It was either God or money. Benjamin Lackey knew eventually there would have to be a showdown between the two. In his mind and in his life, the two converged in a firestorm of biblical proportions. After all, Lackey owes his life--which almost ended sixteen years ago, when a pickup truck backed over his tricycle and crushed him--to nothing less than a miracle. Almost as miraculous was the huge settlement Lackey's parents won for him from the tricycle manufacturer. As Lackey neared adulthood, the money opened up bold new worlds of temptation for the young man whose life, though saved, was forever marred by surgeries and a stolen childhood.
For a while, Lackey chose money. Like an expectant father, Lackey spared no expense preparing for its arrival. He spoke about it with such pride, such assurance that, even though he was so young, everyone believed him--car dealerships, credit-card companies, even the owner of Stoneridge, a $1.5 million mansion that overtook Lackey with the dizziness of a first love. Lackey, of course, believed it too. He believed the money was coming. It was his.
All he had to do was turn eighteen.
In those few months just before and after that much-anticipated birthday on May 23, 1995, Lackey embarked on a materialistic journey the likes of which few have ever known. Just as he was blinded by the idea of a pile of money waiting for him at the other side of eighteen, it shined through him and dazzled everyone in his wake. Like an artist infused with divine inspiration, Lackey felt driven to express himself. So he picked up his checkbook and wrote.
Wearing the glow of wealth like a halo, Lackey was no longer a physically scarred, legally blind, socially needy teenager. He was a smooth-talking big spender teetering on the brink of millions. He convinced salesmen at a car dealership to sell him $100,000 worth of BMWs, which he drove around even though he was too blind at the time to get a driver's license. He splurged on fancy meals, clothes, and gifts. He borrowed money for a favorite uncle and tried to buy the friendship of others, including a female financial consultant from Merrill Lynch.
Lackey's greatest feat of conspicuous consumption, though--the one that made him notorious across Northeast Ohio--was the 42-room mansion in Ravenna that he tried to purchase with a check written out to the owner in the amount of $1,550,000. Just in case, at some later date, he might need to remind himself of what he had purchased for such a handsome price, he printed the word "house" in all caps in the far left-hand corner (when the check bounced, the owner had to pay the $4 service charge).
Four years later, after a brief stay in the Cuyahoga County jail, numerous fines, and at least seven misdemeanor and two felony convictions, Lackey is still a rich young guy--just not as rich as he expected to be at the tender age of 21. He lives in Medina, in his parents' modest, one-story house that is still decorated for Christmas.
At 2 p.m. on a Monday, he's just waking up. Standing in the doorway in his Nautica bathrobe, Lackey doesn't look like a millionaire. He's so waxen he seems celestial, and, with his ivory skin and almost-white hair, he nearly glows. It's obvious from the flush in his cheeks that he's forgotten about the interview before he can apologize profusely.
After getting dressed, Lackey takes a seat at the kitchen table and launches into the story of his life. He's quite good at it because he's had so much practice, most recently with a local filmmaker who is making a documentary about him. Lackey talks about himself for hours, smoking one Menthol Marlboro after another, occasionally disciplining his puppies, Colonel and Major--both Shiba Inus--and Dershowitz, an Italian greyhound. Every once in a while, he manages to stop one slaty blue eye from wiggling in its socket long enough to eerily lock on the eyes across the table, the effect of which would make Marilyn Manson squirm with envy.
"At one time I was probably the most materialistic, egotistical, obnoxious son of a bitch you'd ever want to meet," Lackey says smoothly. "But as I'm getting older, I'm getting wiser. My priorities have changed."
Despite suffering from a disorder known as nystagmus, which makes eye contact with him difficult, Lackey captivates people with his gentleman's ways and accommodating demeanor. He has stumped adults twice his age with his well-constructed, if slightly totalitarian, political views and his formidable powers of persuasion. He can debate people for hours on the travesties of legalized abortion and the death penalty. And he spends his free time orchestrating a dream plan to "conquer the world."
But respect for Lackey does not abound with his peers, especially his sisters' boyfriends, whom he interrogates mercilessly about everything from their grades to their political beliefs. His fifteen-year-old sister hates that he disses her rap music, and his teenage cousin says he's a geek, millions or no millions.
Lackey doesn't care--doesn't even seem to know--what most think about him. The healthy self-image he's fostered over the years is not easily deflated.
"Humility has been a lesson I've worked on teaching myself," he says. "Believe it or not, I'm not nearly as arrogant as I was a few years ago."
Lackey paints himself as a naive yet brilliant pain-scarred kid who allowed adults who should have known better to fuel his fantasy. Others, however, paint him as a calculating manipulator who knew exactly what he was doing and, somehow, believed he would get away with it. Mark Schmidt, the former owner of the mansion Lackey tried to buy, has brought a $1.7 million lawsuit against him for "public and personal embarrassment and humiliation, extreme emotional distress, extreme annoyance, inconvenience, and economic loss."
As the May 11 trial approaches--Lackey expresses surprise when reminded of it-- the people who got swept up in Hurricane Ben are being roused once more. Like formerly brainwashed members of a cult, they are still trying to explain how they got carried away in the storm.
Lackey's story is one of both human potential and human greed. Divine intervention and temptation. He is smart beyond his years and childishly idealistic. Confident and vulnerable. Arrogant and bored. These traits, in Lackey, are exaggerated, but disturbingly recognizable; there is some of him in all of us. His wobbly eyes may be the window to your soul.
"What would you do?" Lackey asks as a challenge. "Imagine you are seventeen years old, and I come to you and say the day you turn eighteen, you get ten million dollars or fifteen million or twenty or whatever. What do you do then?"
On April 23, 1983, exactly one month before Lackey turned six, he pedaled his tricycle into a near-death experience. He was taking a spin around the parking lot of his mother's apartment complex in Lodi when he suddenly found himself under the wheels of a pickup truck.
"I felt the tire on my stomach, and I remember it backing up over me," Lackey recalls. "Mom was banging on the truck, saying 'You're on my baby!' or something like that. I have a distinct memory of truck fumes.
"I went into shock immediately. I felt no pain. I remember being pissed. I remember sitting up. Stuff was falling out. I remember a lot of blood. The doctors told me it was part of my digestive tract that was falling out."
Lackey's hipbone was crushed. His right leg was almost completely severed. He was rushed to the local hospital in Lodi, but doctors transferred him to Akron Children's Hospital immediately. Lackey's father, Daniel, a paramedic, wouldn't let the doctors put Lackey on the lifeflight, because he thought his team could get him there faster. Lackey remembers one of the paramedics doing magic tricks for him on the way to keep him awake.
"They didn't think there was a chance for me to live and, if I did live, they said there would be no chance I would be able to walk . . . I remember telling my dad, 'I'm going to die, Daddy.'"
It took him many years and an extreme amount of suffering ("pure, unadulterated hell," according to Lackey), but he ended up proving everyone--including himself--wrong. It took him five years to learn to walk again. In the summers, when most kids were enjoying their vacations, Lackey was usually laid up in a hospital in Norfolk, Virginia, having surgeries. He's had 130 since the accident. Scars slice across his stomach. He lifts the sleeve of his dress shirt to show the mottled scar tissue covering most of his upper left arm.
After Lackey's accident, his family sued the driver of the pickup truck and made a claim against the truck's owner, according to the 1998 deposition of Lackey's lawyer, Stephen Brown. They also sued the manufacturer of the toy Lackey was riding. They used the money from the truck lawsuit to pay initial medical bills and put the rest, about a half-million, into a trust.
However, because of all the subsequent medical expenses Lackey incurred and expensive tuition to Walsh Jesuit High School and, later, Howe Military Academy, the trust was exhausted about two years before Lackey's eighteenth birthday.
The money from the toy manufacturer settlement was to pay Lackey millions over the course of his lifetime, starting when he was eighteen. The agreement is supposed to be confidential, but a copy of it was obtained by Medina General Hospital and attached to a 1996 civil lawsuit the hospital brought against the Lackeys for nonpayment of hospital bills stemming from Ben's 1983 accident. According to the settlement, Empire of Carolina--the manufacturer of the tricycle--and its insurance company agreed to pay Ben almost $10.2 million over his lifetime. The payments increase as he ages, beginning with $2,000 a month for the first five years after he turned eighteen.
In a sworn deposition, Daniel Lackey said he showed Ben the settlement agreement when he was fourteen or fifteen. The document is straightforward. Nothing about it suggests that Lackey would be able to access the money in a lump sum on his eighteenth birthday. But Lackey thought he could do it anyway. There's little, in fact, that Lackey thinks he can't do.
Lackey, who boasts an IQ of 159, says he has always considered himself smarter than most people--something that was reinforced to him many times growing up. He excelled in school. He wrote an autobiography in the sixth grade, Life of Lackey, in which he alluded to a report he wrote on the circulatory system when he was eight. Apparently, the report was worth noting in the autobiography, since it was so in-depth that his science teacher gave him a bad grade because she was convinced he could not have written it himself.
"I'm pretty smart," Lackey asserts. "Within a few minutes of talking to someone, I'll usually think they're nowhere as smart as me."
In high school, both at Walsh Jesuit and later at Howe Military Academy in Howe, Indiana, Lackey wasn't shy about voicing his political views, which he describes as "a little Christian Coalition, a little Catholic Church, libertarian, and Republican Party." With his classmates and his teachers, he honed his skills of persuasion and debate. His favorite topic was abortion ("one of the most grievous sins of our society").
James Vogelsang, Lackey's American government teacher at Howe, recalls Lackey as "extremely brilliant, informed, and too smart for his own good" and "absolutely the brightest kid I've ever had.
"This kid turned me around totally on abortion," he says. "He was involved in anti-abortion campaigns in Medina and statewide. He asked me questions I couldn't answer. Things like 'When does life begin?' 'If a woman is driving and has an accident, and the baby dies, why is the guy who hits her held for murder, but not the guy who sucks it into a sink?' Now I am generally opposed to abortion."
Vogelsang, who retired from Howe and now lives in Toledo, says Lackey was too unorthodox for such a rigid environment. When Lackey was expelled for computer hacking, Vogelsang joined Lackey in crying conspiracy.
"They get rid of the ones they can't mold," he says.
Lackey, who produces a picture of himself in full military dress in a $4.99 frame, says the expulsion was the absolute worst experience of his life. He wanted to go to military school after reading an article about it in Boys Life magazine. Once there, however, Lackey says he found the academic standards to be poor. He was expelled after hacking into the school's internal e-mail system (while trying to help another cadet who had forgotten his password, he claims).
"I want to buy that school and burn it down," says Lackey, still bitter about the ordeal. "I was so depressed, because I had no honor, no integrity. I was so devastated. I never cry, and I cried every day. I was going to commit suicide. I started an IV in my arm. I was going to inject air into my veins.
"I would go through my accident a thousand times over rather than go through that again."
On Howe's graduation day in May 1995, Lackey's anger prompted him to show up at the school in a limousine--still his favorite source of transportation--escorted by a police motorcade. The school had him arrested for trespassing.
"They were very rude to me," he explains. "I just wanted to be with my graduating class."
The month he turned eighteen was an eventful one for Lackey for other reasons too. Ever since his father showed him the settlement agreement for the first time a few years earlier, he knew that the payments would start coming after his eighteenth birthday on May 23.
For Lackey, temptation came in the form of a call from a Merrill Lynch stockbroker named Marsha Stohl. According to depositions, she was trying to solicit Daniel Lackey as a client. It was Ben, however, who answered the telephone and piqued her interest. He told her he would need someone to help him invest the money he said he would get when he turned eighteen.
That conversation led to the first of several meetings with Stohl that both encouraged and lent credibility to Lackey's fantasy. After the initial phone call, Stohl visited the Lackeys' home and reviewed the settlement agreement, Lackey testified. Lackey said she convinced him that he could access all $10 million and turn it over to Merrill Lynch to manage. He said she told him she thought it could generate $800,000 a year.
Even though Lackey said he didn't consider her comments to be financial advice, from that point the relationship between the precocious seventeen-year-old and the broker blossomed. Drunk on the prospect of the money's believed imminent arrival, Lackey arrived at Stohl's office in a limousine to take her out for coffee and bought her a bathing suit on a shopping trip. When they discovered they would both be going to Washington, D.C., during the same weekend, they arranged to travel together on the same flight.
"We discussed which airlines we were flying and whatnot, and she said that I should fly on Southwest and then take the flight with her down, and we could sit and talk on the flight," Lackey said in his deposition. "And she told me Southwest was a fun airline to fly, because they sing and dance in the aisles, some sort of nonsense. So I called USAir, which I had [originally booked on], and I switched my flight over to Southwest."
Lackey said in the deposition that they had dinner together in Washington, and he paid for it--including the $150 bottle of wine.
In her deposition, Stohl remembers things very differently. She says she paid for both a dinner and a breakfast with Lackey in Washington. She also said Lackey called her and asked her for money because he didn't have a driver's license and couldn't write a check. And she said she never asked Lackey to buy her a bathing suit.
"I laid my credit card on the counter, and, when I came back, Ben purchased the bathing suit on his credit card," she testified. "And I objected a number of times. When he started to start a scene, I said fine."
Lackey said he had no romantic interest in Stohl, and she had none in him. When they looked at each other, the attraction was purely monetary. Lackey thought Stohl could help him get all of his money at once. And he said she told him that "it would make her look great to the company to have such a big portfolio."
Stohl's attorney, Thomas Parker, says his client declined to be interviewed, because she has been named, along with Lackey and her employer, Merrill Lynch, as a defendant in Schmidt's lawsuit. Stohl testified that she never represented or said she represented Lackey. In fact, Stohl said she never even saw Lackey's settlement documents. She said she was merely prospecting Lackey, according to her deposition.
If she expressed this to Lackey, he did not accept it. He was so confident that Stohl would help him get to his money that he set out on "a spending spree to end all spending sprees." Before he turned eighteen, he co-signed a $26,000 loan for a Jeep Grand Cherokee for a friend, obtained credit cards, and made offers on two homes. For months following his eighteenth birthday, Lackey wrote several bad checks on closed or nonexistent bank accounts, including one to Davis Automotive Group in Cleveland Heights for two BMWs.
He explains his behavior like this: "I was told I would have full access when I turned eighteen. It was like winning the lotto. If you know you've got that winning ticket, you go out and spend money. The bear is when you find out your ticket isn't the winning one."
The time before Lackey's number finally came up was filled with tall talk and big dreams, the high point of which occurred in May 1995 at a stately mansion in Ravenna.
At the time, Stoneridge was owned by Mark Schmidt, a weightlifting, straight-shooting poet, who once held a fund-raiser for Dan Quayle on the mansion's 250-acre grounds. The first time a real-estate agent brought Lackey to his home, Schmidt told the impressionable seventeen-year-old to come back with someone who could vouch for his millions.
Schmidt says Lackey made "outrageous fabrications" to him, leading him to believe that he did have the funds to make the purchase. And on May 11, he showed up with Marsha Stohl and an entourage of others, including his uncle and his grandfather.
In his sworn deposition, Schmidt recalls the first time he met Stohl, "There was an attractive young lady standing by herself at the bottom of the staircase, and I walked over and introduced myself, and she said she was Marsha Stohl from Merrill Lynch, and she was his financial advisor. So I asked, so then you're here to--I was thinking more from a stock portfolio standpoint. You're here to verify his money? She said, that's right." (Stohl testified that she said, "No, Mr. Schmidt. I don't have accounts with Ben Lackey.")
Schmidt, Lackey, Stohl, and the rest of the ensemble pulled together the wicker furniture into an oval formation in the mansion's high-ceilinged solarium. Stohl sat close to Lackey at the meeting, which went on for hours. Schmidt said Stohl appeared to be reviewing Lackey's settlement documents with him. When he asked to see the documents himself, Schmidt said Lackey refused, citing their confidentiality.
The 44-year-old Schmidt was still skeptical of Lackey's ability to buy the mansion after that, but Lackey kept reassuring him. In the month's time Schmidt and Lackey got to know one another, Schmidt says the two became close. They talked politics, shared their feelings about religion, and even played a game of chess.
"Ben had talked to my children," Schmidt said in his deposition. "He had given them rides in his BMW. He had talked highly about his life and everything and spent some time with my son, leading him to believe, just like the rest of us, that this transaction was going to occur."
A few weeks later, Schmidt was awakened in the middle of the night when Lackey allegedly broke into the house. (Lackey said he had an appointment.)
"If he wasn't so glow-in-the-dark pale, I would have shot him," Schmidt says. "The next day he showed up at my house and wrote me a $1.5 million check.
"He looked me in the eyes and said, 'I am the happiest man in the world to get this house.'"
Schmidt wasn't so happy when the check bounced, and he found out he had been duped. To this day, Lackey's sojourn into materialistic excess still puzzles and angers. Even though Lackey, his lawyer, and his father played off the spree as the mistake of a naive minor, unsophisticated in financial matters, others have made Lackey seem fully aware, though unconcerned, of the gravity of his actions.
Schmidt, who eventually lost the mansion to the bank, says he felt "like a hurt older brother," but he still has concern for Lackey. The two have attracted the attention of local filmmaker Chip Karpus, who is making a documentary about them. Schmidt, a onetime millionaire who now sells real estate at Century 21 in Kent, says he considers himself Lackey's "antithesis."
"He's a fascinating guy," Schmidt says. "I'm a poet, and he's an artist in thought. We hit head on like locomotives."
