The Battle for Joe Dessert's S($)ul IT WAS A CHURCH INVESTMENT CLUB THAT BROUGHT JOE TO THE DAY-TRADING OFFICE WHERE HE LOST $12,000--AND HIS LIFE.
(MONEY Magazine) – The grief was universal and profound among the nearly 400 people who thronged Joseph J. Dessert Jr.'s funeral that August morning. Just a few days earlier, the 60-year-old Dessert had been gunned down in the office of All-Tech Investment Group, one of 22 people shot by deranged day-trader Mark Barton. And yet, there was an odd division among the mourners, a pronounced duality to the service.
One eulogy was given by Bob Rowe, a classmate of Dessert's at Marist, a Catholic school in Atlanta where Dessert had developed some of his closest friendships. Rowe recalled that Dessert, at a husky six feet, three inches, had been captain of the football team and in the years since had always been eager to catch up over lunch and to organize reunions. Joe, Rowe said, had changed the least of anyone in the class of '58.
A very different sort of eulogy was offered by Roy Leffew, a member of the River of Life Family Church, where Joe had worshiped as a born-again adult. Leffew told the mourners that in the past two years he'd personally mentored Joe, not so much spiritually but as an investor, helping him grow from a neophyte to a market sophisticate. Day-trading, Leffew insisted--despite the terrible publicity that had accompanied the Atlanta shootings--was perfectly honorable. He spoke proudly of how Joe had joined River of Life's investment club and how the club had led Joe to All-Tech's day-trading office. "The people that he dealt with," said Leffew, "are good, solid business people."
The longer Leffew spoke about day-trading, the wider grew the chasm between the two camps of mourners. To his new friends at River of Life, Dessert was a fellow pilgrim in a brave, new financial world. To Joe's old friends, he was a victim not only of a mad gunman but the madness of the age. Even before he lost his life, they feared, Joe Dessert had lost his way in a financial fun house of puts and calls and Level Two screens. As Leffew rambled on, a pallbearer named Jim Boulware leaned over to a fellow Marist alum and whispered, "What the hell's going on here? Is he trying to recruit us?"
Months after the memorial service, Tom Boller, another old friend, was still shaking his head. "It was bizarre," he said. "The funeral was like a struggle for Joe's soul."
"REVERSE THE CURSE OF THE LEAN PURSE"
Joe Dessert--pronounced dez-ert--came to the River of Life Family Church in 1992. For Joe, it was the final stop on a spiritual journey that had begun at Sacred Heart Catholic church in downtown Atlanta. At Sacred Heart, which neighbored Marist, Joe and some of his teammates prayed before high school football games. Joe often helped his father, Joe Sr., count money from the collection plate after mass.
Joe was also a social creature, and as a young man much of his life revolved around drinking. Then, in the mid-1970s, he embraced the charismatic Christian movement and eschewed the bottle. For more than a decade following his conversion, the born-again Joe moved from one church to another, always looking for one that was sufficiently God-fearing and hard-preaching. "Joe," joked his best friend Tony Nicholson, another Marist alum, "you belong to the Church of What's Happening Now."
And then Joe found a home at River of Life. Located in suburban Lilburn, the church was housed in two low-slung, late-vintage buildings, one of which was a combined sanctuary for about 700 Sunday worshipers and a TV studio for the Rev. Marty Tingelhoff. Pastor Marty, as he is known, had built his flock here in part by purchasing time on an Atlanta Christian cable channel and holding forth for 30 minutes a week. He was a strict constructionist on scripture, preaching at length about how to apply ancient parables to modern life, relating the shores of Galilee to the strip malls of Gwinnett County.
Scorning churches that merely prepare their flocks for heaven, Pastor Marty saw his mission as being "relevant to the issues." To him, the issue of money was supremely relevant, and he preached often about what the Bible had to say about it. Take Deuteronomy 8:18--"Thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: For it is He that giveth the power to get wealth, that He may establish his covenant." From there, Pastor Marty would take off on a long riff about how that meant that "God trains me, equips me, allows me, encourages me, commands me to get wealth."
He also used Proverbs 3:9 as a launching point: "Honor the Lord with thy substance and the first fruits of all thine increase." This meant, according to Pastor Marty, that parishioners who tithed to the church qualified for greater earthly rewards. "God is always a God of more than enough," he would declare. "If you're satisfied with what you've got, you're not in touch with God yet."
