, Bond lives off a monthly $709 Social Security check and downplays her financial loss by saying, "I'm sure I got most of my money back” or "I'm sure others are worse off than me.”
Yet her life savings are gone, and with it the security of knowing she has money in case of an emergency. There are other losses, too.
"One thing that bothers me is I don't have money any longer to buy Christmas presents for the kids,” Bond said. "I can't afford that any more.”
Still, Bond harbors no anger toward Hickman or his family. Hickman, now 59, is serving an eight-year federal sentence at the Oklahoma City Federal Transfer Center. The prison is also home for now to Merl William Hickman Jr., who received a five-year federal sentence for his role in the Ponzi scheme.
Hickman Sr. also has a 160-year state prison sentence awaiting him once he is released from federal prison in 2011.
"I think he got what he deserved, but I don't wish him any ill,” Bond said of the elder Hickman. "He's lost his wife and family. He's hurt himself and his family far more than any of us.”
‘We were in disbelief'
LaVonne Devereaux can't shake the memory of the day she learned Bill Hickman was under investigation for running a Ponzi scheme.
"We were in disbelief,” Devereaux recalled. "It was as if someone had thrown cold water on our face.”
Devereaux and her husband, Jake, were among Hickman's earliest investors. The Prague couple invested more than $68,500 in December of 1998 from Jake's 401K — the fruit of 35 years of hard work with Canadian Valley Electric. Almost immediately the couple began seeing substantial returns on their investment.
"One year we purchased a car,” LaVonne said. "Another time we drew on our interest early to buy a fishing boat. We were told we could withdraw our money at any time. So we did.”
As time elapsed, the Devereauxs invested an additional $100,500.
Now they live with a guilt no one can remove.
"What I feel bad about is this fool sent people to us, saying, ‘Well, call Jake and LaVonne. They can tell you how their investment is going,' ” LaVonne said. "These were our friends and neighbors. Now we never went around talking about our investment, but whenever people would ask, we always told them the same thing: ‘We're pleased with our returns.'
"That's what hurt us so bad.”
James and Kim Adams of Muskogee suffered the misfortune of being on the opposite end of the pyramid scheme.
James Adams, 54, retired as a mechanic with Oklahoma Gas and Electric after 30 years and rolled over his nearly $400,000 retirement savings into The Hickman Agency Inc. along with other fellow company retirees. He signed the money over to Hickman on Nov. 28, 2003 — 19 days before the state Securities Department closed Hickman's agency.
"Our money was still sitting in Hickman's account when they shut him down,” said Kym Adams in a voice marked by frustration. "But we were told we couldn't touch it. I still don't understand why.
"My husband still doesn't like to talk about it.”
The Adamses filed a lawsuit against Hickman's agency in Pottawatomie County in September 2004. The lawsuit was dismissed five months later.
Plans changed forever
Instead of enjoying retirement and working on a part-time basis as he pleased, James returned to work full-time driving a truck for an oil company in order to pay bills and replenish the family's savings. They sold 75 acres and a tractor, refinanced their home and found solace in their faith.
"We were blessed,” said Kim Adams, 51. "We had things to sell, unlike many of Hickman's investors.”
Oklahoma City attorney Stephan Moriarty met numerous such investors.