Commentary

Vick: The unraveling of a future

Originally Published: May 19, 2009
By Lester Munson | ESPN.com

In the shadow of a bleak public housing project in Newport News, Va., where his life began, a young man of wealth, fame and flair for football is working each day to bring hope where there has been only blight and despair.

With enthusiastic support from city officials and impressive financing, Aaron Brooks, a former NFL quarterback, is putting together a 15-acre urban oasis that he hopes will feature affordable housing, retail stores and even a police station. It's a project that promises to be of enormous benefit both to the city and to Brooks.

And as Brooks turns his dream into a new reality, another young man whose life began in the same Ridley Circle project -- and who scaled even greater heights as an NFL quarterback -- returns to the area this week, his wealth and fame replaced with bankruptcy and disgrace.

Michael Vick's homecoming will be a bittersweet return to an old reality that led to one of the most dramatic downfalls in the history of sports. As he arrives back in Newport News after a year and a half in prison, Vick might want to ask himself some questions.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesWill Vick ever be back in uniform? Probably not if he returns to his old reality.

Why, for example, did he refuse an offer to join Brooks in the real estate investments?

How did he wind up in so many bad business deals?

How did he allow his love of dogs to metastasize into something so unacceptable to society and to the law?

And what can he do going forward to avoid the kind of decision-making that put him behind bars and now has him restricted to home confinement and facing a strict probation, a $10-per-hour job as a construction laborer and an indefinite suspension from the NFL?

Interviews of former members of Vick's inner circle, a detailed review of 20 months of his financial records in 2004 and 2005, and analysis of documents filed in connection with his bankruptcy hearing in April of this year show that Vick repeatedly ignored sound advice, listened to the wrong people, spent his money foolishly and lost control of the dubious characters drawn to him and to his money. He is finally out of prison, but his life is still in disarray and his financial affairs still appear to be badly in need of rehabilitation.

"Michael is gullible, and he can be stupid," says Michael Smith, a highly respected financial planner who worked with Vick for nearly two years and is helping Brooks with his real estate ventures.

"There were some people who were always in Mike's ear," says Tony Taylor, who ran Vick's pit bull kennel for nearly four years until he left in September 2004. "These were not halo types of guys."

"The people around Vick would rather keep their place in his life than tell him anything they thought he didn't want to hear," says another former Vick insider who wishes to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of Vick's legal issues.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick & Aaron Brooks
AP Photo/Ric FeldAaron Brooks (No. 2) and Vick (7) are familiar with each other both on and off the football field.

Two names are mentioned quickly and automatically in discussions with several people who have knowledge of Vick's life and his problems -- "Whoop" and "Woody."

"Whoop" is Anthony Harris, a reputed drug dealer from the projects in Newport News who, although several years older, grew close to Vick as he left Virginia Tech and succeeded in the NFL, eventually signing a 10-year, $130 million contract -- then the biggest contract in league history. "Woody" is attorney Lawrence Woodward, 51, of the law firm of Shuttleworth, Ruloff, Swain, Haddad & Morecock, P.C., in Virginia Beach, Va.

Harris once confronted Smith, the financial adviser, outside the huge white house on Vick's kennel property in Surry, Va.

"He was packing," Smith says. "I could see the gun in his belt on his back. He didn't want anyone coming between him and Michael."

Two other former Vick associates describe Harris in similar terms. When Harris saw these men growing closer to Vick, Harris told each of them in separate but virtually identical conversations, "He's my bitch. Watch it."

Woodward has been handling legal chores for Vick since mid-2004 and was a member of the team of lawyers who led him into his plea of guilty to dogfighting charges and subsequent prison sentence. Although he has no official role in Vick's bankruptcy litigation in Norfolk, Va., Woodward showed up in court during a hearing on that issue in early April this year.

Even before the April 2007 raid that led to the dogfighting charges, Woodward was heavily involved with Vick. According to financial records obtained by ESPN.com, Woodward billed Vick $223,548 for the first year of his representation of the quarterback, a monthly expense for Vick of $18,629.

Smith, who does financial planning for numerous NFL players (including Brooks) and physicians and who represented Vick when Woodward arrived on the scene, questions Woodward's work.

