Archive for September 6th, 2012


money talk

I honestly believe that a new lie is exhaled with every one of Stephen Sydebotham’s breaths.

I was on the phone with Blade Reed’s lawyer three days ago for over an hour, and almost nothing is as Sydebotham has represented to anyone. In an August 25 e-mail to me, he claimed to have paid Blade’s attorney $1,770 of our money and to have backup documentation for his payments, but the attorney told me she has only received $500 and that Sydebotham claimed the money was his, not ours. Until I contacted her last month, she’d never even heard of The Redemption Project.

In the light of the recent revelations about Stephen Sydebotham’s frauds and deceptions, I think it’s time we had a talk about how contributions to The Redemption Project and the various funds for our kids are spent. No one is more offended by Stephen’s apparent misappropriations of money than me, and I hope that by the conclusion of this long post you will understand where I am coming from.

I must tell you at the outset that I am living the life of my dreams. But unlike most other people in today’s materialistic world, my dreams really have very little to do with money—or, more precisely and to the point, having a lot of money or, at times, even enough money.

When I was a kid in my early 20s, I spent a lot of time as a guest at a Trappist monastery and was fascinated by the contemplative lives of the monks who lived there, “dead to the world,” living lives of poverty and silence, and devoting their every waking hour to asceticism, thinking, and prayer. I seriously considered entering the life, but ultimately did not because I was more attracted to the lifestyle than to the religious beliefs which were foundational to it.

When I was in my late 30s, my wife Holly and I paid a January 1986 visit to a down-on-its-luck adobe resort in Tucson where we met an elderly couple who changed my life.

This was a life-changing encounter in at least two ways.

First, the old man—a wealthy Floridian named Jim Newton—subsequently became the most influential mentor in my life. He had himself been mentored by Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, and Alexis Carrel. His best friend was Charles Lindbergh. Jim introduced me not only to the wisdom of these great men (whom Jim described as all having been mystics who shaped the 20th century), but to the spiritual beliefs, principles, and practices to which Jim and his wife Ellie devoted their whole lives and which now provide a big part of the foundation for my life and work.

Second, it was during this visit that Holly and I fell in love with our American deserts and their indigenous adobe architecture. The resort was an old girls’ school that had been built in 1929 on a smaller and more intimate scale than we see anywhere in today’s steroidal architecture. The place was magical and it was there that the seed for the vision for Estrella Vista was planted and watered by the idea that such a retreat could provide the soil for spiritual rebirth and renewal as this old girls’ school had done for me.

A few years after Holly died, when I was in my late 40s, I was thinking about a quote by then-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan in which he was commenting about how modern products are comprised of material and intellectual components, and that in our Information Age the proportion of physical mass of products is being replaced by information.

Hmmm, I thought… wouldn’t it be an amazing accomplishment to create a high-value desert home by simply reorganizing the materials on site—stone and mud—and in the process add creativity and artisanship as the essential transformative (and value-creating) catalysts? A “million-dollar mud house” became my mantra as I began contemplating my plan to move from Minneapolis to somewhere in the desert Southwest.

By the time I was in my late 50s, I had discovered the Big Bend region of Far West Texas and relocated here. Through an unlikely series of events, in 2005 I had become involved in the lives of Derek and Alex King. Using books from the 1920s and 1930s, at that time I was also researching my mentor Jim Newton’s spiritual beliefs. Coincidentally, my health had deteriorated, I had suffered a small stroke, and one day I found myself in the middle of a third cardiac incident so serious I was sure it was going to be the end of me. In this event, all these various threads of the previous decades came together in one electric moment. I offered up a prayer in a way that Jim Newton had taught me: “Okay, God. I’ve made a mess of my health and I’m ready and willing to die if that’s what you want. But if you have other plans for me, I will obey without reservation.”

