In his yet-to-be-published book detailing some twenty years of business pratfalls, St. Louis entrepreneur Randy Wichman devotes a full chapter to his run-ins with the Amish. Like most lessons put forth in his memoir, the chapter carries a remarkably simple message: Be careful who you trust.
"The Amish are like everyone else," Wichman explains. "There are good Amish, and there are not-so-good Amish."
The not-so-good Amish -- at least in Wichman's mind -- are those who claim Wichman has conned them out of tens of thousands of dollars.
"They're slick people," Wichman warns. "They win your trust, but don't assume anything with these people."
Continuing to break down the subtext of the book, Wichman pokes nervously at a few errant specks of dust dotting his oak office desk. When he moved his company, SPC Playscapes, from a Town & Country strip mall to a cavernous St. Peters warehouse earlier this year, the first thing he did was install a corner office with several large windows.
Wichman confides that he loves to sit in his office and gaze out at parents unloading carloads of children in the parking lot. Invariably the youngsters head straight for the wooden playgrounds in front of SPC. This fills him with a great sense of pride because, he explains, the entire goal of his business is to bring families together.
On a blistering hot morning last month, the playgrounds sit empty, and the only car in the parking lot is Wichman's gold Jaguar XJ8. As the sun beats mercilessly onto the hood, beams of honeyed light reflect into the office where Wichman sits illuminated in a casual short-sleeve shirt and cotton slacks.
The 52-year-old Wichman has a soft, gentle voice that's prone to dissolve into whines, especially when he's on the defensive -- which is quite often. He wears his thinning reddish-white hair cut short and combed back tight. A scraggly salt-and-pepper goatee spills down his chin.
On the desk in front of him, a flat-panel computer monitor is opened to his company's new Web site, spcplayscapes.com. Another flat-panel monitor off to his side is tuned to FOX News. Behind him, a laptop displays what appears to be music-editing software.
Wichman likes to think of himself as both businessman and artist, which explains all of the distractions in his office. He needs stimulation to help develop his ideas, he says, and SPC Playscapes is an idea 30 years in the making.
The company might best be described as a luxury home-and-garden superstore. In a 25,000-square-foot building that once housed a skating rink, Wichman has on display all the trappings of the suburban good life. Brightly colored koi swim in an artificial pond outside the lobby. A set of custom-made jungle gyms make for a huge indoor playground. Scattered elsewhere are vintage video games, designer spas, hot tubs, vinyl-wrapped gazebos, even a $15,000 race-car simulator.
SPC Playscapes is the sixth such business Wichman has operated over the past five years; the others -- also specializing in home-and-garden products -- pulled up stakes just months after opening. A wake of lawsuits has come on the heels of the business closures, with creditors, landlords, vendors and clients claiming Wichman bilked them for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last fall the Town & Country police began investigating a complaint of "stealing by deceit," in which Wichman allegedly accepted a $40,000 deposit from a family for a home renovation that never materialized. The Missouri attorney general's office is also involved in that investigation, and confirms it has received six complaints against Wichman from January to May of this year. No criminal charges have been filed.
When confronted with his legal morass, Wichman's face turns ashen. He rises from his chair, closes the door to his office and, inexplicably, begins to discuss his literary endeavors.
"I'm writing a book about it," he begins. "It's one of the most incredible situations you can imagine. I've considered going to the press with it, but I thought it would be better to just write a book about the experience. When it comes out, people are going to learn a lot."
As with all the allegations that have befallen him over the years, Wichman insists the blame lies not with him. Over the past 18 years, records show, he's been sued 39 times in Missouri on complaints such as nonpayment, breach of contract, tax delinquency and unlawful detainer (when he refused to leave properties for which he had defaulted in rent). Still, for all the accusations, Wichman says he could have filed twice as many lawsuits against his accusers.
