Fool's Gold

Our intrepid correspondent follows a scheming ex-con to Mexico in search of treasure. They find bupkus.

For years, the idea languished while he worked a variety of jobs: selling law books, even self-publishing a book on telemarketing. By 1997, Reeder thought the time was right to start up the business, a "network marketing practice."

He placed an ad in USA Today and sent out mass mailings all over the country, saying that he had a "resource management company" that would give two profit-sharing checks a month to every client. Those interested called an 800 number, learning that they would have to give a minimum of $450 to reap the rewards.

It wasn't long before tens, then hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into that company and others from clients across America, including Brooklyn, where Orthodox Jews eventually opened a Cornerstone office, and as far away as England. The money, soon reaching into the millions, afforded Reeder the chance to open a plush office space with 8,500 square feet and 30 employees.

Ouch! My neck hurts. But this gold will make it feel better.
Ouch! My neck hurts. But this gold will make it feel better.

Customers were told that they would garner extraordinary returns, 40 cents on the dollar in four months, while buying products--from golf putters to motor oil to coins to nutritional supplements--at enormously inflated prices. Profits, Reeder said, were generated by 26 other companies he claimed to own. Among them was American-General Motors, Inc., which consisted of six Corvettes that Reeder had bought with clients' money. Customizing the cars with gadgets from phones to fax machines, he concocted a fancy-sounding name--Baroniche--and planned on selling the Corvettes at $160,000, not their usual price of $45,000. Another "company" was American Fashion International. In advertising that company, Reeder, ever the salesman, showcased one of his wife's creations--a long skirt, cowboy hat, and boots--and said it was so stellar that it had "almost been featured" in the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.

With $300,000 of his clients' money, Reeder even wrote and produced his own play at Fort Worth's Scott Theatre about a do-gooder, Jamie Shakespeare, a character clearly styled after himself. Shakespeare 2000 was rightly panned in the local press, and remains little more than a two-hour, mind-numbing oddity with wretched choreography. "Why Reeder chose Jamie, arguably the wimpiest male name ever, is anybody's guess," wrote Star-Telegram reviewer Mark Lowry.

These days, Reeder says that he may never emotionally recover from the loss of Cornerstone, which in its last week alone raked in $2 million. But he hasn't given up his unusual pursuits.

Reeder, by virtue of being married to a woman whose father was Jewish, claims to be a Messianic Jew and sometimes goes by the biblical-sounding name of Gary Dean benKeith Reeder. (His father, after all, always told him not to think "puddle-minded.") Most Friday nights, he ushers in the Jewish Sabbath with an informal get-together at his home--the House of Reeder, as he calls it--that attracts mostly elderly clients who gave and lost their money in the Cornerstone debacle.

But the House of Reeder isn't just some makeshift congregation, he says. It's also his business. They are one and the same, and his business answers to a higher authority: God, not the SEC.

After several hours on the road, we arrived at the El Camino, a fleabag motel in the Mexican state of Sonora. Soon, we went to its restaurant. There, Kenneth, tensely fluttering his eyelids, said that he didn't like the idea of having a reporter tag along. Reeder produced the contract, the one that required me to keep silent about our location.

You never know, Reeder said. The SEC could botch his plans. But another condition arose during a lengthy negotiation. Kenneth insisted, absolutely insisted, that I not print his last name, that only his first and middle names, Kenneth Azuka, be disclosed.

The next day, our top-secret excursion to the mines began. Reeder and I took his Ford truck, and Kenneth, with Reeder's money, hired three Mexican men for the day to ride along in their old red truck as a backup. Bill and David rode with Kenneth in a rented car.

Along the way, Reeder spoke again of his past, the time in prison when he was determined to fast for 40 days, until--by the 35th day--the hunger proved too much, and he ate a Mrs. Baird's pastry.

"I always fail myself," he said. "For years, people have called me things that I didn't understand, like when I was young, they'd call me a genius, my friends. And I couldn't understand that. Just didn't make any sense to me. I hated school, made horrible grades, and still they called me a genius."

Now that we were far from the city, desert surrounded us, as did sand, cactus, shrubs, mountains. Driving along, I asked whether he saw gold out there.

"Gold?" he said. "That's just a small part of it. You know what gold is? It's glitter," he said, grinning and spreading his hands as if there were a marquee before him. "It's neon. It gets people excited."

In his plush, air-conditioned truck, Reeder drove slowly, especially after Kenneth's car got stuck in the sand and the two investors climbed in with us.

"How do you say 'cowboy' in Spanish?" asked Reeder. "Isn't it 'muchacho'?"

"No, I think it's 'caballero,'" said David.

As David whistled a Baptist tune, "Lighten the Corner Where You Are," Reeder told of his vision for a resort right here in this wasteland, a vision of golf courses, airports, tourists, a Mexican Vegas.

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