Shawn Vestal: From downtown developer to federal convict, the fall of Ron Wells is stunning
It is hard to recall a more precipitous fall from grace than that taken by Ron Wells.
A superstitious person might wonder if there’s a curse on the Ridpath Hotel, whose history has been marked by saviors who turn out to be con men.
It has been Wells, after all, leading the effort to bring the Ridpath out of the decrepit shadows left by the man at the center of the previous ownership, Greg Jeffreys.
A legitimate contender for the biggest con man in recent Spokane history, Jeffreys now sits in prison for an elaborate and outrageous series of real estate scams for which he owes victims $9.3 million. His involvement in the Ridpath, which largely predated his most egregious crimes, included dividing up the ownership of the building into separate condominiums that complicated the path toward a reopening in seemingly endless ways.
Now Wells – for years, the avuncular, reassuring face of the Ridpath rehab efforts – has pleaded guilty to conning an insurance company with, of all things, a fake car accident. The seediness of that crime stands in sharp relief to the many years and many projects upon which Wells built a good name in this community.
It’s shocking in a way that the case of Jeffreys never was, because Jeffreys always seemed like a man who would take any shortcut to help himself, even before the extent of his vast fraud became known.
And yet Wells – for reasons that are not entirely clear from court records – not only became involved in the fraudulent car crash, he did so in partnership with a group of people who prosecutors say ran a huge criminal enterprise over years, scamming insurance companies with staged car crashes, fake stair falls and other cons. A group of 22 defendants defrauded insurance companies of $6 million from 2013 to 2018, according to federal prosecutors.
How Wells came to join them remains, at this point, largely a mystery. He owed the head of the group $20,000 that he could not repay, court records say, and agreed to participate in the staged crash to erase the debt, but that doesn’t explain much.
As the connection becomes clearer, it seems certain that it will do even more damage to the reputation Wells built.
There is every reason to hope the Ridpath revival will continue, which would be excellent news for downtown Spokane. There is every reason to hope that the blight and decay that attended the old hotel will be erased as it moves forward as the Ridpath Club Apartments. Wells has been removed from ownership, apartments are being leased, and remaining owners believe his case won’t further ensnare the project.
Still, he was the public face of the Ridpath for many years, the voice providing updates as the project inched toward reality through the nightmare of ownership conflicts, infrastructure issues, and financing challenges that beset the place. A large part of what’s happening at the Ridpath now – including public tax credits that helped finance it – was built and sold in part on the good name and positive reputation of Wells.
In a plea deal filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Spokane, Wells pleaded guilty to nine felony counts, including mail fraud, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, and engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from unlawful means. The maximum penalty for all the counts – if Wells were to face it, which is highly unlikely – would amount to 160 years in prison and $2.25 million in fines. These are serious crimes.
The charges stem from Wells’ participation in a conspiracy with at least five other people to defraud Safeco Insurance Co. with a fake car accident, and with a transfer of funds associated with a different fake crash. The scheme was cooked up by William Oldham Mize, a man who lives in Spokane and Las Vegas, and Wells and others helped carry it out, according to court documents.
Wells’ plea deal this week focuses on one staged car crash in Liberty Lake in 2016. That is the sole incident around which Wells pleaded guilty. But Mize was the apparent ringleader of a much larger enterprise, and he seemingly had it down to an art.
Mize and his fellow conspirators orchestrated fake car crashes in Las Vegas and Henderson, Nevada; in Shingle Springs and Rescue, California; in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. He helped stage stair falls at several homes in California. Each one resulted in six-figure payouts from insurers, according to the indictment.
It was, all in all, the kind of thing you might have expected Greg Jeffreys to do.
But it wasn’t what anyone ever expected from Ron Wells.