"A chapter in the book is about this exact thing," says Wichman. "Rotten people expect for you to fight. Just like in the animal world, it's the weak that makes predators attack. If someone does something to you and you back off, it makes them angry. They want to go after you more. But that's not my style. I don't go after people. I just pick myself up and move on."
His numerous critics say Wichman's view of himself is completely delusional. Like Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the film Catch Me If You Can, they say Wichman lives by the modus operandi: "Take the money and run."
In the past five years, Wichman has listed at least nine different home addresses, leading several lawsuits against him to be dropped when authorities could not locate him to serve a subpoena. (Wichman refuses to say where he resides currently.) Of the fifteen times a judge has ruled against him -- requiring that he pay plaintiffs more than $160,000 -- Wichman has rarely satisfied the judgments, leaving his many accusers with a legal victory but no financial award, according to court documents.
How, then, has Wichman carried on without any criminal repercussions?
That's the million-dollar question, say authorities. For all the suits and judgments against him in the civil courts, Wichman has managed to fly beneath the radar and, until now, steer clear of criminal investigators.
Jim Gardner, a spokesman for the Missouri Office of the Attorney General, would not comment on specifics of the Wichman investigation but laid out several examples of how an artful dodger might elude justice.
The scams, says Gardner, focus on people who have a general distrust of the government and are less likely to file a complaint or lawsuit. Creditors and clients are strung along with a steady diet of delays and excuses, while the perpetrator constantly moves business addresses and re-incorporates under different names.
In the past twenty years, Wichman has incorporated nine businesses in Missouri, all of them involved in home-and-landscape products. Of the more than half-dozen Amish with claims against Wichman, only one has filed a lawsuit.
So skilled is Wichman at his wily subterfuge that even some of his alleged victims say they've developed a grudging admiration for the man. Frustration has given way to fascination.
"In a perverted way I admire the guy," says John Weiss, who claims he lost about $7,000 to Wichman during the late 1990s. "The fact that he's been doing it this long shows intelligence, imagination, creativity and smarts. It's amazing, really."
"You ever see the movie Funny Farm?" asks Wichman, referring to the 1988 fish-out-of-water film starring Chevy Chase. "Here's this guy, his dream is to go with his wife and write this book in the country, and he comes across the nastiest, meanest, most unethical people in the world. I saw that movie and said to myself, 'Oh my gosh, this is my life!'"
To hear Wichman tell it, all of his business problems can be traced back to the late 1990s, when he decided to move 40 minutes west of St. Louis, to rural Franklin County.
"It was a snake pit of the worst corruption you can imagine," Wichman recalls. "I know it sounds like I'm the biggest screw-up ever. But if you really analyze it, it makes sense. It all comes back to this core group."
Top among those conspiring against him, claims Wichman, are John Weiss and his wife, Sarah. In November 1997 the couple hired Wichman to create a landscape plan for their 55-acre estate in Franklin County. The couple paid Wichman $7,000 upfront, with another $3,000 due once he finished their project.
For months Wichman postponed delivery of the plans. Among the many excuses he used for the delays were claims that he came down with the flu and developed a wicked ear infection while working on the couple's project. When the Weisses balked at paying him the $3,000 balance before finishing the plans, Wichman tied up their fax machine with hundreds of pages of bizarre, rambling letters.
"John, if you keep cutting me off at the knees I can't help you," wrote Wichman in a fax dated January 12, 1998. "I told you before, respect is an absolute necessity between a client and a consultant/contractor. If you don't show respect for me, then people will not feel comfortable about working on this project and I cannot be effective for you."
In a five-page fax sent February 13, 1998, Wichman demanded the couple pay him the $3,000 immediately and further suggested that the Weisses tip him for his service, claiming that a Ladue couple tipped him $6,000 for a similar job.
"I am doing a hell of a job for you, you know?" wrote Wichman. "You haven't said anything, so I am going to say it myself! I will take good care of you and give you the best to be found in this part of the country. I just need for you to take care of me, too. OK?"
