Courts will determine Colo. man’s fate on April 3 for Class 3 felony of theft charge
March 3, 2017
Synopsis: After years of thievery, forgery and deceit, Clair Hull pleads guilty to Class 3 Felony of Theft and awaits sentencing on April 3. His victims, including whistle blower Charlie Vaden and South Dakota cattle ranchers Leroy Bietelsbacher and Jake Longbrake, speak out.
In the quiet town of Johnstown, Colo., charismatic Clair Hull ran his business, Pioneer Speciality Foods, LLC. A Mormon bishop, councilman and friendly businessman who helped organize the annual town's BBQ Days, community members were shocked in the spring of 2015 to hear the news that Hull was facing 28 charges of white collar crime. Despite his friendly facade, Hull was busy allegedly committing crimes of theft, fraud and forgery in a long pattern of racketeering schemes.
Despite the towns people's collective surprise about Hull's activities, 88-year old union carpenter Charlie Vaden had vocalized his suspicions about Hull for years. In 2006, Vaden stumbled upon building code violations in a town home he had moved into four years prior. Realizing the coverup of the incomplete firewall, Vaden started attending council meetings to speak about what he had discovered.
"Town leaders wanted to keep it undercover because it was a million-dollar mistake created by the builder and passed as compliant by the senior inspector," Vaden said. "Even those who bought the same town home as me wanted me to keep silent about the fire trap town homes because it would make them more difficult to resell them in the future if exposed."
Vaden took to the street with large signs, declaring what was going on. One day, it was brought to Vaden's attention that Hull was also facing a million-dollar judgement against him in another matter.
“Town leaders wanted to keep it undercover because it was a million-dollar mistake created by the builder and passed as compliant by the senior inspector. Even those who bought the same town home as me wanted me to keep silent about the fire trap town homes because it would make them more difficult to resell them in the future if exposed.”Charlie Vaden,Whistle blower
"I did not know that the District Attorney's office also had their own investigation of Hull going on at the time, and in 2010, I spoke before the council after Hull had won the election for his second term," Vaden said. "I confronted him about swindling the bank and asked him to resign. I was ejected from the meeting, and so I started passing out information once again on the streets. Two weeks later, Hull turned in his resignation."
For the people of Johnstown, it was difficult to conceive that Hull, a friendly, local business owner, distinguished church leader and trusted elected official, could be guilty of any type of criminal activity, and Vaden paid the price for speaking out. The town attorney asked the courts for a temporary restraining order against Vaden, with town staff members describing him as a threat. Later, Vaden, who has never been charged with anything as minor as a speeding ticket, was arrested for being in violation of the restraining order, after running into a town manager on Vaden's way home, with claims that he was stalking the town staff person.
Handcuffed in front of his wife, Vaden spent the night in jail, and the DA's office urged him to admit guilt, sign papers and he would simply have to pay a small fine and go home.
"Fast forward one month, I was arrested again with three Johnstown staff claiming I again broke the restraining order," Vaden said. "My wife was in panic once more, and this time I decided to fight back. My case finally went to court, and the jury came back in just minutes determining that I was not guilty, and the restraining order was vacated by the judge. Eventually, my wife of 66 years left me because she could not handle the stress of me being taken away in cuffs, and I wasn't going to quit."
Vaden, determined to prove once and for all Hull's guilt, discovered a multitude of corrupt acts, including the theft of meat, which victimized several people.
"I want people to know that smooth-talking, well-liked Hull is not the honest civil servant he portrays himself to be," Vaden said.
At long last, Hull's criminal activity would finally be revealed to the public. In April 2015, Ed Jordan, Weld County investigator, filed a 26-page affidavit, listing in detail the many counts of forged checks and fake invoices written through his business, Pioneer Specialty Foods, that resulted in more than $549,000 in losses at First National Bank in Greeley, Colo., and Greenwood Village, Colo.
"In our criminal complaint, the victim of Hull's conduct is First National Bank," said Michael Roarke, Weld County DA. "Through Pioneer Speciality Foods, Hull entered into a business arrangement with the bank with the sale of products through a third party."
FELONY OF THEFT
For example, if Hull sold $50,000 worth of meat to a processing facility, the invoice would be submitted to the bank where it would be reviewed for authenticity before the invoice would become payable to the bank.
"The invoices were either fictitious in that the sale never occurred in the first place or they were grossly inflated," Roarke said, referring to receipts dated between 2008 and 2009. "Hull had pled guilty to a Class 3 felony of theft, the highest level of theft. In an agreement, he pled to a probationary sentence, where he is required to pay $150,000 to the bank as ordered as a condition for probation, along with $1.1 million in restitution. He is awaiting sentencing, but he can get up to 90 days in jail as a condition of the plea agreement. The big hammer comes if he violates the terms of his probation. If he does, he could be facing up to 12 years in prison."
A thorough investigation conducted by the Weld County DA, the FBI and First National Bank reviewed Hull's activities and receipts. Despite the extent of Hull's illegal activity, he will only be charged on one count, which he pled guilty to in January 2017. The courts will ultimately determine his fate on April 3, 2017.
"Part of the reason we structured the agreement the way we did is because the banks wanted Hull to be held accountable, so he needs to be gainfully and lawfully employed in order to pay that money back," Roarke said. "If he can't pay it back, we garnish his wages and his tax returns."
While the investigation has centered around the huge scheme Hull orchestrated against the banks, it somewhat ignores the South Dakota and Nebraska buffalo and cattle ranchers who were also victims of Hull through his racketeering activities.
Leroy Bietelsbacher, of Bowdle, S.D., and Jesse (Jake) Longbrake, of Dupree, S.D., were among some of Hull's victims.
"Hull contacted us about a deal he was working on with the Seminole tribe to buy Indian-raised livestock," Bietelsbacher said. "A lot of my cattle that I had bought were raised by Native Americans, and Hull told me he wanted to sell the beef to the Hard Rock Cafes, which are owned by the Seminole tribe."
Bietelsbacher had been feeding Longbrake's cattle over the winter, and the pair agreed to send some livestock down to Colorado for finishing and processing in March 2008.
"Hull was having meetings with the tribe and told us he was authorized to purchase our cattle, so we sent them down to Colorado," Longbrake said. "We made a deal to retain ownership, and they would feed them and butcher the cattle, and we would get paid for them as they were butchered."
Everything seemed kosher until checks started to bounce for insufficient funds. In September 2008, the pair did some digging about the deal, but by then, the cattle were gone, the meat was gone, and they soon realized they had been duped.
"Between the two of us, we lost $160,000 to Hull's scheme," Bietelsbacher said. "Believe me, we tried everything in our power to get our money back, but no matter what we did, he was always one step ahead of us. In April 2009, we hired a lawyer and took him to court. We won the case, but Hull doesn't have any money. We have a lien filed on Clair Hull, but when we walked out of the courthouse, Hull told us, 'you guys will never see a dime from me.' It's very frustrating, and he didn't just do this to us, but he did this to a lot of people. What's worse is he's still walking around free making deals."
For the ranchers impacted by Hull's scheme, Roarke said, "These guys were believing they were conducting business with a legitimate company."
Other livestock producers wanting to protect themselves should heed Roarke's advice when he said, "Before engaging with a business that you haven't previously dealt with, check references, and the Better Business Bureau to make sure you're dealing with a reputable business before getting involved in high-dollar dealings."
For Bietelsbacher and Longbrake, it's a tough pill to swallow, but despite the loss, they still believe in cowboy ethics.
"We've both been in the cattle business for a long time," Bietelsbacher said. "This industry is based on a hand shake and your good word, and that's how it's been for hundreds of years. I've sold millions of dollars worth of cattle that we've sent on a truck, and they've sent a check. You just trust people, but we do try to be a little more cautious now after running into a guy like Hull. Ninety-nine percent of people are honest, but Hull's a bad guy." ❖