Slow pace frustrates creditors

`All that we had, she got control of it ... all gone'

April 18, 2002|By Julie Bell | Julie Bell,SUN STAFF

Agnes M. Henning and her sister invested all their retirement cash with Monica L. Coleman, then lost it when the Baltimore broker's glitzy investment house collapsed. But yesterday, when Henning learned that Coleman had pleaded guilty to fraud, all she felt was sad.

"All I can tell you is, personally, I considered her a friend, and my sister [did] as well," Henning said. "That, when you got down to it, was the hardest thing. ... All that we had, she got control of it. And it was all gone."

Henning is one of at least 20 investors who lost millions in Coleman Craten LLC, an investment house started by Coleman and a partner that imploded in 1999.

Henning's situation, and those of other victims interviewed yesterday, illustrates the far-reaching human impact of the firm's collapse, as well as the frustrations its victims feel about how little of the lost money they have recovered three years later.

"What happens to the little guy?" said former Columbia businessman John Conelius, bemoaning the drawn-out process of collecting assets and dividing up the spoils among creditors. "I'm 72 years of age. By the time this thing is settled out, I may be long gone."

Creditors in the case range from Conelius, who said he lost more than $1 million and had to move from a posh Savannah, Ga., resort home to a more modest one in the Georgia countryside, to Mary Barringer, who told The Sun in 1999 that she had invested all $103,000 of her retirement savings - earned over 30 years at a First National job that topped out at $22,000 a year - and lost all of it.

Barringer's old Baltimore phone number has been disconnected, and she couldn't be reached yesterday. But a prosecutor involved with the case said she had moved in with a son.

Like Conelius and Barringer, many of the victims are getting on in years. At least one, Henning's sister, Eileen L. Smith, has died.

The sisters sued for $150,000 and said Coleman referred to them as "second mothers." Henning declined to say whether she has received any money in a settlement. She now lives in Huntersville, N.C., near a son. She talked only briefly before deciding to hang up, saying she knew little about the case because her sister "took care of all of that."

"I'm on Social Security and a small pension," Henning said, adding that the pension is from her husband's job as a purchasing manager at Black & Decker. He died in 1988. "My sister was the same."

Some creditors in the case, including Conelius, have gotten up to 50 cents on the dollar from a $2.1 million settlement from Legg Mason Wood Walker, where Coleman worked from 1987 to 1998 before she began Coleman Craten.

Physician Watson Kime, who lent Coleman more than $1 million from his IRA so she could purchase two waterfront properties in Pasadena, said he got most of that money back when the homes were sold. He said the real estate deal, though admittedly not a profitable one, hadn't affected his standard of living.

Yesterday, Kime was philosophical about the loss, saying in a phone interview from his St. Michaels home that, "Everybody who gives money to somebody else for whatever cause does so at risk." But, he said, Coleman had disappointed him.

"From my evaluation of Monica as a person, she was bright enough to succeed without doing the sorts of things she did," Kime said. Her talents, he said, "were not applied" in an appropriate way. "That's what's disappointing."

Other victims included Jean and Shahid Aziz of Columbia, who sued in March 1999 for the return of their $765,000 investment plus $640,000 in interest, and James R. and Carol J. Hyde of Towson, who accused Coleman of embezzling about $2 million of their retirement funds. Carol Hyde declined to comment yesterday.

Jean Aziz said someone from the state attorney's office called her at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to tell her of the plea, but she declined to comment further on the advice of her attorney.

Conelius has tried to move on. He and his wife, Miriam, were living in style after he retired 10 years ago from his Columbia electronic-equipment sales business. They moved to The Landings in Savannah, a riverside retirement community he described as having seven golf courses, four clubhouses and an indoor swimming club, among other amenities. The day he heard Coleman had filed for bankruptcy, he knew it was over.

He called his real estate agent and put the house on the market. He tooled the countryside for a nice community in which to build a smaller house. It has two stories with a bonus room over the garage, and it's still on a golf course, albeit a public one. He has gone back to work. He remains angry about a judicial system that can prosecute wrongdoing and collect assets, but can't seem to get them distributed quickly.

Otherwise, he said, he is at peace.

"It doesn't much matter here now," he said from his home in Ellabell, Ga. He says he concentrates on his spiritual life, going to the little Catholic church in a one-stoplight town. He doesn't think God will look at his W-2s when he dies, or take an accounting of how well he came out in the Coleman bankruptcy.

"I'm not thinking about the Mercedes or the Rolls-Royce," he said of the cars he doesn't have, "because we all pass on."

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