Turns out the senior athlete who introduced pickleball to many West Michigan residents left more than 100 of his former Milwaukee-area clients in a financial pickle after defrauding them of more than $2.4 million.
James O'Hearn on the west side of the lake was a classic con man, according to those close to the story. In 1999, victims applauded in the courtroom when the federal judge sentenced him to prison, according to newspaper accounts.
O'Hearn rebranded himself as “Jimmy O” on this side of the lake. He says he is a changed man who wants to help his community and right the wrongs. He has gained the respect and admiration of many in his physical fitness classes, and the community at large.
But is there reason for caution when O'Hearn solicits money to help cancer victims and others in need? Should we be concerned when he says he helps senior citizens with their finances?
Several local sponsors don't think so. They said they trust O'Hearn, pointing to all the good he does in this community, how he changes lives with his enthusiasm and encouragement.
A former Wisconsin client of O'Hearn's who lost more than $100,000 said there is reason to be on guard.
According to Wisconsin Eastern District Court documents and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports, O'Hearn operated a pyramid scheme in the 1990s, and repeatedly forged checks and authorizations and acted as a stockbroker after his license was revoked.
He was accused of illegally converting assets for his own personal use, falsifying financial information, misrepresenting investments and manipulating accounts to pay investors with money from other clients. He also enticed clients to invest in his 94-acre buffalo ranch in Wisconsin, assuring them of rich rewards.
O'Hearn pleaded guilty in federal court in 1999 and was sentenced to six years in prison. He was fined $2,000 and also ordered to pay $500 per month in restitution toward the $2.4 million in losses.
An errors and omissions policy kicked in and, according to Journal-Sentinel reports, that covered about half of what investors lost.
After his release from prison after 71 months, O'Hearn spent the next several years under supervised release, the federal equivalent of parole. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to earn certification as a fitness trainer.
O'Hearn said he moved to Muskegon in 2007 and, two years later, to Spring Lake Village, where he raised a torch for senior citizen physical fitness.
Calling himself “Jimmy O,” the fitness trainer introduced pickleball to many senior citizens. He teaches programs at the Loutit District Library for physically and mentally challenged individuals, and collects money for cancer victims and caregivers.
Like a shadow that follows his laps around the track, O'Hearn's past felony conviction has recently been brought to light in the Tri-Cities community.
Following publication of a sports article last month about O'Hearn's then-upcoming State Games competition, the Tribune and others received letters suggesting an Internet search of “James O'Hearn and felony.”
Four Pointes Center for Successful Aging Director Brigit Hassig said she and another administrator received a similar letter alerting her to O'Hearn's past. Hassig said O'Hearn has had no affiliation with her organization since he taught pickleball there in 2009.
Four Pointes Assistant Director Martha Cook said O'Hearn stopped teaching his pickleball and exercise classes after the senior center adopted a policy to run background checks on all instructors and volunteers.
“He refused to take one,” Cook said. “We said, 'If you don't do one, we can't have you teach.' He was very upset about that, but that was the policy. We understand nobody is perfect and people make mistakes, but I kind of felt something was up when he wouldn't do the background check.”
O’Hearn's prison sentence stipulated that he was not allowed any lines of credit or employment with financial responsibility, according to court records.
During a recent interview at the Tribune office, O'Hearn said he solicits corporate and private donations for his causes — about $10,000 pledged in recent months. He said it's been a good year. He said he normally averages $3,000 a year in donations.
His website asks that checks be made out to “Jimmy O” and mailed to Flagstar Bank in Grand Haven. O'Hearn said he uses the funds to help cancer victims, caregivers and others in need, and help pay for his travel expenses.
“Individuals will send me a check for $50 or for $30,” O'Hearn said. “Sometimes I get certificates or gift cards.”
O'Hearn said he uses the money to help the “underdogs” in our community. He said he sees so many needs — food, shelter, recreational opportunities — for so many ages.
O'Hearn said he'd love to see recreational facilities for people who are limited in their physical activity and playgrounds for seniors.
“We have more people reaching age 65 than babies being born,” he said. “Communities aren't ready for that. I see it every day. They're in my classes.”
During a two-hour interview, O'Hearn told his life story of growing up on a Wisconsin farm, working as a corporate financial consultant, being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2004 and moving to West Michigan in 2007.
O'Hearn talked of his philanthropy efforts, cooking meals for senior couples, giving $50 to $100 at a time to “about 50 or 60 people” in need. He declined to provide any contact information for these folks for reference that he does indeed help them.
Why does he handle the money himself?
“The reason I started doing that is sometimes organizations cannot tell you where the money goes,” O'Hearn said. “I was a little disappointed in that. I wanted the money to be earmarked.”
O'Hearn said he also collects money for the American Cancer Society. Local cancer society associate director Eric Voight did not return phone messages seeking comment about O'Hearn's affiliation with his group.
O'Hearn has a letter from Voight on his website (secondwindfitnessfilm.com), thanking the senior olympian for raising awareness about cancer and for his donations.
