Ronnie Sheppard: The Fall of a Sleazeball

Television news is not a glamorous business. It’s cheap, it’s tiring, and it makes you old before you’re supposed to be. It’s not what you see in movies. It’s not romantic, dangerous, and sexy.

Except for when it is.

There was a two-year period of my TV news career that I spent fielding anonymous phone calls, meeting Deep Throat sources in dark offices, chasing paper trails, nailing the big interviews, and watching people go to prison.

The Carolina Investors saga began after I was already established as a reporter here in town. Twenty-four hours into the story, I was assigned as the lead reporter, a role I would both relish and hate for the rest of my TV news career. How many stories did I file? I don’t even know. Although this page will give you some idea.

Re-telling the whole story would take way too much time. I do remember the first few months, though, when I realized the whole thing started well before I was born with the death of a child.

Dwight Holder stood in the middle of the small plot of land and stared down at his first child’s grave. Weeds grew up around the headstone. Holder looked up and surveyed the graves around him. In such a place, weeds are unwelcome.

Holder had returned from World War II and service on a PT boat.

The idea that would define the rest of his business life came as he stood in the middle of an overgrown graveyard in the middle of Pickens County.

Holder was a good man, as were the many men who ended up following in his footsteps. I wrote the first long piece on the Carolina Investors story in May of 2003. In a world where only blood, guts, and gas price stories made it to TV, it was a challenge to make a story about an investment scam interesting enough for people to watch.

The simple fact was, however, that what was once a venerable investment company had turned into South Carolina’s version of Enron. The hard-working farmers and mill workers of this community lost a combined $280 million. One investor committed suicide. Other folks thought about it.

I got to know an old preacher during my time on the story. He was one of the investors.

The Rev. Joe Trotter stood in a northern Greenville County fish pond and guided a young boy’s head under the water.

The ceremony was one of seven baptisms Trotter performed in his first year as a minister at a small mission church.

The boy would eventually grow up to be a minister himself. It was the beginning of Trotter’s life’s work.

While he worked for his Lord, Trotter also worked to live. The early days of his ministry did not provide enough to put food on his family’s table.

“They would take up offerings sometimes and I’d get 50 cents,” Trotter remembered decades later. “Sometimes I’d get nothing.”

So, Trotter worked, sometimes in a mill’s cloth room, sometimes as a carpenter.

“Jesus was a carpenter,” he reminded an afternoon visitor as he discussed his various careers.

During his time as a mill worker, Trotter grossed about $32 a week.

Pennies went to Social Security. Trotter put as much as he could afford into savings. He saved for his retirement.

Over time, Trotter amassed a working man’s fortune, the dollar amount of which his wife of more than 60 years begs him not to discuss.

He put almost all of it into a reputable investment company called Carolina Investors and felt it was safe there. Each month of his retirement, he received a check to complement a small Social Security benefit.

He bought his daughter a car, put a grandson through college, and paid private-school tuition for his great-grandchild. He did it all while spending 40 years preaching the gospel.

On a sunny April 2003 afternoon, Trotter struggled to explain how his life savings had disappeared.

“I’ve helped everybody and led so many to the Lord,” he said. “Now everything’s gone.”

Watching an old man cry on his front porch helped me realize that, even if TV drained every bit of my spirit, I was at least telling stories that needed to be told.

While there was a lot of fault to go around in the story, it was clear after a few months of investigation that the chief villian in the saga was a 9th grade drop-out who had somehow become CEO of a mortgage company that bought out Carolina Investors. For several years, he cooked the books, got rich, and, essentially stole the life savings of people who had lived in this community their entire lives. While I’ve known this to be fact since late 2003, I was never able to really say it until now.

Nearly four years since Carolina Investors closed its doors, Ronnie Sheppard is in prison, sentenced to 20 years for a variety of securties fraud and conspiracy charges.

There are days I miss being a TV news reporter. This happens to be one of them.

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Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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7 Responses

  1. I don’t think a lot of people understand just what money represents to the working-class.

    Its the cuts, callouses, and tired bodies that went into buying the food on the table or clothes on their kids’ backs. Its pride that their work gave tangible rewards.

    Everytime I see my father’s fingers and arms full of these cuts and bruises from working construction, I’m reminded of this and end up wholefully guilty for wasting a stack on a flush draw.

    Thank you Otis for sticking with the story.

  2. I dunno. I like the new guy they put on the story after you left.

  3. Seth Sheppard says:

    Since yall all knew dad so well you should have known that he gave his life for his company. When Home Gold came to him and ask him to come help he did it to help save all the investors money mom didnt want him to do it she hated he all he said was i have to do this if i dont all these poor people will loose there life savings. What yall dont know is dad had worked his butt off for years before home gold and made more money then many people will in a life time. He worked 12 hours a day most days and his work payed off its not a crime to know the business and know what to do dad didnt deal with customers and he didn’t handle the financials that was somebody elses job. He did what he was brought into do if you look back at the facts dad more then tripled the income of the company it just wasnt enough to out run the debt that was accumulated before he was hired and as soon as he found out what was really going on he got out as quick as possible

  4. Randy Barton says:

    I knew Ronnie Sheppard in those days. He was a good man. I saw him do many things in private to help many people. He always worked hard. He loved his wife and son. I knew him to be a great business man and was honored to have had the opportunity to work for him. He was only with HomeGold for one or two years and couldn’t have spent several years cooking the books as the news media would have you believe. HomeGold and Carolina Investors were in financial trouble long before Ronnie came along. I will say it again… he was a good man and I enjoyed working with him. He isn’t the financial monster that people make him out to be.

  5. Ricky Applewhite says:

    Total bullshit, If Ronnie had clean hands it would had been easily showed in the court of law. Ronnie was trouble ever since I known him back in the 80’s. Some people never change and If I had a say he would never get out of jail. He will have to answer to God.

  6. He was a crook at the onset a silver spoon for his gracious family. So where did the money really go I had over 300,000 that some bastard has enjoyed

  1. May 27, 2010

    […] the victims of Carolina Investors were World War II vets, and one of the Carolina Investors victims committed suicide after losing everything. Having┬áseen first-hand the destruction that pyramid scheme operators […]

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