Dennis Dale Cole's business career will end ingloriously when he is sentenced in May to as many as 20 years in prison for fraud.
Cole, 60, a former lawyer who once had a Clearwater office and now lives in the Pasco community of Trinity, is little known in his Tampa Bay home.
Yet Cole has left a trail of often bewildering and eccentric business deals that ended with him acknowledging his part in a $2 million investment scheme in Missouri and elsewhere, according to public records.
Cole offers a befuddling biography.
His former law partner is the FBI's deputy director. His former business partner is a con artist who impersonated a pro football player.
In 2003, Cole filed a bizarre Pinellas lawsuit about $500 million stashed in Florida by a Ukrainian church. He once bought a century-old chain of hardware stores and was bankrupt in a year.
Cole would not comment for this story.
"Dennis Cole is an enigma," said Phil Levy, a Kentuckian whose family sold Cole the hardware chain. "That's what he is. And a rat. No doubt about it."
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Cole, the son of ordained ministers, is a Yale graduate who earned a law degree from Indiana University.
His legal troubles began about 30 years ago. Indiana officials suspended his law license for mishandling an investment by a 95-year-old woman of questionable mental competency.
After he resumed practice in the years to follow, one of Cole's law partners was John Pistole, who is now the FBI's deputy director. He declined to talk about Cole.
Cole's difficulties didn't impede his business prospects once he moved to Florida in 1989.
In 1998, Cole bought four hardware stores in a Kentucky chain founded in 1901. The price was a reported $5 million. The chain was bankrupt less than a year after the sale.
Phil Levy, whose grandfather founded the chain, said he thought Cole mishandled the business. Cole "just bled the company," Levy said.
Cole's most prominent activity in the bay area might be the puzzling Pinellas lawsuit he filed in 2003.
"What he did was very, very weird," said lawyer Richard Zaretsky, who represented one of the parties Cole sued.
Cole had formed a Florida corporation called the "Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Kyiv Patriarchate." He claimed he did so at the church's behest.
Then, Cole sued the church and others in Pinellas court.
The suit described $500 million in cash donations the church had stashed somewhere in Florida and said it wanted Cole to deposit the money in a bank.
The deposit wasn't made, but Cole said the church still owed him $8.5 million in legal fees. Cole was not licensed to practice law in Florida.
Cole served notice of the suit on his Florida corporation, not on the real church. So nobody responded to the suit, and Cole won a default judgment.
The real church found out and, saying it didn't know anything about Cole or his corporation, got an order tossing the judgment.
"I don't have any idea what the guy was up to," said Brett Wadsworth, a Tampa attorney for the church.
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In 2005, Cole and several others, including Canadian minister Brian Anderson, were sued by Nevada investors accusing them of a Ponzi scheme.
A Ponzi is a scam in which money from new investors pays older investors until it all collapses for lack of cash.
The federal suit said Cole and Anderson participated in a "faith-based scam" targeting parishioners of charismatic Christian churches.
It wasn't long before federal marshals came knocking. They arrested Cole at his Trinity home in 2006 and charged him with conspiracy to defraud. A Missouri grand jury had indicted Cole for a $2 million investment scheme with victims in that state and elsewhere.
In the scam, prosecutors said, people investing $50,000 or more were promised returns of $1 million.
Cole's business partner, Daryl M. Brown, falsely told investors he had played football for the Kansas City Chiefs, records show.
In September 2006, Cole pleaded guilty to defrauding investors. He faces up to 20 years in prison at a May sentencing.
Anderson, the minister, was not named in Cole's indictment. By the time of Cole's arrest, Anderson had fled to Europe, where he was arrested by Spanish police in March 2007.
In a separate indictment that does not mention Cole, Anderson is accused in New York of a $14 million investment scam with victims across the country.
Part of Anderson's mystery is that he was named in the same indictment as Abdul Tawala ibn ali Alishtari, nicknamed "the Sheik."
Federal prosecutors say Alishtari, a New York businessman, and Anderson defrauded investors together. But Alishtari faces several charges that Anderson does not, including financing terrorism.
Prosecutors say Alishtari tried to send $152,000 to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.
Anderson has pleaded guilty to a fraud charge, denying any terrorism link. Alishtari awaits trial.
Cole, who is free on bail, had been expected to testify in Anderson's trial before the minister's plea. No documents in either of the court cases link Cole to Alishtari.
Sarasota private investigator Bill Warner, who has investigated Alishtari, said he has never come across Cole's name and didn't know why Cole would be testifying at Anderson's trial.
"Cole's the mystery man," Warner said.
John Trevena, a Largo lawyer representing Cole, refused to say what Cole's testimony would have indicated.
Trevena said, "I would ask that nobody prejudge Mr. Cole until all the facts are developed at his sentencing."
Times staff writer William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5306