“Before we get to your car questions,” my former next door neighbor, Terrance, said, “I need to tell you both something. My wife left me. My kids won’t talk to me. I lost my job. I embezzled almost a half a million dollars because I’m addicted to BMWs, and have been hiding them all over the state. I’ll probably be going to prison soon.”
My wife and I looked at each other in utter disbelief.
That was back in fall 2013 in Longmont, Colorado. My son was two years old. My wife was pregnant with our daughter. One of my bands was about to leave for tour in a couple weeks, but we had yet to find a van.
I had been getting desperate, so I went to Craigslist. A Volkswagen Eurovan caught my eye due to its low mileage and price. The ad stated it was missing its heater core, but that the seller would include one, uninstalled. I had no idea how hard it would be to install the heater core myself. But I knew someone who might be able to tell me: my next door neighbor, Terrance.
Terrance was an accountant, and he looked the part. He tucked his t-shirts into his jeans, which were always jacked up too high. He had a short, nondescript haircut and wore glasses that always seemed to be a little crooked. He was about 20 years older than me, married with two grown kids, but he still had a baby face. He taught Sunday school. He was always polite.
He was also an avid fan of BMWs, particularly 2002s, the small coupes that helped establish the company’s reputation for performance in the 1960s and ‘70s. He would often tell me how they were perfectly designed and engineered cars. He had a beautiful red one, a gold one, and a white one parked in his garage that he worked on frequently. His two kids had BMWs. Clearly, he knew at least something about German cars, so I figured maybe he could tell me if it would be easy to install a heater core.
I trotted over and knocked on his door. I remember that when he answered it, I immediately smelled alcohol, which struck me as a little strange. He asked me to give him a few minutes, and then he’d come over so we could talk.
About 10 minutes later, he knocked on the door. His face was flushed, and he didn’t have his usual bright eyes and smile. I invited him in, and he sat down on the couch while my son played on the floor and my wife looked on.
And that’s when he told us about his crime, about how he was going to lose his house and his family.
Initially, my disbelief gave way to a protective instinct. I had thought I’d known Terrance, but apparently not. And now he was sitting a couple feet from my toddler son, a couple feet from my pregnant wife. I had the urge to kick him out of the house.
But I saw how fearful and broken he was. He told us how badly he betrayed his family and how desperately he wanted them back. I offered tepid encouragement, telling him to stay strong, hang in there, to do what was right, whatever that was.
He left. We never talked about the heater core. I never bought the Eurovan.
I am withholding Terrance’s last name in this story. Not for his sake, but for his family’s. His kids, I was told, have fears about their names coming up in connection with this story. I’m certainly not looking to compound what they’ve already gone through. (They didn’t want to talk for this story.)
Until this, the family were the perfect next-door neighbors. They were friendly, they were quiet, they weren’t nosey, they enjoyed a quick chat, and they were helpful. This was our first house, and the day we moved in, my wife went into labor and we rushed off to the hospital. We were young and new to home ownership, and especially in that first year, a little overwhelmed. Terrance was always happy to help me with a chore like blowing out my sprinkler system in the late fall before it started freezing.
I simply could not get my mind around the fact that Terrance, of all people, could have done those things. And I was the hardly the only one to feel that way.
“It was just an unbelievable shock when we found out he would have betrayed us in the way in which he did,” Byron Chrisman told me. Byron, with his son Steve, founded Chrisman Commercial, Terrance’s employer. “I mean, for all intents and purposes, as far as we were concerned, we kind of treated Terrance as family.”
Steven Weber, who lived across the street from Terrance, said the same.
“I still have a hard time understanding it’s the same person… He didn’t look the part,” he said. “I mean, I’d come over and visit with him, and I’d see him out there, picking twigs off his lawn like he was almost obsessed with twigs on his lawn and neatness.”
Art Krill had two BMW repair shops in Boulder before he retired, and had worked on a number of Terrance’s BMWs over the years. “When I got the bits and pieces of Terrance’s story, I was flabbergasted,” he told me.
Today, Terrance understands their shock.
