Local coin dealer indicted after long history of fraud, deception

To his clients across the country, Dennis Charles Helmer was a wealthy businessman, operating a hugely successful coin shop with $500 million in annual revenue. They thought their precious metal coins were safe with Helmer's business, Wholesale Assets Worldwide, being invested in the right places and hopefully making them a bit of money in the process.

But it was all a lie, a house of cards built on top of a company that ended with only $12,000 in inventory and a negative bank account balance, according to grand jury documents. Helmer's history of fraud and swindling was finally unearthed through an investigation by the Minnesota Commerce Department and United States Postal Inspective Service. He's been indicted on 19 counts of mail and wire fraud, only the latest in a long line of deceptions.

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In an industry that has been rife with criminal conduct for years, Helmer's fraud stands out. According to the grand jury indictment, Helmer used his latest coin business, the Minnesota-based Wholesale Assets Worldwide, as a kind of mini Ponzi scheme. Instead of fulfilling many of his customers' orders to buy, sell, or exchange coins, Helmer used much of it to keep the scheme alive and get a little bit for himself.

He took some of the cash. He paid employees with it. He paid back some clients using money from others. Helmer even used the money to fund his new start-up company, Smoke Shack, a business he created "for the ostensible purpose of developing vans for use as personal smoking stations outside bars and restaurants," according to the indictment. To keep up the charade, Helmer lied or simply ignored his clients.

The investigation found that from 2010 through October 2013, Helmer ended up losing his customers $1.2 million.

Helmer's dishonesty can be traced all the way back to 2002, when he was convicted in Dakota County of theft by swindling. It was a serious crime, but it was only the tip of the iceberg.

Soon, the convictions started adding up. In 2005, Helmer was busted for swindling a woman in South Carolina. It started with a few phone calls out of the blue from Best Price Coins (Helmer's shop at the time) to Claire Smith, an elderly widow. After a few chats, they eventually reached a deal. Smith would give Helmer coins and cash valued at around $175,000, and she'd receive 50 gold coins valued the same.

Johnny Ray Horton, a Best Price employee at the time, called it a "no lose" deal and said she'd triple her investment, according to court documents. And yet of the 50 coins she was promised, Smith received only seven. She took Helmer to court later that year, looking to reclaim the lost money.

Helmer never replied, let alone showed up at court. But it all worked out in the end, when the judge forced him to pay Smith back.

(To read more about Helmer's swindling, keep reading.)  

In December of that year, Helmer was sued again, this time in Mississippi. It was another elderly woman and another fraudulent deal. Ninety-year-old Ida Wilkerson was a veteran of the precious metal coin market, and she'd put together a relatively simple exchange with Best Price Coins. The two parties would swap a small group of coins, each with a roughly identical value of $476,000.

Wilkerson's coins never came. She sued Helmer and his employee, Horton. Again, Helmer didn't reply.

But Helmer's employee Horton did. He vehemently denied any sort of scheme on his part. Horton said he was just an an honest worker whose grandmother "taught me never to steal," Horton wrote in reply to the suit.

Instead, Horton blamed Helmer.

"Mr. Helmer is a very dishonest, unpredictable, unstable person who has affected Ms. Wilkersons life, my life, and should be the one held accountable," Horton wrote. "His actions ruined a wonderful relationship between Ms. Wilkerson and myself. No price tag can be put on that."

The letter went on: "In my opinion you are pursuing a useless chase. Why spend your last years chasing a thief who is DONE?"

The case soon wrapped up, with Horton being removed as a defendant. Just like the last time, Helmer never showed up in court. And again, he was forced to pay, this time $496,000.

The lawsuits kept coming. Swindling in 2006, then again in 2008. But Helmer kept working, eventually opening up his latest business, Wholesale Assets Worldwide, in 2009. It wasn't until after the Commerce Department's investigation in 2013 that the state was finally able to shut down Helmer and his businesses, making it illegal for him to buy or sell precious metal coins.

But the damage had already been done.

The coin industry is a market that's always been ripe for criminal behavior. Until last year, it was nearly unrestricted in the state, with dealers not needing a license or background check. That made it easy for dealers to steal, swindle, and commit fraud, with the consequences largely minimal.

The crimes aren't uncommon in Minnesota, where dealers pushing hard to sell coins are "leaving a trail of broken promises and missing money in their wake," said Attorney General Lori Swanson in a statement last year.

Minnesota passed a law in 2013 to tighten restrictions on dealers, making them pass a background check and get a license, among other requirements. But as Helmer's case demonstrates, there's a lot left to fix.

Send your story tips to the author, Robbie Feinberg. Follow him on Twitter @robbiefeinberg.

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