By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
TYLER--In one corner of a disheveled hotel room off Interstate 20 sits the computer that Al Petty uses as he frantically tries to work himself out of a monumental mess, one that could send him away to prison for 1,200 years for money laundering and fraud.
In another corner is the musical instrument that he says got him there. It's a numbingly complex, Rube Goldbergian contraption comprising a keyboard, 24 strings, 21 pedals, a slew of levers and a chrome emblem that reads, "Guitorchestra."
He played the Guitorchestra on television on the once-popular PTL Club and for local crowds in Tyler. He also recorded religious albums accompanied solely by his Guitorchestra. Petty says he spent a personal fortune and seven years of his life developing the instrument, which flopped, partly because it sounds similar to a much simpler synthesizer, and partly because it's so damned complicated that only Petty knows how to play it. He made just two, sold none.
Petty, who achieved some fame as a steel-guitar player when he was young, will tell you that the Guitorchestra is a brilliant and revolutionary invention that can realistically reproduce the sounds of hundreds of instruments. No, the flaw that doomed the Guitorchestra is not with it or Al Petty. It's with the world.
"It's far ahead of anything else. I mean, nothing is even close to it," he says. "It's too complex."
Broke and resigned to leaving his Guitorchestra tinkering behind, in 1993 Petty turned his mental powers to the world of finance. He launched numerous moneymaking schemes that caught the attention of the Tyler-area Better Business Bureau but usually didn't cause much commotion. After six years of trying different ideas, and still broke, he came up with what he believes is a revolutionary moneymaking plan that's as hard to understand as the Guitorchestra is to play.
Petty, who sees himself as a master of technology, marketing and just about anything he puts his mind to, made himself president of "TeleCom2000," which he described as a telephone marketing network that offered investment opportunities to members. He promised fast investment returns so huge that he immediately struck a nerve with the greedy, the hopeful and the hopelessly naïve, the kind who seem anxious to lose money on a long-shot horse with a catchy name. Word of TeleCom2000 spread fast, and money poured in.
After trying so hard for all those years to mesh with the rest of the world, Petty seemed to have finally found just the right formula.
Unfortunately for him, the world--or rather that small part of it known by the initials FBI--viewed his formula differently. The feds called TeleCom2000 a pyramid scheme, hence the 12 centuries of prison time staring Petty in the face.
Petty was broke and still living in a mobile home parked on a dirt lot in Overton when TeleCom2000 hit the jackpot in 2001. Soon, he had commissioned a $350,000 house to be customized with religious scenes. Plans called for an elaborate call-monitoring center in the house, one that would service thousands of TeleCom2000 investors.
Petty was doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to investors. His mobile home was filled with, he believed, adoring, mostly single women hired at top dollar to process the cashier's checks that were arriving at his doorstep by the handfuls.
But things weren't what they seemed.
The telephone service that TeleCom2000 claimed to sell was real enough. But the company that sold the phones and offered long-distance services to investors was entirely separate from Petty and TeleCom2000. The company, WorldTeq, took phone service orders from Petty by fax and billed members of TeleCom2000's network itself.
The rest of TeleCom2000, the enticing part that promised a $26,097 return for an initial $5,699 investment in just five months, did not exist except in Petty's mind and on his elaborate payout and profit charts. TeleCom2000 was set up so that a growing base of investors was financing those who came before. The minute the droves of investors stopped, TeleCom2000's Niagara-like cash flow would stop, too.
Petty had created a voracious beast fed from the top down. It was dressed up to look like a telephone network with real phones for sale, but at heart was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme.
Soon, Petty's passionately devoted investors who had prayed with him, the office workers who fawned over him and even his own brother would betray him. He would lose everything, including his luxurious new $132,000 Mercedes with a push-button starter.
Inside Room 317 of the Lindale Hampton Inn, Petty wears jeans and a cowboy-style silver belt buckle, a bad curly toupee, tinted glasses and a garish purple sort of tie-dyed T-shirt covered by a big angel on the front. He appears tired as he works feverishly on a document he wants to give the federal judge who presided over his trial.
With his deep voice, sad, bloodshot eyes and mostly warm manner characterized by seemingly genuine references to God, he says he never, "ever, ever, ever, ever, intended to hurt anyone, nor did I ever hurt anyone. Never. Never."
He would never concede that he is a crook or anything close to it, although federal officials say TeleCom2000 was the most far-reaching and productive moneymaking scheme in the history of the federal courts in the Eastern District of Texas. The government is still searching for between $5 million and $6 million it says is possibly in an offshore bank account.