A year in the incarcerated life of Denny Hecker

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2011 - 4:45 PM

Today marks a year behind bars for fallen auto mogul Denny Hecker, who's doing time for financial shenanigans. He could be out by 2017.

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In this file photo, Denny Hecker walked outside the Hennepin County jail on April 2, 2010.

Photo: Tom Sweeney, Star Tribune

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Prison life for Denny Hecker hasn't exactly been breaking rocks. He enjoys daily walks around the well-manicured lawns of the minimum-security prison camp in Duluth.

In the evenings, he often plays cards -- usually Texas Hold 'Em -- with fellow inmates. He has taken up tennis and isn't living a solitary life.

"He is such a personable sort that he appears to make friends easily," said Brian Toder, his former defense attorney.

Friends and associates say the disgraced auto mogul is adjusting to life behind bars, which began one year ago Tuesday. Hecker, 59, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and bankruptcy charges and was sentenced in February to 10 years in prison. He could be released as early as 2017 if he earns good-behavior credit and completes a substance-abuse program.

It has been a remarkable fall from grace for the blustery, larger-than-life businessman, who once owned one of the state's largest auto dealer empires and was known for his extravagant lifestyle. As part of his prison routine, Hecker sweeps floors. He "looks quite fit," Toder said.

Aside from ongoing legal appeals, Hecker has turned his attention to simpler things. When Toder visited his former client recently, Hecker asked him to bring some quarters so he could hit up the vending machine. What did he purchase? Ice cream cones.

Hecker, who declined to comment for this article, is one of 920 male inmates at the minimum-security prison camp.

The prison grounds are well-maintained, featuring flowers and picnic tables. On weekends, children romp around the visitor center's playground.

"It's not like being in prison or jail at all,'' Toder said. "It doesn't have that kind of atmosphere. It's a camp. But there are a lot of rules."

Guards suspended Hecker's phone privileges for several weeks after he failed to follow prison protocol. (Details of the infraction were not disclosed.) After guards restored phone access this month, Hecker made a flurry of calls to old friends and attorneys.

Hecker was convicted of forging loan documents that netted $80 million and failing to report money and assets to the bankruptcy court.

In letters to judges earlier this year, Hecker said he was the victim of an overzealous bankruptcy trustee and an errant bankruptcy attorney. He also said his former lender, Chrysler Financial, was largely responsible for his business' failure.

Hecker's new wife, Christi Rowan (the two were married by phone while Hecker was jailed in February), is serving time in federal prison for bank fraud. She isn't expected to be released until February.

Asking for more

During the past year, Hecker has channeled his anger into court appeals. In June, he appealed a bankruptcy judge's ruling that split a $4.1 million consulting fee among Chrysler Financial, U.S. Bank, GELCO and the bankruptcy trustee last June. The ruling left Hecker with nothing; he wants 75 percent.

"It remains an important issue to Denny," said John Neve, Hecker's bankruptcy attorney. "We are hopeful. We think we have good grounds" to overturn the decision.

If Hecker's appeal fails, the trustee overseeing the liquidation of Hecker's assets will get another $2 million for creditors, bringing the total collected to just over $7 million.

"This case is as abnormal as you get," said Matthew Burton, the trustee attorney. "It's all been kind of an adventure."

After auctions, foreclosures and asset sales, Hecker still owes creditors more than $200 million.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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