|By Eric Eyre|
Charleston, W.Va. - Months before William Whitteker arrived in Clay County with a promise to hire 250 people and open a "global communications center," Whitteker tried unsuccessfully to start a business in Clendenin.
Whitteker courted potential investors, including William "Billy" Ore, who said he realized there was something fishy about the proposed project when Whitteker started talking about "pods and octagons and grids."
"It sounded almost like a science-fiction thing," recalled Ore, who owns Ore's Hardware in downtown Clendenin.
Ore said Whitteker asked him several months ago to invest $10,000 in a company called Panserco Inc., which Whitteker owns. Whitteker planned to start a business near the Interstate 79 Clendenin exit, Ore said.
"He told me he already had other investors," Ore said. "He told me when you give me the money, that's when I take you to meet them."
Whitteker acknowledged Monday that he sought investors and wanted to open a building near the highway interchange. Another developer plans to build a truck stop at the site.
"I talked to three people about it, and they all said no," recalled Whitteker, who stopped at the Gazette's office in Charleston on Monday. "Nobody wanted to do it. It didn't go anywhere."
Last week, Whitteker held an orientation meeting in Clay County, promising that Panserco would bring 250 jobs to the town of Clay. About 40 jobseekers attended.
"When I heard about that, I thought, 'My goodness, he's still doing this stuff,'" Ore said.
Clay County officials are warning area residents about Whitteker's criminal history, which includes several scams. They're cautioning people not to give money to Whitteker or quit their current jobs.
The Clay County Sheriff's Department also is investigating Whitteker.
Whitteker said he has done nothing wrong and hasn't taken a dime from anyone. He said he doesn't require job applicants to pay any fees, as some critics have alleged. Whitteker said he already has signed employment contracts with 60 people.
He reiterated Monday that his business plans are legitimate.
"Where's the scam?" Whitteker said. "The Clay County sheriff and Clay County Commission don't want jobs in that county. All they're doing is perpetuating the negative. They're out for blood."
Whitteker has a contract to purchase the former IGA grocery store on Main Street in Clay for $750,000. He has until Oct. 1 to come up with the money to buy the abandoned building. He said Monday he plans to invest $2 million in the Clay project.
Whitteker also has posted hiring announcements for Panserco on the Internet.
Ore said Whitteker started stopping at the hardware store in Clendenin last spring.
Whitteker moved from Amma to Clendenin several months earlier, after his house burned. Roane County officials declared the fire an arson.
Ore said Whitteker told him he planned to build hundreds of apartments in Clendenin.
"He said if you take a job, you'll get your living quarters for free and your groceries paid for," Ore recalled. "I knew pretty quickly he was full of it."
Whitteker also made a promise to build apartments in Clay County, commissioners have said.
Ore said he called the state attorney general's office to complain about Whitteker. The Clay County Commission also has notified the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division about Whitteker.
"If somebody asks you to pay money to get a job, that's an absolute red flag," said Jill Miles, deputy attorney general. "If somebody is handing over money and not getting anything in return, I do encourage them to file a complaint with us."
Whitteker has been arrested and charged with crimes that date back to the 1980s in Kanawha, Cabell and Roane counties in West Virginia, and in Washington, Wyoming, Ohio and other states, authorities said.
In the late 1980s, he was convicted of fraud for persuading people to invest money in a bogus plan to build a mass-transportation system.
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.