Pastor Marty laced his sermons with advice on how to attain wealth: "You must make more than you spend or spend less than you make. And over a period of time you must take the difference and make it work harder for you than you worked for it." He sometimes concluded services with a laying on of hands to anyone who wanted to be "anointed" for wealth. He moved so comfortably between the Old Testament and the New Economy that he managed to develop side interests, such as doing motivational speeches at Amway conventions and marketing tapes of his sermons. He called his six-cassette wealth-building series "Reverse the Curse of the Lean Purse."
For his own portfolio, Pastor Marty had a very specific notion of how to make money work hard: Trade stock options. He'd attended a Wade Cook seminar, where the the controversial investment guru's aggressive tactics were explained and espoused. Cook favors the use of covered calls, whereby an investor both buys a stock and sells options against it (the investor profits if the stock appreciates to a specified price before a specified date and is "called"). As he began playing with options, Pastor Marty also started scheduling Saturday morning breakfasts to talk stocks and strategies with some of River of Life's other adventure-minded members.
One was Roy Leffew. Though he wasn't officially on the church staff, Leffew was an ordained minister and thus known at River of Life as Pastor Roy. A silver-haired, soft-spoken West Virginia native who'd recently retired from the software company he'd founded, Leffew was pursuing another complicated and risky investment strategy known as "rolling stocks" or "swing trading." The technique, also promoted by Wade Cook, purports to analyze trading patterns to identify stocks that can be bought on dips and sold on highs.
Over breakfast, Pastor Marty, Pastor Roy and Pastor Jim--Jim Charron, an associate pastor who was, in effect, the church's chief operating officer--decided it was time for more parishioners to get involved, to get invested. And thus was formed, in April 1997, River of Life's Covenant Investment Club. The Beardstown Ladies this wasn't. With its pooled cash, the club jumped quickly and aggressively into trading options. Early on, it was primarily Pastor Marty's show. He, along with Pastor Jim, did the actual trading. He attracted the parishioners--more than 100 at the Saturday morning meetings--and they brought the capital. "We wanted people only using discretionary income," Pastor Marty hastens to point out, "nothing like retirement money. It was really meant to be more of an educational thing."
Before long, the club had $200,000 to invest. A small portion came from a charter member named Joe Dessert.
THE CURSE IS LIFTED
For most of his life, Joe wouldn't have qualified for admission to an investment club. He simply had nothing to invest. Joe's mother had died when he was three; his father remarried when he was six and proceeded to raise Joe and two daughters while toiling at two jobs, first as owner of a diaper service and then as a county probation officer.
After graduating from Marist, Joe Jr. spent a year at Georgia Tech, where he devoted the bulk of his time to partying and playing on the football team, then went west to Wyoming. For most of the 1960s, he worked as a surveyor's assistant and attended the University of Wyoming. Upon returning to Atlanta in 1968, he entered commercial real estate, but his chosen niche--small apartment buildings--was no gold mine and Joe was no go-getter. "He liked talking to people," says Doug Stanfield, his last boss in the business, "but he didn't like to persuade people."
Joe bounced from one firm to another, always finding bosses who liked him but never making a lot of money. He moonlighted in telemarketing, borrowed money from friends and saved on rent by sharing a modest three-bedroom apartment. "Joe was a little ashamed that he was as broke as he was," says Gerry Widegren, one of the roommates.
His one indulgence was his membership at the Ansley Golf Club, where dues ran more than $500 a year in the mid-1970s. But Joe got his money's worth, playing tennis three times a week, jogging the golf course at dawn to train for his annual run in the 10K Peachtree Road Race, and sweating in the sauna, where he sought in vain to shed his potbelly.
He was well liked at Ansley, although he did stand out a bit. Jim Boulware, a frequent tennis partner, says, "He wore his tennis clothes until they fell off his back." Tom Boller, another partner, says, "He was always playing with a racket that was three, five, 10 years out of date." Todd Dwyer says, "Joe always had a second bowl of soup at the buffet,"--probably, Dwyer figures, trying to save the cost of another meal.
And then in the mid-'90s, when Joe was in his mid-fifties, the "curse of the lean purse" suddenly lifted. His father died in 1993, leaving Joe one-third of his estate, which turned out to include a surprising stash of blue-chip stocks. A year later, Joe's sister, Mary Jane, died of cancer and left everything to Joe. Her estate included her one-third share of the father's estate plus the proceeds of a life insurance policy. All of a sudden, Joe was sitting on about $600,000.
