Behind bars: High-living scammer pleads guilty

For the local victims of Will Morrell, his December 18 arrest by federal marshals and subsequent transfer to North Carolina, where he'll be sentenced for conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government, may bring some relief.

"If he's not going to be a man of his word, and he's going to cheat people, he needs to be in jail," says Margaret Jackson, whose dealings with Morrell were detailed in the May 29 Hook cover story, "Unhappy Camper."

Jackson met Morrell back in October 2002, when he was an exercise instructor at ACAC and she had just quit smoking after 37 years.

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

Morrell encouraged Jackson to pursue her dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail and eventually offered to arrange a low-interest loan of $150,000 to help cover her expenses during the hike and after, when she planned to write a book about the experience.

Jackson quit her job as a graphic designer, spent all her savings on camping equipment and trail gear, and prepared to start her hike in March 2003. But the money Morrell promised never arrived, and Jackson soon realized she'd been tricked.

Last spring, Jackson sued Morrell for her $750 initial investment. Morrell did not appear for the June 10 court date, and a judgment was entered against him.

But even as the district court docket swelled with new Morrell cases, luxury-loving Morrell and his wife still had loyal friends who believed that they were getting a bad rap. Sandy MacGregor, owner of MacGregor antiques, stood up for her one-time neighbors.

"In the 30 years I've lived here," MacGregor said in May, "I've never had neighbors like them," describing how Morrell carried antiques inside for her and his wife Jenny baked her goodies.

MacGregor also reported a successful investment with Morrell and said she had offered him a line of credit at her store, MacGregor Antiques, without incident.

When informed of his recent arrest, MacGregor declined comment for this story.

But back in August, even Jackson was willing to give Morrell the benefit of the doubt. He showed up at her new place of employment and handed her $100– the first step, he allegedly told her, in making things right.

Jackson's hopes were high. "All I wanted was an apology from him and an effort to give me my money," she says.

But she never saw Morrell again– or the rest of the money he owed her.

Jackson wasn't the only local to have a Morrellian run-in. Wallace Gibson rented the Morrells the spacious house at 914 Rugby Road (once owned by William Faulkner) for a cool $3,200 per month. Even after the Morrells fell several months behind in rent, they refused to downsize to more affordable quarters. Gibson had to go to court to have the family evicted after rent payments turned into promises. To this day, Gibson says, she has not received $8,000 of the award she won against the Morrells in Charlottesville District Court.

Between the Circuit and General District Courts, from early 2002 to the present, Morrell amassed judgments in about 15 civil cases and six criminal cases. Five other criminal charges were never prosecuted. His wife, Jenny Morrell, has racked up her own list of civil judgments– for the Rugby Road rent and for unpaid debts.

And the cases are still rolling in. A January 22 hearing is scheduled for Will Morrell for "defrauding hotels/motels for more than $200" and for failing to appear at a felony hearing.

As it turns out, Morrell, who briefly sold cars at Pegasus following his eviction from the Rugby Road house, had been wreaking havoc on people's lives and finances across state lines for some time.

On November 20, 2002–just one month after he first promised Jackson the large loan for her hike– Morrell pled guilty in an Asheville, North Carolina, court to conspiracy to defraud the United States government. The charge was based on Morrell's operation of an allegedly bogus company called Global Strategies, which Morrell and his unnamed accomplices described to potential clients as a venture capital firm. Morrell would elicit a deposit from the "client" to secure a low-interest loan. The catch: The loan would never come through.

A court-approved document detailing Morrell's guilty plea issued by the United States attorney in Asheville shows that between December 1997 and March 2001, Morrell was able to convince a company called Personal & Child Safety LLC to deposit $100,000 in a Global Strategies account with the promise of a low-interest $2 million loan. A second individual investor gave up $6,250 to Global Strategy, believing it was the first step toward receiving $500,000 in investment capital. Neither the company nor the individual saw a loan, or any of the deposits, again.

So how did it become a federal case?

Morrell used the United States mail to perpetrate these crimes, says Asheville, North Carolina-based U.S. attorney Richard Edwards. Edwards will be handling Morrell's North Carolina sentencing hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.

As for the January 22 criminal hearing in Charlottesville District Court, it's unlikely Morrell will appear, since general federal policy is to keep criminals in federal custody until the hearing process is complete.

As of January 12, Morrell remained in the custody of U.S. marshals but had not yet arrived in Asheville for a "status of counsel" hearing, scheduled because he does not have an attorney, according to the Buncombe County federal court clerk's office. A spokesperson at the Charlottesville branch of the U.S. Marshal's office says Morrell may currently be at the Prisoner and Alien Transportation System, based in Oklahoma City, awaiting transport to Asheville.

If he is unable to afford an attorney, the federal government will appoint one to handle his sentence, says attorney Edwards. The maximum sentence for the conspiracy charge is five years in a federal prison and $250,000.

Once his federal sentencing is handled, any state in which Morrell committed a crime may begin (or continue) its own legal process against him. Since Morrell has been found guilty of a variety of criminal offenses in Charlottesville, he may be brought back to town to have those punishments enforced.

Charlottesville's Commonwealth Attorney Dave Chapman says the city will have to determine whether paying for Morrell's eventual transportation back to Virginia to stand trial for the local offenses is a "good use of taxpayers' money."

In the meantime, Margaret Jackson has made her peace with the situation... literally. Although she wasn't able to salvage her AT hike for the immediate future, she says she will be taking a lengthy trip: as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"I don't know where I'll be going yet," says Jackson, "but I can't wait."