The dark descent of David Powell
Photograph by News & Record Staff , ©News & Record, All Rights Reserved
When the wind blows from the east, the air smells of salt here, two blocks from the Atlantic. During a distinguished career, Orville Powell managed Winston-Salem, Durham and other cities and as a professor, lectured Indiana University students on how to run a town. His remaining wreath of hair gone white, he’d retired with wife Dianne to a two-story cottage at Kure Beach south of Wilmington.
On a warm spring afternoon, though, his voice is cracking. “There’s a note on the door saying, ‘Don’t come in,’ but we went in anyway,” he tells a 911 dispatcher. “There’s a gun beside him.” Desperation rises in his voice. “My wife’s upstairs with him. I can’t talk anymore. I need to be with her.” The phone goes silent as the dispatcher records his words.
“My son,” says Powell, 81, “has committed suicide.”
David M. Powell, 52, wrote a note to shield from his parents, to whom he’d retreated when his business and family worlds fell apart, what he was about to do. As his days dwindled, he lived a double life. Both ended here April 22.
One, in this beach town and nearby Wilmington, was under a new name that disguised personal and legal troubles. He was Finley Powell, a wealthy out-of-town investor and new owner of a live-performance theater, dabbling in the entertainment business. The other identity that he had left behind was of a prominent Greensboro business leader and family man. As president and CEO of the 12-county Piedmont Triad Partnership, he’d played a major role in dozens of deals, among others, assembling 1,800 acres for a $100 million industrial megasite.
Hopes for the region’s manufacturing sector were high when Powell came to Greensboro in late 2010, packing a solid résumé. “The Triad was delighted,” says Gayle Anderson, former president of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce. “We felt he’d be a terrific asset. That was true across the board.”
Powell engendered optimism. “The Triad hasn’t leveraged its regional assets as it needs to,” he told Business North Carolina in 2010. High Point University President Nido Qubein, who headed the committee that hired Powell, says he was given free rein to help revitalize a region that hasn’t grown as fast as Charlotte and Raleigh. “We didn’t tie his hands.” Powell’s experience is a cautionary tale for nonprofit boards, which promote both personal initiative and fiduciary responsibility.
Fraud investigators allege that in 2011, barely a year after being hired, Powell embezzled the first of what would total at least $238,000 from the partnership. He resigned in January 2015, telling his board he wanted to return to private business. A year later, in January 2016, he was indicted by a state grand jury and arrested on four counts of felony embezzlement and obtaining property by false pretense. He was released after posting $100,000 bail.
Now, what emerges from interviews, indictments, police and court documents, and other sources is that Powell’s business and private behavior puzzled and concerned professional contacts and frightened loved ones. Family members and friends and his criminal-defense lawyer, Greensboro’s Locke Clifford, say Powell’s behavior was influenced by depression and mental illness.
He was secretly unhappy in his high-profile job, says a business friend, who asked to remain anonymous. “He made it clear PTP was not his only interest, that he did not really want to be a regional economic developer.” His LinkedIn profile listed Powell as a business consultant, followed by his day job. He chafed at intrigue and infighting between partnership members supposed to work for the good of the region. “He wanted to make deals,” the friend says. Powell gradually estranged crucial economic-development allies in the Triad and elsewhere.
“A number of us just took him off the list, so far as reaching him or trying to interact with him,” says one. “I’d meet with him to talk about a project or something, and go through all that, then I wouldn’t hear from him for months.”
Another prominent Triad executive had similar experiences while working with Powell at both the partnership and in the megasite deal. “He’d disappear and be gone for extended periods of time, in the middle of deals,“ the executive says, declining to be identified because of ongoing projects. “We didn’t know what he was doing, but he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to. I have absolutely no way to prove it, but yes, I believe there was mental illness involved.”
A mystery central to David Powell’s life is likely to remain permanently unsolved. In addition to the state charges made public in January 2016, legal authorities in the Triad say Powell faced more serious federal grand jury indictments involving unidentified victims and allege that he’d taken substantially larger sums than the $238,000 from the partnership. In April, a Guilford County court source had alerted Business North Carolina to expect the new indictments on Monday of the coming week.