Wichman ends the fax: "I am not going to read over this for mistakes. I need to try to have an evening, [and] pretend I have a life and get some of the mud off me. I have gone through four pairs of shoes and most of my clothes on this project."
The couple says the kicker came two weeks later when Wichman faxed them two landscaping proposals. The first proposal called for the Weisses to spend $2 million renovating their property, with $272,000 going to Wichman in consulting and project fees. The second proposal would pay Wichman $468,000 in fees as part of a $1.4 million landscape renovation.
"The guy is completely delusional," fumes John Weiss, who says he told Wichman upfront he didn't want to spend more than $200,000 on the entire project.
A few months later, after never delivering the Weisses a landscape plan for their $7,000, Wichman filed suit, alleging he incurred more than $200,000 in costs and expenses while working for the couple. The case would drag on until 2001 when Wichman -- running low on money -- at last dropped the charges.
The Weisses say they barely gave Wichman a moment's thought for years, but that all changed two month ago when they sat down to read the Post-Dispatch.
There, on page six of the May 20 business section, was a half-page story touting Wichman's latest venture in St. Peters -- SPC Playscapes. The article, a question-and-answer piece written by reporter Shera Dalin, included a color photo of a grinning Wichman standing atop one of his indoor displays.
"I saw it and laughed," recalls John Weiss. "It was pure irony."
In 2002, Post reporter Florence Shinkle spent days interviewing residents of Franklin County, including the Weisses, about their unhappy experiences with Wichman. At the time more than a dozen individuals and businesses had filed suit against Wichman -- most all the suits having to do with the three companies he opened and closed in the county between 1999 and 2002.
Among the suits generated from his three-year run in Franklin County was one from Firstar Bank (now US Bank), which alleged Wichman defaulted on $255,000 in loans during his stay in Franklin County. Another suit, filed in 2003, claimed Wichman owed St. Peters attorney Andrew Beeny some $2,500 in legal fees for representing Wichman in felony criminal proceedings related to a bounced check. (Wichman's own attorneys have sued him on three separate occasions.)
Shinkle's story, by all accounts, would have brought these cases to light and more. But the story never ran. Why? Because Wichman convinced Shinkle's editor to spike the story -- or so he claims.
Interviewed last week, Shinkle maintains Wichman had nothing to do with the killing of the story. She says her editor, Carl Green, dismissed the story as not worth pursuing.
"I guess it's my fault for not throwing a temper tantrum," comments Shinkle, who says she "flipped out" when she saw the May 20 story. "I was so ashamed when I saw the recent story. But [the Post] is such a largely unwieldy place, and I'm just a lowly ink-stained wretch. It takes a lot of lobbying and bitching to get people on your side for a story like that. I just couldn't do it."
The soft-ball story came as a slap in the face to others as well. The article quickly made the rounds in Franklin County, opening up old wounds among those Shinkle interviewed back in 2002.
Jim Lewis was one of those who sat down with Shinkle. Lewis, the owner of Patriot Exteriors in Kirkwood, says Wichman conned him out of $8,000 when he paid to display his sunrooms in a store Wichman dissolved before it even had a chance to open.
"He doesn't appear to be a scam artist," says Lewis. "But it's all just a bunch of bullshit."
Greg Hendricks, a regional soft-drink distributor, shares a similar story. He claims that in 2002 he paid Wichman $12,000 for a garage that was never built. Three years later, Hendricks still can't suppress a sour taste whenever he hears Wichman's name.
"If he were drowning, I'd put the garden hose on him," he says matter-of-factly.
Wichman, meanwhile, says Hendricks told him not to build the garage.
But it wasn't just Franklin County locals claiming they'd been bamboozled by Wichman. At least three manufacturers from the Amish community of Arthur, Illinois, say Wichman scammed them out of tens of thousands of dollars in gazebos and cabinetry they shipped to his stores.
