DEATH OF A WHIZ KID
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.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Dallas Mavericks
TicketsFri., Oct. 14, 7:00pm
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.
"I am one of those people. I was a passive investor and significant creditor of Family Archive Press. . . . Like you, I have nowhere to turn to recover my financial loss. It is my understanding that the company has no assets. This is an unfortunate situation for all involved."
Infuriated, Martin responded in a July 2 fax.
"HI THERE, KEATING KIDS!" it started. "I want the money that you owe me for having worked for you at Family Archive Press, and I want it now."
But the employees likely won't see the money they are owed. Under Arizona law, the investors would have no legal obligation to pay them, even if Family Archive did have assets.
Another unresolved question: How many people around the nation have paid for books they'll never receive?
The week before Weiner died, Family Archive records show, telemarketers sold almost 1,500 genealogy books at an average of $70 per book. That came to $105,000 in sales. All but 6 percent of the customers paid by credit card, electronic debit or personal check.
With Weiner's telemarketing scam in full flower, that's almost $100,000 presently unaccounted for for just one week's sales.
"There were some people for whom the Bible and their family-tree book are the two greatest books in the world," says Janet Wilson, an editor at Family Archive. "Many of our customers didn't come from well-to-do or educated backgrounds. I'm embarrassed to say that we were preying on these people. I guess now it's our turn to get screwed."
Friends, employees and former colleagues of Shelly Weiner use the same adjectives to describe him: hardworking, diligent, tense, ambitious, intelligent.
Those interviewed for this story say Weiner seemed at his most relaxed around his sons, now 15 and 10. But those observers note they never saw him totally at ease.
In and out of Family Archive Press, sources say Weiner's wife, Ellen, appeared to be in awe of him. He's the smartest man I've ever known, she liked to tell newcomers, the very smartest.
The New York natives had been teenage sweethearts, who married and moved to Arizona in the late 1970s.
The State of Arizona certified Weiner as a public accountant in 1979. After a stint at a large accounting firm, he took a job that many neophyte CPAs of that era would have drooled over--Charles Keating Jr.
For those who didn't live in Arizona in the early 1980s, here's a three-word history lesson: Charlie Keating ruled.
Keating's sprawling realm included Lincoln Savings and Loan, American Continental Corporation and a web of subsidiaries. By his 30th birthday, Weiner already had risen to exceptionally lucrative top-level positions at Lincoln, American Continental and other Keating-owned entities.
In the mid-1980s, according to American Continental records, Weiner was garnering about $700,000 per year, plus stock dividends.
His value to Keating was easy to figure, says Jack Atchison, author of the recently published pro-Keating book Legal Extortion.
"Shelly did not have any entrepreneurial license in what he was doing," recalls Atchison, a former Keating insider, "but he possessed an outstanding technical understanding of currencies, markets and how trades are executed. What I really remember is how unflappable he seemed in what was a hectic kind of environment."
In a sense, that ability to operate amid chaos, to keep going when all seemed lost, served Shelly Weiner well--when he worked for Charlie Keating and, later, in his own ventures. That focus and perseverance, however, allowed him to continue a business that was failing miserably. And, like Keating, Weiner turned to chicanery as his losses mounted.
In the late 1980s, Keating's kingdom melted under an onslaught of government probes, lawsuits and criminal indictments. Weiner left Keating in 1989, just days before American Continental claimed bankruptcy.
Weiner is mentioned in almost every book and in-depth article related to the Keating scandals. But he avoided the criminal sanctions and public humiliation endured by many other big shots in the Keating fold.
Onetime colleagues of Weiner say he was outspoken about being his own boss in his life's next phase. Trouble was, they add, Weiner didn't seem to know where to start.
He had made more money by his early 30s than some CPAs make in a lifetime, which was a blessing and a curse. Weiner had no experience in running his own show. And processing tax returns at H&R Block as he tried to figure out what to do just wasn't in the cards.
In 1989, a Valley man named Marc Kaplan marched into Shelly Weiner's world. Kaplan had more moneymaking schemes on the tip of his tongue than a convention of carnival barkers.
Beneath the patter, however, Kaplan defined the term wanna-be.