On Saturday, Powell shot himself, and the indictments were immediately and permanently sealed by the U.S. Middle District Court in Greensboro. There is no possibility of a criminal trial, says Lynn Klauer, spokeswoman for Middle District prosecutor Sandra Hairston. Neither will confirm the investigation or indictments, but in cases when a defendant dies before going to court, a legal precept called abatement is invoked.
“You no longer have a defendant to prosecute,” Klauer says. That leaves the possibility of details emerging only if a victim or victims file civil lawsuits to recoup losses, but the only known victim — the Piedmont Triad Partnership — rules that out.
“We have no plans to initiate any civil action against his estate,” says Stan Kelly, who succeeded Powell in the top job. The group is focused on attracting a transformative project such as a Toyota-Mazda venture’s plan to add a $1.6 billion factory in the U.S.
On a personal level, Powell’s last years are a recounting of a human tragedy by two women who both say they loved him and aging parents who gambled some of their future hoping to salvage his. Powell’s suicide also focuses attention on a disquieting issue: Executives are as susceptible to mental illness as anyone. Four months before Powell’s suicide, Charlotte investment executive Rick Siskey killed himself as he awaited trial for allegedly bilking investors of more than $40 million in a Ponzi scheme. Other publicized executive suicides include Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark; bankers at JPMorgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and other institutions hit by the 2007-09 financial collapse; and several executives involved in the Enron scandal.
“People of very high status may have even more stigma about mental illness and treatment than everybody else,” says Joel Dvoskin, a University of Arizona College of Medicine psychologist who’s studied executive behavior. He cautions against generalizations — executives are no more suicide-prone than others, and most depressed people never consider suicide — but he says some senior leaders might share similarities with Powell.
“The mountain they’ve built for themselves is so high, and the fall so steep, they’d rather die than experience it,” he says. “To the extent that it’s a thoughtful, not impulsive, decision — I’m not willing to live with the pain and embarrassment and am choosing death instead — those can be more difficult to prevent.”
David Powell spent years climbing that mountain.
He was coming home to fill big shoes. David was born in Winston-Salem when his father was city manager. The Powells left Winston-Salem for Gainesville, Fla., when David was 14, then returned to North Carolina where Orville was Durham city manager from 1983 until 1996. David graduated with a degree in public policy from what was then Elon College in 1985, worked in economic development in Greenville, S.C., and Durham and earned a graduate degree in public policy from N.C. State University in 1996. He also added a master’s degree in environmental management from Harvard University.
While in Raleigh, he met an exuberant young woman with dark hair and eyes, a flashing smile and a 1993 degree in hospitality management from East Carolina University. Proud of her Chilean roots, Pilar DePablo and Powell became engaged in 1994, married two years later and had three children.
Late on a fall afternoon in Greensboro, five months after Powell’s death, she recalls their marriage, family and dual careers that would span some two decades. “I wish you could have known him,” she begins quietly. “He was an unbelievable person, an unbelievable father. He was the glue in our family. That’s the tragedy.”
In 2003, Powell was named executive vice president and chief business recruiter at the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, a seven-county Ohio metro area. Four years later, he became vice president of corporate and government affairs at Columbus-based NetJets Inc., which sells fractional ownership in business jets.
Pilar Powell immersed herself in business, civic and family life in Columbus, specializing in real-estate sales to Latino families. In 2005, Ohio named her Hispanic Business Woman of the Year. She hesitated when asked to become a trustee of the Columbus zoo. David encouraged her. “He said, ‘You can do this,’” she says. “We were a strong family. He was the one who always allowed me to push myself.”
Don Kirkman, who was then CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, met Powell on a 2007 business-recruiting trip to Columbus. Three years later, the partnership merged with another local recruiting organization, Piedmont Triad Leadership Group, and sought a new leader.
Kelly King, CEO of Winston-Salem-based BB&T Corp., led a drive that raised $7 million for industrial recruiting, and became chairman of the combined board. It hired Powell with an annual salary of about $300,000, with Kirkman reporting to him as chief operating officer. Powell told the board he had missed the stimulation of economic development. He also extracted a promise that there’d be no rivalry with Kirkman, who now runs his own economic-development consulting firm in Morehead City.
Pilar Powell says her husband poured himself into his work. “He was just trying to support his family,” she says. “You should focus on the things he achieved. Not just the powerful things, but the stuff he quietly did.”
