A Trip to Florida
Portions of this post also appear in Aggravated.
In the chapter of Aggravated called, The Long Wait Before the Trial, I talked briefly about a trip Steve took to Florida to earn some money. Here’s a more detailed account of what he did. Parts of this post were used in the book as well.
In October 2005, Del Weaver, a retired police officer, and a good friend of the family, called Steve with an idea. Del heard about an opportunity to be a temporary insurance adjuster, and passed the information on to Steve, giving him a number to call. Steve hadn’t been working for a year at that point, so he jumped at the chance. When Steve called the number, Benjy, the man on the other end of the line, assured him he could get him a temporary license which would allow him to operate as an adjuster for ninety days, but it might be some time before he could go to work.
Steve knew nothing about claims adjusting, so he did some research online, and discovered a three-day class in Waco that would train him, and included taking the test for an adjuster’s license. Knowing the class would cost $300 (money they sorely needed for bills), he cleared the idea with Robin and signed up for the class. It started two days later. Steve described it as sitting in a room with 150 other people, listening to two-and-a-half days of stories about odd circumstances involving insurance claims, narrated by the person who wrote the adjuster’s test for the State of Texas, followed by the test on the third day. Steve got a 98 on it, and walked away with a copy of his test results, a certificate of completion, a temporary license, and an application for a permanent one. All he had to do was fill out the application and drop it in the mail to get his official license. He didn’t do that right away, though, because he had to submit fees along with it and he didn’t want to spend any more money until he had to. He knew he could operate on the temporary license for ninety days, so he waited for a call back from Benjy. The call never came, but something else happened that was more important.
One of the attendees in his adjuster’s class had passed around a list to get email addresses from anyone who wanted to network afterward. Steve said the emails he was getting from the list were driving him crazy. Tons of them, and most were just “Hi, how is everyone doing?” or “Heard anything yet?” Then, one Thursday morning, he got an email that said, “Want to go to work? Contact Gabe Gorman,” followed by a phone number. Steve spent the next hour on the phone talking to Gabe, the owner of a company called Comp-Adjust, who explained that they needed a bunch of temporary adjusters because of all the claims from Hurricane Wilma. At the end of the conversation, Gabe asked Steve if he could be in Ocala, Florida, by 9:00 the next morning. Without thinking, Steve said, “You bet!”
He had practically no money, and no idea how he was going to manage it, but he called his lawyer, Ronald Mathis, and told him about the job, and how they wouldn’t survive without an influx of cash. Mathis said it would be fine as long as he could contact Steve on his cell phone. Steve moved on to the next step. He called his brother-in-law, Marvin Foxwell, hoping Marvin would help him.
Steve told me, “Marvin was as excited as I was and understood the potential. He had more faith in me than I had in myself. I knew I couldn’t finance this whole thing. Hell, I couldn’t finance any of it, I was broke. He didn’t just help, he came through big time. He loaned me his credit card, with a $50,000 limit, and he gave me $1,500 cash. His trust in my abilities made the whole thing happen.” Steve booked a one-way red-eye flight out of DFW airport to Orlando, the closest airport to Ocala. $175 was gone.
He called Robin at work and told her what he was about to do, and let her know he was leaving half of Marvin’s money at the house so she could pay some of their overdue bills. Then he called our sister, Jamie, who lived in the Fort Worth area and asked her to watch one of their cars for him for a few days and give him a ride to the airport. He arranged with Beau to borrow his 2000 VW Beetle diesel because it got great gas mileage. Aside from the VW and Robin’s Jeep, which she had with her at her job, Steve only had one other vehicle at the house, his older pickup, and it was in poor shape and was a gas guzzler.
He had one more thing to do before he left the house. A few days earlier, he had filled out the adjuster’s license application, being scrupulously honest about Question #8, which read, “Do you currently have any pending misdemeanor or felony charges in Texas, in any other state, or by the federal government?” He detailed his current situation, and also listed his 1982 marijuana conviction. Then, just to be sure, he included a letter of recommendation from Eric Sharp, the prosecutor in the Billy Gafken trial from eleven years earlier. Steve had testified for the prosecution in that trial, and thought that Sharp’s word might help.
When I asked him about the application, Steve said, “I assumed they would deny it but I wasn’t about to lie. I knew my temporary license was legal pending a decision.” That meant he could adjust claims for ninety days, or until he was informed otherwise. He mailed the application on his way out of town, and drove to our sister Jamie’s house, about 150 miles away, in Fort Worth. Late that evening he was on a plane to Florida, too restless to sleep much.
When he arrived in Orlando Friday morning, he only had a few hours to travel the eighty miles to Ocala, where the Comp-Adjust orientation session was being held. The first thing he discovered was that he couldn’t rent a car using someone else’s credit card, so he found a taxi driver who would take him there for $156. More of Marvin’s cash was about to disappear. The cab fare was just $20 less than his flight had been. Steve had a panicked moment when he seriously thought about cutting his losses and, instead of taking the taxi, “…tuck my scared-ass tail between my legs and fly back home.” He took a deep breath and thought, I have too much riding on this, and I’m in too deep. He hopped in the cab.
With just a few minutes to spare, he arrived at the hotel in time to register and get into the conference room. His first surprise came during a coffee break when Gabe Gorman introduced himself and started asking Steve a lot of basic information: Name, address, phone, Social Security number. Gabe told him he needed it so he could turn in a list of Steve’s hours at the meeting. He explained that, since he wouldn’t have any claims to adjust until Monday morning, they would be paying him $650 a day for the three days of meetings. That would mean he would earn $2,600 before he even worked on a single claim. Some of Marvin’s money had been made back already. Steve’s spirits lifted immediately, although he wouldn’t see any of that until he got his first check forty-five days later. On Sunday, the last day of the orientation, he logged onto the account they had set up for him and got a list of his first fifty claims. He couldn’t contact them until Monday morning, after 8:00 am, Florida time.
Steve took a Greyhound back to the airport at the end of that third day, and flew back to DFW airport. Robin, Marri, and Beau met him at a nearby I-HOP, and he talked with them for a few hours before driving back to Florida in the Volkswagen. The next morning, on the drive there he contacted fifteen of his claims on his cell phone, and made appointments to adjust their losses later that week. He still didn’t know what he was doing, but he learned on the job. He slept in cheap motels and apartments, and even in a tent city for a while. When the VW broke down in December, he called Beau (who was on Christmas Break from college), and had him drive there in his Ford pickup. Beau worked as Steve’s helper until they finished in February. When it was done they bought a car trailer to attach to Beau’s pickup and hauled the VW back to Deep Springs.
Steve’s total pay was $39,600, a little less than what he normally made in a year working construction. After expenses, including the cost of the trailer, gas, meals, lodging, and repaying Marvin, there was about $20,000 left. All of it disappeared instantly, paying bills they were behind on, including the bail bondsman, but at least they weren’t $20,000 in debt.
As he expected, when he got back to Deep Springs, there was a letter from the Texas Department of Insurance denying his application for a license due to Question #8. That prevented him from adjusting any more claims before the trial took place, but it had given them a little breathing room. Even if he were convicted, which he continued to believe he wouldn’t be, he hadn’t left his family completely in debt.
The trial was still on, scheduled to start a month from then. It was postponed three more times before it was finally held in July 2006, but Steve returned hoping he would finally put this whole ordeal behind him. Hanna, by the way, had the gall to tell Tom Swearingen, during her interview, that Steve “probably found a little girl there” in Florida.
What does the average family do when they can’t afford a lawyer? What impact does that have on them? What about the accuser’s family? Are they usually under any financial strain? That’s in the next post.
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