Denny Hecker coverage

They're so ready for 'life after Denny'

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2011 - 9:27 PM

As the fallen auto mogul is sentenced Friday, his victims, friends, family and defenders deal with aftermath of fraud.

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Chris Webb, still owed money by Denny Hecker for auto repairs, thinks more jail time is deserved.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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They have waited for this day -- when "life after Denny" begins.

So many have felt the betrayal of Denny Hecker, the fallen auto mogul turned confessed criminal. Hecker will learn Friday how long he will serve in federal prison. He faces up to 10 years. For those who once trusted him and even defended him -- from bankers to employees to vendors -- it's a reckoning that couldn't come soon enough.

Chris Webb is among those who have anxiously waited for this day. Hecker never paid Webb's Complete Auto Service in Blaine for $13,000 in auto repairs. Webb and his wife, Kim, are still paying off the cost of the parts.

"It looks like Hecker is finally getting his," said Webb, who wishes Hecker could get an even harsher penalty. Hecker took "millions of dollars from businesses and affected so many jobs, and yet he only [faces] 10 years. I would think that 20 years would not be enough."

Nearly 3,000 former Hecker employees still struggle after abruptly losing their income and health insurance in 2008 and 2009 -- in the teeth of the Great Recession -- as Hecker shut or lost 26 auto dealerships. Chrysler Financial is out $280 million, making it the biggest financial victim.

Hecker has pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal fraud in connection with a scheme to obtain loans from the big auto lender with forged documents. But countless employees, bankers, lawyers, body shop owners, vendors, dealers and friends say they, too, are out thousands or millions of dollars. Hecker defaulted on payroll and loans, ignored bills and hit up buddies for cash that would never be repaid. Dozens of customers were left with double car payments after their loans on trade-ins went unsettled. Others never got their vehicle titles. Some workers turned to food stamps. Others got loans. Many got other jobs. More than one attempted suicide.

At least one man is dead. Hecker's former father-in-law Bill Prohofsky shot himself in the head and died nearly one year ago after being sued for helping Hecker hide $81,000 from the bankruptcy court and for helping Hecker raid $75,750 from his children's trust funds.

Children traumatized

But of all the victims, perhaps none have been harder hit than Hecker's two minor children.

"They are huge victims," said Tamitha Hecker, Denny's fourth wife, who divorced him 14 months ago. "He never has paid their medical insurance or child support. I have never gotten a dime.''

What she has gotten is drama. There was the June 17, 2009, raid, when FBI and state agents burst into her home, searching for evidence that Hecker may have diverted auto sales taxes, kept customers' title fees and pushed through unwanted warranties.

"There were 30 agents in my home. They woke my children up in their bedrooms with guns," Tamitha said. "My daughter is getting dressed, and the guy is standing there in the room with a gun. Another is screaming at my son saying, 'Put your pants on,' because my son is standing there in his boxer shorts. This was crazy. Denny didn't even live in the house. By then, all his things were gone."

Tamitha's attorney, Becky Toevs Rooney, said counselors and officials at the children's school have been kind. But "it's been tough. This has been very traumatic."

Tamitha has taken the children to visit their father in the Sherburne County jail, where he has been detained since October while awaiting sentencing to federal prison. But the children have been able to talk to their dad only through a video monitor. "It's kind of weird," said Tamitha, who for now is working in a consignment store, the first job she's held since she was 16 years old.

Hecker calls constantly from his jail cell, she said. And she's still figuring out how to pay for "hundreds of thousands of legal bills" she incurred after hiring four lawyers: experts in tax, divorce, bankruptcy and criminal law. While the bankruptcy judge let her keep the $260,000 she stuffed away in a safe deposit box over 20 years, it's not enough. "All I can do is work, try and be positive, take it one step at a time and be there for my kids," Tamitha Hecker said. "People judge us because of some of the things that Denny has done. It's sad. We really didn't know" about his fraud.

Dave Peterson is determined to get on with life, too. But first he and some friends will be in court Friday to watch Hecker get what he deserves. Hecker cheated him out of $380,000, he said. Peterson sold his Monticello car dealership and surrounding land to Hecker six years ago. He got the bulk of the money up front, but Hecker agreed to pay him the last $750,000 over five years. Payments arrived each month for a year. Then, Peterson said, "Denny reneged. ... And I spent $100,000 chasing him in court."

After his lawsuit, strange things started happening. Peterson's house was broken into. His trash was picked through. Every week. At both of his houses. Peterson hired a private eye and stuck with his lawsuit. But on March 11, 2006, a man approached Peterson during an auto show cocktail party at the Minneapolis Convention Center. He told Peterson that if he didn't quit bothering Hecker, "you will be dead before the end of 2006," and walked back in the crowd.

Peterson, who was with his family, filed a police report and soon dropped the lawsuit. But he never forgot it. "Denny Hecker is truly a believer of the 'zero-sum scenario,' meaning that if he does not win, no one wins,'' Peterson said. "He spent hundreds of thousands to make sure that I got nothing in the end from my lawsuit against him.''

Peterson added: "This judge has to understand that I have scheduled my vacation around this court date."

'Very complex man'

While Hecker's prison sentence satisfies some, it perplexes others.

Wayne Belisle is still trying to understand "the very complex man" whom he once called a friend. Belisle invested in Hecker's defunct Advantage Rent-A-Car and is still owed $3 million. "It's changed my life," he said.

Belisle, who co-owns four Champps Restaurants, admits Hecker "had a big heart.''

"I have seen him over the years worry about some child being adopted and cry like a baby about it. He was very generous to people who were in need," Belisle said. But Hecker had a dark side, too. "I am not surprised he is where he is. And I am not surprised about the things he is in trouble for," Belisle said. "There are those people who have to play on the edge, and he is one of them. There was always the right way or the Hecker way. And with him, it was always the Hecker way.''

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

  • about this series

  • More than two years of coverage tells the story of Denny Hecker, 58, and his journey from well-known Minnesota auto magnate to convicted felon currently serving a 10-year federal sentence.
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