“Nobody suspected this,” Terrance said. “You talk about the white-picket fence. I lived a pretty responsible life. When my kids were growing up, I went to all their activities, was a scout leader for a lot of years, taught Sunday school for three-year-olds at church, and attended church every Sunday. So people look at the exterior and say, ‘this guy’s a pretty responsible person. He has this passion, or maybe it’s an obsession, maybe it’s a little out-of-bounds that he’s spending all this time and effort on these cars. But he takes care of his other responsibilities. His family seems to be happy. He does a good job at work. He works hard as hell at work, he takes care of all his responsibilities there?’”
He added: “What’s to suspect there’s a problem?”
Terrance told me his wife knew about eight of the BMWs. In reality, he owned “exactly 50.”
Owning 42 more vehicles than his family thought he did, Terrance looked beyond his driveway for storage. “I had a friend who ran a salvage business, storage place, and had 30-plus cars sitting at his place,” in Weld County.
And then there were the massive caches of parts he kept elsewhere. “I did get a chance to see, when we were helping him move stuff, some storage places by Boulder and other places” Steven Weber told me. “He actually had these storage places completely full of parts. I never knew the scope of how into this obsession he was with his cars… I can’t even comprehend it,” he said.
He also had 12 other BMWs stored in the parking lot of the company he worked for. Not only did he have cars stored on their lot, he filled empty units in the building with yet more BMW parts. “FedEx and UPS used to show up at my office every day with stuff that I bought off of eBay for these cars,” Terrance recalled. “There was some unfinished space in our building that hadn’t been built out for a tenant that was literally filled with BMW parts.”
Terrance said Chrisman Commercial “was fully aware” that they were his BMWs and that he was using their building to store his parts.
But there was much they were not aware of. Specifically, the hundreds of thousands of dollars he embezzled from the firm.
According to Terrance, he stole $320,000 by issuing himself 125 extra paychecks. And he spent every penny of it on his BMWs.
Byron said it was even worse: over $400,000 over the course of seven years, though he says that’s only an estimate and that his son, Steve would know better. (Steve Chrisman declined to comment for this story.)
Whatever the amount, it all went towards the same goal. “The 125 paychecks that I took over a six-year period of time, each one of those was roughly $2,500, net,” Terrance explained to me. “Before I got the $2,500, I’d run up one of my credit cards with $2,500 worth of stuff that I bought—either vehicles or parts for vehicles. And, you know, the $2,500 I took in the form of pay, I paid off the credit card. And then [I’d] just repeat the process over and over again.”
“[I] squandered it on restoring and racing these vintage BMW 2002s,” he told me. He had an M5 too, but it was not secret, and was not the object of his fascination or spending.
I asked him how he managed to go so long without getting caught, and he offered this: “No one had any inkling that I was stealing this money. When you work for a father and son, and there’s only two other employees, you don’t get away with stealing money from them for six years unless you have a tremendous amount of trust with them, and they don’t perceive a problem. Everybody thought that I had probably an excess number of these vehicles, but that the way I was able to have those vehicles was by horse-trading parts and cars, etc.”
This squares with what Byron Chrisman told me. In fact, Byron says they figured Terrance had turned his hobby into a way of making a little cash. “One of the things he was doing in his spare time was rebuilding BMWs, and we assumed he was making some money doing that,” Byron said.
Perhaps because so many people trusted him, Terrance became somewhat brazen. For one thing, 2002s are pretty distinct vehicles. Had anyone in his family visited him at the office, they’d have immediately connected the vehicles in the parking lot to him. “Didn’t your wife ever visit you at your work?” I asked him.
“No, she didn’t,” he answered me definitively.
He also told me that “there were people all around the country that knew about those cars… And they would say, ‘…I was reading on this forum that there’s this cache of these cars sitting in some parking lot in Louisville.’ And I would say, ‘Those are my cars’,” he laughed.
Terrance estimates that “probably a half a dozen” people (all of whom were BMW enthusiasts) knew the true number of BMWs he owned, and they all knew he was hiding them from his family. In fact, he told me, “My employer knew that I was hiding the vehicles that were parked in his parking lot from my family.”
I asked him how his employer and fellow BMW enthusiasts felt about the fact that he was hiding all these cars from his wife and kids. “Nobody ever expressed any discomfort with it,” he said.
