Terrance Jackson left the Omni Hotel determined to follow his father—who ended up in jail—into the real-estate flipping business.
Jackson (pictured at top) joined over 100 local people from all walks of life this week who responded to radio or TV pitches by former Yale football star Than Merrill. They showed up to pay Merrill’s outfit to learn how to buy and sell properties, a hot business in New Haven, especially in impoverished neighborhoods.
Merrill—who had a three-year star turn on the A&E show Flip This House—invited people to hear Monday afternoon’s lesson at a seminar at the Omni Ballroom. He followed up with email and text messages.
“Today is the day!” Merrill wrote Monday in an email to seminar registrants. “We look forward to having you at our ‘Building Wealth in Real Estate Training Event’ today!”
Merrill didn’t actually end up seeing anyone at the seminar, which started at 12:30 p.m. Monday. He’s based in San Diego. A cardboard likeness of Merrill, along with his partners in a “real estate education” firm called Fortune Builders, did greet attendees at the door to the Omni grand ballroom. (Merrill is at bottom right on the pictured board.)
Inside the ballroom, a hired motivational speaker from Utah named Brian Wilkes did the talking—and convinced people to line up to pay an initial $197 to start on the road to join a controversial line of work that has made investors like Merrill lots of money, cleaned out other investors, sent some people to jail on fraud charges, led to the rehabilitation of some neglected properties, and devastated New Haven neighborhoods.
The line of work—real estate flipping—sounds innocent enough. You buy a house in bad condition. You promise to fix it up. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t. Then you turn around and sell it for a lot more money. Sometimes you sell it to someone who will live in the house and help stabilize a neighborhood. Sometimes you sell it to a new investor who may or may not care what happens to the property. Sometimes—in the world of New Haven poverty-real estate trading in which Merrill’s company swam—you sell it to yourself under a fake new corporate name, or in the name of a “straw buyer” whom you pay, say, $10,000 in cash in a plastic bag, in order to rip off lenders of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A series of high-profile federal prosecutions of such crooked flippers (including Jackson’s father) have played out just two blocks from the Omni, in fact, at the U.S. District Courthouse. Merrill, whose outfit was never caught up in those cases, insists his outfit is on the up and up, with an inspiring story to share. Which his company did in New Haven Monday, in search of new longer-term paying “students.”
Made In New Haven
Merrill and partners at a New Haven company called CT Homes LLC flipped hundreds of local properties in recent years before moving their operations to San Diego. Merrill is a 2001 Yale grad (and All-Ivy strong safety on the football team) who played briefly with the Chicago Bears, then turned to real estate after an injury sidelined him from the gridiron. He and his partners were a featured team for three seasons on Flip This House, starring in segments about homes they remodeled in the New Haven area. (The video above shows a segment from West Hazel Street in Newhallville.)
Merrill, then the company CEO, moved to San Diego from New Haven several years ago. He and his partners’ success led people to enlist them as consultants, according to Merrill, so he and partners developed Fortune Builders, a sideline “coaching” and educational business. The business lures clients through free seminars heavily promoted on local TV and radio—like the one that pulled up to the Omni Monday.
More T-shirts and baseball caps than dress suits were in evidence—though visitors ranged from blue-collar to white-collar—as seats filled and the seminar began with the airing of a Flip This House segment.
The segment showed Merrill’s “New Haven Crew” making over an Orange home—for a quick $138,225 profit.
Then Wilkes, the motivational speaker, took the floor, began speaking into an hands-free mic, and fired up a PowerPoint. He instructed the crowd not to use cameras.
“How many of you,” he asked, “can use more monthly cash flow?”
Hands went up.
Wilkes had some provisos to offer. “Today,” he said, “is not going to be a get-rich-quick seminar.”
Smart thing to say. When Fortune Builder started hitting the road with the seminars, it prompted an Ohio consumer protection warning against a “get-rich-quick” scheme, a Better Business Bureau consumer warning in Michigan, and a hidden-TV report in Virginia about “predatory practices.”
At the Omni, Wilkes made it clear from the start that investing in real estate has “risks.” It’s not for “everybody.” He flashed lots of words on the screen. Serious words. Delivered in a serious tone of voice.
Everyone was warned. Officially, this seminar would not promise they will become rich.
At least not without effort.
Wilkes took care of a second piece of preliminary business: Stating, up front, that he indeed would “sell you something.” This wasn’t really to be a seminar. It was to be a pitch. A pitch for a seminar. One that costs money.
“Who In This Room ...”
Provisos out of the way, Wilkes got rolling. For more than an hour he paced the chandeliered, carpeted ballroom, dipping into the aisle dividing the seven rows of chairs, roaming back toward the screen, firing up the audience with rapid-fire tales of how he got rich, how Than Merrill got rich, how everyone seems to get rich who walks away from old-fogey savings accounts or 401(k) savings plans and dives into buying and flipping real estate.
As long as they take that “leap of faith” and follow the absent Merrill’s tried-and-true formula. Which usually costs $1,979 for a three-day seminar, but for this lucky New Haven crowd, will cost only $197!