They describe Wichman's method this way: Wichman would place an order, paying them the minimum down payment with the promise to pay the full balance once he sold the product. Only after completing the sale, however, would Wichman tell the Amish that the product was sent to him damaged, requiring him to repair it at his own expense. For that reason, he could not pay them the full price for their order. When the Amish then asked to speak to the client directly, Wichman refused to hand over their phone numbers.
"We were doing good up until then," says Glenn Miller. He claims that Wichman's unpaid bill of $15,000 contributed to his company, Five Star Furniture, going out of business.
Like many of the Amish, Miller never filed suit.
"We checked into it, and someone told us there were dozens of accounts against him," Miller says. "We didn't think we'd get anything out of a lawsuit."
Another Amish craftsman says Wichman still owes him between $25,000 and $30,000 for gazebos for which Wichman paid a small upfront fee, but not the full balance.
"I decided to drop it and get on with life," says the merchant, who asked not to be named in this story. "I know how he operates. The guy has a story for everything. No one is going to catch him, and he won't be brought to justice. Personally, I think he's demon-possessed. A normal person wouldn't sleep at night. Last few times I spoke to him on the phone, I thought I was talking to the devil himself."
For the record, Wichman sleeps like a baby.
"The only time I don't sleep well is when people come out of the woodwork and try to destroy me," he says.
To truly understand him, Wichman says, one must take a critical look at his many accusers. They are, he maintains, vindictive people.
"My history is making agreements with people and not protecting myself," he says. "When I was out there [in Franklin County] I was so lonely, and I had people bent on making sure I couldn't survive or stay there," he says. "I'm an extremely intelligent person, and it's hard to accept knowing that you can be so stupid when it comes to people."
Wichman's run of hard luck baffles his 86-year-old father, Ernest Wichman. A kindly man of deep Christian faith, Ernest made a reputable name for himself as the owner of a Webster Groves flower shop. Today the company is in its 73rd year of operating under the family name.
Ernest says Randy's financial travails leave him scratching his head, though he believes it impossible his son would ever do anything illegal.
"There have been times when I just couldn't understand," says Ernest. "Every time he tries to get a business started, vindictive people from his past come out and slit his throat from behind."
His father says that Wichman recently called to express his anguish.
"We were concerned because he almost sounded suicidal. He said the same group was trying to run him out of business" recounts Ernest. "I'm certainly on his side, but I have to sift through it, too, because what I've heard is what he tells me. I do think that he's not a good money manager. He's a dreamer. People are always saying what a wonderful job he's done envisioning projects, but the problem is he doesn't carry it out to fruition."
Among the lapses of judgment Wichman has made in his life are four ex-wives and at least two runaway fiancées. Over the past four years, three of his romantic relationships ended in restraining orders.
"I met them online and didn't know anything about them," he confesses. "They turned out to be very unstable people, and I didn't want to expose them to my family."
Those same women, in turn, say it's Wichman who is recklessly out of control. They describe a man obsessed with his own self-image, the kind of guy who insists on driving expensive foreign cars even though he'd be better suited behind the wheel of domestic junker.
"He had to have a Land Rover," recalls one ex-fiancée, who, like several of Wichman's past partners interviewed for this article, asked that her name not be used. "It was used and a total piece of crap, but he didn't care. He just wanted the brand name." Wichman's other cars in recent years have included a Mitsubishi Diamante and a used Lexus LS400, which was such a lemon it literally blew up under him.
When Wichman has trouble paying his debts, these women say, he turns to them for financial support. At least two women blame him for racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt on their credit cards. One ex-wife, Christy Duncan, says she was forced to file for bankruptcy after amassing more than $56,000 in credit-card debt to finance one of Wichman's businesses that never even opened its doors to customers.
"He's a complete narcissist driven only by his ego," says Duncan. "He has this tremendous sense of entitlement. He believes if someone is dumb enough to give him money, then they deserve to be taken advantage of."