"I'm not sure what he was doing to earn that money, but the amounts are beyond all the norms," Smith says.

[+] EnlargeTony Taylor
Phil Ellsworth for ESPN.comTony Taylor says the people around Vick didn't help. He should know. He was one of them for a while.

During ESPN.com's investigation into Vick's affairs, Smith provided numerous details and documents concerning the financial-planning work he did with Vick during the course of 20 months. However, Woodward, the lawyer, was less forthcoming. When contacted by ESPN.com for comment on his relationship with Vick, Woodward said, "I am bound by attorney-client privilege. I cannot talk about the things that have gone on in the past with Michael. I have represented him for a long time."

ESPN.com was unable to locate Harris to request an interview.

Both Smith and Brooks, who played in the NFL for seven seasons (six with New Orleans and one with Oakland), blame Harris and Woodward for Vick's failure to join them in what is becoming a highly lucrative pair of real estate projects.

"We begged him and begged him to come in and join us," Smith says.

The first venture is a residential development that will be built near historic Williamsburg, Va., and will include 26 high-end homes.

"They told him it was swampland," Brooks says incredulously of Harris and Woodward.

When Vick was asked about the real estate venture in the April hearing before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Frank Santoro, he testified that Smith had "cut me out of the deal with Brooks." He also told the court that he "fired [Smith] because he did not come through on his promise."

"He lied," Smith says without a moment of hesitation. "He could have been part of both the Williamsburg project and the Newport News project.

"He blew us off."

[+] EnlargeLawrence Woodward and Michael Vick
Steve Helber-Pool/Getty ImagesFor better or worse, Lawrence Woodward, left, has been by Vick's side through all his legal issues.

Asked whether Vick had fired him as his financial adviser, Smith says he is the one who ended the business relationship with Vick.

"I could see that he was listening to Whoop and Woody," Smith says. "And I told him that if he was not going to listen to my advice, then he was not going to be a client of mine."

But according to Smith, shortly after Vick's sworn testimony in which he disparaged his former financial planner in bankruptcy court, Vick called Smith and asked him for a meeting at the Leavenworth, Kan., minimum security facility where Vick served his time. "I need you, man," Vick pleaded in a voice mail that Smith has kept on one of his office computers and played for an ESPN.com reporter.

When Smith arrived at Leavenworth for the meeting, he says Vick told him, "I should have listened to you. I listened to the wrong people."


Vick apparently listened to a remarkable number of the wrong people.

"It breaks your heart when you see what he could have done and what he did," Smith says.

After passing up a chance to invest in the real estate projects in Newport News and near Williamsburg, Vick dismantled the structure that Smith had built for him and invested in a series of losing ventures with dubious advisers, according to Smith.

Using highly sophisticated corporate entities and a multilayered family partnership, Smith had built a financial plan for Vick that would have provided him with highly profitable investment income and protection against possible difficulties.

"He had $174 million in contracts with $30 million guaranteed, with income in 2003 of $8 million and in 2004 of $24 million. If he had kept what I set up for him, he and his family would be set for life," Smith asserts.

[+] EnlargeMichael Smith
Michael Smith Michael Smith, Vick's former financial planner, says he tried to protect Vick's investments.

Smith's structures provided a generous income for Vick, disciplined incomes for family members Vick supported, a retirement fund and, perhaps most importantly, a series of firewalls that protected Vick's money from claims others might make. If, for example, a fellow investor or a creditor wanted to sue Vick to collect on a supposed debt, Vick's assets would be unreachable in a limited partnership that Vick shared with his mother and a sister.

It didn't take long for the loss of those firewalls to be felt. Two weeks after Vick began to unwind Smith's protective structures, a former agent, Andrew Joel, sued him for breach of contract. It was just the kind of suit that Smith's structures were designed to thwart.

It's another example of the Whoop and Woody factor in Vick's travails. Both Harris and Woodward played roles in Vick's dispute with Joel.