Still, he remained as tight as ever. He would resupply his stepmother with beer but wouldn't leave until she reimbursed the $16 he'd paid. He bought a $68,000 condo--but never got around to furnishing it. He traded in his Taurus for a late-model Le Sabre but financed it with a five-year loan. Gradually, however, his friends noticed one change, a new bounce in his step. "When he came into some money," says former roommate Widegren, "his confidence went up."
"A GOD OF MONEY"
Joe's new nest egg and new confidence happened to coincide with the creation of River of Life's investment club. "He was really intrigued," says Pastor Jim. "I think he was at a point in his life when he wanted to do something different."
Joe approached Pastor Roy about getting private tutorials, and they started following the club's Saturday morning meetings with a lunch of nachos supreme at a nearby Mexican restaurant. Joe would pour hot sauce on his portion, sweat profusely and ask questions nonstop. Afterward, Pastor Roy and his disciple would sometimes go to Roy's home office. On his bookshelf, the pastor kept a copy of All-Tech's day-trading manifesto, Secrets of the SOES Bandit, atop a copy of The Preacher's Outline and Sermon Bible. On the computer, he would demonstrate his teachings.
"Man, I've got to get me a computer," Joe sometimes exclaimed, though he was essentially a Luddite. Even at his real estate office, he preferred to stick with his three-by-five cards. And yet he gradually became convinced that covered calls were the answer. He began trading with the same A.G. Edwards broker that Pastor Roy had been using, and his trades more or less mirrored his mentor's.
Old friends were stunned to realize that Joe was now nearly as conversant in stocks as sports. "Joe, I'm a little worried about options," said Nick O'Connor, a friend who'd worked with Joe in real estate. "It's a risky game."
Nonsense, replied Joe, "I'm making a lot of money." And so he was, according to Tony Nicholson, who as executor of Joe's estate has seen the records. Although there were periods of volatility, Nicholson says Joe started racking up solid profits in options trading in 1997.
While Joe's gains came in big-cap stocks like BellSouth, Federal Express and Glaxo Wellcome, the River of Life investment club was being even more aggressive. It was taking options mostly in small-cap tech stocks. Though the club generated a 24% return in 1997, its first year, it got mauled when the market fell sharply in the summer of 1998, and its leaders began looking for other strategies.
One visiting speaker suggested a software package that helped investors do their own technical analysis of stocks each morning. Pastor Jim and Pastor Roy tried it, huddling in front of a computer at 7 a.m. each day, taking crash courses and quick positions in companies they'd never heard of. The promised gains were illusory, however, and they shut down that project after two months. But the process had hooked them on the special-du-jour concept. What if, they mulled, you eliminated the laborious dawn research exercises and made your picks, in Pastor Roy's words, "strictly based on momentum and volume?" That, of course, is pretty much the "strategy" behind day-trading.
It wasn't long before the River of Life gang was evaluating Atlanta-area day-trading firms. In September 1998, Pastor Roy and Pastor Jim plunked down $2,000 apiece to take All-Tech's one-week "boot camp." Joe nearly joined them. "He said he'd go, then backed out," Pastor Roy recalls. "He said, 'I don't think I'm ready.'"
Pastor Roy and Pastor Jim began day-trading in October, shifting $50,000 of the investment club's stake into an All-Tech account. Not wishing to fight the commuting traffic into the All-Tech office, they paid $250 a month for the software to trade on a computer in Pastor Jim's church office. Right there at River of Life, they now had access to Nasdaq Level Two screens, with real-time quotes and the ability to execute trades directly with marketmakers.
In the first three months of trading, the pastors lost $2,000. This didn't much faze them: It was all part of "the learning curve," a phrase you hear a lot from day-traders. This was not, however, a term the club's members wanted to hear. Concerned by the lack of winnings and wary of new ventures, many cashed in their chips. At year-end, with the options losses, the day-trading losses and the redemptions, the club's investment pool had fallen from $200,000 to $110,000.
The pastors suspended trading in early 1999 while Pastor Roy wintered in Florida. Upon his return, they decided to take another shot. This time, they would go all out and do most of their trading in All-Tech's office. Frequently, they would bring along Pastor Marty, who was thoroughly jazzed by the scene, cheering on the church traders as they worked the Level Two screens.
Joe, meanwhile, continued his own cautious advance. He began to let it drop to friends and family that he was considering day-trading. They were uniformly horrified, believing he had neither the temperament nor the skills.
"I wish you wouldn't," said his half sister, Pat Lusht. "It would be the last thing Dad would have wanted."
"Don't worry," said Joe. "I'm not going to take any chances."
"My broker says day-trading is nothing to get involved with," said Tony Nicholson.
"Of course," Joe shot back. "He doesn't want to lose those big commissions."
The voices from family and Ansley and Marist screamed, "No!" The voices from River of Life cried, "Go!" Be captain of your destiny, not captive of your broker. "First and foremost," Joe heard Pastor Marty preach on Sundays, "you need to understand that God is a God of money."
The pull was too great, and Joe seemed to move inexorably toward day-trading. He finally bought a computer, a used IBM clone. And when he wrote out his resolutions for 1999 on a set of three-by-five cards, he committed himself to learn more about "health, energy and long life"; to spend two hours a night in Bible study; to be "pure of thought, physical, spiritual"; to fix up and furnish the condo; to do some special stomach exercises; and to "start day-trading."
He was bored with real estate and feeling guilty about his lack of productivity. "I'm just taking up space there," he told several friends. He was to turn 60 in May, and he saw playing the market as a better way to ease into retirement. When he and his latest lady friend, Jackie Sanford, visited a couple with an especially elegant townhouse, he declared that, with his day-trading winnings, such a place might one day be his. "He got so intrigued with [investing]," recalls Sanford, "he let his real estate go by the wayside."
In the spring, Joe plunked down $2,000 to reserve a spot in All-Tech's boot camp. He leased a small office, from which he eventually expected to do his day-trading, and he gave notice to his real estate boss, Doug Stanfield.
"THIS IS MORE DIFFICULT THAN I THOUGHT"
Joe went through the All-Tech training program the first week in May, then spent the rest of the month "paper trading," an exercise in which novices play the market on Level Two screens but without real money. He enjoyed it and, on paper, seemed to prosper. "If I'd had real money," he told one friend, "I would have made $1,500 yesterday!"
There were typically about two dozen traders on All-Tech's long, narrow trading floor, observable to curious passers-by through floor-to-ceiling windows as hunched, mesmerized forms. Most of them sat before computers at two long tables that paralleled the offices of All-Tech's two young co-managers. The rest used a smaller table at the end of the room, at least when it wasn't hosting boot-camp sessions. The traders tended to cluster according to their styles, dividing "scalpers," who jumped in and out of stocks, and "position traders," who (by day-trading standards) held on longer. There was little chatter, just the constant stream of commentary from two overhead TV sets tuned permanently to CNBC. The traders were alone in a crowd, gazing at and pouncing upon the numbers dancing across their 21-inch monitors.
The first week of June, Joe started trading for real, using Exxon stock he'd inherited from his dad to meet the required $50,000 ante. Like many before him, he found that the "live" action was a different ball game. He lost $420 his first week, $2,200 the second, $3,000 the third and $960 the fourth.
Worried, Tony Nicholson decided he wanted to create another outlet for his friend's time and capital. He asked Joe to check out a lot that might be ripe for development. A general contractor, Nicholson suggested that Joe go in on the lot with him and then broker it to another buyer. But Joe wouldn't bite. "I'm learning the day-trading," he insisted.
He lost $282 the first week of July, $374 the second, $2,762 the third. Once, he accidentally clicked his mouse and made an unintentional trade that cost him $2,000. "I guess that's just the cost of my education," he joked to his colleagues. One All-Tech trader sensed disillusion setting in. "He'd gotten kind of quiet," says Dennis Braun, who'd taken boot camp with Joe. "He'd make comments about bad positions he'd gotten into, like, 'Well, I just lost a quarter point in Cisco.'"
To Braun, at least, a sense of harsh realities was dawning. They'd been taught a scalping system--how to jump in and out of momentum stocks--but scalping's profits were small, by definition, and All-Tech's commissions were considerable: $50 a "round trip." Says Braun, "I think Joe's response was, 'This is more difficult than I thought it was going to be.'"
But to friends and family, Joe remained upbeat. On a Saturday in late July, he had breakfast with old Marist friend Todd Dwyer, an experienced investor who was quite skeptical. "No, no," Joe insisted, "I've made a little bit of money."
That evening, he got together with his half sister, Pat, who took the opportunity to confront Joe, laying two pieces of paper on her dining room table. One was a note written by Joe Sr., which she'd recently found in a safe-deposit box. "Do not," it declared, "get a broker, and do not sell stock unless you absolutely need the money."
