Denny Hecker sentenced to 10 years for fraud

Beverly Hecker
Denny Hecker's oldest sister, Beverly Hecker, embraces Denny Hecker's bankruptcy attorney Barbara May after Denny Hecker was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to bankruptcy and wire fraud in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Former Twin Cities auto mogul Denny Hecker was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to bankruptcy and wire fraud.

It was the maximum sentence Hecker could have received after he reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors in September.

U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen also ordered Hecker to pay $31 million in restitution, mostly to auto financing companies.

Outside the courthouse after the sentencing, assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Engisch said Hecker was a crook who wouldn't stop, even after striking a plea deal for ripping off auto finance companies and engaging in bankruptcy fraud.

"We were never done. We just kept having to investigate him, over and over," said Engisch. "He did not stop committing crimes, or engaging in obstructive behavior, even until the very end."

Engisch said there was no way Hecker deserved to have a couple of years taken off his sentence. She said Hecker blew that by not keeping promises he made in his plea deal. They included testifying truthfully and avoiding criminal conduct.

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Denny Hecker
Denny Hecker in a file photo from February 2010. In addition to his 10-year sentence, Hecker was also ordered to pay $31 million in restitution, mostly to auto financing companies.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

During the sentencing hearing, Hecker's lawyer argued for an eight-year sentence, contending Hecker had been truthful and kept his nose clean since agreeing to the plea deal.

Hecker spoke up for himself, too.

"I have a heart, I've been beat up bad. My ego is gone," he said, adding later: "I apologize and I'm sorry."

He said he had "compromised" who he was and had been. He said his purchase of a failing rental car business set in motion a chain of events that drove him to commit fraud to fix his problems.

"I did it (the crimes) because my ego was so big," he said. "I thought I could conquer anything."

Hecker wept as he asked that he be released for 24 hours to spend time with his young children before going to prison.

"I miss my children. I was their role model," he said.

Ericksen said she feels sorry for Hecker's children but she just doesn't trust him. She said Hecker's behavior since his guilty plea didn't warrant any reduction in sentence.

"It all adds up to, you don't get a break," she said. "You've been a real hazard to navigation in the bankruptcy world and the financial world."

Denny Hecker sentenced
Denny Hecker's daughter Kelly Hecker, right, talks with the media with her mother and Denny Hecker's ex-wife, Sandra Hecker, in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

After the sentencing, Hecker's defense attorney, Bill Mauzy, sad he wasn't surprised.

"We weren't terribly optimistic about the outcome today," said Mauzy. "We knew 10 years was the maximum sentence. And it seemed it was headed in that direction."

Mauzy said Hecker was an honest businessman for 28 out of 30 years.

The last two years have been an absolute wreck for Denny," said Mauzy. "With the bankruptcy and the divorce and the criminal case, it has not cast him in a favorable light. It's been difficult for him to cope with. But the rest of his life is an admirable one. He achieved a great deal of material success."

More than 100 lawyers, reporters, and others jammed the courtroom. Many of them were members of Hecker's family.

Hecker's adult daughter, Kelly Hecker, said she was disappointed her father didn't get time to say goodbye to his family before reporting to prison. She said a lot of people also seemed happy about her father's downfall.

"My dad is a dad, a grandfather, a friend, an uncle. He did a lot of great things for this city and the state," Kelly Hecker said. "Unfortunately, sometimes we like to see the demise of people, and I feel that's really been the hardest part. He's really sorry and he's very sincere about it."

Beverly Hecker, one of Denny's sisters, said Hecker had been persecuted and given an unfair sentence.

Denny Hecker sentenced
Denny Hecker's girlfriend Christi Rowan, left, and an unidentified woman walks through the courthouse before Denny Hecker was sentenced to 10 years in prison in Minneapolis, Minn. Friday, Feb. 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"He's been convicted by the press, the newspaper, the television," she said. "You'd have to be brain dead in this state not to know my brother. None of the good stuff has ever come out about him."

Beverly Hecker said her brother was charitable and had a big heart.

Hecker acknowledged in court that he has a problem with drinking and prescription drugs.

Hecker's attorney, William Mauzy, said admission to a treatment program would shave about a year off Hecker's sentence. If that happens, and with credit for time served and good behavior, Hecker could be out in seven years, Mauzy estimated.

Besides the $31 million in restitution Hecker was ordered to pay, he's also on the hook for hundreds of millions in debts he failed to escape by filing for bankruptcy.

Hecker, 58, of Medina, pleaded guilty last September to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of bankruptcy fraud. Prosecutors said he cheated Chrysler Financial and other lenders out of tens of millions of dollars so he could support a high-flying lifestyle.

Hecker has been in custody since October when a judge ordered him arrested after he failed to disclose how he spent insurance money.

Hecker got his start selling used cars in Minneapolis decades ago and eventually became one of Minnesota's largest auto dealers. In 2008, he owned 26 dealerships as well as leasing and fleet businesses, a mortgage brokerage business, Advantage Rent A Car, and multiple real estate and restaurant holdings.

He was a ubiquitous presence in Minnesota - his face appearing on Twin Cities buses and in advertisements as the pitchman for his dealerships.

He also lived the high life, with a 52-foot yacht and private jet, fancy cars and multimillion-dollar homes. In 2004, he and other investors unsuccessfully tried to buy the Minnesota Vikings.

But his empire started crumbling in late 2008, when he lost some credit lines and had to close or sell his dealerships. Then everything came tumbling down.

He crashed his Range Rover in December 2008 while on heavy prescription drugs, and later pleaded guilty to careless driving.

Some lenders sued him and won default judgments - one to the tune of $477 million. By June 2009 he filed for bankruptcy, claiming $787 million in debt and $18.5 million in assets. A contentious divorce from his fourth wife was played out like a soap opera, with Hecker liquidating his 401(k) account and getting tossed in jail by an angry judge.

While Hecker owed millions, he continued to spend money. His belongings from luxury watches to cars and boats were auctioned off, and he created a fake company to try to buy some of items back. Benefactors came forward with cash. And his ex-father-in-law committed suicide a week after being accused of trying to help Hecker hide money.

The twists and turns of Hecker's courtroom battles were often front-page news, reflecting the public's fascination with him, said Keith Moyer, a former Star Tribune publisher who is now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's journalism school.

"He was sort of the poster boy for the economic boom ... but then he also kind of turned into a poster boy for the crash," Moyer said. "He was on top of the world, and then he wasn't."

(MPR News reporters Tim Nelson and Elizabeth Dunbar contributed to this report.)