Joel had signed Vick as a client a week before Vick declared for the NFL draft in 2001. Sixteen days later, Harris persuaded Vick to fire him, according to court papers filed by Joel and his attorneys. Joel wasn't happy and filed his claim against Vick in November 2005. Led by Woodward, Vick's lawyers suffered loss after loss as they tried to respond to Joel's claims. Even though Joel had sent a letter to Vick informing him that Joel "would not make any claim against him," Woodward was unable to convince a series of judges and an arbitrator that Vick had a right to fire Joel as his agent and that Joel had agreed to the separation.

When it was over, Vick owed Joel more than $4 million.

Smith says that if his financial protections had still been in place, Joel would have had no chance to collect from Vick. Instead, Joel became Vick's leading antagonist, forcing him into bankruptcy and then fighting Vick's attempts to make peace with his creditors and restart his life as he returns to Virginia. In early April, Joel succeeded in blocking Vick's plans for a financial reorganization when Santoro ruled for Joel, refusing to approve Vick's proposal for paying off his massive debts.

"Woody and Whoop did not understand how the asset-protection firewalls worked," Smith says. "They tore them down and left Vick vulnerable."

In his testimony at the bankruptcy hearing, Vick complained about the firewalls.

"[Smith] started all these corporations and these partnerships," Vick said, appearing confused. Vick and his lead bankruptcy attorney, Peter Ginsberg of New York City, tried to give Santoro the impression that the structures somehow harmed Vick.

Under questioning from Ginsberg, Vick also complained that Smith had put him into expensive life insurance policies and annuities. Vick told the judge that his $2 million in Nike income had been wasted on life insurance.

"That is also a lie," Smith says, adding that none of the Nike money went to life insurance. "We insured him for 10 times his earnings, or $80 million. That is the standard. It would have gradually been reduced and turned into more annuities over the next few years. It was exactly the right thing to do."

[+] EnlargeAaron Brooks
AP Photo/Robert E. KleinBrooks, who comes from the same neighborhood as Vick, tried unsuccessfully to bring him into his real estate ventures.

Smith says he placed the insurance through AXA, a national insurance firm that is recognized by Fortune Magazine as one of America's top 100 companies, and that he received no commission. The beneficiaries of the insurance were members of Vick's family, including his mother.

"He was hanging out with thugs and dogfighters who had guns," Smith says. "The life insurance was an absolute necessity. Everybody knew it. The Falcons knew it and bought $36 million in life insurance on him with the team as the beneficiary."

Woodward, asked about the work Smith did for Vick, says, "Again, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any individual and anything any person did with [Vick]. I remain committed to helping Michael any way I can."

After the business relationship between Smith and Vick was terminated, Vick made a series of bad decisions on his investments. He bought into a wine shop, a car rental company, a real estate venture that Santoro has labeled "insolvent" and an emergency medical clinic to be built in the Miami airport. All resulted in losses. Vick not only lost his investment in those ventures, the lenders who became involved in those deals are now claiming in Vick's bankruptcy litigation that he owes them a total of another $4 million.

But the worst of his investments was with a man named Arthur Washington, whose last known address was in Ellenwood, Ga. The apparent rationale for the investment was to use Vick's money to buy a horse farm, raise horses and sell them for a profit. Washington found a farm in Rockdale County, Ga., and used Vick's money to buy it and stock it with horses. Vick's loss in that venture totals $600,000.

Most people are aware that ownership of real estate involves the payment of annual real estate taxes. Washington, however, ignored a tax bill for $7,804.82, and Rockdale County authorities subsequently sold the farm at a delinquent taxes auction on Sept. 2, 2008.

Washington did not respond to voice mails and letters from ESPN.com to the Ellenwood address he listed in the sale paperwork.

All that Vick has to show for his investment in the horse farm is a lawsuit against Washington and a claim to redeem the farm, a procedure that would allow him to recapture the farm for a payment of about $48,000. And he's paying his bankruptcy lawyers to pursue those two legal actions.

Another major factor in Vick's current financial mess was his spending. According to his own records for 20 months between February 2004 and October 2005, Vick provided major support for his mother ($3,804 per month), his father ($889 per month), a sister ($963 per month), a cousin ($473 per month) and his grandmother ($405 per month). That's monthly family support of $6,534, and a total of $78,408 per year.

