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Park investor testifies in Etheredge trial

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Jan. 23, 2010, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, at 10:22 p.m.

Thomas Etheredge's jail-house conversion and past business experience were key reasons why Rob and Angel Dillard invested $300,000 in Etheredge's failed Wild World West theme park.

Angel Dillard made that clear during her testimony Friday in Etheredge's securities fraud trial in Sedgwick County District Court.

"My husband and I know the value of a redeeming experience," she said. "We trusted him. We thought we had a friendship with him. We trusted his reputation."

Dillard said she based much of what she knew about Etheredge from a copy of a book —"Real Men, Real Faith" — that he gave her shortly after it was published in 2004.

In his chapter in the book, Etheredge described himself as having the "Midas touch" with numerous successful business ventures, that he was "wheeling and dealing Texas style" by the time he was 21. He said that he had a religious conversion while serving three years in a Texas prison in the late 1980s.

He also claimed in the book that he was innocent of charges that put him prison and pleaded no contest "simply because I had no more money and no more will to fight."

Those claims, plus conversations with Etheredge that supported what he wrote in the book and his successful Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper in Benton, convinced the Dillards to give Etheredge the money.

But after nine counts of securities fraud were brought against him, the Dillards learned more about his background:

Etheredge had a previous jailhouse conversion after bouncing a check in Texas in 1979. His prison sentence in the 1980s came after being found guilty by a Wyandotte County judge of securities fraud. Many of his business dealings were flops. He owed more than $260,000 in federal and state income taxes.

"He misrepresented himself," Angel Dillard said. "(Knowing about the unpaid taxes) would have shown his head was already below water."

"Would you have wanted to know... if he had a prior claimed religious experience?" asked Kansas Securities Commissioner Chris Biggs, who is a co-prosecutor in the case.

"Yes, I would," she said. "When you accept Christ into your life, it's a one-time thing. You don't do it every time you get in trouble."

During her testimony, Etheredge's ex-wife, Debbie Thomas, also painted a different picture of Etheredge than the one in the book. She and Etheredge were married when she was 18 and he was 21, then divorced 13 years later.

When Biggs asked about her reaction to his chapter in the book, Thomas said, "That Tom was always good with words. Nice story, but not many facts in the story as far as I knew.

"When he was 21, we didn't have anything."

She also said he served as a Baptist pastor at two small Texas churches, worked as a welder and saw several businesses flop. One was the Bethany Trust, which resulted in his 1980s prison sentence.

Thomas recalled Etheredge's religious experience while in prison for the bad check.

"He promised me he would change, that he had gotten on his knees before God, that he had given his life back to God," Thomas said.

The Dillards gave Etheredge $200,000 in July 2006 for Wild West World to help him meet construction overrun costs. Angel Dillard said Etheredge gave them information that showed the theme park would do well.

"There was a small likelihood of failure of the business," she said.

Etheredge came back to them for more money. The Dillards gave him another $100,000 in late December 2006.

Angel Dillard said she was reluctant to give Etheredge the $100,000 but did so to help protect their original investment.

In cross-examination, defense lawyer Steve Joseph challenged Angel Dillard for not doing more to check on Etheredge's background.

"Don't you think you as an investor had some obligation on your own to do some kind investigation of his background instead of just saying, 'OK, God wanted us to do this?' " Joseph asked.

He also noted that in the copy of the book that she brought to the court she had written, "All lies, lies, lies, never had, lie, lie," in the margin of Etheredge's chapter.

"You know those are lies because someone from (the) Kansas Securities (Commissioner's Office) told you," Joseph said.

"Yes," Dillard replied.

"You have no other personal knowledge," Joseph said.

"I don't have personal knowledge about the Titanic sinking," she said, "but it did."

"We're not talking about the Titanic sinking here today, are we?" Joseph responded.

The theme park stayed open only two months before closing in July 2007 and filing for bankruptcy. Etheredge is in Sedgwick County jail on a $1 million bond.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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