Fortune Builders will even throw in a free ticket for a relative or a friend.
“You’re going to do yourself a disservice,” Wilkes advised the group, if you don’t come to the seminar and then try buying at least one house, hiring contractors to fix it up, then reselling it at a $20,000-$40,000 profit.
“I’m going to challenge you to flip one house to find out yourself how much you are going to make.”
“Who in this room,” Wilkes asked, “would be OK with making 20 grand in your spare time?”
Yes! Lots of the people present said they’d be OK with that.
“Niiiiice,” Wilkes continued.
“Do you realize you’re only one flip away from having no more payment on debt” he continued, no more credit-card debt, no more car debt?
Then came an even better part, at least given the circumstances that brought some people to the room seeking new opportunity: You can have “crappy credit.” In fact, your credit-worthiness doesn’t matter! Because according to the tried-and-true Fortune Builders formula, you don’t bother going to banks and filling out all those forms and meeting all those requirements to get a lousy loan. Fortune Builders has discovered a national network of private investors—“over one million people and growing”—who lend cash directly on these deals, quickly, with the purchased properties as their collateral.
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” Wilkes crooned, “to tap into a network like that in New Haven?”
All you have to do, it turns out, is learn the right script to recite, the right vocabulary, when you pitch those moneybags. It just so happens that Fortune Builders can teach you the “specific verbiage.” “What to say and how to say it.” So you can “represent yourself as a savvy investor.”
Wilkes told the audience that flipping makes a great sideline for people with other jobs; or a great full-time line of work, whether for someone already in construction (like Bury Crichlow, pictured, who runs a plastering business), or someone who knows nothing about construction but can line up the right contractors.
Wilkes held forth at length on the evils of keeping your money in low-interest retirement accounts, in trusting those mutual-fund managers to make decisions “for you” about how to invest your savings. He spoke of how he discovered in college that his parents were losers to believe in banks and squirrel away money.
He had “financial freedom” by his late 20s, not his 60s, Wilkes testified.
“Class, do you want more money?” Wilkes called out.
“Are you being truthful about it?”
“Do you know anyone who’s a millionaire today from investing in a 401(k)?”
Chuckles erupt in the room. “You and I”—the crowd, and Wilkes—now knew better than “them.” Better than those devious banks, than those misguided millions of traditional investors, than Wilkes’ parents. They knew that quick, big money was right around the corner, now, waiting for them to grab it before they get old. They knew that their life savings belong in the big casino of real-estate flipping.
“We don’t like banks,” Wilkes revealed in a confessional tone. “In fact, I hate Wells Fargo with a passion.”
Wilkes did get into some specifics in this free introductory pre-seminar “seminar.” He spoke at length about IRS Section 408, under which savvy flippers can “use your life savings” to buy properties tax-free, through a “directed retirement plan.”
Snapping his fingers, he told the story of how he convinced his sister to part with her life savings so he could invest it in his real-estate transactions through a Section 408 “retirement” account. “In five minutes,” he boasted, he pried $146,000 from her retirement accounts!
Faces of 20-something males from Detroit—Detroit! —flashed on the screen. They made thousands upon thousands in quick cash flipping houses in America’s biggest bankrupt city, Wilkes proclaimed.
By the end of the 90-plus-minute pre-seminar “seminar,” all the stoic cautionary language offered at the outset was a distant memory.
“Who in this class,” Wilkes called out, “wouldn’t mind another $500,000 in the next couple of years!”
Hand after hand shot up into the air.
The true take for Fortune Builders wasn’t the number of hands in the air, but the number of attendees who proceeded, after Wilkes’ pitch, to tables at the back of the room. There, they signed up for the three-day $197 seminar later this month in Bridgeport.
Good “students” get to advance to more expensive Fortune Builders courses. Some sign up for $15,000 to $25,000 “coaching.” The truly lucky ones, after they’ve proved they can scare up private investors to do a few flips on their own, get to borrow money from Fortune Builders to start doing lots of flips.
In interviews conducted as they left the Omni, attendees all praised Wilkes’ talent as a motivational speaker. All praised the idea of flipping properties. All said they had no problem receiving a sales pitch; they understood that to be the price of a “free” seminar. All said they had heard about the seminar on TV or radio; African-American attendees tended to learn of the event from ads on the hip-hop 94.3 or 93.7 FM stations.
Otherwise, the interviewees fell into one of three categories.
Some said they would have liked to sign up, but didn’t have the $197.
Some said they were thinking it over. “I’m contemplating signing up tonight” online, said Jeffrey Moreno (pictured above), who lives in Westville. He worked as a security guard for 10 years, he said. He lost his job two months ago.
Cynthia Wang, a Duke university student who attended with her mom, said she was on the fence. “The guy’s a really good public speaker. That’s part of why it sounds like a good deal.” Wang studies public policy at Duke. She said her mom, a homemaker, might pursue a flipping career. Her dad’s a researcher.