[+] EnlargeMichael Vick
AP Photo/John AmisVick's investment in a wine shop might have looked good at first, but it resulted in another financial loss.

Vick's mother, Brenda Boddie, not only was on Vick's monthly payroll but also was the beneficiary of 16 additional payments between February 2004 and August 2005 for a total of $209,569, or $10,480 per month. One of the payments was a $10,000 birthday gift from Vick in April 2004.

These family payments came in addition to house payments and apartment rentals that Vick paid each month.

Vick also paid monthly salaries to others in his entourage -- including a member of Whoop Harris' family, Adam "Wink" Harris, who received a salary of $798 per month.

Vick's jewelry purchases during that 20-month time frame averaged $10,128 per month. (He did not, however, spend a lot of money on reading material. His only purchase of printed matter was a subscription to Sports Illustrated, which cost him $61.04 on Dec. 29, 2004.)

In addition, Vick was paying for four houses, five boats, eight cars and, of course, the horses when local narcotics agents conducted the first raid on the kennel in April 2007 and discovered the dogs.


While Vick's finances were spinning out of control, the dogfighting operation grew to what Tony Taylor, who ran the kennel, calls a "boiling point."

When they embarked on the dogfighting enterprise in early 2001 as Vick was being drafted into the NFL, Taylor says it was supposed to be kept "under the radar." Taylor selected the Moonlight Road acreage in rural Surry County and recommended it to Vick because of its remote location.

"It was secluded in the country, and no one would notice a few dogs," Taylor says. "We didn't have fighting on our mind when it started. We both had a love and a passion for dogs. We wanted a private place to hang out and to be with our dogs."

Taylor explains that what became Bad Newz Kennels was 40 minutes from their boyhood homes in Newport News, a distance that he hoped would keep it private.

[+] EnlargePurnell Peace
AP Photo/Steve HelberPurnell Peace received an 18-month sentence for his role in the dogfighting operation.

"You wouldn't make the trip unless you knew someone was home," he says.

Soon after Taylor closed on the purchase on June 29, 2001, with Vick's money, they installed a double-wide trailer as a residence for Taylor and others who came to visit and began purchasing pit bulls and training them to fight.

"We knew it was illegal and it could be a problem, but it was supposed to be a discreet thing," Taylor says. "And it was written in stone that if something happened, I would take the fall. It was a matter of loyalty."

At first, the property worked well as both a hangout and kennel, Taylor says. But within a few months, representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed up for a surprise inspection. Interestingly, the SPCA report criticized only the dogs' water bowls and the lengths of their chains.

"We bought concrete water bowls that would not tip over, and we made the chains longer. When they came back, they were happy with what we were doing," Taylor recalls.

Purnell Peace, one of Vick's cousins who, like Taylor and Vick, also later pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges, soon moved into the double-wide along with a couple of others. When that space became cramped, Vick decided to build a house on the property.

"It was supposed to be small, nothing fancy, nothing extravagant," Taylor says. But it quickly became a 4,800-square-foot, two-story brick showplace with a basketball court and other amenities.

[+] EnlargeBranda Boddie and Marcus Vick
AP Photo/Gary C. KnappVick gave his mother, Brenda Boddie, $10,000 for her birthday in 2004. That's Vick's brother, Marcus, with Boddie outside the courthouse.

Taylor says he knew the big house was not a good idea.

"One of the people working there reported the dogs to the sheriff; and one day, there was a helicopter floating around and looking down at us," Taylor says. "Then they came and wanted to look around, but I refused to let them in, and they never came back."

As soon as the house was completed, things began to spin out of control, according to Taylor, Smith and another Vick confidante who visited the Moonlight Road property regularly.

"People knew that if they could get down with the dogs, they could be close to Michael," Taylor says. "He had a passion for the dogs. But a lot of these guys just wanted to be around Michael for the lifestyle of a millionaire."

The people who gathered at Moonlight Road "were interested only in themselves," the former Vick associate recalls. "They wanted only one thing -- to keep their place in Vick's life. They knew what was going on there, but they would not tell him anything that he did not want to hear."

Both the attorney, Woodward, and Whoop Harris were regulars at the house, according to Taylor and Smith.