For a man juggling million-dollar deals and with an organization that had about $3.5 million in revenue the year he was hired, Powell’s acquaintances agree he seemed to have little use for money, personally. “David was an introverted, analytical person who didn’t overshare,” says an associate. “He didn’t drink to excess, maybe just one or two at a cocktail party. His kids went to private schools, but not like Phillips Exeter or something. He drove a Honda Accord.”
In 2014, his last full year at the partnership, federal tax forms show Powell was paid $300,997 plus $27,893 for expenses such as country-club memberships. The organization had about $4 million in revenue. The family lived in a nearly 4,000-square-foot home among similar half-million-dollar homes in Greensboro’s New Irving Park neighborhood.
“We never took huge vacations,” says Pilar Powell. “When I bought him nice clothes, he’d say, ‘You could have just gone to Kohl’s.’” Then came the swimming pool, and the unfolding riddle.
Late in 2011, arrest warrants on file at Greensboro Police Department show David Powell issued checks from the partnership’s accounts, written to legitimate businesses, then diverted $128,671 to his own accounts. What he did with the money is unclear, but in April 2013, police charged him with taking another $110,214.
A local lawyer, a white-collar crime specialist hired later by the partnership to study its finances, told police Powell used $41,273 to buy a boat and $68,941 for “landscaping” that included a saltwater swimming pool and bathhouse.
Though the misappropriations apparently went undetected for several years, Powell’s habits and behavior gradually changed. As the process of assembling land for the megasite swirled into high gear, “There was pressure,” says Pilar Powell. “Looking back, I just think the way he managed that was by working out all the time.”
A fitness enthusiast, David Powell often hopped on his racing bicycle for 30- and 40-mile rides. “I believe he was depressed and bipolar, and he managed it by working out,” says his widow. “He was lifting weights, always so healthy.” At the office, he read Bicycling magazine and other fitness publications.
Powell’s ability to allegedly misappropriate large sums from the partnership reflects a fairly complex financial structure, a board member says. “There’re dollars coming in from so many sources, not only membership fees, but grants and that sort of thing, that it’s more complex than in most private companies,” he says.
IRS records show the nonprofit partnership’s revenues varied during Powell’s tenure, from less than $2 million a year to more than $6 million. In his five years at the helm, revenue totaled about $16 million. More than $1 million came from state government, which has since cut funding for regional development groups.
Kelly, the current CEO and previously the board’s treasurer, has a simpler explanation. “We believed the funds were being directed toward PTP goals and objectives to further PTP’s strategic priorities,” he says. “We were deceived by someone we trusted.”
As for the loss of potentially larger sums that might be detailed in the now-sealed federal indictment, larger questions loom: Where did they come from? Where did they go?
During Powell’s tenure, the partnership was working closely with the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation to acquire land in Guilford and Randolph counties for the giant industrial site. Speculation has centered there. In February 2015, a month after Powell abruptly resigned, the foundation cut ties with the partnership and created a separate Greensboro-Randolph Megasite Foundation.
“Before then, our deal with the partnership was, we were loaning it money to acquire options and contracts on the roughly 77 pieces of property privately owned in the megasite,” says Jim Melvin, a former Greensboro mayor and president of the Bryan Foundation. “When all this came to light with David, I’m pleased to say we were able to track every penny. We divorced ourselves from the partnership and started doing our own transactions with property owners.”
Pilar Powell doesn’t believe Powell took money from the partnership. “I know he didn’t have a secret island somewhere. I worked, he worked. We didn’t need the money. There was no reason for that money, and the irony is, I don’t know where that money went.”
Her faith, she says, is unshaken. “All my friends and family knew him as the person looking out for the little guy, always doing the right thing. That’s why I know it was mental illness. Maybe he just snapped.”
The couple sold their house in New Irving Park for $536,000 in February 2016, a month after the indictment. A month later, Pilar Powell bought a $175,000 house in the Lake Jeanette area of Greensboro, four miles from their previous home.
Signers of the deed included Dianne and Orville Powell. In the midst of the two deals, tucked on file at the Guilford County Register of Deeds Office, is an unusual legal document called a free-trader agreement also dated February 2016. In the filing, Greensboro attorney Barbara Stewart stipulates, David and Pilar Powell henceforth could conduct their own affairs. “Just the same,” it notes, “as if [they] had never been married.”