In an instant I saw the “million dollar mud house,” there was the idea again of its being a spiritual retreat and place for renewal, Derek and Alex were there (as well as my other kids)—and in that instant the heart attack ceased. I had my assignment, and after a false start in Marathon (where I wasted two years on a real estate development hobbled by a business partner who used his “support” of the vision to entice me into work in which he had no intention of allowing me to realize my goals), I found Estrella Vista and have been pursuing the vision alone ever since.

I purchased Estrella Vista, a 20-acre property with a single adobe house and three outbuildings on it, for $55,000 on a contract for deed. This may seem inexpensive by city standards, but the house was only a partially completed shell and lacks plumbing and other modern systems. A lot of people have told me I paid too much, but it is a permanent and aesthetically pleasing structure in a land peppered with trailer homes, and the site is one of the best and most beautiful I have seen in the whole area.

I made an $8,000 down payment, and in the four years since I have been here I have paid down the loan balance from $47,000 to $27,900. In addition, I have purchased a total of 40 more acres from three sellers to the north and south of the original 20 acres, thereby protecting the viewscapes from the house. And, as I announced in early July, an additional 20-acre parcel has been donated to the property. Thus, a total of 80 acres of land is now held by The Estrella Vista Trust, which was created to establish a 100+ acre desert mountain retreat which will serve as a permanent anchor in the lives of the kids we serve—a place they can always come home to for Christmas. When I die, control of this property will pass on to the kids, some of whom will hopefully be adults by then (if I live long enough). We want Estrella Vista to always be a welcoming spiritual home for our kids and for our kids’ spouses and children.

I have been doing all of this on a fixed income which now consists of only $1,050 a month, of which $650 to $900 has gone to land payments each month. This leaves very little for personal living expenses—and it is a good thing I had resolved to live a monk-like life, otherwise I should be very dissatisfied with my situation. As it is, however, I am immensely happy because, as I’ve said, I am living the life of my dreams.

When I arrived at Estrella Vista four years ago, I resolved to begin creating what has since become The Redemption Project, using mainly the writing talent and meager financial resources at my disposal. So I began The Wandervogel Diary, first as a letter which was periodically e-mailed to a short list of friends, and then a little more than a year later (in January 2010), as a blog with open access through the Internet. It was my goal to create a base of support through the blog to provide the kinds of direct services to kids such as we are providing today.

In 2010, we raised $27,149 in contributions (all but $4,361 from me). In 2011, we raised $40,173. In the first six months of 2012, we have raised $23,557 and are on track to raise at least twice that amount by the end of the year (and maybe more, if some anticipated year-end national publicity materializes). These amounts are the combined totals which were contributed for general operating expenses, the kids’ individual trust funds, and the Estrella Vista Trust.

Because my net monthly income after land payments is only about $400 (and because food and fuel costs are so high out here), the general operating fund regularly pays phone and internet charges, fuel costs (for heat and nighttime power generation), and (if I run out of money for food and ice) limited personal living expenses (usually less than $250/mo, which in our year-end accounting is deducted from my contributions for Estrella Vista land purchases). From time to time, friends and family members have also sent me personal gifts to further the cause. No salaries are paid for any of the work of the Redemption Project.

Living on such a modest scale, you can imagine the emotions I feel every time I make a $5,000 or even a $1,000 payment for professional services for our kids. Most of the time it’s not so bad because I am thankful that we are in a position to bring “world class” talent to bear on the kids’ needs. I can also think back to a time when I used to live on a bigger scale, when $5,000 or even $25,000 didn’t seem like that much money at all. These charges usually seem reasonable to me.

Yet the world is full of perverts, parasites, and grifters, and vulnerable kids are like chum in the water for predators like Stephen and others.

A couple days ago, Jordan Brown’s attorney Dennis Elisco called me for help in paying off an Erie psychologist who racked up a lot of hours meeting with Jordan when he was held at the Edmund L. Thomas Adolescent Detention Center—and for the life of me, I can’t see evidence this man’s services did Jordan any good. He even charged for local travel time at his full professional rate. I wasn’t involved in selecting this shrink, but until I spoke with him yesterday and  made payment arrangements, the guy was threatening to sue for something like $2,250 in unpaid fees, and the defense team doesn’t need this kind of distraction as Jordan’s appeal goes forward. So between The Redemption Project, The Jordan Brown Trust, and Dennis Elisco himself, we are paying off the psychologist to clear the decks for action.

