Investor's ordeal goes on

John Friedrich, who now works at M. Dumas and Sons, has had to adjust to the losses he's faced as a result of Al Parish's fraudulent money management.

Wade Spees

John Friedrich remembers the night perfectly.

It was mid-2007, about two months after his gastric-bypass surgery had been canceled. He should have been losing some of the weight that he carried for decades. Instead, he was lying in bed, struggling with new burdens. His inheritance was gone. His job had vanished. Al Parish, his boss, financial adviser and longtime friend, was in the Charleston County jail, deemed a "flight risk" by a federal judge.

Friedrich's heart quickened to a blur and finally over-revved.

"I called my friends; I told them where my will was," Friedrich recalled. "I thought, 'This is it.' "

Friedrich, 54, survived a slight heart attack that night. He wasn't the only one losing sleep. Some 600 people, businesses and nonprofits watched about $80 million of their wealth disappear in April 2007, when the Securities and Exchange Commission uncovered a massive fraud during its audit of the "informal pools" of investments run by Parish.

The former Charleston Southern University economist pleaded guilty in October under a deal with authorities that reduced the number of fraud charges to three from 11, including one state charge. In a Meeting Street courthouse today, federal prosecutors will ask a judge to banish the 50-year-old Parish to prison for almost 31 years.

Investors such as Friedrich will probably recover only 10 cents on each dollar, once the process of collecting and liquidating Parish's empire is completed. Their biggest torment is the constant mental questioning: Why didn't I check him out better? Why did I invest so much? Why didn't I see it coming?

Everything about Parish was large: his physique, his personality, his intellect, his generosity, his sense of fashion and, eventually, his crime.

"He was very charismatic," Friedrich said. "He made people just believe."

Friedrich's decision to invest was not as rash as some. To him, Parish was more than the "Economan," more than a college professor with a loud wardrobe who drove a purple Jaguar.

Friedrich knew Parish had plenty of money. For many years, he had advised Parish on how to spend it. As a salesman at Berlin's men's clothing store, Friedrich helped Parish pick out $50,000 to $100,000 worth of merchandise every year.

Later, Parish hired him to run A.J. Davis, the menswear store that Parish bought in 2003. The pair would go on buying trips to New York, zipping up on a chartered jet, sleeping in Parish's swanky three-bedroom timeshare at 68th Street and Broadway, dropping cash as if it were burning their hands.

"He just always had money," Friedrich said. "Any time the store needed money, he put it in. ... He spent a fortune on it. There were tin roofs, flat-screen TVs, you name it."

It never occurred to Friedrich that the money might not have been Parish's — that the money may, in fact, have been his own: the 401(k) retirement plan proceeds he turned over to his new boss at A.J Davis, the tens of thousands of dollars left to him by his father.

Parish's charity and benevolence impressed as much as his apparent wealth. He gave his mind, and later his money, freely. While at the College of Charleston, Parish founded a math lab to tutor his classmates. He became a regular on the local speaking circuit, and helped the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce organize its economic forecasts while juggling a full-time teaching job at CSU.

And when he began investing for others, Parish charged a relatively small fee. Parish's attorney, Andy Savage, said Parish was never motivated by greed, "but rather by a vain attempt to be recognized for his financial acumen."

Parish's friends and family have stretched to comprehend the scope of pilfering and lies that Parish admitted to in May when he pleaded guilty.

"He is a nurturer," Parish's cousin Marguerite Baldwin Anderson wrote in a recent letter to the court. "It is difficult to reconcile the boy and man I have known with the accused I see in court."

Friedrich still can't understand it. Like most of Parish's victims, he has landed on his feet, sort of. He is back in his element, outfitting men at a King Street clothing shop. He still owns the Goose Creek home that Parish advised him to buy.

Friedrich's heart is still in bad shape after that dark night last year when he thought he was a goner. He still can't afford the gastric-bypass surgery that his former insurance plan would have covered, and he still struggles with his weight. Early this year, Friedrich paid $8,000 to have his knees rebuilt.

And with his nest egg cracked open, Friedrich no longer can picture a day when he won't have to be on his feet for hours, kneeling to pin a cuff, climbing a ladder to stack shirts.

"I've been in retail my whole life and I've been totally screwed at age 50," Friedrich said. "I just trusted the man with my life."

For Friedrich, like many of Parish's investors, the red flags stand out clearly when he looks back. In the months before investigators dropped the net on his employer, Friedrich said, Parish's stress level rocketed. He would hand out checks and tell people to hold onto them for a few weeks before cashing them. Friedrich himself struggled to withdraw funds in the weeks before the SEC closed in.

"I must have asked him for that money 10 times," Friedrich said. "His office was two doors away and I would say, 'Do you want me to come and pick it up?' and he'd say, 'No, I'll bring it over.' "

Friedrich has found a new job, but finding forgiveness for Parish has proved elusive. It might be different if he had not eaten dinner at least once a week with Parish's wife and four pre-teen children, if Parish had not accepted another $20,000 check from Friedrich days before the scheme fell apart, if Parish had not bought $8,000 worth of merchandise just before he stopped paying the health insurance bills for Friedrich and his other employees.

"I would basically ask him why he did it to me," Friedrich said. "Some investors in the Midwest is one thing, but I was around him all the time. … I don't understand how he could face me in those last few months and take more money from me."

In the days after Parish was charged with 10 counts of federal fraud, investigators called on Friedrich to help catalog the expansive wardrobe in Parish's Summerville home. About a quarter of the clothes still had the tags on them. "We're talking $3,000 suits," Friedrich said.

Court officials expect about 100 of Parish's victims to file into the courtroom and a specially prepared "overflow room" today to witness the economist's sentencing. Friedrich won't be among them. He will be six blocks up the peninsula, folding shirts and fitting clients for new clothes.