Still, for the lovelorn middle-aged woman -- many of them just getting back into the dating saddle -- Wichman at first glance appears harmless enough.
"He comes across as so innocent and childlike," says one woman. "I suppose to a certain degree women are attracted to that."
"He has a way of making you feel special, like you're the center of the universe," says Duncan. "His entire M.O. is to come on hard and fast. He smothers you with romance and doesn't let you think."
Once inside his world, the women say, they are introduced to a mercurial conspiracy theorist who one moment might compose a love ballad on his synthesizer (one ex-wife describes his music as a cross between Michael Bolton and John Tesh) and the next moment fly off the handle at some alleged misdeed.
They describe a paranoid loner who, when confronted with his past, lashes out like a wounded animal. They tell of a man perpetually strapped for cash, with drawers full of unopened bills, constantly subjected to the harassing calls of the repo man.
"He always kept the packaging of everything he bought, and if he needed money, he'd pack up whatever it was, a stereo or television, and return it to the store. He called it his 'personal savings account,'" recalls an ex-fiancée.
When the women tried to break it off, things turned truly strange, they say. Some of them recall being bombarded at work and home with e-mails and telephone calls from Wichman -- often as many as 50 voice- and e-mail messages a day. When they tried to block his e-mail, he'd create a new account and continue the salvos. And when confronted in person, the women say, Wichman would launch into a tirade.
"He started name-calling, foul language, violent screaming rages," recalls Duncan. "He'd get so mad a vein would pop out of his forehead. His eyes would look like they'd explode."
Like the other villains of Franklin County, Wichman says, the women are jealous that he's moved on with his life.
"I don't know too many ex-wives who would say good things about their former husbands," he retorts.
Spelled out in the public records of the courts, Wichman goes to greater lengths to discredit his former lovers. Twice in the past two years he has been left by fiancées. On each occasion, Wichman has later filed a restraining order against the woman, writing 1,000-word confessionals as to why the runaway is a perceived threat.
In a restraining order filed January 2003, Wichman writes of an ex-fiancée: "She persuaded me to give up my business, move to St. Peters, and buy her an expensive home and business so that she could get back her children....She walked out a week before our wedding leaving me $550,000 in debt....I cannot allow her to continue taunting and threatening me. The stress is overwhelming."
Another restraining order filed roughly a year later against another fiancée states that the root of their discord was Wichman's dirty bathroom.
"In November, after a wonderful weekend with her family, [she] picked a fight over the fact that my bathroom floor wasn't perfectly clean," writes Wichman. "My home was immaculate. I tried to talk to her and she threatened me and told me her brothers would harm me if I spoke to her again."
Later in the note, Wichman explains that the couple made amends over the bathroom only to have another falling out when he made reservations for a special Valentine's Day weekend at the Marriott. She wanted to stay at the Adam's Mark.
Wichman ends the letter by asking the court to keep the woman away from his family and business associates. "She has contacts with people I work with and she is an extremely vindictive, manipulative and hateful person....I am asking that she not be allowed to contact me, my family or my business associates...I ask your protection. I am terrified."
So, why the need to file a restraining order against someone who's cut you out of their life?
Speculates one of the ex-fiancées: "He doesn't want us to tell his parents or his business associates about him."
Joe Noernberg remembers one of Wichman's recent engagements.
"He shows up driving a new car, a Saab or Volkswagen -- some little foreign job -- and says, 'Wow, everyone. You should all congratulate me. I just got engaged last night,'" says Noernberg. "I remember thinking, 'With what!? That's my money that bought that car and diamond ring!'"
A 36-year-old entrepreneur with a shipping and exporting business in O'Fallon, Noernberg first encountered Wichman early last year. At the time Noernberg was piddling with a small side business importing and selling miniature all-terrain vehicles. One day, out of the blue, Noernberg says he received a call from a sales agent asking if he would be interested in marketing his ATV business through Wichman's latest company, St. Louis Playscapes in Town & Country.
