David W. Eckberg's debt in Stillwater's Lumberjack Days festival "was just a time bomb waiting to happen," an unpaid creditor said Friday after Eckberg was charged with 10 felonies.
The well-known promoter deposited more than $41,000 into personal bank accounts even as he was telling business vendors and a youth hockey booster club that he couldn't afford to pay money owed them, according to criminal charges filed in Washington County District Court.
Brian Mock, owner of Icabod Productions, said that made him even madder "than being screwed over, that there was a chance that we could have got our money." Mock, whose staging company is owed $20,000, said that he "still paid my guys. They did their work. I had to pay them out of my pocket."
The charges against Eckberg, 61, follow public complaints of unpaid bills and a year of investigation into Eckberg's finances. Five of the felony counts allege theft by check and five allege issuance of a dishonored check.
Several complaints of worthless checks filed with Stillwater police in October 2011 led to a City Council moratorium on summer festivals and the death of Lumberjack Days.
Criminal charges filed late Thursday allege that between late July and early November of last year, Eckberg deposited more than $41,000 from Lumberjack Days into his personal bank account and another held by his wife, Stacy A. Einck.
During this time Eckberg repeatedly told four creditors not to cash worthless checks despite having the money to cover them, the criminal complaint says.
Bad checks listed in the complaint totaled $54,859.
"This has been a careful, painstaking investigation that has required the issuance of multiple search warrants and the review of boxes and boxes of documents," said County Attorney Pete Orput, referring to work by the Washington County Sheriff's Office and Stillwater police.
"Frankly, the victims deserve more than the criminal justice system can provide them. However, my office will do all in its power to bring some amount of justice to the victims of Mr. Eckberg's duplicity in his business dealings."
Eckberg referred questions Friday to attorney Eric Thole.
"After a yearlong investigation that my client fully cooperated with, we've learned the case only involves four bad checks written in 2011," Thole said. "We look forward to explaining in court what went wrong with those checks.
"Dave never intended on this happening. Dave's intent in 2011 was to run a festival like he did successfully for the past 18 years. Unfortunately, the economy and Mother Nature had other ideas."
Under Eckberg's leadership, Lumberjack Days became one of the largest summer festivals in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, drawing tens of thousands of people to downtown Stillwater every July.
Each four-day festival featured road races, lumberjack demonstrations, a multi-hour parade and riverfront concerts by famous yesteryear bands such as the Guess Who, Paul Revere and the Raiders, REO Speedwagon and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
A massive fireworks show over the St. Croix River closed each festival.
But in recent years, claims of late and unpaid bills began to mount, and Stillwater's growing reputation as a party town offended many business owners and residents.
Eckberg has said that revenue from the 2011 Lumberjack Days fell sharply because of flooding and severe weather. However, his financial problems began years earlier -- even to the extent of owing public agencies for police and fire services.
"It makes a lot of people say future events need to be controlled differently from a financial perspective," said Vienette Olson, owner of Tradewinds Spice Co.
"The biggest question," she added, "is what's good for Stillwater? Just because the sidewalks are packed with people doesn't mean it's good for business."'
In June, Eckberg and Einck filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy to liquidate extensive debt. Much of the $1.4 million in business claims listed in court documents appeared related to Lumberjack Days. Money owed to secured creditors was valued at $888,000, most of it held in two mortgages on the $664,400 house Eckberg and Einck own in Baytown Township near Stillwater.
Their company, St. Croix Events Inc., has coordinated Lumberjack Days since 1994.
The charges say that alleged bounced checks were issued to Icabod Productions, Minnesota beer distributors Needham Distributing Co. and Hohensteins Inc., and Stillwater Blue Line Boosters, which raises money for youth hockey.
Hockey players unpaid
About 40 Stillwater Area High School hockey players invested about 600 hours working on a band stage in 2011 to earn money for uniforms and travel expenses, said Phil Housley, the boys' team coach.
"I thought I had a pretty good relationship with Dave," said Housley, a former National Hockey League player. "I guess the thing I was struggling with is those kids worked in extreme temperatures to get the job done and they weren't rewarded for their work."
When prosecutors met with Eckberg and his attorney on Oct. 17, Eckberg acknowledged that he had written checks for Lumberjack Days events in 2011 and the debts hadn't been paid, the complaint says.
Orput said the investigation took longer because he wanted to find out whether the allegations had a wider reach.
"If there was widespread theft or corruption, I'm confident my officers would have found it," he said. "I don't think they left any stones unturned."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles