Unhappy camper: Hiker takes a walk in the courts

By early May, Margaret Jackson figured she'd be hiking somewhere in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, photographing blooming rhododendrons and mountain laurel along the Appalachian Trail. Instead, she found herself sitting on a hardwood bench in Charlottesville's General District Court, waiting for a man who she says took her money, her trust, and nearly destroyed her dream.

Life has been anything but happy trails for Jackson these past few months.

The 56-year-old grandmother is well known around town as a graphic designer who, as Margaret Hughes, served as director of First Night Virginia from 1988 to 1990. But it's her role as a fitness club's success story– former smoker turned buff athlete– that makes her so recognizable.

Jackson's testimonial is the basis for Atlantic Coast Athletic Club ads on television, radio, and newspapers. Most recently, she appeared in an ACAC magazine that was mailed to approximately 10,000 local households. In the magazine, Jackson revealed that she would soon be living a long-time dream: hiking the 2,167-mile Appalachian Trail, starting in Georgia and finishing in Maine.

She planned to depart in late March with her dog, Henry, as her only companion, so she could wrap up the estimated six-month adventure in Maine before winter arrived. But there was no joyful spring departure, and she blames her would-be sponsor: a man with a taste for the good things in life, Will Morrell.

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Jackson actually met Morrell at ACAC. She had recently quit smoking after 37 years, and he taught the morning Spinning class (a group exercise class on stationary bikes) that she regularly attended.

"He was so wonderful," Jackson recalls of Morrell. "He was very nice looking, warm, charming, and personable he'd look you right in the eye."

The two became friendly, and Jackson eventually revealed her private dream of hiking the AT and writing a book about it. Morrell, she says, was supportive from the beginning, and last fall he told her he'd like to help her realize the dream.

"This is what I do," she recalls him saying. "I help put people with dreams together with people with money."

The two had several meetings in October, Jackson says, to hammer out details of her northward hike. Morrell suggested Jackson apply for a loan from an acquaintance of his in Florida named David Dawkins. The money would enable her to focus all her energy on writing and then marketing her book. Dawkins' company, Multi-Media Enterprises LLC, would give her a low interest rate, Morrell told her, and allow her 10 years to repay the $250,000 she initially planned to borrow (it was later lowered to $150,000 at her attorney's urging).

Jackson followed Morrell's advice: She signed a contract with Dawkins and paid Morrell $550 to help her draft a business plan. That's when things began to go south.

In February 2003, Jackson asked Morrell to meet her to hand over a copy of the business plan she'd paid for. He agreed to a meeting the following day, but Jackson says he called the next morning to cancel. His wife, he explained, had accidentally taken Jackson's paperwork to the Salvation Army along with some old clothes.

"At the time I thought, 'Okaaaay, what's this about?'" Jackson says. But she still believed.

At Morrell's behest, Jackson began preparing for her trip. She drained her savings, maxed out her credit card, and liquidated her 401K to buy six months of trail food and enough camping supplies to carry her through her journey. In late February she took the ultimate leap of faith, quitting her full-time (and "verrrry good," she emphasizes) job as a graphic designer at Photoworks, assured by Morrell that the loan money would arrive within a few weeks.

In the meantime, she gave Morrell another $200 toward a $750 "contract processing fee," spent $275 to create a limited liability corporation in the state of Delaware– ironically dubbed The Happy Camper LLC– and opened a business account at Bank of America, ordering checks that could later be written on the account.

In early March, Jackson's husband stopped by the Morrells' home to pick up the elusive business plan. It was not there.

"He told us it was at the bindery being leather bound," Jackson recalls.

The Morrells themselves were about to become as elusive as the plan.

On April 3, locksmiths descended on the stately mansion that Morrell, his wife, and two children had been renting at 917 Rugby Road. Formerly the home of William Faulkner, the dwelling was rented at $3,400 per month, but the Morrells were in arrears to Gibson Management Group, the company handling the rental for the house's out-of-town owners, to the tune of $12,000, according to property manager Wallace Gibson.

"I never should have let them move in," says Gibson, who found it odd that the new tenant had once asked for her bank account number, ostensibly so he could wire the deposit directly.

"He'd come in and schmooze," she says of her tenant's final months, when he would hand-deliver the rent checks, some of which bounced. While she found his offers of free lunches charming, Gibson says it didn't take long to figure out that dealing with Morrell was trouble.

However, former next-door neighbor Sandy MacGregor says people should not be judging the Morrells so harshly.

"In the 30 years I've lived here," MacGregor insists, "I've never had a neighbor that could even approach them." She recalls Will helping her unload antiques and his wife Jenny bringing her food. "They went beyond neighborly duty," she says.

Will and Jenny "had terrible financial problems," MacGregor acknowledges, but it's all in the past and that, she says, is where it should stay.

"People treated them like they were vermin or something," she says of the eviction and ensuing gossip. "It is tragic that they be treated like that."

And MacGregor, owner of MacGregor Antiques in the Seminole Square Shopping Center, goes a step further in defending the Morrells.

MacGregor says she offered them credit through her antique shop, "and I wasn't the least bit concerned about it." Her faith was well placed, she insists: "That credit has been satisfied."

In addition, MacGregor says she "invested in one of Morrell's ventures." Again, a positive outcome. "It resulted in a very nice profit," she says.

"He is not a person who would intentionally go out and 'take' people," she maintains.

Jane Fogelman, a real estate agent with Roy Wheeler Realty, also has kind words about the Morrells, who used her services when they moved to town and were house-hunting.

They found a home and placed a contract on it, she says, but unfortunately their financing fell through, and they were forced to break the deal.

"They lost their deposit," Fogelman says, "but they were very apologetic." They willingly paid her a portion of her commission to "compensate me for my time and effort," she says. Fogelman stresses that the Morrells were not the only ones in town having financial difficulties, and that their contract was not the largest to be broken.

In the end, Fogelman says, "They dealt very fairly with me."

Margaret Jackson's dealings with Morrell weren't going so well. Her investment at $750 and growing had shown no return at all through March, and she was starting to wonder about her would-be benefactor.

Jackson had no idea the Morrells had been evicted. In fact, on April 4, the day after the locks were changed at the Morrells' house, Jackson was supposed to have a meeting with Morrell at the Mudhouse coffee shop on the Downtown Mall to "discuss what to do when the money arrived." When he didn't show up, Jackson says, she headed to 917 Rugby Road.

"There were lots of cars out front, and there was crap everywhere," she recalls, citing dirty diapers hanging from the banister and a grand piano turned on its side. She knew the family was moving Morrell had told her they wanted to be out in the country but she had no sense of what had really happened. And the Morrells, Jackson says, acted like nothing was wrong. "Will offered me a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie on my way out," she now laughs.

At that encounter, Jackson says, Morrell told her the check had been Fed-Exed by Dawkins and should arrive any day. Two days later, on April 9, a Fed-Ex package did arrive from Dawkins in Florida, but there was no check inside. Instead, there was a short letter to Morrell from one of Dawkins' employees.

"This is to inform you that Miss Margaret's attachments have not been received ..." the letter read. "This is information that must be received before we can send the forward commitment releases and complete this deal."

Jackson says that she knew she had fulfilled every request from Dawkins and so along with this letter came the realization that she'd been "had."

As she began doing research, Jackson started to feel uncertain– especially aftter she found a website that contained postings about alleged financial deals involving Morrell and Dawkins.

And although it's small consolation to Jackson, her misery has company. The Charlottesville District Court docket indicates that Morrell has had other unhappy encounters in town.

Gibson Management Group won the largest pile of judgments against the Morrells, but several smaller creditors have also sued them. Though none were willing to share specifics of their cases, court records indicate that William B. Crews Jr. won a $2,921 judgment against Morrell; plumbing contractor Fitch Services Inc. was awarded a $67 judgment; and a woman named Judith Minter has a pending action.

Well-known developer Gabe Silverman had his own bizarre run-in with Morrell.

"He wanted me to invest," says Silverman, who says he declined the opportunity to get financially involved with someone he portrays as virtually a stranger. Just a few days later, he says, he got a call from Morrell, who'd been jailed. "He wanted me to post bail," Silverman says. Though he initially agreed to put up money for Morrell– "I felt bad for his children," Silverman says– he eventually thought better of it.

Court records indicate that Morrell was arrested in August and September of last year. The first charge was passing bad checks– the second was failure to appear. He was found guilty of each.

Morrell never showed up for the early May court date with Jackson, so Judge Robert Downer ruled that Morrell owes her the $750 she'd requested. "This is the least of Mr. Morrell's problems," Judge Downer said at the end of the hearing.

Despite Jackson's civil judgment, collecting the money is far from guaranteed.

David Dawkins, reached at his Apopka, Florida, home, said he hadn't spoken with Will Morrell in months and didn't know how to contact him. Of Jackson, he said, "She didn't ever finish her paperwork, so I destroyed the file. That lady's a quack."

