By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By that time, Wise had also been given plenty of chances to redeem himself. The summer before Slemons signed on with Cornerstone, for example, Wise's wife had been found dead at their Aspen mansion, and Wise had been a suspect.
Joe DiSalvo, director of investigations for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, eventually concluded that Shelley Wise died from "positional asphyxiation."
"Her blood-alcohol level was sky-high," says DiSalvo, "and she got herself into a strange position with her head sort of wedged in between the bed and the nightstand. The position was awkward enough to cut off her own air supply. Initially, foul play was an issue, and Mike Wise was a suspect for about three weeks.
"But if you look at all the evidence, it rules Wise out as a suspect. Still, [Shelley's] friends automatically got suspicious of Mike. There were a lot of rumors--like she was found with a pillow over her face--because of Mike's character and his past. None of them turned out to be true."
A former business associate says that in public Wise remained impassive throughout the ordeal.
"He never mentioned anything about it or the fact that he was under investigation," says a former associate. "The first time many people knew of his wife's death was months after the fact, when he sent out Christmas cards and she wasn't in the picture."
Wise was equally unruffled when he started embezzling from Cornerstone investors. Since 1991, he had been doing business as Cornerstone of Aspen Ltd. In 1997 he joined up with Aspen millionaire Tom McClosky (they'd met through their kids, who played soccer together). McClosky imposed two conditions on the joint venture. First, Wise had to pass a test administered by an industrial psychiatrist (according to a former Cornerstone employee, Wise breezed through the test). Second, McClosky demanded that Wise close out all of his old Cornerstone bank accounts and process all new transactions through the new company, which was called Cornerstone Private Capital.
McClosky was convinced that Wise would toe the line, but it was not to be.
According to the FBI complaint filed against Wise on February 3, one of the ways he was embezzling was by "overfunding" loans from Cornerstone. He did this by "soliciting and receiving from investors more money than was needed to make the loans. He then converted the excess funds to his own use.
"In one such incident," the complaint continues, "Wise solicited $1,250,000 from ten investors between November 7, 1996 and March 21, 1997 on the representation that the money would be used to fund a loan known as Ridges Funding, LLC. The actual loan amount, however, was only $1,100,000, meaning the investors provided $150,000 in excess funds." According to the FBI, Wise pulled this same stunt several times between 1996 and 1998. Each time, the money went into his old Cornerstone accounts, which McClosky had told him to close.
"What he did wasn't rocket science," says a Cornerstone employee. "But it did take a superhuman effort to keep it all together. He was doing this for several years, and once you start lying, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep it up."
Wise's chicanery was still going undetected by Cornerstone officials in late December 1997, but Slemons's past--in the form of her mother--was catching up with her. Slemons says her adoptive mother was obsessed with tracking her down (as was her parole officer and an ex-fiance who claimed that she owed him thousands of dollars in credit-card debts), and she found out through friends back in California that her mother was getting new leads daily on her whereabouts.
Knowing that she faced three to five years in jail back in California for her probation violation--and at eight months pregnant, figuring authorities would take away her baby if they caught up with her--Slemons decided it was time to start planning her exit from Colorado. The first thing she needed was money, and after working in Wise's elegant oak-paneled office--where the minimum loan was $1 million for six to 24 months and $100,000 dollar checks got dropped off like the morning paper--she knew where to find it and how to make it her own.
Wise had left town the week of Christmas. Slemons says he entrusted her with blank checks and a copy of his signature so she could make payments for him while he was gone (Cornerstone officials say that Wise told them Slemons got ahold of the checks and the signature stamp because he forgot to lock his safe before leaving town). "He gave me every single tool I needed to get the money," Slemons insists. "He had me cutting checks for him the whole time he was gone. I don't know why he thought he could trust me."
With Wise out of town and her mother closing in on her, Slemons started cashing checks in the amount of $6,000 at Alpine Bank branches across Pitkin County. Slemons says she was so nervous cashing the checks that she might as well have been going in with a loaded gun and a stick-up note.
The check-cashing spree went smoothly. But a couple of days after she started, Slemons says, her mother called her at the trailer park and told her that the cops knew where to find her.