The other piece of paper was Pat's recently drafted will. She knew Joe had never gotten around to writing his own. "We all need to make a will," she lectured, "because we never know what's going to happen tomorrow."
Early the following week, Joe called his old boss, Doug Stanfield, with a question: Would it be okay if he came back part time? He was thinking of cutting his trading back to mornings and working on apartment deals in the afternoon.
Later that week, Joe met two old friends for their Thursday morning prayer breakfast. "God, Joe looks terrific," thought Nick O'Connor, as he watched Joe walk into the International House of Pancakes. O'Connor, who's 65, and Ed Rice, 81, had been sharing prayer breakfasts with Joe since he was a Catholic. They didn't approve of day-trading, but they adored Joe. "I prayed," says O'Connor, "that he would do well and that it would be a good thing for him."
After breakfast that morning, Joe went into All-Tech and encountered a market spooked by fears of inflation. As the market sank, Joe struggled to find winners. Three times he jumped in and out of Applied Materials, a favorite of his, but he lost money on the transactions. He did manage to scalp a three-eighths-point profit out of Dell, making $200, but he seemed headed, once again, for a losing day.
In midmorning, he took a call from Tony Nicholson, who suggested lunch. At first, Joe said he was stuck in a trade and had to hang around until he got out. But he was incapable of passing up lunch with a friend and took a break to drive over to the nearby Lenox Square mall. They ate Chinese food and debated the football merits of Georgia Tech and Georgia; they did not debate the merits of day-trading.
"Say," said Nicholson, "did you get out of that trade yet?"
"No," said Joe, "I've got to get back and do that."
Things were quiet at All-Tech, as they often were in the midday market. Joe whiled away some time talking with a trader named Ed Higginbotham, who sat next to him. They were close in age, and they started to compare high school graduating classes. Higginbotham had been about the only kid in his class to attend college, while most of Joe's classmates had done so. Yet Higginbotham could think of few classmates who'd died, and Joe could recite plenty of his who had.
Around 3 p.m., the afternoon quiet was shattered by a series of sharp blasts from the managers' offices. Some traders would later say they sounded like firecrackers or cap guns, and most stood up to see what was going on. What they saw was Mark Barton emerging from the offices of the two co-managers, having shot both of them and an aide. A silver-barreled .45-caliber Colt in one hand, a black 9mm Glock in the other, Barton entered the trading room and started squeezing off one shot after another. He got three traders at the table just outside the managers' offices. He advanced to the next table and shot two more. Others either bolted through the office's doors or ducked under the tables.
Joe chose to take cover, as did Higginbotham, but Barton was relentless. He got Higginbotham in the face and shoulder. One .45 slug caught Joe in his right shoulder, another ripped through his chest. He was the last trader Barton shot before fleeing the office--and later taking his own life.
"Joe? Joe?" called Higginbotham, as well as he could through his wounded jaw. There was no answer.
When Dennis Braun, who'd escaped, re-entered the office, he found Joe still breathing. Paramedics arrived and ripped away Joe's golf shirt. "We're going to lose this one if we don't get him some help right away," said one.
"Suddenly," says Braun, "[Joe] just went gray."
The market closed shortly thereafter. Joe was down $373 for the day. All together, he'd lost $12,000 day-trading.
"I FEEL A LITTLE GUILTY"
Nobody else from River of Life lost his life that day at All-Tech. Pastor Roy had quit day-trading for the club. Though his results had been getting better, his stomach had grown weaker. "If I lose $30,000 to $50,000 in my own account," he says, "it doesn't bother me. I know I'll make it back. But if I lost $2,000 for the club, it really bothered me."
Joe's death ate at him too. "It broke my heart when he was killed," says Pastor Roy, his voice breaking. "I feel a little guilty because I was the instigator of getting him to do it. It took me a good while to get over it."
Pastor Marty says he misses Joe too. "I've cried; I've been mad; I've wanted to hit something," he says. But he does not blame day-trading. It was, after all, a "malevolent, evil person" who took Joe's life. Nor has Pastor Marty had second thoughts about his teachings. "Nothing has ever been established on this earth without wealth," he says.
River of Life's All-Tech account remains open, though it is used only for executing the somewhat more conventional options and "swing" trades to which its members have returned. "We're not going to day-trade anymore," says club treasurer Tony Longo. "It's too much pressure."
And besides, the club has struggled to find someone to do its trading. Lately, the only other trained trader, Pastor Jim, has been too busy supervising construction of River of Life's new $3.6 million church.