Some attendees, like Bury Crichlow, signed up on the spot, eager to jump in. “I’m looking to certify my retirement” by taking the next step from construction to flipping, he said.
Brandon Burks, aka DJ Fresh of Port Life Productions, was all in, too. He and his significant other, a Bridgeport firefighter, could use the extra money to travel and pay off bills, he said. “A big part of freedom,” he said, “is owning projects.”
Among the most enthusiastic enrollees was Terrance Jackson, son of Kwame Nkrumah.
Kwame Nkrumah was a player on one of New Haven’s hottest real estate teams—until the federal government swooped in an arrested its members, including Nkrumah, for cheating lenders out of millions of dollars on at least 48 transactions in rundown New Haven neighborhoods. Those transactions left struggling blocks with abandoned hovels.
Nkrumah—he was born Roger Woodson, later changing his name to that of the late Ghanaian liberation leader—played a supervisory role on the flipping team. He found dilapidated properties. He coordinated the preparation of fake documents to serve as a basis for obtaining mortgage. He lined up straw buyers to pretend they purchased properties that the flipping team in fact “sold” to itself at inflated prices. A federal judge last September sentenced Nkrumah to 48 months behind bars. Click here to read about that sentencing; click here for a story detailing some of his operations.
“He’s coming out [of jail] at the end of this year,” Jackson reported after the Omni seminar. By that time, Jackson hopes to be in the flipping business himself. He works as a landscaper and painter now; he thinks he can do a good job as a flipper.
He was asked if his father’s example might deter him from entering the field.
“I’m going to do it a lot better than he did. I have eight children” to support! Jackson replied.
Brian Wilkes didn’t talk about Kwame Nkrumah at the seminar. Wilkes didn’t talk about a corrections guard named Jacques Kelly, who dived into buying and selling New Haven properties after responding to a different TV ad to learn more about investing; and who eventually ended up on trial for fraud. Wilkes didn’t mention the dozens of other crooked flippers who preyed on New Haven’s neighborhoods over the past decade or more, some of whom, like Nkrumah, had to face a jury or a judge just two blocks from the Omni ballroom, in U.S. District Court. (Click here, here, here, and here to read about some of those cases as well as other similar controversies.) Nor did he mention the well-meaning investors who found out that “flipping this house” in poor neighborhoods can end up depleting their bank accounts while hastening New Haven’s decline. (Read about one such case here.)
In a conversation after the seminar, Wilkes revealed that his role with Fortune Builders involves these motivational pitches more than actual investing.
Than Merrill doesn’t mention that rampant flipping fraud in his presentations either. He was asked about that, and about the “get-rich-quick” fraud alerts against Fortune Builders in other states, in a subsequent phone interview with the Independent.
“That was even before we did the seminars,” Merrill said of the consumer alerts. “That was in response to advertising we did about how to improve your life through real estate. It was somebody being overly cautious. I don’t blame that at all in terms of consumer protection. They do a good job.
“At the same time, it wasn’t based on consumer complaints. To label us without knowing anything about us is jumping to a conclusion in my opinion.”
The industry sometimes “does sometimes get that” negative “label,” Merrill said. That’s because there’s a right way, an honest way, to do real-estate investing, and a dishonest way.
He said his companies have always hewed to the honest path. And it has paid off.
It paid off when CT Homes LLC started making a lot of money flipping homes in Connecticut, then San Diego, he said. Then it paid off when people started hearing him speak at seminars and hired him to consult, leading to the creation and growth of Financial Builders.
CT Homes LLC and Fortune Builders are privately held companies; Merrill declined to offer specific profit or revenue figures, beyond saying they both generate lots of money.
He said he “went to a lot of Tony Robbins seminars” to study inspirational speaking as he developed the Fortune Builders business with some old friends. He estimated that “a couple of thousand” “students” have come to the seminars, some continuing on to “advanced training” in the “learning management system” he has developed for flipping residential real estate. It turns out you can spend years, and tens of thousands of dollars, paying Fortune Builders for advanced “studies.”
When A&E featured Merrill’s crew on Flip This House, it gave him national exposure, with the attendant marketing opportunities for the seminars.
Brian Wilkes, it turns out, isn’t a major CT Homes LLC or Fortune Builders exec. “I’ve known Brian now for a couple of years. He invests in Utah,” Merrill said. “He’s basically a friend who said, ‘Hey, listen. I love teaching and training.’ He’s been through our seminars. He has good experiences investing for a number of years on a smaller level than we do. He’s been working with us for a number of years.”
Merrill said Fortune Builders works hard to operate “transparently,” to avoid tricking people with get-rich-quick lures.
“This is definitely an investment. It is not for everybody. It’s like college isn’t for everybody either,” Merrill remarked.
“We do full disclosure. I tell Brian, ‘Hey listen. Very, very clear, from the very beginning, go through the risks.”
At the Omni in New Haven, Wilkes followed orders. He went through the risks, very, very clearly, at the very beginning.