Wichman, meanwhile, was coming off a two-year run in St. Charles County, where he settled after declaring bankruptcy in 2002 -- a move that absolved him of some $360,000 in debts he incurred while in Franklin County. Yet court records reveal the bankruptcy served only as a temporary shield.
Within months of moving to St. Charles, Wichman was slapped with a series of fresh lawsuits from creditors, landlords and taxing agencies. Even so, it was during this time that Wichman once again managed to open a business similar to those in Franklin County. This one -- the first version of St. Louis Playscapes -- operated for just a few months before Wichman entered into a protracted argument with his landlord and left St. Charles.
Moving the company to Town & Country, St. Louis Playscapes would be Wichman's most audacious project to date. No longer confined to the blue-collar bedroom communities surrounding St. Louis, he took out a lease at an old Streetside Records on busy Manchester Road in the heart of affluent west St. Louis County.
The business model would be a twist on his previous companies. In addition to home and lawn products, he'd also carry luxury leisure items -- the type of frivolous playthings Wichman fantasized about in the pages of in-flight catalogs.
So it was that Wichman considered Noernberg's mini-ATVs a perfect fit for the new business model. Noernberg agreed and put down several thousand dollars to reserve space in the yet-to-be-opened showroom.
Over the next couple months, Noernberg says, his original investment would balloon to more than $100,000 when he offered to supply Wichman with custom-built playhouses for sale in the store.
"At the time he had these playhouses that were total junk that he said he could sell for $5,000," says Noernberg. "I mentioned off-hand that my carpenters who make my packing crates could do a better job."
A few weeks later, Noernberg says, he had Wichman out to his O'Fallon warehouse to see the playhouse he designed and built with the assistance of his carpenters.
"He told me that it was just what he was looking for, that he could sell three a day at $6,000 a pop," says Noernberg. "Typically I don't take someone at his word, but he was so excited and urging us to go full-steam ahead. I figured I could take time doing the due diligence or strike on this while it's hot. Unfortunately, I chose the latter."
Noernberg would not do his homework for several more months. By then, he says, his playhouses filled half the space in the showroom, the store had yet to open, and he was quickly losing patience. When Wichman became obsessed with placing a Maserati in the showroom -- a move that would have further delayed the store's opening -- Noernberg reached his limit.
"He wanted the Maserati dealer in Chesterfield to give him a car to drive at no charge if he would display another one in the showroom," remembers Noernberg. "He said if they only gave him one car he'd drive it home every night and park it in the showroom in the morning. At that point I realized this guy is a total cuckoo bird, and I needed to look into his history."
(Graham Hill, co-owner of St. Louis Motorsports, confirms that Wichman tried to get the dealership to provide him with a Maserati last year but says he never seriously entertained the offer. "I was dumbfounded," Hill says. "I was like, 'Why would we show it in your store? We just finished building a dealership!'")
News that Wichman at the time had incorporated and dissolved seven businesses in Missouri hit Noernberg like a sucker punch.
"I felt sick to my stomach," says Noernberg. "I developed an entire product line for this guy. He got me hook, line and sinker."
Wichman says the dissolved businesses mean nothing.
"People do that when they're entrepreneurs," he says. "I've had a lot of businesses I've never done anything with. Incorporating a company just means you're setting up a shell."
For Noernberg, Wichman's track record was reason enough to leave. Within a few days of the discovery, he says, he arrived at the showroom with a tractor trailer and the escort of the Town & Country police. With the cops serving as referees, Noernberg says he packed up his items and left.
Since then Noernberg has set up a Web site (stlouisfunstuff.com) to try to unload the playhouses he built for Wichman. He says he also is planning to file a lawsuit against Wichman in the next several weeks.
Per usual, Wichman maintains he's the victim. He says Noernberg stole his ideas and relays a fantastical story of how Noernberg made vague threats against him.
