DEATH OF A WHIZ KID

BY AGE 30, SHELDON WEINER WAS ONE OF CHARLIE KEATING'S TOP LIEUTENANTS. TEN YEARS LATER, HE COMMITTED SUICIDE IN A TOY STORE PARKING LOT.

In early June, Sheldon Weiner met with his employees at Family Archive Press, a Phoenix firm that published and telemarketed genealogy books. He said he wanted to respond to an anonymous note someone had dropped into a suggestion box.

Tell Shelly to smile more, the note had said. This place is like a morgue.
"I am what I am, okay?" Weiner told the group in a conference room, then left abruptly.

Most at Family Archive knew their boss only as a workaholic who wore a perpetually worried look and spent hours alternately staring into his computer and putting out fires at his struggling business.

But few of his 100-plus employees had any inkling of whom Shelly Weiner had been.

A decade earlier--before the fall of American Continental Corporation and Lincoln Savings and Loan--Weiner had been one of Charles Keating Jr.'s highest-paid lieutenants.

In the mid-1980s, he was collecting more than $1 million a year from the Keating empire in salary and incentives. But those days were ancient history when Weiner opened Family Archive in March 1994.

Weiner's wife, Ellen, the firm's managing editor, chastised the employees after her husband left the meeting.

"I've known Shelly since we were teenagers," she told them. "Just because he doesn't smile doesn't mean he's not a happy man."

But Shelly Weiner was not a happy man.
Just before dawn on June 16, two people taking a stroll came upon a 1991 Lexus parked in a Toys "R" Us lot on East Camelback Road in Phoenix. They eyed a figure slumped in the driver's seat, bloody and obviously dead. Police later noted the man was wearing a pink Polo shirt, faded blue jeans and slip-on shoes.

Detectives removed a 9mm handgun from the decedent's right hand. It had been fired once inside the car. The fatal bullet had entered the man's head at his right temple. Police found $37 and several credit cards in his wallet.

The man was 41-year-old Shelly Weiner.
Though Weiner apparently left no note, his manner of death wasn't a mystery.

While no one can say with certainty why another chooses suicide, consider this: In 17 months, Weiner had squandered at least $500,000 in loans from investors and untold amounts of his own money while trying to keep his genealogy business afloat.

By some accounts, Family Archive was $2 million in the red when Weiner killed himself. And he recently had failed to convince his investors to put more money into the sinking business.

Perhaps most troubling, many ex-Family Archive employees say, were Weiner's orders to deceive customers to bolster the firm's wobbly bank account.

"Our big pitch was 'No obligation! No money down until you get your book!'" says Roger Martin, a telemarketing supervisor at Family Archive. "But our orders were to insist on a customer's credit-card number or electronic debit code and bill him or her immediately. That's illegal as hell."

Adds Jill Collins, one of the firm's editors: "Shelly had to know that he'd get busted eventually. That meant he might wind up in prison just like some of his Keating friends."

Police told Ellen Weiner of her husband's death at the office late that morning. Without explanation, everyone was sent home for the day.

Those who worked Saturdays returned the following day. A handwritten note taped to the door informed them Family Archive still was closed "due to a death in the company."

The weekend passed. Shelly Weiner was buried after a private service. The landlord changed the locks at Family Archive.

The situation was untenable; with Weiner dead and the operation in limbo, no one had gotten paid. On average, records indicate, Family Archive owed each of its employees about $1,000.

Baffled and increasingly irate, the workers kept in constant touch with each other, grasping for shreds of information. The rumors really started flying after word came of George "Chip" Wischer's copycat suicide by gun on June 19.

The 46-year-old Wischer had worked with Weiner at American Continental; his ex-wife, Judy--now a convicted felon--once was president of that firm. Rampant speculation about a bizarre suicide pact between two ex-Keatingites was just that. But the continued lack of information did nothing to quell the rumors.

Because Family Archive is a limited liability company, it took the employees some doing to learn who actually owned the firm. (Under Arizona law, such LLCs, as they're called, aren't required to disclose the identity of officers and major equity owners.)

Through word of mouth and sleuthing, the names of the five investors finally were revealed: Gary Hall, Don Loback, Larry Nelson, August Rantz III and Kathy Wade.

Each had befriended Weiner during Charlie Keating's glory years. Loback and Wade are co-chairs of Continental Homes--which once was part of Keatingland, but survived the connection and is the Valley's largest homebuilder. Hall, an eye surgeon, is Charlie Keating's son-in-law. Nelson worked with Weiner at American Continental.

The investors have made it known they do not intend to pay the employees for services rendered.

"The death of Shelly Weiner has left many people with not only a personal loss, but financial loss," Kathy Wade and Don Loback wrote in identical faxes sent to telemarketing supervisor Roger Martin on June 30.

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