Running from his past

Senior Olympian Jimmy O'Hearn won five gold medals in track and field events at the Meijer State Games two weeks ago, but there's something that the 75-year-old fitness enthusiast hasn't been able to outrun — his past.
Marie Havenga
Jul 6, 2013

 

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scheme in the 1990s, and repeatedly forged checks and authorizations and acted as a stockbroker after his license was revoked.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.

REINVENTING HIMSELF

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 FUNDRAISING

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.

HELPING SENIORS

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.”

 

 

Comments

goblue1982

Wow! The guy handles financial affairs for seniors and gives them Legal advice. Is that a red flag or not? He won't even admit he did wrong to all his victims even when a judge and prosecutor say he was one of the worst con artists they had ever seen. He says he can't hide his past but thats what he did by refusing to have a background check done on him. I think he is using sports to get to vulnerable seniors and places like the Library better be careful! And he claims he is running an honest charity but can't give the newspaper any proof of what has happened to the money. Wow! I bet there are people across the lake who would say we're nuts to give him even a dime.

Wingmaster

"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."

If you want to have a clean life, better start being clear and up front with the good people of the Tri-Cities.

Your actions are saying different!

Letsbehappy

It truly baffles me how our community does not give people a chance to learn from mistakes made in the past. People who have served their time for their crime are just criminals forever? If this is the case, shouldn't we be cautious with everyone that we encounter? Should we dig up the past on them before we do business with everyone?

Carol

I agree.

LessThanAmused

"Should we dig up the past on them before we do business with everyone"?

Well I guess that depends on how important your retirement savings are to you. I don't know why you wouldn't want to know about someone's history before handing them money, it's just basic common sense....that's what background checks are all about, but hey, if you've got money to burn then go ahead and take a chance. Let us know how that works out for you and don't expect a whole lot of pity if you get taken for a ride. People like you are what keep people like him in business.

BTW.....can I borrow 100.00 bucks? I promise I'll pay you back with interest.

Wingmaster

Uh yes!

Its simple, he just needs to account for where the money is going and show record of it!

No wonder people get scammed so easily these days!!!

UpFront

Forgiving someone is one thing. The problem I have is he wasn't honest with people about his past. Everything with this man is a sob story; and he ruined people's lives in Wisconsin. Too bad the Tribune could not get more information on the people he took advantage of in WI. I'm okay with Jimmy trying to turn his life around and moving toward becoming a better person; but that starts with honesty - especially when you're convicted of fraud.

Letsbehappy

So why is this just coming about now? Who sits around and tries to find the wrong in everyone?

Carol

"What we see depends mainly on what we look for." John Lubbock

For people who are easily scared, this story will stir fear and a predictable outcry. The rest of us have compassion and gratitude that Jimmy is trying to be the best person he can be today and is providing a valuable service to the community. A discerning reader will notice there is actually no story here.

coloradohere

so let this thief teach all the pickleball and handle all the exercise classes for seniors, enter all the races that he wants to but don't let him near anyone's money or accounts...why isn't he making any effort to repay his victims and what is the state of his finances and lifestyle now? He has destroyed many lifes and shouldn't be trusted...

aboutnews

So to summarize the article: he fully served a conviction from 14 years ago. He complied with all of the conditions of his release. He donates time to serve the community. His sponsors see no reason to be concerned. Where's the story?

LessThanAmused

Where's the story?? Did you even read the article? How about this.....

"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".

A Buffalo ranch??

He bilked over a 100 folks for a total of 2.4 million dollars. Thats $24,000 on average. Maybe in your universe that's chump change, but I betcha for most of the folks he took for a ride that was money they couldn't just shrug their shoulders about and move on.

You sunshine and rainbow folks want to give him another chance so it improves your chance of getting into heaven and that's fine if that's what's important to you, but don't expect everyone to be as gullible as you are.....it always amazes me that no one ever seems to ask for redemption for what they did until they're caught red-handed.

It'd been nice if the Tribune would've dug deeper and found out if he's up-to-date on his 500.00 payments and the current financial status of his victims, but this article is already much more in-depth than they usually supply so I'm probably expecting too much, again.

Bottom line for me is....how are the folks he bilked doing these days? Have they recovered from being robbed? If they haven't been able to recover and still suffer from the effects of trusting this person then NO....he doesn't get to start over. Why should he go merrily on his way when his "customers" still suffer? Where is your heartfelt compassion for the victims of this shyster? Don't they deserve to be made right? After all they probably did exactly what you people are suggesting we should do.....trust without any knowledge of the person's history or intent.

Letsbehappy

He might have destroyed some lives in the past but he did serve the time. When does he get a chance to rebuild his life if all we do is question who he was in the past? I was introduced to pickleball by Jimmy. He not only introduced me to the game but to a whole pickleball community of new friends. New relationships have been formed, seniors being fit has been promoted and the game itself has grown in the community but instead of looking at that positive you want to dwell on the past and throw out possible what it's.

UpFront

LetsBeHappy: same goes with me. I was introduced to Pickleball by Jimmy as well. I have lots of new friends because of pickleball. He did do the time, but he wasn't honest with our relationship. He's done great things for this community. But a level of trust has been lost and it's unfortunate.

