NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
You may not believe everything you see on TV, hear on the radio, or read on the Internet, but the momentum of all three can create a powerful impression.
It's an impression that led North Texans Bart and Crystal Thom and Leroy Buchheit to place their troubled finances in the hands of John Atchley.
Atchley had a radio show on KLIF; a video on YouTube; and a Facebook page with more than 4,000 friends. His company, American Negotiators, had a website.
The Thoms were deeply in debt. So was Leroy Buchheit. Separately, they heard Atchley on the radio and surmised he was offering a financial lifeline.
His radio show had all the trappings of credibility. It aired on KLIF just after financial guru Dave Ramsey on Saturday afternoons. What they didn't know was that KLIF was paying Ramsey for his show, whereas Atchley was paying KLIF for his airtime.
Radio and TV stations — including WFAA-TV and KLIF — often sell paid programming to private businesses and identify it as such.
"We had to pay [Atchley] $2,000, which he took off a credit card," Crystal Thom said. The Thoms estimate their debt at over $20,000 when they signed up in 2011.
Buchheit's was more than $10,000 when he signed up about a year earlier.
But the down payment was just the beginning. Buchheit and the Thoms say Atchley then instructed each to send about $1,000 a month to an account he designated. Then he said he would negotiate with their debtors to settle their debts for about sixty cents on the dollar.
The Thoms said they sent Atchley more than $19,000 in down payment and deposits. They have canceled payment slips for more than $10,000.
Buchheit estimates he paid Atchley a total of $13,600. "If you talked to him directly, he seemed like a very intelligent person," Buchheit told News 8.
Neither Buchheit nor the Thoms ever met Atchley face-to-face. They communicated with him — or people who said they were his staff — on the phone or via e-mail.
"We had to send him all of our creditors and their phone numbers and addresses," Crystal Thom told News 8. "And we had to change our address to his address, to the one in Addison."
That was Suite 600 at Millennium Tower in Addison, the alleged headquarters of American Negotiators. That turns out to be an executive office suite; in essence, a mail drop.
For a year, while they were making deposits, the Thoms and Buchheit received assurances from Atchley that he was close to concluding his negotiations with their creditors.
Then they quit hearing from him. Each agonizing month made it more clear to them their money had gone for naught.
And the creditors started contacting them. The Thoms said they haven't heard from Atchley since April of last year. Buchheit dates his last contact from the day his lawyer threatened to sue Atchley in February 2012.
News 8 has not been able to contact Atchley. Dallas County property records list a house in Atchley's name in North Dallas. The door is not answered, but mail is collected and a luxury car is parked in the garage.
The Thoms have had to declare bankruptcy. Leroy Buchheit has satisfied his debtors.
They are not the first victims of Atchley, according to records. The Federal Trade Commission sued him in 1998 and 2006 for violations of the Credit Repair Act, under a company he ran then called Cornerstone Wealth.
Records show in 2008, Atchley was fined $547,500 for those transgressions. County records show the IRS has filed two tax liens against him totaling $137,000.
KLIF has sued him for $20,000 in unpaid radio time.
"I'd like to see him in federal prison," Barth Thom said.
Leroy Buchheit wants Atchley out of business.
In total, the Thoms and Buchheit have filed complaints with the Dallas County district attorney, the Tarrant County district attorney, the Texas attorney general and the FTC.