Terrance can’t remember the exact date he got caught, but says it was either August 5 or 8, 2013. “I had gone to stay at a friend’s cabin over in Montrose for the weekend and I was traveling back on I-70 and I got an email on my phone. It was my boss, saying ‘Terrance, I’ve discovered some financial irregularities looking in Quickbooks, and you are suspended without pay and asked to not have any contact with the office or any of the Chrisman family members.’”
“Essentially,” he said, “the sheets got pulled back.”
But he still didn’t come clean with his family. “I kept leaving in the morning, leaving the house, pretending to go to work, driving up into the mountains, and thinking about suicide.”
But Terrance says he “was too much of a coward to take [his] own life.” And before long, his wife, sensing something was wrong, called him on it. “She wasn’t sure I was going to work. [So] she asked me.”
He only told half the truth. “I said I had been fired from my work, that I hadn’t been performing well in my job.”
He says she reacted with support. “Somehow we have to remedy this,” Terrance told me she said. “First thing, we need to have a yard sale and sell a bunch of stuff so we can pay the mortgage.”
It took a couple more weeks for her to learn the real reason he’d been fired. “She figured out ‘this isn’t adding up’,” he recounted to me. “So she looks at my phone and finds the email. I had to come clean about that. And she goes, ‘This is enormous. What else have you been lying about?’ I said, ‘I’ve been lying to you about everything.’ And she said, ‘Well, I would like to stick by you and support, but you have to start telling me the truth today.’ I couldn’t change like that.”
The lying had become automatic behavior. And the straw that broke the camel’s back may have been over something as insignificant as a $20 bill.
“We were going through the drive-thru at McDonald’s to have something to eat, and she said, ‘Do you have any money?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have any money.’ I had a $20 bill in my wallet. Later that day, she looked in my wallet and found that I had a $20 bill. She says, ‘you can’t tell the truth about even the smallest thing anymore, can you?’ She says, ‘If you lie to me about one more thing, I’m going to leave.’ The next thing came up because I couldn’t break that habit,” he said. “So she moved out and moved in with a friend, filed for divorce. Somehow I thought, you know, ‘she’ll stick by me, I’ll fix this somehow.’ But it was apparent that wasn’t going to happen.”
Terrance’s ex-wife declined to comment for this story.
Before long, the house was cleared out of most of the furniture, and everyone but Terrance was gone. In their yard, there was a for-sale sign.
I remember when this happened. Every once in awhile, I’d see Terrance doing something outside and I would ask him how he was doing. He would tell me about himself as if he was talking about someone else entirely, like he was describing some character from a TV show he was watching. He was just completely disconnected.
At one point, he met a friend for breakfast and had what he thought at the time was a panic attack, but what he now believes was a seizure caused by low blood sugar. His friend brought him home first so Terrance could take some anxiety medication. But that didn’t work, so his friend brought him to the ER.
When they asked Terrance if he had suicidal thoughts, he answered truthfully and plainly: of course he thought about suicide, but he didn’t have any serious plans to do it. The personnel at the ER reacted swiftly.
“They put me on a 72-hour psych hold and sent me to a psychiatric hospital, which I’ll tell you is much worse than prison. They don’t want you to leave,” Terrance told me. “If you have good insurance, they want to keep you there. So after my 72-hour hold was up, they asked me to commit myself voluntarily. And when I refused to do that, they got a judge’s order to keep me locked up.”
Terrance felt he was being held against his will. So he came up with a plan. “I told them I was calling my insurance company and canceling my insurance.”
They released him immediately.
I distinctly remember seeing Terrance after he was released. He was standing in his front yard. He was getting thin (when once he was a somewhat stout man), and his hair had grown unkempt and shaggy. But he was smiling. I asked him how he was, and he gleefully told me how he just extricated himself from being held against his will in a psychiatric hospital.
I listened and nodded, and at the end of our chat, I awkwardly told Terrance to please not hurt himself. And I can very clearly remember thinking to myself, he’s going to kill himself right there in that house next door.
Bill Hanlin is the pastor at the church Terrance attends. He is also Terrance’s counselor. He didn’t know Terrance at this point, but he called this time of Terrance’s life “the really, really, really dark place,” and added: “Had I known him at that point, I would have worried for him.”
Their house sold shortly after he’d been held on suicide watch. And I remember feeling relief that Terrance had made it out of there alive.
After being caught, Terrance was originally charged with felony theft of $100,000 to $1,000,000, but he pled guilty to the lesser felony charge of theft from $10,000 to $100,000. As a first offender and non-violent criminal, the judge took mercy on Terrance and offered him an alternative sentence.
“I was originally sentenced to 20 years of probation for my crimes. It was going to be intensely supervised probation for the Economic Crimes Unit… The judge felt he was saving me from prison…” Terrance explained.
But to his attorney’s surprise, Terrance rejected the sentence. “I was 54 at the time, and I just thought, ‘I need some opportunity to pay my debt to society and somehow move forward and have some hope for a life’,” he told me. “I told my attorney that I couldn’t live with that sentence, that I couldn’t comply with it, that he was going to have to sentence me to prison.”
Terrance further explained his reasoning for choosing prison over probation. He said that during the probation period, if a person did anything that probation officers or courts viewed as “inappropriate” (even something like dining out too much), they could either reset the probation period or send the person to prison. Terrance thought that was a far worse position than simply going to prison in the short term, and having a much shorter probation period. “Why wouldn’t everyone make the decision I made?” he asked his attorney, who Terrance said didn’t have an answer.
Instead, Terrance told me his attorney said, “‘Terrance, I’ve never had a single client in the time I’ve practiced criminal defense tell me I want to go to prison.’ I said, ‘I’m not your typical client. I’m used to looking at the things logically, analytically, and taking the emotions out of decisions. For me, the best decision is to suffer more pain in the short-term then to have this held over my head for 20 years.’”
The judge revoked Terrance’s personal recognizance bond and ordered Terrance to be held at the Boulder County Jail to await sentencing. “I spent a month sitting in Boulder County Jail with no contact from my attorney or anybody else, wondering what’s the next step. Finally, I get hauled into court in an orange suit and chains,” he told me. And when he appeared before the judge, he says the judge was enraged.
“When the judge re-sentenced me, he was extremely angry,” Terrance told me. “He said, ‘You say you’re not willing to comply with my original sentence because you need to pay your debt to society and have a chance to rebuild your life. But I think you’re taking the easy way out. I think you will file for bankruptcy as soon as you serve your sentence and probation. You’re likely to be a model prisoner and get through the process as quickly as possible, and therefore serve a minimum amount of time and then file bankruptcy.’”
The judge then imposed the maximum sentence: six years in prison, followed by three years of probation.
Typically, those who perpetrate financial crimes are held at the lowest custody level. But because Terrance was on psychiatric medication for depression, he was required to be held in a facility with a higher security level. So they sent him to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City.
A doctor at CSP once noted that the prison was “almost universally” filled with sociopaths. And when Terrance recalls his time there, he does so with fear in his voice. “It’s scary as hell there,” Terrance remembered. “It’s a very oppressive atmosphere there. The guards are very antagonistic. It’s not a comfortable place to be.”
So, Terrance decided to cope with his depression without his medication. And it worked. After only five months, he was transferred to a minimum security prison in Delta, Colorado.
In stark contrast to Cañon City, Terrance recalls his time at the Delta prison with near-wistfulness: “The only fence around the place is chest-high barbed wire and it’s meant to keep the deer out of the facility, not the people in the facility. And I get to go on a work crew. I leave prison every day, assigned to a crew that works for the U.S. Forest Service doing fire-mitigation work and rebuilding fences for people who have livestock leases and who are raising livestock in the National Forest. It’s a huge change.”
It was in the Delta facility where Terrance said, “I immersed myself back in my faith.” Between this and the lack of medication, Terrance said he experienced a “pretty miraculous healing.”
While positive, his time in Delta was also short. After only nine months, he was released and sent to a halfway house back in Longmont. He moved through the halfway house as quickly as was allowed, and moved in with a friend, where he wore an ankle monitor but was allowed to leave for work and church.
The first time he was eligible to see the parole board was in June, 2016 and was granted parole on his first attempt. “I served 26 months out of the 72 months of my prison sentence,” he told me. Of course, part of that was at his friend’s house.
Now, he’s on probation for three years. If he does anything wrong in that time, they can send him back to prison for the remainder of his probationary period, or reset it. But Terrance thinks he’ll be fully in the clear before the three years are up. “I’ll serve two years of the parole unless my probation officer puts me in for earlier, and she’s already talking about doing that after being on parole for only five months.”