"There were drugs, there were guns and there were girls," Smith recalls. "And no one would tell [Vick] there was anything wrong. People who knew better would not say a word about anything."

In September 2004, Taylor says he knew it was time for him to leave the operation. After a pair of altercations in nightclubs in Newport News and Williamsburg, lingering disputes with Peace, Vick and Harris made his situation untenable.

On Sept. 3 that year, as a group gathered to travel to an Atlanta Falcons preseason game against the Washington Redskins, Taylor says, "I just left. I never went back. I have not talked with Michael since."

With some wonder and some regret in his voice, Taylor says, "Michael and I had become close friends. We could talk about everything."

The next time Taylor saw Vick, they were standing in a courtroom in Richmond, Va., facing conspiracy and dogfighting charges.

"They were all trying to set me up as the guy who did the dogs, but I had been gone from it for two and one half years," Taylor says about the other defendants in the case.

[+] EnlargeTony Taylor
Phil Ellsworth for ESPN.comTaylor says Vick will be back behind bars if he doesn't choose his friends more wisely this time around.

When he realized what they were doing, Taylor quickly became the first of Vick's co-conspirators to enter a guilty plea and tell government agents what he knew about the dogfighting scheme.

Taylor says he was brutally honest in his work with government and probation agents.

"When they asked me if I had ever used drugs, I told them, 'Yes.' When they asked me the last time I did drugs, I told them, 'Yesterday,'" he says. In return, apparently, for his honesty and his cooperation, Taylor was sentenced to only two months in the Lewisburg, Pa., federal penitentiary. Vick's sentence was 23 months, while Quanis Phillips got 21 months and Peace 18 months.

A year after Taylor left the dogfighting operation, Smith and the former associate also knew it was time to depart.

"Michael was listening only to those who were dependent on him. He was getting bad advice on business, on everything," the former associate recalls. "I tried to tell the guys there that they should stop driving around in Michael's cars smoking weed. No one, not one of them, listened."

Sure enough, Davon Boddie, a cousin of Vick, was driving one of Vick's vehicles when police pulled him over and found a stash of marijuana early in 2007. The arrest led to the first raid on Vick's property on April 26, 2007.

"I was not surprised when I saw on television that there had been a drug raid on Moonlight Road," Taylor says. "But when they started talking about animal control officers, I knew there was going to be a serious problem."

Taylor says he tried to remove his name from the Surry County kennel license when he left Vick and Bad Newz Kennels, but authorities told him that it could not be removed until it was time for its annual renewal.

"Purnell just renewed it in my name, and so they were soon coming after me," he says.

According to Taylor, the dog population at Moonlight Road had grown from "about 20 or so" when Taylor left to the 66 dogs discovered in the raids in April 2007.

Now, as Vick returns to Virginia, he's in home confinement, he's in bankruptcy, the Moonlight Road property has been sold at a loss, his houses are in foreclosure, his dogs are gone and his future in the NFL is uncertain.

Saddened but not surprised, Smith says, "None of this had to happen. Michael was listening to Whoop and to the wrong people. He and his family would have been set for generations, and now …" Smith's voice trails off and he shakes his head slowly.

As Vick reports this week to his new job as a laborer in a construction crew earning $10 per hour and tries to rebuild his life, Brooks, another quarterback from the same housing project in Newport News, will work with architects, designers, banks and local authorities to try to rebuild the neighborhood.

Brooks and his developments seem destined for success.

And Vick? That's still to be determined.

"Michael needs to surround himself with good people," Woodward says. "He needs financial planners, he needs lawyers on certain things and he needs an agent for the NFL. Joel Segal [Vick's current agent] will be with him. Billy Martin [one of Vick's attorneys] and I will be with him on issues of home confinement and supervised release and any other legal matters that come up.

"Ultimately, Michael must make the decisions on the people around him. I believe he will be judged on what he does, not what he says. He will be judged on the way he lives his life. That will be the most important thing."

Taylor seconds that notion. As far as it goes.

"If he goes back with Whoop," Taylor says with absolute certainty, "he's going back to jail."

Lester Munson, a Chicago lawyer and journalist who reports on investigative and legal issues in the sports industry, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.