There was never a question about Tom Petters being a good salesman.
Dashing, handsome and self-confident, Petters spent 40 years building a Minnesota business empire before it crashed ingloriously in a federal courtroom in St. Paul in 2009.
Today he’s selling his own story instead of consumer electronic goods.
In more than three dozen e-mail exchanges with the Star Tribune over the past two years, Petters says he is resigned to a fate that has him in his seventh year of a 50-year sentence, within the walls of a federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., as the ringleader of the largest financial fraud in Minnesota history.
He is at times remorseful, other times defiant. He bristles at the lighter sentences some of his co-defendants received and chafes at what he considers the government’s attempts to besmirch him in the court of public opinion.
“I am just very upset by the way it all happened and came down. It all seems so wrong. [I] can’t come to terms with it all,” Petters wrote in a July e-mail. “I worked really, really hard to build some wonderful companies that would help people’s lives improve and prosper. That was one of the things that motivated me from my inner being, and it [is] so bad the way it all ended up. It is a horrible tragedy.”
Petters was once on his way to becoming a mighty force in the Minnesota business community. In his prime, his portfolio included Polaroid, a chain of retail outlet stores, the catalog company Fingerhut, a magazine publishing venture and Sun Country Airlines.
But underneath the veneer of success was an underpinning of deception and deceit. Ultimately, Petters was one of 13 individuals who were convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in a $3.65 billion fraud scheme that went on for more than a decade under the auspices of the Petters company called PCI.
Petters declined to be interviewed in person last month after agreeing in August to a face-to-face meeting with the Star Tribune. His change of heart came on the advice of his legal team, including an organization known as 1821 Consulting Services that provides post-conviction assistance to inmates.
But his swagger and charm are evident in the e-mails, which were short and to the point at times, other times long and detailed, chasing minute details of the government’s case against him.
One thing that rankles him, for example, is the idea that he’s a gambling addict with $10 million in losses. The gambling assertion, which the government raised early in its investigation, was never proven.
Petters says it isn’t true. The last time he was in Las Vegas, he said, he drew $6,000 on a line of credit at the Bellagio.
“I have NEVER been a big gambler,” he wrote. “I have too much attention deficit to play cards or anything like that. I have never gambled anywhere even close to $100,000 or $1 million, much less $10 million.”
Access to a computer in prison has not been a problem for Petters. His correspondence with the Star Tribune was sent at all hours of the day, all days of the week, although most were transmitted late in the evening or early in the morning. Some were as edited as an English paper, while others were full of informal sentence constructions and capital letters to emphasize his points.
“I am constantly pegged as ‘TOM PETTERS THE MASTER MIND,’ ” he wrote in August 2014. “It seems it’s never anyone else’s fault simply mine other than a mention of co-defendants.”
Timothy Rank, assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the white-collar section in the Minnesota office, said Petters continues to try to deflect responsibility.
“Tom Petters spent more than 15 years lying to thousands of people and stealing billions of dollars. His strategy at trial was to shift blame to others — a defense that was soundly rejected by the jury’s verdict,” Rank said. “Tom Petters bears responsibility for the harm he visited on thousands of victims, and his continued effort to blame others for his crimes, while predictable, is an affront to the people he harmed.”
Darin and Kris Tosse used $210,000 of equity in their Minnesota home to invest with Petters in 2005. They ultimately lost $76,000.
“It was devastating,” said Darin Tosse, an applications architect in the information technology industry. “We built our retirement home in Lakeville and ended up selling that and moving to Rochester where it’s less expensive.”
Hank Shea, a former federal prosecutor now teaching law students at the University of St. Thomas and at the University of Arizona, is not surprised that Petters is concerned about his image.
“He’s a classic example of egotism run amok,” Shea said. “What he should be doing is writing letters of regret and asking for forgiveness.”
Petters said he is still concerned about the losses suffered by innocent investors and expressed a willingness to work with bankruptcy trustee Doug Kelley to locate and recover funds to help cover those losses.
He also expresses concern about the impact his case has had on his family — a grown daughter, two young sons whose mother was his fiancée at the time of his arrest and siblings who attended every day of his trial.
“I cannot tell you how much they all really matter to me,” he wrote just before last Christmas. “They have suffered a great deal through many painful media articles that have vilified me and my case, especially early on in this ordeal.”
The Star Tribune was unable to reach his family. But Jon Hopeman, Petters’ lead defense attorney in the 2009 trial that led to his conviction, said Petters was largely an upbeat person except when “emotionally labile,” or unstable, as far as family issues.
“His two little boys would make him well up. That’s what concerned him the most. It also bothered him a great deal that he put his parents through this,” Hopeman said in an interview.
Petters still believes the financial disaster that befell him could have been avoided if he had been given enough time to work out a blockbuster deal involving Polaroid, a vital part of the Petters business empire.
A key event was the 2004 death of his son. Petters contends he was overwhelmed with grief and fell out of the loop during the fraud.
“I made a huge error,” Petters wrote. “After John was killed, I was a wreck for several years and I tried to put on a public face that I was OK and told everyone publicly that John would have wanted me to go on and that it was fine. IT WAS AN ABSOLUTE LIE. My heart was broken. ”