Turned out the judge had been right about one thing at least—how quickly Terrance would move through the prison system.
He’s since moved out from his friend’s house, and now lives in an apartment in an attractive, historic building less than a mile from his old house.
As for Terrance’s swift completion of his time behind bars, Byron Chrisman isn’t bitter.
“Our prisons are overcrowded anyway. My personal belief is that I do not want to see him spend six years in prison,” he said. “You and I as taxpayers pay the cost of incarcerating them. And that’s not cheap. I would rather see him out trying to make a living. And my personal belief is that although he effectively stole $500,000 from us, he paid a huge price for that. Huge. I think he did lose his family. I’m not sure if whether they’ve gotten back together in any way, shape, or form. But he lost his license as a certified public account. That was extremely important to him. He was so proud of the fact that he was a CPA.”
To this last point, Byron told me, “It was such a stupid thing for him to do. It just really shocked me that he was so unwise to destroy his career. I mean, he had a lifetime job with us.”
I asked Byron how badly Terrance had hurt the company. But as it turns out, the real pain was felt by Byron, not as much Chrisman Commercial. He explained: “I was drawing a fairly significant amount of income from the company every month. That stopped. Over the years that he was doing this, I would have received somewhere in the range of $500,000 of income. Probably more. I didn’t receive any income during about five years, or very, very little income during that time period. So I was the one that suffered because the income wasn’t there to pay me the money it had been paying me prior to his theft.”
Despite the massive financial blow Terrance dealt to his former employer, Byron says, “he’s got to live this life, and he’s got to live with himself… I’m not bitter. I’m not angry.”
But he did ask me one question. “How come you’re doing a story on Terrance?”
My family and I were sitting at the dinner table recently. My back was to the kitchen window that overlooks our small front yard. Across the street, my wife saw Terrance go into the Webers’ house across the street. “Hey,” she said. “It’s our old neighbor.”
I wondered what had happened to Terrance. Did he ever go to prison? Did he reconcile with his wife? What was he doing now? Did he still drive?
The next day, I went to Steven’s house and asked if I could have Terrance’s number. He agreed. I called Terrance and asked him if he would talk to me for this story. Terrance said he would do it, saying he thought his story could be a good cautionary tale.
I also thought it would be a good idea to speak with Steven. Not only because he’s known Terrance for about 15 years, but because he’s also a car guy, though Steven’s interests skew more towards vintage American muscle.
Also, Steven’s still close with Terrance. In fact, Steven says he’s closer now with Terrance than he ever has been before. They have dinner together every Wednesday night, and then go to a men’s Bible study at Steven’s church.
And though Steven is now closer than ever with Terrance, he still can’t hide his disbelief. “He got caught up in this obsession. Everything was just a persona… I don’t think he realized how far he had gotten into this… To have more and more and more. It’s almost like somebody that has a heroin [addiction],” he told me.
According to Terrance, though, the problem wasn’t just addiction. He also blames aspects of car culture. He says that there’s a wink-wink-nudge-nudge aspect to it, where men don’t disclose everything—like costs—to their families. And perhaps that’s why he felt so comfortable telling other BMW enthusiasts that all those 2002s in a parking lot in Louisville were, in fact, his.
Or maybe it was because he liked the bragging rights. Because while Terrance is quick to blame this entire situation on his own addictive personality, he’s also quick to offer another excuse. And for a guy who describes himself as “’high IQ” and “manipulative”’, I am astonished at how weak and unconvincing it is:
“BMW enthusiasts are frequently programmed into an attitude that all other makes and models are inferior,” Terrance told me over text.
Terrance seems to be confusing being a snob and being a criminal. In his case, he’s both. I remember the one time I told how I’d love to get a ’72 Plymouth Road Runner. Terrance scoffed and said, “Hope you don’t plan on turning. Those things are only good for going in a straight line.” That might have been the first and only time I’d ever heard Terrance make a smartass remark.
Steven Weber has a 1968 Chevy Camaro SS. I ask him about it every chance I get and have taken more than a few photos for my own personal enjoyment. I told Steven about Terrance’s Road Runner remark, and he laughed because he could relate: “Sometimes I’d go over there and look at his car, and we’d talk an hour about one [BMW]. Then I’d be pulling up in my Camaro, and I’m walking out, and I’m thinking, ‘Okay, he’s going to follow me out and check out my car.’ And he would stop before he got to my car and go, ‘See you later!’ And I’d say, ‘Wow! Okay.’ So, yeah, in his mind, he didn’t see any other car like the BMW.”
