Ambition is broker's downfall

Embezzling charges called result of straying from insurance work

January 17, 1999|By Jay Apperson and Dan Thanh Dang | Jay Apperson and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

To Clare Barry, the deal seemed right -- no matter that she parted with a big chunk of her insurance check before she'd even left the agent's office.

But Wade N. Willey was one insurance broker who rarely missed a chance to sell his latest moneymaking proposition.

"He had a great idea: financing in high-risk insurance," Barry said, recalling the evening she drove to the Bel Air offices of the Wade Willey Wade Insurance Agency to pick up a $20,000 benefit check after her fiance's death in 1988. "He said the bank is reaping the money. He felt like he could make some money and his -- what would you call them? Shareholders? No, his investors -- could make some money."

For a while, Willey's investors did. Now, Willey sits in a Harford County jail cell, charged with embezzling at least $2 million from clients like Barry.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported the name of a company in which Wade N. Willey has a minor financial interest. The name of the company is Autopay Data Processing Services Inc., not Accupay. The Sun regrets the error.

His Jan. 9 arrest culminated a yearlong investigation that began after Willey's uncle complained that he'd been cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. State insurance officials, stung by criticism from the grand jury that indicted Willey, are looking into their handling of a 1996 complaint against the 50-year-old insurance broker.

Barry, who continued to invest money with Willey after her fiance's death, is not sure what happened. The 58-year-old Aberdeen woman knows that the interest payments on her investment came to a halt more than two years ago and that she has lost more than $60,000.

"When the news really hit me, it hurt," she said. "Deep down inside, I took him to be a friend. The older I get, the more I find out you can't have friends."

Authorities provide few details of Willey's alleged crimes. A review of court records, with interviews with family members, former clients and business associates, provide a portrait of an ambitious -- if overmatched -- businessman with the will and the ways to coax money from investors.

`Talking about his faith'

Many who know him say he is religiously devout and says grace before breaking bread at a business luncheon.

"He'd run into people at the supermarket, tell them a few jokes and then he'd start talking about his faith," said Willey's 20-year-old son, Ryan. "He's a very outward type. He wanted to let people know what he believed."

The mailbox outside his Bel Air home says, "JESUS is the reason for the season" in bright Christmas colors. In the driveway is a black Mitsubishi Mirage with license tags "PSALM." He is a member of Mount Zion United Methodist Church near Bel Air.

In Harford business circles, he was known as a relentless salesman.

"You'd see him out in the parking lot and he'd say, `Hey, you ought to get in on this, you ought to see what we're doing,' " said Joan A. Ryder, a real estate broker in Harford County whose office is in the same complex as one of Willey's former offices. "He always had things going on, as far as things he was" -- she paused -- "peddling, I guess I would say."

Willey's associates say he followed his father into the insurance business. He added an extra "Wade" to his company name, making it "Wade Willey Wade."

Several years ago, the younger Willey moved his offices to the top floor of a stone building on the outskirts of Bel Air. By then, it was clear he would not be limited to brokering policies for the huge Nationwide insurance company.

Group health plans. Mortgage services. Auto financing. Financial planning. Willey tried to make money from them all. When he was arrested, he was working on a plan to market some of his moneymaking ideas to other insurance agents, a business associate said.

One of the alleged victims named in indictments said she invested more than $6,000 in a mortgage services company in which Willey owned a stake. When the woman, Loida Garcia, said she had inherited money and had more to invest, Willey had another suggestion: Help back a friend's fledgling singing career.

Lured by promises of a 50 percent return on her money, Garcia wrote a check for $120,000. She has seen no money since but believes Willey earned a hefty commission from her investment.

"He made us believe we were doing the right thing and that he was going to do right by us. I thought he was a religious person," she said. "Now I see he just used it to trick people."

Some of Willey's business associates were not impressed with his forays outside insuring lives, homes and cars.

"He's ever the wheeler-dealer, smug almost," said Charles Serrini, a data processing company president who said he has limited his ties with Willey. He said Willey, who remains a minor shareholder in the company, Accupay, fell short on his promises to bring business to the company. Company Vice President Neil Nemser said, "He dreams big, but he doesn't come through."

The conduct that seems to be at the heart of the charges against Willey was an offshoot to the insurance business.

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