Over the course of history, people have used the cover of faith to commit crimes against people. Crimes committed by individuals of faith range widely in severity. We hear stories of pastors telling their congregations that God wants them to have a new airplane. People that work for churches embezzle and steal funds to support their lavish lifestyles. In some cases, Felons seek redemption from the church for their crimes. Once the felon “finds” God, they use that narrative to con and exploit people into believing they have changed their ways. I watched this story play out in my own community. A Felon, Richard Wooton, told my community he was a changed man. My neighbors and community believed him, and he stole more than $500,000 from numerous families.
The town I live in is nestled just outside of the Twin Cities metro area in Minnesota. For years the community was not part of the Twin Cities or considered a suburb. As urban sprawl has taken over, our community now is the outer suburbs of a large metropolitan area of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Because of that separation from the cities, the people that live here trust their neighbors, support local businesses, and many are skeptical of outsiders. Our community was ripe for exploitation by a con man.
Our community is also profoundly religious. We have a large Catholic and Christian community. People go to church, believe fearlessly in God, and want to believe the best in others. A smart con man could easily use a relationship with God as a way to exploit others.
Two years ago our community bulletin board on Facebook went wild with accusations and fighting. Several people went online to accuse a local remodeling and home contractor for walking off jobs. Concerned citizens wanted to warn others in the community that a contractor, Rick Wooton, was ripping off homeowners, doing spotty work, and delaying jobs for months at a time.
As the fight erupted, citizens exposed Wooton’s criminal background. His criminal record showed more than a dozen felonies from theft and fraud. Additionally, he spent several years in prison for these felonies. Admins of the board tried to shut down the slander and libel they saw by my neighbors. They felt showing his criminal record was not indicative of Wooton’s background now.
Following the links being showed of his background, admins threw out the members that shared the information. Rick then posted an update to assure people that he was a different man now. He addressed the “censorship” of the board as well.
Rick pointed out to everyone that his Christian values changed him. He married a woman that was beloved in our community. His wife, Deb, was well known in our community because her first husband had been murdered only a few years earlier. Wooton was smart enough to use her as a part of his con.
The dust-up lasted for several days. Eventually, the bulletin board split into two separate boards due to the number of people that were kicked out for posting negatively about Wooton. Many of us that knew Wooton was up to something kept tabs on him. His neighbors monitored his Facebook.
Wooton was committed to his story of being a man saved by God. Additionally, he used his social media to post photos of him active in his faith.
He posted photos of him praying with his partners for work:
He posted about God’s willingness to forgive those that are thieves. In a post that almost foreshadows his motives he posted this:
Even though Wooton said he found God, people began to realize that something nefarious might be going on. People began to notice he was also spending a lot of money on new toys. He shared photos of newly purchased cars, snowmobiles, and trucks.
Polaris Custom Built a snowmobile for him
He purchased a 2014 Corvette:
He bought several GMC Full-size trucks:
To reinforce his Christian status, he made a large donation to his wife Deb Larson Wooton’s employer. He and his wife also donated a new bus to Maranatha Christian Academy:
Rick seemed to be playing the game perfect. He snagged a Christian wife and gave a bus to a large Christian school. The community we lived in backed off on their accusations. People wanted to believe he was a true story of being reformed by God.
However, late this summer stories and rumors started to trickle out that Wooton’s company wasn’t on the up and up. Residents again went back to the community bulletin board to share their concerns. Many of them talked about having projects remain uncompleted for months. Others discussed Wooton giving them huge discounted prices for work. The only caveat Wooton gave these homeowners was they had to pay up front and in full.
The report also 0utlined that the state had only granted Wooton’s company Crossroads Remodeling to his wife, Debbie. Wooton received instructions from the state not to be an active manager or present himself as the owner.
By the end of August, the State of Minnesota responded by revoking his license. They also imposed a fine of $250,000 on Wooton and Crossroads remodeling. Evidence of the fraud and theft has also been turned over to prosecutors. They are investigating fraud that took place in several counties.
Over the past weekend, Wooton’s home went on the market. Neighbors in my community also noted he started to sell his cars and various toys. The pressure is on Wooton by authorities. His company no longer exists. He has taken down his company Facebook page. Additionally, he deactivated his Facebook account.
As the story has unfolded, I have thought enormously about what happened in 2016. Back in 2016, residents tried hard to stop Wooton from exploiting and stealing from others. Despite their efforts, our community rallied around the “Saved by God” story that Wooton sold. I have spent many nights wondering if those voices had been heard in 2016 if there would be fewer victims today.
My community wants to believe in everyone. This feature is part of the reason I love living here. However, for the experienced thief, this town is an easy target for deceit, theft, and fraud. I have witnessed fantastic healing in this community. Contractors that are unaffiliated with Wooton are offering to help families finish their projects. Friendships are being formed and strengthened by the crimes.
Despite his effort to exploit our community, I truly believe his crimes will educate the community on not trusting someone because they live here. Our small community that is profoundly religious learned an essential lesson in all of this. A wolf-like Wooton can be clothed as a sheep. He used religion to convince everyone around him that he learned from his crimes.
Now our community realizes that sometimes a thief is always a thief.
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