Even before the sale of the Powells’ home and their agreement to go their separate ways financially, in early 2016 David was spending much of his time with his parents in Kure Beach, 20 miles south of Wilmington, where he was crafting a new persona.
He was Finley Powell, described as an event promoter from Ohio, according to July 2016 newspaper stories. Earlier that year, the papers said he’d bought Ziggy’s By The Sea, a downtown theater that Powell renamed the Throne. Opened in the 1940s for movies, it had a bar and hosted nationally known entertainers.
In reality, New Hanover County real-estate records show Orville Powell had bought the business for about $160,000. “Orville would do anything for his kids,” Pilar Powell says, adding that the elder Powell worried about how David would support his family if sent to prison. By using his money, which the elder Powell obtained through a home-equity loan and borrowing from his life-insurance policy, it would dispel suspicions that David used illegal gains to buy the business, she says.
David Powell also deceived Ziggy’s owner and Greensboro newspaper publisher Charles Womack, who thought he was selling the theater to him, not Orville Powell. The two men never met in person, corresponding through phone calls and texts. “I think he knew I’d recognize him, because we’d written stories about David Powell,” says Womack, who owns alternative weekly papers in Charlotte and Greensboro. “He was going by Finley, and everybody at the bar we sold him knew him as Finley, this rich entrepreneur coming in to just have some fun. Finley, Finley, Finley, that’s all you heard.”
Finley Powell told Womack he wasn’t from North Carolina. “He was from out of state, Ohio or something. I kept saying, ‘I’d love to talk to you. I want to make sure you succeed.’ He kept pushing me off and pushing me off. We were texting. Finally, he said, ‘Stop, don’t text me again.’” The deal was closed through a broker, and only later did Womack learn that Orville, not Finley, was the buyer.
The theater was troubled before the Powells became involved, says Womack, who suspects some employees were embezzling. “We terminated some people,” he says. “We didn’t prosecute, because there was not enough evidence.” The Powells probably lost money on the business, say sources familiar with the entertainment market in Wilmington. “The Throne was booking national acts for $10,000 or $15,000 a show,” says one. “You have three or four a week, and you can end up losing $25,000 or $30,000 a week. It adds up quick.”
In December 2016, Wilmington physician Damian Brezinski bought out Orville Powell’s interest in The Throne, and Finley Powell was seen less and less in Wilmington.
The bar, which has since closed, is where Powell met waitress Lauren Linett in September 2016. She is in her early 30s and the owner and operator of a Wilmington CrossFit gym. “I loved him,” she says. “I’m open to hearing everything you know about him.” Both were fond of kickboxing and other extreme sports when they met.
Finley Powell was fun to be with, Linett says. “There was a lot I didn’t know then that I do know now,” she says. “I don’t recall him being mentally ill when I met him.”
But he changed, Linett says. “I loved him and cared for him deeply and tried to get him help. He just cracked under pressure.” She and Pilar Powell say news accounts after his initial and pending indictments wounded Powell. “I’d like to wring their necks, they made him look so bad,” Linett says.
Powell told Linett he was legally separated and eligible for a divorce in April 2017, she says. “I didn’t know David Powell. I knew Finley, and Finley was a good man.”
Linett also knew he faced a second, more serious indictment. State prosecutors, privy to ongoing federal investigations, had agreed to several postponements of his trial. ”People go to prison all the time for white-collar crimes,” she says she told him. “It doesn’t mean your life is over. I knew he was getting indicted again on [April 24]. I didn’t know the details, but what he did was apparently worse than he was telling everybody.”
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in spring, two days before the day he dreaded, that David Powell took his life.
“Good mental health is one’s most valuable asset,” says Clifford, Powell’s attorney. “I’m afraid we as a community spend much time on physical well-being issues and minimize the equally important aspects of good mental health, without which we have nothing.”
Those closest to David Powell seemed to know what lay in store but were unable to prevent it. “He promised me he wouldn’t do it,” says Pilar Powell. “He promised me he wouldn’t.”
Linett says she “knew him up until the day he left,” carrying secrets of his parallel life to the grave. “I fought to keep him alive.”
Pilar Powell wishes her husband had been more willing to talk about his struggles. “Maybe it could save another family if people recognized that a person can work at such high capacity and still have mental illness.”
Soon, she says, she has to go. The kids have soccer practice.
“David,” she says, “thought he could tough it out.”