“The portion of money you donate for your event sponsorships will make a big difference in the fight against cancer in West Michigan,” Voight is quoted as saying.
O'Hearn said he also helps some senior citizens manage their bank accounts, budget their money and pay bills when their children are unable or unwilling to do so.
“I help them with potential legal matters, like what they should do with their home, how should they set up their last will and testament,” he said. “They just lose track of it. I'm primarily setting up a budget for them, this is what has to be paid out.”
O'Hearn said he helps them with the mechanics of writing checks, but that's the extent of it.
“I'm never, ever going to handle their money for them and I don't,” he said. “I made up my mind 10 years ago.”
Despite all the life details he talked about last week, some very personal, O'Hearn did not mention the conviction or prison time until a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article was placed in front of him, and he was asked for an explanation.
“I don't really like to talk about that part of it,” O'Hearn said.
He said he had been doing business “the same way for 35 to 40 years” and “to this day I still don't understand. All of a sudden, I'm doing it wrong. Do I think the sentence was fair? No, I don't.”
A CHANGED MAN?
O'Hearn called those days in federal prison “the toughest time of my life. My head was spinning. I just couldn't comprehend what was happening. A big chunk of my life was taken away from me.”
O'Hearn said he is a changed man, that reaching out to the Tri-Cities community is his attempt to right a wrong.
“I can't put a cloak over it,” he said. “It's really public record what has happened. This is a black mark. No one would want this on their past.”
The Tribune asked O'Hearn to provide documentation or verification that the money he is collecting is going to where he says it is. He said he is a poor record keeper and would need a couple of days.
After more than a week and a reminder e-mail and phone call, he had not provided any records, references or documents.
“Part of what I'm doing is perhaps in some small sense make-up for, I don't know, evil or what have you,” O'Hearn said. “I don't know if it's the single motivator, but I have in some sense tried to right a wrong with what I'm doing now. I'm definitely not the same person. I'm trying to be the best of me I can be most of the time.”
O'Hearn said he feels he constantly has to prove that he's a “good guy.” He said all he wants is for his past to remain in the past and to be able to continue to help people in the local community.
“I'm continually trying to cleanse what I've been through,” he said. “I think of my life the day I stepped out of prison. I made a determination no matter how poor I am I was going to really be the best that I could possibly be with the talent that I have.
"Sports was my outlet. That's what I turned to. Along with that, I wanted to give something to the community that I could be proud of.”
O'Hearn said he didn't see a need to “wear a sandwich board” and disclose his felony conviction to his “sponsors” or those with whom he works and plays. Everyone has things in their past that they are not proud of, he said, but we don't need to advertise them.
“I am extremely sorry for what happened,” O'Hearn said. “Everything I did in life up to that point was destroyed. I lost a lot, including family. I paid a heavy price — 71 months in prison, plus probation.”
SPONSORS IN HIS CORNER
Dave VanAndel, owner of Shoreline Sport & Spine Physical Therapy in Ferrysburg, said he is aware of O'Hearn's past, but he also sees the fruits of O'Hearn's work and the benefit it has on people.
Shoreline Sport & Spine is one of about a dozen firms that contribute financially to the seven-time Senior Olympic gold medalist's causes. VanAndel wouldn't give the exact amount, but said the annual corporate sponsorship is less than $1,000 and goes toward O'Hearn's travel expenses for competitive events.
“I'll state for the record we're comfortable with Jimmy and what he's doing for the community and what he's working on,” VanAndel said. “Some of this information is certainly known by the people he's working with.”
VanAndel said he has known O'Hearn for seven or eight years, and that he is a master at motivating senior citizens.
“I don't feel (his past) is a significant detriment to what he is doing,” VanAndel said. “He continues to engage seniors with exercise, with life and with their bodies. Those were important attributes for us to continue to encourage.”
Dr. Brian Roscoe, of Roscoe Chiropractic in Grand Haven, is also a corporate sponsor.
“This is an old guy who is doing some really good work with people,” Roscoe said. “I don't know what his past is. I don't really care. That is his personal business. He's just out there trying to get people healthy. He's just trying to help the community. He's trying to encourage people to become more than what they are.”
Loutit District Library Director John Martin said O'Hearn called him after his interview at the Tribune to tell him about his past. Martin said he was “shocked.”
O'Hearn runs a HERO program at the library that teaches handicapped adults how to stay physically fit and also a Balance Your Life exercise program for senior citizens. Martin said O'Hearn doesn't handle any money in his library role.
“We had a discussion about forgiveness and redemption, and the possibility that there could be a story published,” Martin said. “Here's somebody who did something horrible in their prior life and paid a pretty severe price.”
Martin said he is impressed with O'Hearn's classes, but the library board will discuss the situation at its next meeting. Martin said he wishes O'Hearn had disclosed his felony conviction prior to starting the library programs in 2008.
“Right now, we're examining the situation and we're taking a long, hard look at it,” Martin said. “The HERO program is a very nice program. It's a very good giveback to the community. For right now, that is where I would prefer to focus. I understand the past comes into play, but we're looking at where things are.”