Ironically, the day after Dawkins was called and before The Hook had even obtained Morrell's phone number a call came from Morrell to the paper's offices asking for a meeting.

Is he a "scam artist" as Jackson and others allege?

That's something Morrell won't answer. "There's much more to the story," he claimed while sitting in The Hook office, though he declined to elaborate at the time, promising to call the next morning with details.

And call he did.

"I regret that I entered into an agreement with Margaret that I was unable to fulfill," Morrell said. "I did receive a retainer from her that I intend to return."

Morrell explained his failure to show up for the May 6 court date by saying, "That's a litigation issue; there was no business contract between Margaret and me." He further alleges that he had heard nothing from Jackson about her plans to file suit before the papers were served. Jackson denies that claim. She says she personally delivered a letter of her intentions to the Boar's Head Inn. A resort hotel where rooms start at $188 per night, it was briefly the Morrell residence after their abrupt departure from Rugby Road.

"I watched the front desk clerk put that letter into the box for their room," she insists.

But despite all the acrimony, Morrell says he hopes someday to make things right with Jackson. "I considered Margaret a friend," he says, "and still do."

Jackson, for her part, says all Morrell would have to do is apologize. "I'm not one to hold a grudge," she says, though she has learned a lesson and says that in the future she won't enter into financial dealings without closer scrutiny.

Marion Horsley, a consumer advocate for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, says stories like Jackson's are all too common.

"It's been said," says Horsley, "that a consumer is more likely to invest in someone they've never met than in someone they should trust."

So if someone wants your money, what should you do?

"Check behind them, double check," Horsley insists, "and if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Jackson says it was hard not to be embarrassed by her experience. "I wouldn't leave home for two weeks," she says. "I should have seen the signs."

For instance, though she has writing experience she used to write the "Ask Ace" column in C-Ville Weekly Morrell never asked to see a writing sample.

She believes Morrell must have thought she had more money than she did. As a result of the assurances he gave her, she's now struggling with the financial repercussions of losing her savings and quitting her job. With a living room full of trail mix and camping supplies in her "quaint" Scottsville home, Jackson is still hoping to make her dream come true– without Morrell's support.

With the assistance of ACAC's marketing department, Jackson is turning the trip into a fundraiser for Habitat For Humanity, an organization she has done charity work for in the past. Her former employer, Photoworks, is donating a map of the AT to be put up at ACAC's Albemarle Square location. Pushpins will mark Jackson's progress. As for donations, "I'll take them any way I can get them," she laughs.

Writing her book is still a priority. She says she thought Bill Bryson's 1998 best-seller, A Walk in the Woods, which chronicled his AT trek, was "terrible." But she's not out to do it better. Instead, she says, she wants to focus on "the spirit of hiking the trail." Citing author Annie Dillard as inspiration, Jackson explains, "When I go out for a hike, something inside me changes. I want to touch that person I become on the trail and speak with her voice because I know that voice has something to say."

Thanks to Morrell, Jackson says, she's already filled 40 or so pages.

 Morrell's chapter at ACAC, however, has come to a close.

"He stopped showing up for his classes," Jackson says, and Kirsten Ryan, program operations manager at the club, confirms that Morrell is no longer employed there and hasn't been since last summer.

The admiration between Jackson and her health club remains mutual, however.

"Margaret is such a kind, wonderful person," says Ryan. "She has all our support."

Jackson says that despite her negative experience with Morrell, she has nothing but gratitude for ACAC.

"If it weren't for ACAC," she says, "I wouldn't even be considering doing this hike."

Jackson also has the support of her old friends at Photoworks.

"She has a lot of determination when it comes to personal goals," says Photoworks employee Teresa Davis. "It's cool to know someone who has the will to do something like this."

Journalist Waldo Jaquith says he can understand Jackson's drive. Eight years ago, a teenaged Jaquith tried to hike the AT. He completed all but a few hundred miles before stress fractures in both feet put an end to his quest.

Hiking the AT is a "soul searching trip," he explains, which makes Jackson's frustration all the more acute.

"For someone who's about to embark," says Jaquith, "it's particularly disappointing to have somebody they rely on for the trip fail them."

Jackson, however, says she's over the disappointment... and the embarrassment. "He's scammed people a whole lot smarter than I am," she says of Morrell. As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and Jackson's gaze is still focused on the Trail.

"I'm trying to take the worst thing that's ever happened to me," she says, "and make something good come out of it."