This struck me because while Terrance tries to takes some cover under the rationale that dishonesty and obsession are an accepted part of car culture, a lot of Terrance’s behavior is actually antithetical to it. Steven put it this way: “As car lovers…part of the thing you have when you’re sitting there, visiting with somebody about their car, [is that] you share their joy with their car, and you share your joy with your car. And you just share back and forth and you learn from each other, and you just share each other’s joy. That’s why I always say there’s never a bad vehicle. If you like it, it’s a good vehicle.”
For Terrance, BMWs weren’t so much about joy or enthusiasm, but pure, unadulterated obsession and addiction. And now, he seems to regard cars as a sort of kryptonite; or how an alcoholic views a pint of beer.
Terrance’s pastor tells me how Terrance won’t attend activities that have to do with cars.
Steven tells me how “the pendulum” has totally swung in the other direction. And he confides in me that they can no longer talk about cars together.
Nowadays, Terrance not only attends services at church, he is counseled at church. He also attends Bible studies at church. He is also a “Stephen Minister” at his church, counseling others. But rather than simply stop at being a Stephen Minister, Terrance is completing the training to be a lead minister. And there’s more. He recently completed an exhaustive 25-week long financial training course, because he now wants to lead a financial seminar at his church.
So to say Terrance is now “active” in his church would be a little like saying Terrance “liked” BMWs. And that’s exactly what I got to wondering about as I spoke with Terrance and his pastor.
I asked Pastor Bill Hanlin if it was possible that Terrance was doing the same thing with his faith that he had been doing with other earlier obsessions like bicycles, audio equipment, and BMWs. I can only assume the pastor did not enjoy this comparison. But he answered me.
“I think Terrance is Terrance,” he said. “That same passion, that same note for detail, that same make-it-happen is always going to be with him.”
I put the same question to Terrance. “To some degree, yes,” he said. “The difference is, with the stuff I’m doing at church, my focus is on other people. Not myself.”
Terrance says he currently owes close to $1 million in restitution, both civil and criminal, plus interest. It’s an amount that he may very well never be able to fully pay off. Byron Chrisman certainly doesn’t think so. “My personal belief is that he will never even pay the interest, let alone pay the principal back,” he told me. “It’s so much money. I can’t imagine he will ever make enough money.”
But his ultimate goal is to be reunited with his family. He now has two grandchildren, and he hopes badly that someday they will come to visit him at his apartment. But his son hardly speaks to him, and his daughter does not speak to him at all. Terrance still wears his wedding band. But from what his ex-wife has said to Terrance, she does not want to reconcile. Still, he’s hopeful.
If there’s any hope for a reconciliation, Terrance will have to surely show how much he’s changed. And that’s why I was so eager to ask him my last question: what is he driving now?. I expected him to tell me he wasn’t driving anything that he walked or took the bus everywhere. So I was surprised when he told me that he does have a car. And it’s a BMW. Not a 2002, but a station wagon.
At first, he downplayed it. “That car sat at a friend’s house for the two and a half years I was in prison and at a halfway house. It was pristine when I put it away. But because it sat in a driveway, it’s weathered. The paint is peeling on it. It’s got door dings on it. It looks like it belongs in a junkyard.”
But I remembered the station wagon from back when we were neighbors. Wasn’t there something special about this station wagon, I asked him. Yes, he told me. “When it came out, it was the fastest station wagon in the world.”
We went outside and took a look at the car, and I snapped a few pictures on my phone. It did not look like a car that belonged in a junkyard.
We stood next to each other like we used to. Just two guys looking at a car. “I’ve held onto my mistress,” Terrance said.
He still had a BMW.
David Obuchowski’s essays and features have appeared in The Awl, Gawker, Deadspin, and the Daily Beast. His short story “Field Guide For Roadside Memorials” was recently published by the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal. He’s also the guitar player of Publicist UK (Relapse Records), guitar player and singer of Goes Cube (Old Flame Records/Greenway Records), and other projects.