Death Merchant

In 1979, Walter Waldhauser Jr. arranged the murder of a Houston family. Today, he has a new name and a new business in Dallas,but he still profits when people die.

Bonds contacted the homicide division of the Dallas Police Department. A detective there was sympathetic, but told Bonds what he already knew: Without any evidence of a crime, there was little he could do.

"The problem is that homicide is reactive, not proactive," says Bonds. "They work from the body back. They don't go out looking for bodies."

Bonds decided his best option was to let potential customers of Southwest Viatical know exactly whom they'd be dealing with--and with that in mind, he tipped me to Waldhauser's new life, and suggested I check him out.

Which I did. Documents on file with the Texas Department of Insurance name Mike Davis as the vice president of Southwest Viatical. I told the department that Davis is actually Walter Waldhauser Jr., and that he played an integral role in killing four Houston residents, in part for their insurance money.

"Oh, my God," replied the spokesman.
Nor is Davis the only Southwest Viatical officer with a criminal history. State records list Hoyt Steven Wauhob as president and sole owner of Southwest Viatical. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, from January 1986 to August 1988, Wauhob served one year and eight months of a 20-year sentence; he'd been convicted of running a speed lab in Harris County. Wauhob spent a portion of that time at the prison system's Diagnostic Unit--the same facility where Waldhauser/Davis spent almost 10 years of confinement.

It's not clear how the pair found their way into the viatical industry. But viaticals' attractions to the twosome are obvious: The new industry, born in the mid-'80s, offered high potential profits and next to no bothersome government oversight.

Not until 1995 did the Texas Legislature place viaticals under the regulation of the state insurance department. But rather than regulate, what the department actually does is register viaticals. Each year, the state requires a viatical to renew its registration by paying a filing fee--but there's apparently no penalty if a viatical fails to register. According to a department spokesman, the only remedy available to the state is to seek a court order to have the company cease business--a remedy the state has yet to seek.

In 1995 and '96, Southwest Viatical registered itself. But according to insurance department records, there's no evidence that Southwest has registered with the state in either 1997 or 1998.

In its filings with the state, Southwest Viatical listed itself as a viatical broker--a company that matches someone wanting to sell a policy with a viatical settlement company, which actually buys the policy and collects the eventual benefits. But according to an industry source, Southwest has held itself out to be both a broker and a settlement company. And since Southwest hasn't registered with the state in the last two years, it's hard to say which side of the street the company has been working.

According to its state filings, during 1995, the company completed 59 viatical settlements through a Waco-based viatical settlement company, Life Partners Inc.--one of the largest viatical companies in the country.

Life Partners founder Brian Pardo confirmed that his company has done business with Southwest Viatical, but added that the companies' business relationship was discontinued after the retirement of Southwest's founder, Wes Crowder.

The industry source describes the viatical industry as a small world where there are few secrets. "The new management has a very bad credibility problem within the industry," says the source. "Part of the problem is that Wauhob has a real taste for the high life."

Wauhob and three other employees of Southwest Viatical did not respond to requests for an interview. It's not clear whether they knew of Davis' past.

As for the industry source, he was unfamiliar with Davis or the fact that he had been convicted of insurance-related murder.

"I don't think they would go around killing people," he said. "That would be a little too obvious."

Johnny Bonds, on the other hand, wasn't so sure.

Bonds checked with the people most likely to have had contact with Southwest Viatical: the Dallas AIDS community.

The HIV-positive come to AIDS Resource Center of Dallas for emotional support as well as health and financial information. Until recently, the center distributed Southwest Viatical's bright yellow brochure. Calling itself "Dallas' Largest and Oldest Viatical Company," Southwest encouraged the reader to get the straight dope on viaticals from its own Mike Davis.

Bonds contacted Craig Hess, the center's client-services program director. Hess, in turn, put me in touch with one of the center's volunteers, who asked not to be named. In exchange for $25,000 cash, the volunteer signed over his $100,000 life-insurance policy. And, he said, Southwest is currently paying the premiums of a second life-insurance policy that he also plans to sell to the company--"so don't put them out of business."

Asked how he found out about Southwest Viatical, the volunteer said he was referred through a client of the AIDS Resource Center who had also done business with the company. The volunteer refused to reveal the name of that client--who, he says, is now dead.

These days, Southwest Viatical is headquartered in the restored Paramount Building--also home to UPN television's Channel 21--in the West End. I recently stopped by without an appointment.

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