"He sat me down in his office, took out a bottle of whiskey and said some of the most disturbing things you can imagine," says Wichman. "He said he stored weapons for the FBI in his warehouse because he had super clearance. He said he knew people, and if he wanted to destroy somebody, he could call a few people and get all kinds of damaging information and destroy them. He had ways of cleaning up his own record, so if they ever checked him out they wouldn't even question him. They would think he was sane. Last thing he said was he was good at manipulating cops and could get them to do anything he wanted them to do."
Noernberg says the story is patently untrue.
"My company has had contracts with the FBI and the Secret Service to pack and ship evidence," says Noernberg. "But the only threat I ever made against him was when I told him he's lucky I didn't bust him in his lip. And that threat I made right in front of the cops when I was packing my stuff and leaving."
On the morning of March 11, 2004, a few days after Noernberg moved out, the Town & Country police responded to an emergency call to Wichman's store. During the night vandals had broken out several windows and left the ominous message: "Go back where you came from."
Wichman maintains the threat was racially motivated and directed at an Asian sales associate working at the store. Noernberg, who was on vacation in Florida at the time, believes the message was directed squarely at Wichman.
As it turns out, Noernberg wasn't the only one with a beef against Wichman. Enter again the Amish, who may yet cause Wichman's greatest unraveling.
Virtually blacklisted from the Amish community in Arthur, Illinois, Wichman in 2004 turned his sights to Lancaster County, an Amish community of some 25,000 people in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Sam Stolzfus, who with his brother Jonas manufactures gazebos in Lancaster, recalls first meeting Wichman in February of last year when he showed up to tour the brothers' shop.
"He seemed legit, but in hindsight there were red flags that flew up immediately," says Stolzfus, speaking in the heavy Dutch brogue typical of the region. "He talked about what a Christian he is. But a Christian shouldn't have to tell others what type of person he is. We're supposed to see that."
From March until June of last year, the Stolzfus brothers shipped to Wichman's Town & Country store as many as ten gazebos. After receiving an initial $7,000, the brothers say the payments dried up.
"He returned in October wanting more gazebos but didn't make one mention of the money he owed us," says Stolzfus. "His message was, 'If you want to see your money, you got to help me out.' He's our largest outstanding debt at $44,000!"
Wichman calls Stolzfus a dishonest man who's caused him a great deal of frustration. On June 15, the Stolzfus brothers filed suit against Wichman in St. Charles County court.
Still, it would be Wichman's interactions with another Lancaster vendor that first aroused the interests of the Town & Country police. John David Fisher first met Wichman in 2003, while he briefly operated St. Louis Playscapes at the St. Charles location. Fisher was working for another Amish manufacturer at the time and came to St. Louis by way of train to teach Wichman and his crew how to assemble gazebos. A year later Fisher and his father started their own gazebo business in Lancaster. While they had heard complaints about Wichman, the fledgling business partners were willing to take a chance.
"When I first met Randy, he was very pleasant to work with and deal with," recalls Fisher. "I knew he had a falling out with another gazebo company, but our business was new and looking for work. I approached him."
Today, Fisher claims Wichman owes him $25,000 for gazebos for which he was never paid.
"We started shipping him product in June or July last year," he says. "First everything seemed good. Then he was slow in paying. Then he was paying just the minimum. Then nothing. We quit dealing with him late last year."
Fisher says what really put him off was a phone call he received last fall from a woman in Town & Country. She wanted to know why her sunroom was delayed and told Fisher she couldn't get a straight answer out of Wichman. She said she'd already given Wichman $40,000 as a down payment for the room.
Fisher knew of the sunroom. Several weeks earlier, Wichman had approached him and his father about building the room, even going so far as to put a down payment of $7,500 toward the project. But Wichman never sent Fisher measurements for the room and later called to say the job was canceled. Fisher says Wichman told him to take the $7,500 and put it toward his outstanding balance.