We’ve agreed to pay $1,000 of the psychologist’s bill, but this is going to be an extremely difficult check for me to write, especially knowing that we are going to have to raise many times that amount to hire expert witnesses for Jordan’s appeal (who will, by comparison, do the boy great good). At least I have the comfort of knowing that the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center is remaining on the defense team on a pro bono basis. They are better talent than any amount of money could buy. Dennis Elisco and his  co-counsel Steve Collafella are sticking with the case on a pro bono basis, too.

Even in the case of our apparent losses due to Stephen Sydebotham’s fraud, we are netting out ahead. An unintended outcome of this unhappy chapter is that our legal researcher Dana Hoffman, her husband and dogs, are relocating from Minnesota to a place close to Estrella Vista so Dana can devote herself as a full-time volunteer for The Redemption Project. I doubt this would be happening if Dana and I hadn’t worked together so closely on our internal investigation of Stephen’s deceptions. Again, this will be an addition to our work that no amount of money could have bought. The Hoffmans say they will arrive here in about a month. I have found them a lovely and affordable place here where I hope they will live as happily as I do.

With the extra help so close at hand, we will be able to do a better job of developing opportunities and avoiding problems. As much as I enjoy my solitary life, it does carry with it certain practical limitations. Plus, next year is the time when we must begin building some infrastructure here so Estrella Vista can support a small community of young people who will learn the ways of:

Freedom • Self-Responsibility • Adventure

Honesty • Purity • Unselfishness • Love • Loyalty

This is not the last time we will be stung by dishonest and selfish people. Hell, we are dealing in an arena which is disproportionately populated by corrupt and immoral people, and they are attracted like flies to vulnerable kids. With Dana’s help, we will do a better job of risk management by screening out and keeping these kinds of people at bay. With Dana’s help, we will do a more effective job of holding corrupt and immoral officials accountable for their wrongs committed against children. And by living out our values according to absolute standards, we will make ourselves less attractive targets because predators always attack at one’s perceived points of weakness.

We will not be weak. We will not be soft. We will continue helping kids to become strong, moral, independent, and free—hopefully with your continued support.

I am gratified and so very thankful that not a single donor has, to my knowledge, jumped ship because of Stephen Sydebotham’s betrayal of our trust. Not a single person has accused me of weakness or stupidity for having trusted Stephen in the first place.

In our cases which do not involve Sydebotham, everything appears to be working out well.

Yesterday we received word that the Indiana Court of Appeals will listen to oral arguments in the case of Paul Henry Gingerich on October 30. His attorney, Monica Foster, will argue that Paul Henry, who at age 12 was the youngest person in Indiana sentenced to prison as an adult, wasn’t competent to stand trial as an adult because of his young age. She will also contend that the four days his attorneys were given to prepare arguments that the case should stay in the juvenile courts was inadequate.

Today Bill Kutmus will be arguing in a Mitchell County Iowa court that 13-year-old Noah Crooks’ case should remain in juvenile court, despite the state’s determination to see him tried as an adult for a murder for which he is not culpable.

Had it not been for The Redemption Project, both these boys would not be represented by such skilled and trustworthy defenders as Bill Kutmus and Monica Foster. Since we hired Mike Scholl to represent James Prindle, he now has hope, too. Even Jordan Brown’s attorneys have agreed that The Redemption Project will assume a more aggressive role as Jordan’s case goes into appeal.

Life rewards the risk-takers, not the risk-averse. Unless we never give up and are able to establish durable bonds of trust with others, we will never experience success in this untrustworthy world. And troubled kids will never be able to achieve redemption in a world dominated by the hateful spirit of retribution.

Thank you for your Trust.

We are making a big difference.


Groove of the Day 

Listen to Louis Prima performing “Pennies from Heaven”