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.”
Hickman served as a pallbearer at one friend's funeral. "He waited until the widow received her life insurance,” Moriarty explained. "He then convinced her to invest with him.”
On another occasion a woman reportedly received an insurance settlement after losing her son in a car accident. Hickman was again on hand to sign up the grieving mother.
"I hope he dies in prison,” Pottawatomie County District Attorney Richard Smotherman said firmly. "He hurt people and ruined lives on a massive scale.”
‘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 foreverInstead 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. Moriarty was charged with liquidating Hickman's property for reimbursement to his victims and meeting with them on a one-on-one basis to keep them abreast of the case. Distraught, angry and scared investors appeared in droves at Hickman's old Shawnee insurance office to talk with Moriarty on a daily basis. "Some days the waiting room would be full, like a doctor's office,” Moriarty recalled. "Then, at the end of the day, I'd have another 50 or 60 phone messages waiting for me from other investors. ... I still get flashbacks from some of the stories.” One telephone call stands out from the rest. "I took this one call from a very elderly woman who was just sobbing on the phone,” he remembered. "She had invested her life savings with Hickman and was worried she didn't have enough money to pay for rent or food. What could I tell her? "I'll never forget that call.” Stories of Hickman's victims have become legendary among Moriarty and his investors.
Were there any signs?Retired Meeker postal clerk June McMahan blames no one but herself for investing with Hickman. She just wishes she had seen the signs. "In retrospect, I think back to his office,” said McMahan, 78. "I should have known better. His office was spotless. No papers, just slick as a whistle. Now I know why. "He wasn't doing any real work.” McMahan lost more than $110,000 investing in Hickman's bogus scheme and, like every other victim, regrets not investigating his legal standing with the state Securities Department. If anyone had, they would have discovered Hickman wasn't licensed as an investor — only an insurance agent. "One phone call,” McMahan said. "I would encourage people to call everyone they know before making an investment with someone. And don't take anybody's word — although I don't blame my friends — but check with a state agency first.” For McMahan, the emotional sting is far greater than the financial one she absorbed. "I'm very embarrassed,” McMahan said. "I feel bad I invested with him without checking it out. Makes me feel bad for all those people who had less than me and invested. Makes me thankful for all I do have. I have a husband, a house and a livable monthly income coming in. Makes me infuriated this man would steal from all those people.” Investors like McMahan aren't the only ones who feel cheated by Hickman. Stephanie Hickman, Bill's youngest child, said she struggles daily with thoughts of her father's crimes. The 25-year-old mother of four still lives in Meeker and says she tries to make amends wherever she goes. She has found her road wrought with pain. "If I had known what was going on — if I only I had seen the signs — I would have done something to stop it,” Stephanie Hickman said when contacted at her home. "I love my father, but what he did was wrong and he should be in prison. I know there are people who probably won't believe me, but I really didn't know what was going on. "I was just 21 at the time my father was arrested. I guess I was just naive and into myself back then. I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me, but I want people to know I care. If only I had paid more attention or asked more questions ... something.” Stephanie Hickman has spent the past three years in deep reflection. "I felt like my Dad lied to me, too,” Stephanie said. "I still can't believe he did what he did. I mean, I've seen this man stop on a corner and help out homeless men. He did those kinds of things all the time. I told my sister, Angelia, I feel like we woke up in the Twilight Zone. "How did this happen?” In looking back, she, too, regrets not seeing the obvious signs. There was the disappearing "sparkle” in her father's eyes, his increased stress as the pressure mounted to find new investors, a safe stuffed with jewelry, the houseboats and the luxurious Las Vegas vacations. "We probably went to Las Vegas five times,” Stephanie said. "I wasn't old enough to gamble, so I never saw how much my father gambled. But the last time we went, I know we stayed in a high-roller's suite.” Compliments of the casino. These days she visits her father every few months at the prison, but they avoid the tough questions. "What's the point now?” Stephanie said. "I just know he works inside the prison. He tries to stay busy with the ministry. He told me he's willing to talk to anyone whom he hurt — no matter what they want to say to him — and that he is sorry for what he did.” Sarah Hickman, Stephanie's mother, does janitorial work and lives in a small trailer owned by her parents — folks who also invested in Bill Hickman's Ponzi scheme. Victims, meanwhile, harbor great doubt regarding Sarah's innocence. "She knew about it,” said the elderly Bond. "She's guilty. How could she not be?” Yet other victims prefer to dwell on their own self-healing. For McMahan, that meant writing a letter to Bill Hickman. The letter has sat sealed and addressed and untouched in her desk for a year. "I actually felt better after writing it,” McMahan said. "I don't know why I haven't sent it, but maybe I will soon.” McMahan paused and smiled, "I think I will.”
William Hickman Sr.
Did you know?
What is a Ponzi scheme?A Ponzi scheme is an illegal pyramid scheme that works on a "rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul” principle, where a bogus investment agent uses money from new investors to pay off earlier investors. Ponzi schemes are generally kept afloat by either new investors or current investors who are convinced to "reinvest” their earnings. Eventually, the whole scheme collapses with the most recent investors absorbing the greatest losses. Source: U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission