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Rob Weishapl is sitting at a dining room table in a two-story house on Randolph Street NW, on a borderline block in Petworth. It used to be his house, but now everything he has—any asset that can be connected to his Social Security number, in fact—exists in a netherworld of bankruptcy, foreclosure, and lien.
Weishapl isn’t exactly being interviewed. He’s simply spewing—a roller coaster of allegation, explanation, and illustration, fueled by quick drags from his Marlboro Light and gulps of Mountain Dew. Two dangling earrings flutter around his left ear as he gestures, getting up now to look up a date, sitting down again to present some document or other. Dance music pulsates in the background, an odd but somehow appropriate soundtrack for his tragedy.
If a history of local scams is ever written, let it be noted that few victims were as susceptible to swindle as Robert D. Weishapl. His troubles began last November, when his lover Greg Hixon was losing a wrenching battle with AIDS that lasted more than a year. Around this time, Weishapl discovered he owed the IRS more than $58,000 in taxes and penalties on the Blue Penguin, a Capitol Hill gay club and restaurant he owned with Hixon. He then fell behind on the mortgage on his Petworth home and began amassing debts to restaurant suppliers that eventually totaled as much as $100,000, he estimates.
Because he owed so much to restaurant distributors, he had to fill the Blue Penguin’s pantries with food he stockpiled at the Price Club each weekend—until store managers, weary of receiving hot checks from the Blue Penguin, followed him around a Price Club one day to demand repayment. Local newspapers wouldn’t take his credit for ads, and already slowing business at the Penguin shriv eled further. He began paying his employees erratically; some of them retaliated by lifting cash from the registers and taking food and liquor home.
Word spread among other lesbian and gay bar managers that Weishapl (pronounced “why-sapple”) was spending what money he had on substantial quantities of cocaine and speed—as much as two grams of coke a day, some say.
Weishapl, 37, denies the allegations of drug use, but admits that his life was in shambles. “I was being pulled in 17, 20 different directions every single day. I was so stressed out,” he says. “This is what happened to me probably in about a month’s period of time: My business was failing…, I almost lost my house, my boyfriend left me, my cat died, I had a nervous breakdown….” The list continues, Weishapl gushing forth a stream of almost biblical lamentation, ending with Greg Hixon’s eventual death on Nov. 28.
By March 1995, Weishapl reached a breaking point, and he fled Washington for a friend’s home in Athens, Ga. “I was running down National Airport with my pants falling down, basically, trying to get out of here,” he says. “I was a mess.”
But shortly after Weishapl returned from Georgia, he met Joe Sowers. And that, he says, is when the trouble really started.
Few fictional icons are as sexy as scam artists—the con men who hustle elegantly, almost effortlessly. Americana is full of legendary swindlers—from suave scoundrels like Rhett Butler to slick manipulators like the Grifters. The distance between these rakish sophisticates and Joe Sowers would probably add up to the distance between Hollywood and Franconia, the gritty Fairfax County community where Sowers attended Edison High School in the early ’70s.
As Weishapl found out, Sowers was a con man, but his scams were low-budget, B-movie ruses. Sower’s victims say he charmed, swindled, and downright lied in a quixotic effort to open, of all things, a strip club on Capitol Hill—a joint with “exotic dancers” two nights a week, right in the heart of a prim workaholia. Sowers had no lease and little money, and was a total stranger to the legal and administrative chores required to open a bar in Washington. A former insurance salesman turned used-car salesman, Sowers was the Homer Simpson of hucksters. In a city where subterfuge and scam become political artistry, Joe Sowers was a chump.
Still, this 41-year-old man—his brown toupee askew, purplish capillaries visible under the skin of his bulbous nose, scaly skin sometimes sloughing off onto his cowboy boots—managed to acquire thousands of dollars in loans and services from area businesspeople to help start the 801 Club, located at 801 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. Mention Sowers’ name to any number of neighborhood shop owners and a cloud comes over their faces. “He stiffed the whole Hill,” says the co-owner of a restaurant Sowers frequented.
Just ask Harry Young, co-owner of District Lock and Hardware, a store on 8th Street SE, just down the block from the 801 Club. The hardware store changed locks at the club for Sowers, and he wrote them a bad check on May 18 for $205.64. And then there’s the local Duron Paints, a few doors away from District Lock. Manager Mark Bergeron says Sowers gave him at least three checks, totaling between $2,000 and $3,000, for paint and wallpaper. Those checks bounced. And Certified Electric in Silver Spring never received approximately $6,000 for extensive wiring work at the club, according to the general manager, Larry Williams.
In fact, managers or owners at eight businesses on Capitol Hill and in the Washington area say Sowers owes them money—about $12,000 altogether. Former employees of the 801 Club claim the total number of businesses cheated by Sowers is actually closer to 30. Many individuals—including at least a dozen former employees—say Sowers owes them thousands in back pay, cash loans, and reimbursements for goods bought for the club. (Sowers also owes Washington City Paper $347.70 for an 801 Club ad that ran in May.) Victims say Sowers took a hundred here, a thousand there, nickel-and-diming his way to a scam worth maybe 60 grand in about six weeks.
The biggest lie would turn out to be the most obvious: Sowers brought in painters, electricians, distributors, bartenders, cooks, and all manner of handymen to remodel and staff his new club. Trouble was, he didn’t even own it. Rob Weishapl did.
Weishapl would have reached out for just about any lifeline by April. Somewhat refreshed from his trip to Athens, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 19. The papers show that Weishapl claimed to have $20,000 in assets and $320,000 in liabilities. Under Chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code, a business can reorganize its finances under a court-approved plan while the court keeps creditors at bay. Although it’s a stopgap measure, Chapter 11 can work, and Weishapl was determined to save the club. “I had put my heart and soul into that place,” Weishapl says—along with most of his savings.
So when Joe Sowers said he could help, Weishapl jumped.
Bob Williams introduced Weishapl to Sowers on April 29. Williams is a trusted friend of Weishapl—the man, in fact, who had given him sanctuary in Athens. Williams met Sowers earlier that day at a potluck held by the District chapter of the National Association of Black and White Men Together (BWMT), a Washington-based gay group. A former District resident, Williams had come to Washington from Athens for the meeting. “I was sharing with some of the people at the potluck how people had not supported Rob’s club recently, and that he was looking for investors to try to bring it back to life,” Williams says. “It was then that Joe approached me and said, “I’d be very interested in doing that.’ ”
Later that night, Sowers, Williams, and Weishapl sat in the downstairs office of the Blue Penguin and talked. According to Weishapl and Williams, they told Sowers that the club could be profitable again. After all, it had made as much as $20,000 weekly in the first eight months after opening in September 1993. And it was well-liked in the gay community: A rarity among gay clubs, it was frequented by both lesbians and gay men. The club was also acclaimed for its willingness to host parties thrown by gay groups around town. (On his wall at home, Weishapl still has a “Certificate of Appreciation” from the Centaur Motorcycle Club, thanking the Penguin for its role in Leather Weekend 1994.)
Weishapl and Williams say Sowers took all this in and then made a startling offer. “He said that he had ties with the Mafia out in New York, the boys out in New York,” Weishapl says, “and he just wanted to come in and give me $100,000 [or] $200,000 and have it back in nine months, no questions asked, no interest, nothing, he just wanted in and out.”
“Now, course we know what that’s all about, and I’m not a dummy as far as where the money comes from….[He] literally told me, “Now you know where this money comes from; it’s drug money,’ ” Weishapl recalls.
Williams confirms this account. “When he started talking about stuff like that, we looked around at each other….I felt very uncomfortable about it,” he says. Still, Weishapl and Williams say they weren’t sure whether Sowers was serious about the mob—it had the ring of big talk from a small man. “If anybody was involved in it, they wouldn’t be so free to talk about it,” Williams says.
It doesn’t seem that Weishapl really cared where the money came from. That night, he proceeded to make plans with his new business partner. He says Sowers agreed to stay no longer than three months and serve as a consultant. “We never discussed salaries, we never discussed anything,” Weishapl says. And they never signed anything. Sowers said he would check with the New York boys and get back to Weishapl and Williams two days later.
Williams flew back to Athens, and neither he nor Weishapl heard from Sowers for over a week. Then, according to Williams, he called Sowers on Monday, May 8, and asked what was happening. “He said he had talked with his partners and [that they] would not be investing,” Williams says. Apparently, the Blue Penguin “wasn’t a viable organization” for the mob.
So it was peculiar when Sowers walked into the Blue Penguin a week later, on May 15. Weishapl says Sowers told him he wanted to help even without the New York money. “He pulled off a good game to begin with, of, you know, “I’m doing this because of Bob, I like Bob, and Bob asked me to come in and help you,’ ” Weishapl says. Weishapl claims that Sowers told him he wanted to help jump-start the Blue Penguin in order to get romantically close to Williams.
Whatever the case, Sowers and Weishapl talked for five hours that day, although once again they didn’t work out many specifics or sign any contracts. Weishapl wanted to change the name and the look of the Penguin, and Sowers seemed to agree. The next day, Sowers came in and scraped the Blue Penguin decorations off the walls and began cleaning. That night, Weishapl says, he gave Sowers a set of keys.
Weishapl would later regard that as a big mistake. Sowers behaved like a mercurial dictator from the start, according to Weishapl and former employees. “All of the sudden,” Weishapl says, “I started hearing this 801 Club….” Sowers renamed the club, hired a manager of his own, placed ads, began remodeling, and was writing checks on the Blue Penguin’s bankruptcy account—an account opened with only one dollar and Robert D. Weishapl as its sole signatory.
Weishapl says he never told Sowers he could use those checks and that Sowers must have stolen the checkbook. But the manager Sowers hired, Elias White, says that Sowers told him he had permission from Weishapl to use the checkbook.
Weishapl might have tried to end the whole affair right there by simply telling Sowers to leave. And he might have made it clear to White and other employees that he, not Sowers, owned the club and that all financial matters should be cleared through him. But he did neither, and then became sick the next three days. While he was “violently ill,” Weishapl says, he stayed at home and didn’t worry much about his club because it was closed those days for remodeling.
As for the employees, they had little reason to trust him—for months, he’d paid them rarely (and often with under-the-table cash). Sowers, by contrast, looked a little funny but seemed collected, and where Weishapl sputtered inarticulately, Sowers spoke persuasively. It was clear Sowers considered himself more than a consultant. The new employees, the checks, the remodeling—it all amounted to an effective takeover, they thought. After his illness, “I walked back in there on Thursday afternoon, [and] I didn’t have a key to get in anything,” Weishapl says. Sowers had hired District Lock and Hardware to change the locks, and he had paid for the job with a check he allegedly stole from Weishapl. The safe combination was changed and Sowers was dealing with advertisers and distributors. Sowers simply elbowed Weishapl aside.
What’s more, Sowers had touched off a local controversy by bringing in “exotic dancers” to his new 801 Club. Amid growing confusion over lines of authority at the club, Sowers hired dancers to come into this quiet neighborhood, take most of their clothes off, and generally scandalize the locals. Suddenly, what was a burgeoning legal dispute between two men sparked a community battle.
Capitol Hill is a square neighborhood, and proudly so. It has a turn-of-the-century tidiness about it, perfect for visiting constituents. Sleaze is kept hidden away in other parts of the capital. Opening a nude dancing bar at 8th and Pennsylvania SE (within sight of the Capitol building itself!) is as gauche as staging a tractor pull down Embassy Row.
But that’s just what Joe Sowers did, apparently without Weishapl’s knowledge. In late May, right around the time Weishapl was ill, Sowers peppered the area with leaflets advertising the erotic dancing. Shocked residents complained to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) about the fliers. After a DCRA inspector warned Sowers that he faced $500 fines for each leaflet since he hadn’t obtained permits to post them, Sowers quickly removed them, the inspector says.
But the dancing went on as planned. Sowers had also taken the financially risky step of turning the venue into a heterosexual club, leaving past patrons confused. On Tuesday, May 30, five male dancers appeared onstage at the 801 Club and put on quite a show. “There was a striptease act,” says one spectator, who asked not to be identified, “with lots of physical contact between the dancers and the members of the audience. One of the guys was dressed like a cop, and he handcuffed a woman’s hands.”
Roll Call, the wonkish weekly paper devoted mostly to Congress, has a regular “In the Neighborhood” page that included a June 1 item about the 801 Club. The article was accompanied by a large picture of a nearly naked dancer called Nine and a Half on his back, arms splayed in apparent ecstasy. “New Strip Club Unveiled at Eighth and Pennsylvania,” giggled the headline. The article drew attention all over Congress, says reporter Duncan Spencer, who writes the “In the Neighborhood” stories. (“We got a whipping for running a picture of a guy with a sock on his dick,” he laments.)
Once word got out about the dancing, “congresspeople were upset,” says Gerry Counihan, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area. Counihan knows many members and staffers on the Hill through his job as a mail carrier for the Senate Post Office. “I would be delivering mail and people were constantly bombarding me with this, all day. It amazed me….I don’t know what issues were going on in the Senate that day, but it must have been a slow day.”
Two other ANC commissioners, Tommy Wells and Wayne Curtin, went to the club May 30 on a fact-finding mission, according to Counihan. At the next ANC meeting, Wells and Curtin reported the incident with all the humor of small-town pastors. Looking to put a stop to the dancing, the ANC did what any self-respecting, quasi-government bureaucracy would do. It formed a task force.
The task force wanted to sic building inspectors and the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board on Sowers. Jill Lawrence, a task force member and free-lance reporter, found out that the property’s licenses specifically disallow nude or even near-nude dancing.
But ANCs move slowly—6B meets only once a month in full session—so little happened that last week of May to bring order to the brewing anarchy at the 801. Still, the ANC started a regulatory ball rolling that would eventually close the club—at least officially—and provide grist for nascent lawsuits. Sowers’ lascivious vision for the 801 Club embroiled him in a fight with local community activists. Now he was fighting more people than just Weishapl.
Those who watched Weishapl try to wrest control of his club from Sowers quickly lose themselves in jumbled memories of police visits, shouting matches, and sub rosa settlement offers. Soon after Weishapl discovered the changed locks, he began showing up at 801 and arguing with Sowers, according to several witnesses. After the arguments, Weishapl would jump behind the bar, remove the framed licenses for the club (which must be openly posted), and someone—a bartender or maybe Sowers—would eventually call the police.
Amazingly, the police—officers from the First District substation on E Street SE—never took Weishapl’s side, despite the fact that he presented them with the licenses, which all list him as proprietor. Part of Weishapl’s problem was image: Sowers seemed a sober alternative to the hyperactive Weishapl, around whom drug-use rumors insistently swirled. “Rob would be hollering at me to take the licenses out,” says Elias White. “Rob was…getting on my nerves. He was a headache.”
Police also knew of Weishapl’s financial difficulties. Before Sowers was even in the picture, local officers had closed the Blue Penguin for operating without its liquor license, which the IRS had temporarily seized.
In one typical incident on June 1, Weishapl appeared at the club and “yanked my licenses,” as he puts it. When police came, several witnesses say, Sowers showed them an insurance binder he’d obtained as “proof” that the 801 Club belonged to him. Although an insurance binder has no legal significance, witnesses say it looked sufficiently official for police to side with Sowers. The officers asked Weishapl to leave, according to Weishapl and other witnesses.
The other advantage Sowers had, Weishapl charges, was that Michael Rizzo, who oversaw the property as a representative of the management firm Zuckerman, Kronstadt, never made it clear to police that Weishapl, not Sowers, held the lease. White confirms this. Rizzo “knew Joe was there, he knew what Joe was doing, and his exact words was Joe was saving him a lot of money,” White says. “Joe came in and…painted, retiled, and all this stuff, so, to Mike, Joe had saved him a lot.”
Counihan and others say the club’s space had always been a loser financially. Budget problems had forced a restaurant called Julio’s to close in 1993. And, of course, the Blue Penguin didn’t last a year before problems arose. In both cases, Weishapl says, the landlords lost thousands in unpaid rent—as much as $80,000 in his case, he estimates. Weishapl, White, and other former employees believe Rizzo helped Sowers stay at 801 in hopes that some renovations would later make the club profitable.
Rizzo denies that he conspired with Sowers. He says he merely abided by landlord/tenant laws which prohibit the landlord from kicking out third parties such as Sowers. Landlords can evict only the official tenants, he and other property managers say. Thus it’s the tenant’s responsibility to remove unwanted guests like Sowers. Of course, Weishapl argues that he needed Rizzo’s help to convince police to do just that. Instead, Weishapl says, Rizzo never said a word and often failed to return Weishapl’s desperate phone calls. Rizzo wouldn’t comment on those allegations, but another source familiar with Zuckerman, Kronstadt says the company never favored Sowers over Weishapl. The company, the source says, thought both of them were nuts.
Police finally closed the 801 Club the night of Friday, June 2, and it hasn’t reopened since. They had been called to the scene at least four times in a week, and they finally told Weishapl and Sowers to settle the matter in court, according to Weishapl. Moreover, an ABC inspector had determined that the rightful liquor license holder wasn’t operating the business, so the ABC shut it down.
Weishapl and White say that should have happened much earlier, and they say police broke the law when they ejected Weishapl. First District Sgt. Phillip C. Parker, who was called to the club twice, says none of the officers in his substation played favorites at the club. He says they were merely trying to calm the disputes. “We try and resolve these things without resorting to criminal matters,” he says. Moreover, he recalls that when he went to 801, “no one was contending that [Sowers] did not have a lease.” Other officers who were called to 801 did not return repeated phone calls.
Weishapl says Sowers wreaked the most havoc in the first two weeks of June. According to Weishapl, after the club closed, Sowers sold or discarded many of Weishapl’s personal items from the club, including two televisions, two VCRs, office supplies, jewelry, and a futon.
Weishapl charges that Rizzo knew Sowers was at 801 in June. “He said, “I see Sowers improving things,’ ” Weishapl recalls. “Sowers ripped out my whole office and Rizzo said that would make a nice space for bathrooms.”
Weishapl says he heard on June 14 that Sowers was still at 801, still remodeling and now allegedly selling off restaurant equipment to pay bills. He says he telephoned Rizzo that day to ask what was happening. “Rizzo says, “Sowers is in there. He called me and told me all this had been settled by a judge.’ I said, “Don’t you think I would have been the one to tell you if it was all settled?’ There hadn’t been any court ruling,” Weishapl says.
According to Weishapl, Sowers spitefully sent Weishapl’s financial papers to the IRS to help them root out his savings. And Weishapl has a copy of a hand-written letter Sowers allegedly wrote to the mortgage company, urging them to foreclose on Weishapl. Local businesses say Sowers sent them letters blaming bad checks on Weishapl and asking them to prosecute him. An undated letter sent to Frager’s Hardware on 801 Club stationery asks the store to prosecute Weishapl and lists his mailing address. “We, The 801 Club, are in the process of opening new accounts with you [and] we do not want the prior corporation to interfere with us,” reads the letter, which is signed “Joe Sowers.”
Meanwhile, Sowers was patching up relations with locals who had been outraged by the nude dancing. In what ANC commissioners say were brilliant performances, Sowers gave ANC task force members a tour of the club on June 29 and then spoke at a task force meeting on July 5. Counihan and others say Sowers claimed he never knew about the nude dancing and that his restaurant—which would serve Polynesian food under a new name, Talilelei—would be “a family place.” He showed off a new menu, said he had investors, and talked of Sunday “family days.”
But it was all a house of cards. Sowers managed to get the 801 Club incorporated by the city on June 9, but sources say he could never fully convince Zuckerman, Kronstadt that he had the wherewithal to take over Weishapl’s lease and run a restaurant. The Hill Rag ran a story about the ANC’s concerns over nude dancing, prompting an increasingly desperate Sowers to storm into the paper’s office with threats of a lawsuit, according to its editor, Melissa Ashabranner. Weishapl sued Sowers, and collection agencies began prodding Sowers for repayment for bad checks. His employees left in anger after weeks without pay, eventually filing complaints with the Wage-Hour Office. Police began an investigation, and at least one business owner says the FBI contacted his company with questions about Sowers.
Finally, and perhaps inevitably, word about Sowers’ past started getting around. And, quietly, Joe Sowers left town one day in August. Don Voth, who rented a room to Sowers at his house on Massachusetts Avenue NE, says Sowers told him he was going to live with his parents in southwestern Virginia.
Court records suggest that the 801 Club wasn’t Sowers’ first caper. He served nearly two years in federal prison after pleading guilty in 1991 to two counts each of wire and mail fraud. Court documents show that he was an insurance agent and financial adviser during the 1980s who began living the high life on money his clients gave him to pay insurance premiums and other bills. “The defendant diverted to his personal use or other uses not agreed to by [the Joneses, a family he represented] approximately $199,000 of money given to him by the Jones’ or for the Jones’ [sic],” reads one count to which Sowers pleaded guilty.
Leroy Matthews knew Sowers at the time. Matthews, now 44, was a manager at La Cage Aux Follies, a gay strip club in Southeast. He says Sowers drove a tan Lexus back then and often came into La Cage wearing boots, Western shirts, and a cowboy hat. “He looked like he had money at that point,” Matthews says. (Matthews ended up working for Sowers at the 801 Club and says Sowers owes him $1,500 in back pay and reimbursement for liquor.)
Sowers’ financial and insurance scams fell apart by early 1991, as the Joneses and others caught up with their missing money. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria began long investigations that led to a plea agreement in September 1991. For the four counts to which he pleaded guilty, Sowers could have served a total of 20 years and paid fines up to $1 million. Because Sowers had little money, U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton didn’t impose any fines. But in addition to the two years of prison time, Hilton sentenced Sowers to three years’ probation, during which time he was to pay 10 percent of any income as restitution.
Released from federal custody on Feb. 11, 1994, Sowers should still be on probation today. His probation supervisor, Thyra Benoit, refused to answer questions about him. It is unclear whether Sowers has permanently left Washington and whether he reports regularly to the probation office, as the terms of his probation stipulate. As of last week, there was no warrant for his arrest, although First District Detective John Hawkins has begun investigating Sowers and the events surrounding the 801 Club.
Attempts to locate Sowers for comment proved futile. Two phone numbers he gave to different acquaintances are unknown or disconnected, and Voth, his former landlord, says Sowers left him no forwarding address. Numerous attempts to contact Sowers through two sisters, who live in the area, and through his parents, who live in Pilot, Va., were unsuccessful.
Oddly, no one who knows Sowers could think of any friends he might have. Voth, who rented the room to Sowers, says he only met him about a year ago, when Sowers answered a newspaper ad for the room—although court papers list Voth’s address for Sowers as early as December 1991.
Those who do know Sowers say he kept to himself, particularly after his stint in prison. He landed a job selling used cars at Rosenthal Nissan/Mazda in Vienna shortly after his release. Co-workers say he didn’t talk much, but when he did, he spoke of potential business deals—something cooking in New York, maybe a farm in Texas.
Sowers left Rosenthal in October 1994, according to Judy Soderstrom, a personnel manager at the company. Soderstrom says Sowers told her he was sick and couldn’t do his work. Co-workers also say he often took sick days. Several sources say Sowers told them he has AIDS.
A family friend of the Sowerses, who knew them well when they lived in Franconia but who asked not to be identified, confirms that Sowers went to live with his parents in southwestern Virginia. When asked why, she responds flatly: “Because he’s dying.”
When the name “Joseph R. Sowers” was called in D.C. Superior Court on Sept. 15, no one stood up. The judge issued a default judgment against Sowers, although it has little practical effect. She ruled on Weishapl’s original request, made in June, to have Sowers removed from 801Pennsylvania. Of course, by September, that request was pointless; Sowers was long gone from 801, and perhaps from Washington as well.
But the judgment lifted Weishapl’s spirits. More important, Weishapl’s lawyer, John F. Pressley Jr., amended Weishapl’s original complaint to include Michael Rizzo; Zuckerman, Kronstadt; the District; and unnamed police officers as defendants in addition to Sowers. The lawsuit’s main charge is simple: Rizzo and the police officers who came to his club kept him “from conducting his business, [forcing it] to go into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.” Zuckerman, Kronstadt and the District are named because the lawsuit holds them responsible for Rizzo’s and the officers’ actions.
Like any good American, Weishapl is suing them all for an appropriately ludicrous sum: $150 million. Plus costs. Weishapl says he’s lost everything because of this episode. He even says his year-long estrangement from his family can be blamed on Joe Sowers and company. But one can’t help but think that a person less vulnerable than Weishapl would have stopped Sowers earlier. If Sowers, the police department, and a management company pushed Robert Weishapl off a cliff, he walked right up to it.
Pressley predicts the trial won’t begin until next summer. The parties won’t even meet to set a court schedule until Oct. 27—ironically, the same day Weishapl’s house will be auctioned as part of the foreclosure. As for Sowers, Detective Hawkins just began investigating him late last month, even though he was assigned to the case during the summer. Hawkins says his enormous workload—about 25 assignments each month—accounts for the delay.
Most of the business owners and managers who received bad checks from 801 don’t expect to get their money back. Most of them, in fact, haven’t even pursued the matter legally, even when they claim Sowers owes them thousands of dollars. Why? They say it’s just too expensive to hire a lawyer, serve Sowers a summons, and then fight a legal battle—especially when word gets around, as it has in this case, that the potential defendant has very little money.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that Sowers hurt a lot of people, Weishapl chief among them. But if Joe Sowers is a chronic scam artist, he’s also a clumsy one. His bad checks caught up with him in just a few weeks, and he was sued less than a month after arriving at 801 Pennsylvania. To the extent that Sowers succeeded, he did so with persuasion and bravado, not brains. Today, the restaurant’s windows are painted over with an amateurish tropical scene, apparently intended to evoke the Polynesian theme Sowers wanted for his menu. The artwork is laughably bad, a rather poignant reminder of how out of step Sowers’ dream was with its surroundings. Sowers seems to have wanted the 801 Club to take him far from Franconia, used car sales, and the Petersburg Federal Correctional Institution. In the end, though, he didn’t get far at all.