Fisher says he told the Town & Country woman point-blank that Wichman canceled the order.
"Later she storms into Wichman's office and confronts him about it," recalls Fisher. "She's standing in his office when he calls us yelling and cursing. He knew all along it wasn't built."
Wichman calls the entire episode a big misunderstanding and says he's working with the woman to amend the issue.
Captain Gary Hoelzer with the Town & Country police refers to the complaint against Wichman as "stealing by deceit." Wichman has not been charged with the crime.
Fisher says he hasn't spoken to Wichman since that phone call last fall. Last Christmas he claims Wichman sent a holiday greeting saying he would make good on his debts. But whenever Fisher tries to call Wichman about the bill, he says, Wichman never picks up the phone.
"I'm not sure if Randy has good intentions but bad business practices, or if he's just a con man," reflects Fisher. "I do know that it doesn't bother him owing people money. That's for sure."
Seven weeks ago, the landlord of Wichman's St. Peters store filed suit against him, claiming Wichman owes more than $18,000 in back rent. Unlike his previous scraps with landlords, Wichman says this time he's standing his ground.
Last September, Wichman shuttered his Town & Country business, saying the space wasn't big enough. The leasing agent to the strip mall tells another story. He says Wichman was several months behind on his rent. Even so, Wichman was able to leave owing nothing, thanks to his ties to the principal owner of the shopping center at the time, Steve Notestine.
Wichman claims Notestine, a real-estate investor, so liked his business concept that he sank $250,000 into the company. Reached by phone, Notestine acknowledges investing in St. Louis Playscapes but won't say how much or whether he recouped any of the money. As to Wichman owing back rent, Notestine says it's immaterial.
"He owed back rent, but it doesn't matter," he says. "He left with no obligations."
(In late October -- a month after Wichman pulled out of the Town & Country strip mall -- the St. Louis Business Journal reported that Notestine and other investors sold the shopping center for $56 million.)
This time around, Wichman doesn't have such a sweetheart deal with his landlord but maintains his company will weather the storm. For once in his life, he's got good people behind him.
Last year Wichman married his fifth wife, a woman he describes as the "most wonderful woman in the world." To top it off, he says he's currently in negotiations with consultants who say his business concept at SPC Playscapes has more potential than any company they've ever seen.
"It would be worth crazy amounts of money to franchise," says Wichman, who declines to identify the consultants.
Once the franchising occurs, Wichman says, his entire focus is to make amends with those who hold claims against him, especially the Amish.
"I've told investors that if this deal goes through, all these people I owe will be taken care of," he says.
"Now if something happens that affects that outcome," he warns, "a lot of people will be hurt."
Following his second lengthy interview for this story late last month, Wichman left more than 200 voicemail messages with the Riverfront Times, urging that this article not be published. He also contacted the paper's editor and managing editor, making the same urgent request. When his efforts proved unsuccessful, Wichman's Clayton attorney, Gregory Herkert, left a profanity-laced voicemail.
In one of Wichman's last voicemail messages, he announces that he's changed his tune. No longer will he meekly turn the other cheek when faced by his many accusers. No longer will he pick up his things and move on. Wichman is ready to fight, and he makes the promise that there'll be plenty of carnage once he's finished.
"I want to thank you," he says. "I've gone through life with blinders on, thinking I was doing the right thing. But it isn't the right thing to let people like this get by with it.... I just kicked something into gear, and I feel better than I have in a long time. It's time that I stand up and protect my family and my reputation. These are a bunch of low-lifes that are never going to go away.
"You know, there are two types of people: smart and stupid. Smart people are the ones who, if they've done something to you that you can nail them for but you don't, they're thankful and they disappear into the woodwork. The dumb people are the ones who are going to wish they never did this. The luckiest thing that ever happened in their life is that I walked away and didn't come after them. You're bringing justice to them. Justice they deserve, and it's not good. I'm going to sue their asses off!"