It took Robert Hodges eight years to find Wendell Spell and get back the $17,000 he was owed.
Now a lot of other people are looking for Spell, with considerably more money on the line.
Spell, the 50-year-old owner of North Georgia Equipment Sales, hasn’t been heard from for a week, and authorities are investigating him for a suspected Ponzi scheme that may have bilked area investors out of millions. As the FBI confirmed it is involved in the case, Spell’s father said he doesn’t know where his son is, and he’s worried for him.
It wouldn’t be the first time Spell skipped town.
Hodges, a retired small-business owner in Virginia Beach, Va., said in 1996 Spell defrauded about a dozen people there, including him, before vanishing without a trace. He said he loaned Spell money after Spell sold him two dump trucks for his son’s business. Others were taken in by Spell’s seeming trustworthiness and devout ways, he said.
"He was a Bible-thumper and used that as his prop," Hodges said. "He would say, ‘Can we pray together before we leave?’ That was one of his ploys. Most people think if you’re religious, you can trust them more.
"He was just a slick-tongued devil who would wave that Bible in front of you," Hodges said.
Authorities are saying little about the investigation into Spell, whose whereabouts are unknown. One possible victim told The Times this week that Spell convinced investors to give him money for a plan to sell heavy equipment in Dubai, a fast-growing emirate of the United Arab Emirates. Some people received returns on their investments, according to the source, who requested anonymity.
But several victims are believed to have been taken for more than $1 million.
Steve Emmett, a spokesman for the FBI, would not comment on details of the investigation, other than to say "we are looking into the matter."
Spell’s father, William Spell, said Tuesday that he had not heard from his son or Wendell Spell’s wife Pamela. The couple have two grown daughters and a grown son, he said.
"I haven’t heard from anybody," William Spell said by phone from Virginia Beach. He said he was worried. "I’ve been praying for him every night."
Some, including Hodges, have speculated that Spell may have fled the country, but his father said he "doubted it."
"I don’t ever remember him leaving the country before," Hodges said. "He wasn’t really fond of flying."
No one answered an intercom Tuesday outside the gates of the Spell’s ranch on Holly Springs Road in Clermont. The property, listed in Pamela Spell’s name, has a fair market value of just more than $1 million, according to public records. Wendell Spell has no property listed in his name in Hall County, though a Railroad Avenue property in Clermont valued at $115,000 is also in Pamela Spell’s name. Hodges said he has a lien on the property for interest he never was paid.
In 1997, Spell was convicted in a Virginia court of taking money on false pretenses and given eight years on probation, according to court records.
Hodges said about 10 victims hired an attorney to try to collect their money. One farmer was taken for $100,000, he said. But they couldn’t find Spell.
Hodges said he finally tracked Spell down in 2004 and sent him a registered letter reminding him of the default judgment he won against Spell in a Virginia court for $17,650.
"He was shocked that I found him," Hodges said. "He did not want me to disclose to anyone where he lived."
Hodges said he and Spell made a confidentiality agreement, with Hodges getting the money he was owed in exchange for a promise not to reveal Spell’s new address to his old business associates.
Spell knew creditors were looking for him, Hodges said. He also may not have wanted people in Hall County to know about his past, Hodges said.
"I guess his scam wouldn’t work there if they found out what he already done here," Hodges said.
The scope of the current alleged scheme seems much larger. As of Tuesday, more than 20 people from Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and elsewhere had posted comments on an Internet discussion board about the business, including one Gainesville resident who used the name "Swindled by Wendell."
Wrote another person, referring to Spell’s criminal record, "how did we miss this?"