Naturally, he dabbled in real estate.
Kaplan also had figured prominently in the Senior Baseball League, a highly publicized attempt to market washed-up major leaguers. That enterprise failed to pass muster with fans, and soon died.
His prime business interest in the early 1990s was Health and Nutritional Labs, a telemarketing operation that hawked vitamin pills, protein powders and the like.
Kaplan and Weiner went into business together in 1989. According to papers filed at Maricopa County Superior Court, Weiner invested at least $250,000 in the pair's new company, South Euclid Investments.
In February 1992, the Weiner-Kaplan team incorporated Scottsdale Family Treasures, which would become the model for Family Archive Press. Weiner was SFT's president and treasurer; Kaplan was its vice president and secretary.
SFT was to be a high-powered combination of publishing and telemarketing: The idea was to convince folks to purchase a book that would detail their family's history--with the bulk of the information provided by that family in a questionnaire.
By late 1992, however, the Weiner-Kaplan marriage was foundering. SFT had financial troubles from the start, reports filed with Arizona Corporation Commission indicate. Court files also show the firm didn't submit taxes for most of 1993 until authorities filed papers demanding payment.
On January 6, 1994, Weiner quit SFT. The operation closed within a month. Litigation involving the two men was pending when Weiner committed suicide. Kaplan, who represented himself in many of those legal proceedings, could not be contacted for comment.
Scottsdale Family Treasures had been a loser, but Weiner remained undaunted. He told everyone that Marc Kaplan, not the concept itself, was the sole reason things had gone south.
But Weiner's personal reserves had gone the way of Keating's Lincoln Savings--down the tubes. In early 1994, he needed to sell deep pockets on the genealogy project's bona fides if he were to get his fresh start.
Among those Weiner had befriended in the early 1980s was Kathy Wade, one of Continental Homes' two chief executives. County records show Wade and her husband, Bob, bought rental properties with the Weiners.
Weiner approached Wade, her partner at Continental Homes--Don Loback--and three others who would become the financial backbone of what would be known as Family Archive Press. If they provided seed money, he told them, they'd surely recoup their investments and more in a reasonable period.
Family Archive would lease its computers and other equipment from a company recently formed by would-be investors Gary Hall, Larry Nelson and August Rantz III.
The quintet considered Weiner a careful man not prone to hyperbole. They soon agreed to fund an LLC in which they'd be the "partners" and Weiner its "manager."
None of the investors contacted by New Times would reveal how much he funneled to Weiner. But four sources close to the investors estimate the figure at a minimum of $500,000.
"Shelly came to me with an idea," says Don Loback. "I listened because I'd known him for years. I based my decision on helping a friend get something going, not based in pity but on what I hoped was a prudent investment. I obviously wish I'd never lent him a cent. When all is said and done, I think I'm going to be one of the largest creditors."
Family Archive Press opened for business in March 1994, on North 16th Street near Thomas Road. Weiner installed one of his brothers, Dennis, as chief operating officer. Weiner's wife, Ellen, was to be managing editor. By the terms of the LLC agreement, Shelly Weiner was responsible for the whole show.
In a nutshell, here's how Family Archive was supposed to make money.
The firm targeted possible sales candidates through a computer-generated mailing list. It mailed lengthy "questionnaires" to those individuals, assuring them repeatedly that a response would cost them nothing.
Anyone who responded--and thousands did each month--would be handed over to the telemarketers for the hard sell. Their job was to convince people to buy "personally crafted" genealogy books--each of which cost $69.95.
"You and your family have been selected to be featured in a Who's Who publication," a Family Archive script started. "This happens to but a very few people once in a lifetime. . . . We have put a lot of time and effort into this book and we know you will consider it a family treasure and pass it down from one generation to the next. WHEN YOU SEE THE OUTSTANDING DETAIL AND QUALITY OF THE BOOK, YOU WILL UNDERSTAND HOW REASONABLE THE PRICE IS! Of course, our 30-day review period allows you to make that decision for yourself."
The script then allowed for a "special response" to inevitable naysayers.