Westernskye

I played pickleball several times last year at one of Jimmy's classes.. I was told we were expected to pay $5.00 per session which in my estimation was very cheap entertainment / instruction. Jimmy kept a clipboard on which attendees personally recorded their payment. Jimmy never asked me for money. One time I forgot to bring money and he just brushed it off when I mentioned it to him - he was more concerned in teaching me how to play. The list of people paying always looked mighty thin compared to the numbers in attendance. If anyone was getting rooked or taken advantage of it was Jimmy. I double-checked your article and I fail to see the list of crimes Jimmy is being charged with in his new community. Apparently his previous reputation is proof enough to hold him up for public scorn and ridicule. If no crime has been committed, why should he feel any need to prove his recordkeeping to the local newspaper?

UpFront

So what you're saying is he gets to start fresh? Anyone who thinks that is turning a blind eye to his victims (who he most likely still owes money); and that's wrong. He stole people's life savings. Do you feel any empathy for those people? He may not have done anything wrong here (although the jury is still out on that one); that's not the issue.

Westernskye

UpFront, it is best to leave punishments up to the courts, judges and jury's. The idea that individuals should try to punish people for their past sins is not very carefully thought out. Yes, he deserves a fresh start.... We all do. The only place where your sin is less than his, is in your imagination.

polarize

I am very impressed with the majority of comments here. There is nothing wrong with a man repenting and asking for a chance to redeem a life of good instead of being remembered for past transgressions. We claim to live as Christians in the Tri-Cities and I'm glad some actually practice it in their actions toward others.

My hope is that Brandon Hall can find a similar path someday although it doesn't appear he is ready and may need some prison experience to learn.

No one is perfect and yet some get caught while those who never get caught crucify them to no end. I wish the best of redemption for Mr. O'Hearn and believe his service to others far outweigh presumptions that are in the past. This holds true for everyone who have been in trouble before. There is hope as far as I'm concerned as long as you have a pure heart with 100% focus on integrity. Good Luck Sir!

polarize

.....and to the Tribune. Why is it important or even relevant to attach Mr. O'Hearn's letter request and court's denial in this article? This was likely while he was on supervised release and has absolutely nothing to do with the current article subject.

I didn't major in journalism in college but I am starting to assume the only goal of the Tribune is to create small town sensationalism at the cost of sacrificing its citizens.

Vladtheimp

I'd like to know the status of the requirement, as part of his sentencing, to pay $500 a month toward restitution of $2.4 million. He may be poor at record-keeping, but the court shouldn't have that problem. Serving time was not the only penalty in his sentencing.

As far as giving him the benefit of the doubt, being Christian, fresh start, etc. ad nauseum, I heartily subscribe to the philosophy of the Gipper - Trust But Verify!

Letsbehappy

UpFront: Did you trust Mr.O.'Hearn until someone had to dig up information on this man? If we have to be so "upfront" with everyone for things in our past, I hope that you tell everyone that you encounter of any wrong doings that you have done (caught legally or not) so that you are always fair and honest.

River Man

Let's not run this guy out of town yet...but please do not tempt this guy by showing him any of your finances...if you have contact your local bank/broker/children and communicate that he has seen your finances and that you think it would be a good time to change your account numbers just in case. They will be happy to make sure all is in good order.

I am not casting stones but the best way to keep this guy on the right track is not to put him in a position that will tempt him. Help him by taking his classes and paying for the class, if you want to have fun and play and have fun with him but do not mix in your real money with him.

By the way: Classic con move is to loan you a small amount of money to build trust...say the $5 for the lesson.

Love the guy, but do not confuse Christian love with foolishness and make him a repeat offender.

g.vandersteldt

Estate planning? Helping with a Last Will and Testament? Under Michigan law only an attorney can provide counsel in those areas. He should be investigated for the unauthorized practice of law. It is likely the advice he's providing is inaccurate and could cause more harm than good.

Read Between th...

There are so many gullible people, businesses, and organizations listed in this article it is astounding.

I’m all for giving people second chances, but it’s obvious this guy has not been reformed. He has the wrong answer for everything. All you have to do is read between the lines.

He says he is trying “to right a wrong with what I’m doing now”. If it were me, I would have gotten a job and used that money to increase my restitution to the victims in Milwaukee who are the ones he should be helping. Winning medals and teaching pickle-ball to non-victims do not right this wrong.

He helps senior citizens manage their bank accounts and pay their bills. A truly remorseful person would not place himself in this position to avoid any chance his motives would be questioned and it would create division in the community. It is selfish and can only create mistrust and speculation about his motives.

O’Hearns says he collects money for causes and puts it in his personal bank account. He talks about giving $50 or $100 at a time to about 50-60 people in need. But, he has not provided contact information for these people, and he says he needs time to provide the information because he is a poor record keeper. Then, he complains that “The reason I started doing that is sometimes organizations cannot tell you where the money goes….I was a little disappointed in that.” Need I say anymore?

This guy is still a charlatan. I will accept and embrace Jimmy when he stops being self-serving and does the right thing. Get a job and increase your restitution to your victims. Then, my level of respect and acceptance will grow.

Thank you Grand Haven Tribune for making our seniors aware of this situation.

 

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