Lackey, visibly unmoved when told of Schmidt's expressed concern for his well-being, dismisses Schmidt's analysis of his psyche and says the two never bonded. He doesn't say anything of consequence about Schmidt.
"I refuse to say this was entirely my fault, because it wasn't," he says. "I was told that things were going to be one way, and what was my fault is I believed it.
"It caused a lot of problems for me. Some are still ongoing. Some may be irreparable."
The price Lackey had to pay for his enigmatic consumerism was higher than he ever imagined. In Cleveland Heights, he was arrested in November for writing the bad check for the two BMWs. That month in Medina, Lackey pleaded guilty for attempting to pass bad checks, a misdemeanor, and for theft and forgery, both felonies. He received two years probation, which he finished in December of 1998. (He violated his probation once in 1997, but was not prosecuted. The probation officer instead ordered him to the Akron Psycho-Diagnostic Clinic for evaluation.)
Lackey also pleaded guilty to attempting to pass bad checks in Cleveland. But his six-month jail sentence was suspended, and he made restitution to the dealership.
Because Lackey never actually took possession of the mansion, he wasn't prosecuted for writing the bad check to Schmidt. But he does have Schmidt's civil lawsuit hanging over him.
"I look at it as a mistake that ended up being a good learning experience," Lackey says. "There's nothing I can do to change the past now. For the areas that are my fault, I'm sorry."
Lackey no longer tries to blend in with the rich and privileged. Way past midnight on a Saturday in late March, Lackey is dining at his favorite truck stop in Lodi with his best friend, Denis Kucharski. It's obvious that Lackey's priorities have changed in the last four years. The Ben who once had dollar signs in his eyes now carries rosary beads in his pockets. No longer would he sell his soul for Bill Gates's money. Now he wants to save the souls of others. In fact, he says he can't wait to give up the money he once used to buy friendship and social status in order to pursue a pastoral life.
In three days, Lackey and Kucharski will fly to a religious retreat in Connecticut, where they will contemplate the priesthood.
"I don't need to be Ben the rich kid anymore," he said earlier in the evening. "I don't need that anymore. I went through that time. It was an interesting experience. I can do that the rest of my life if I really wanted to. But that's not what I want out of life. It's kind of a shallow existence."
When Lackey talks about the Legionaries of Christ, the conservative order of Catholic priests organizing the retreat, the pace of his voice quickens. He says he had a dream--a nightmare, really--in which he was turned away from the priesthood because of the way he dressed. The priests thought he was too ostentatious.
Despite Lackey's new goal, he still puzzles people with his eccentricities and contradictions. After expounding on his great respect for the Legionaries, he and Kucharski are half-jokingly refining their plan to conquer the world and competing for who's the biggest germophobe.
"This glass has a little stain on it right here," Kucharski says. "Do you think I should drink out of it?"
"I don't know," answers Lackey, who left his house wearing a sterile mask over his nose and mouth. "I have some alcohol preps."
All idiosyncrasies aside, it seems odd that a wannabe priest would envision the plan to conquer the world that Lackey and Kucharski have constructed, even if it is just a harmless fantasy.
Picture this, Lackey explained, eyes aglow--a theocracy with a single nuclear warhead to protect its inhabitants. Those who want to come ashore must meet the following criteria: They must be Catholic or agree to convert to Catholicism. And they must have some special skill or talent to improve the quality of life. They must undergo genetic testing to ensure that they are biologically sophisticated enough to contribute to the island's advanced gene pool.
Lackey would be both the bishop of the island as well as the head of the special police, whose job it would be to ferret out islanders who differ morally or ideologically. The punishment for those who commit such an offense is almost always voluntary LSD reprogramming in a mental institution and, if they refuse, deportation.
"Hitler is a point of reference," Lackey said earlier, quite aware that he is venturing into dangerous territory. "There's a fine line between brilliance and insanity. We used to sit around over coffee, thinking maybe we'll be the good Hitler."
Despite Lackey's fantasy world of totalitarian dictatorship, he calls after returning from the retreat and says he's going to try to become a priest. He leaves for his candidacy on June 7, providing legal matters don't detain him.
Seem out of character that a young millionaire would want to give it all up and become a priest? Not if that young millionaire is Ben Lackey. People have accused him of many things, but never predictability.
"I wonder what a normal life would be like," Lackey ponders. "But honestly, I would be bored."
Jacqueline Marino may be reached at email@example.com.