"It is important you understand WE ARE NOT ASKING FOR ANY MONEY TODAY. NOT ONE PENNY! The only reason for my call today is to see if you have an interest in viewing our book. . . . You should not even receive a billing statement until after you receive the book. We would never expect you to buy anything sight unseen. . . . (First name), we couldn't be more fair than that, could we?"
Some well-known figures bought books, including onetime presidential candidate George McGovern. But the bulk of the customers who bit were older folks from small towns around the nation--especially in the Deep South and Midwest--say several people who worked at Family Archive Press.
Soon after the place opened--no one can say exactly when--Shelly Weiner added a new facet to his operation: He told his telemarketers to lie to customers about the "no money down" billing process.
Ex-Family Archive employees say Weiner and other higher-ups instructed them to charge a customer's credit card and automatic debit billings immediately--not, as promised, upon a customer's acceptance of a book.
If a customer complained--and many did, say former employees--Family Archive had a ready reply: We apologize for the unintentional mistake, and we'll be happy to refund you some money for your troubles.
"I talked to many an old lady in Kansas or someplace who was so upset that she hadn't gotten a book, and her checking account had been drawn upon," says former Family Archive editor Janet Wilson. "At least I can say I was honest with my customers and tried to help them."
Kathy Wade, one of the five investors, says Weiner told her that customers wouldn't be billed until after they received their books.
"He said it in the context of, 'We need this amount of start-up cash because we don't charge for books until we mail them,'" Wade says. "There are some things that really bother me about this. One is, I loaned money to a guy I really trusted, and he was doing this? Two, if the employees felt so uncomfortable with what they were being told to do, why didn't someone tell me or an authority, or maybe find another job?"
Though the telemarketers were selling thousands of books, there were major woes inside Family Archive from the start.
"Shelly did not know how to factor in the human element," says Debbie Bauer, who worked at both SFT and Family Archive. "He assumed that a business works like a computer--input, output. But we were winging it, taking people's money when we weren't supposed [to] to stay above water, whipping things together, on the edge of chaos."
To firm telemarketer Roger Martin, that description sounds hauntingly like accounts he's read of life under Charlie Keating.
"Sometimes, you don't know when you're in the middle of something exactly what's going on," Martin says. "That's what people said at the end of Keating, and that's what I'm saying now."
It wasn't for lack of trying that Weiner's dream went tumbling. An insomniac, he routinely would be first at the office and among the last to leave.
Around the time of his "I am what I am" meeting, Shelly Weiner asked investor Don Loback for more money.
"We periodically had been getting some financial reports," Loback says, "though now I don't know how accurate and truthful they were. The business apparently never did well from day one. Not too long before Shelly decided to do himself in, he contacted some of the investors trying to raise some more money. I told him no way."
Two days before he shot himself, Weiner had a pleasant conversation with Denise Nojaim, an editor with Family Archive for about a year.
"We talked about the problems in shipping and other things, and it was really decent," Nojaim recalls. "I remember asking him, 'What are you going to do about having no new covers for the books?' That was one of the problems. Shelly usually had an answer, whether it panned out or not. But this time, he looked at me and said, 'I don't know.'"
Shelly Weiner's will, which recently was submitted to a county court for probate, left his estate to his wife and children. It's uncertain at present how much money that will mean.
Some Family Archive employees have landed on their feet with new jobs. Others remain on unemployment and food stamps, embittered by their current fates, but forced by necessity to move on with their lives.
Yet others continue to vent their frustrations verbally against the investors, whom they see as immoral fat cats.
"I think the investors had an obligation to have a better idea of what was going on," says Roger Martin. "It would be chump change for them to pay us our money--maybe a business tax deduction. But there's no way in hell they'll do it."
Replies Kathy Wade, who was Shelly Weiner's closest friend among the investors: "I feel terrible about someone who worked and didn't get paid, but do the employees of America West who took a pay cut think the shareholders ought to be subsidizing them? We were a small group of stockholders, so I guess our situation is looked at differently. I gave the guy a loan--that basically was it. I just didn't know how far over his head he was."
Wade briefly considers a question about what she will do in the future if a friend asks her to invest in a new business.
"I'd tell them, 'I don't want you to end up dead in a toy store parking lot,'" she says. "'I'm not gonna do anything for you.'
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.