(April 1) OXNARD, Calif. — An Oxnard-area couple who opened a strawberry growing and brokerage business have left behind a trail of unpaid bills and angry creditors, all of whom want to know what happened to more than $30 million that was invested in the business.

Investors are accusing Brenda and Dennis Willingham of having solicited cash from them in 1999 and 2000 based on a promise of quick returns on their investment.

The Willinghams filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Nov. 15, claiming assets of only $1.06 million. Creditors claim that the couple owes more than $33 million — an attorney involved in one of dozens of pending lawsuits against the Willinghams says that the list of creditors contains more than 500 names of individuals and businesses. “They appeared to be on the up and up,” said Charlie Staka, a salesman with Watsonville-based Pacific Gold Farms Inc. “We sold them some fruit, and they never paid.”

According to the Ventura County Star, nearly 40 civil suits have been filed in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Plaintiffs in a number of those suits say the Willinghams offered them returns of more than 50% on investments in their businesses.

The amounts of investments, the Star noted, citing court records, have ranged from several thousand to more than $1 million. The Willinghams have denied the charges, claiming they have made earnest efforts to pay creditors and were forced to file for bankruptcy to protect their personal property, which includes a home worth nearly $1 million in Ventura.

ALLEGATIONS OF FRAUD

Creditors accuse the Willinghams of having committed fraud and say that the couple does not deserve to have their debts canceled. The creditors want the bankruptcy case dismissed so that their civil suits can proceed.

The fraud division of the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office also is reviewing investor complaints.

Attempts to reach the Willinghams were unsuccessful. Telephone calls to their attorney, Anson Whitfield of Oxnard, were not returned.

Plaintiffs say Brenda Willingham encouraged people to invest and to enlist their friends and relatives to join them in backing one or more of the couple’s businesses, which are said to include Willingham Farms, a strawberry-growing operation on lands leased from Herrera Farms in Santa Maria, and Sunshine Fresh Produce, a brokerage in Oxnard.

Brenda Willingham has said in a deposition that she sought out investors to buy and sell fruit and compensated investors based on margins and how long investors opted to leave funds in the system.

Brian Condon, a Los Angeles attorney who is representing several plaintiffs in suits against the Willinghams, said the plan amounted to nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, with money from subsequent investors funneled to earlier investors.

“It was a scheme where money would go out but basically as a confidence builder, as we’d call it,” Condon said. “This money has been collected over a long period of time, and people did receive some money and induced friends and relatives to put money in. Huge sums of money were eventually collected. That’s what the bankruptcy schedule shows. There’s $33 million owed to people, and nobody can explain what happened or where the money was lost.”

Condon said that returns, if there were any, came back to investors primarily in the form of promissory notes.

“They get a piece of paper that would say their investment has grown to this amount and that you can take this profit and invest it further,” Condon said. “There are thousands of those pieces of paper.”

Investors concurred with that scenario.

ELDERLY COUPLE’S STORY

“It supposedly had been a good investment (for others),” said Santa Maria resident Orie Johnson, who said that he and his wife, Gladys, borrowed $70,000 to invest with the Willinghams.

“I understand she’d been doing well through the years,” said Orie Johnson, a 75-year-old minister who said that Brenda Willingham had approached them about investing. “I talked to two others who said they had made money, and I guess that’s what drew me into it. It was going to pay back 100%. You put $5,000 down and you were going to get $10,000 back in three months.”

The Johnsons say they invested about $100,000 in all.

David Farmer, the San Luis Obispo-based federal bankruptcy trustee assigned to oversee the case, ordered the Willinghams to account for their businesses’ expenditures, calling for “something more credible,” according to the Star. Farmer did not return telephone calls for comment on the case.

The Star reported that when Farmer asked the Willinghams where company documents could be found, Brenda Willingham said they had given the documents to the couple’s first attorney, Ken McDonald. The Willinghams and Whitfield told Farmer they were unable to contact McDonald about returning the documents.

Investors say the Willinghams insisted that bad weather and a dip in the strawberry market had rendered them unable to pay investors.

“She said it was a bad strawberry season, but we read in the paper that it was one of the best seasons ever,” said L.Z. Moore, a Los Angeles-area truck driver who said he, his mother and his fiancee had invested about $2,000 in 1999.

According to the Watsonville-based California Strawberry Commission, strawberry production in the state in 1999 was 78 million trays. Production shot up to a record 88 million in 2000 and reached 84 million in 2001.

Moore said he made several inquiries about his investment.

’ALWAYS A STORY’

“Around Christmastime the first year, my mother asked her if she could get some money back,” Moore said. “She said the money was tied up. She told my mother that, once the berries sold, she’d be able to issue some money. There was always a story.”

Jose Corona, president of Santa Maria-based Corona Marketing, which worked as a distributor for the Willinghams’ business, said his company worked with them until the debt became too heavy.

“Once he fell a little behind on the labor, the better workers started to leave them and quality went down, so we were limited to local distribution,” said Corona, who also has filed suit against the Willinghams. “He stayed pretty much in debt with us.”

Corona described Dennis Willingham as an astute salesman. “He came in like a knight in shining armor, talking about the future and little about the present. He’d say, ‘Next year, we’re going to do this and that.’ But, little by little, none of these predictions came through. He walked the walk and talked the talk, but he never produced any results.”

Corona said his company, which works with about 10 growers in Southern California, took a downturn after it severed its dealings with the Willinghams. “We fell into a little money crunch for about two or three months, from October through December of last year,” Corona said. “We’re still making money back now. Business is good now.”

Many investors, on the other hand, seem resigned to writing off their losses as expensive lessons.

“Like I told my mother, I don’t think we’re going to get anything out of it because we’re really on the low side of it,” Moore said. “Trying to get money out of her (Brenda Willingham) will be impossible because she owes a lot of people a lot of money.”