A Beautiful Mess
She fell for fallen kingpin Denny Hecker. Then they both went to prison. Now, for the first time, Christi Rowan-Hecker explains what happened—and why a match seemingly made in hell is heaven to her.
God works in mysterious ways. Christi Rowan-Hecker knows that now.
She was born in dallas in 1973, christened Christi Michele Westmoreland, and still has the gently bent vowels to prove it. She has bright blue eyes and is certain she’s part Cherokee, on her dad’s side, submitting her strong cheekbones and raven hair as evidence. She’s slight, self-possessed, and often wears black or white, like Jackie Onassis, whom she vaguely resembles, both being stylish, affluent (or formerly affluent) brunettes you’ve mostly seen in moments of distress. She remains close with her parents. There was nothing about her childhood that would suggest the drama to come.
She acquired the Rowan in her name after moving to Minnesota and marrying Brent Rowan, a construction contractor, in 2001. She acquired the Hecker after her second, more infamous marriage, on February 22, 2011. She and a pastor were at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Maple Grove. Denny Hecker was on the phone from Sherburne County Jail.
“Our normal has never been like anybody else’s normal,” Denny said at the time. How true: the next day, Christi joined him in jail.
Christi had worked in sales, most recently for KARE-11 TV, while watching Denny’s descent—on television like everyone else at first, and then from his arms. From the outside, it was an almost comical meltdown of one of the great success stories in American business. Here was a man who’d grown up with very little in north Minneapolis and built a coast-to-coast empire of car dealerships and affiliated businesses. By the time he went to prison last year for bankruptcy fraud and conspiracy, he’d made—and spent—billions. He owed $767 million, mostly to Chrysler for loan defaults. He had a $12 million lakeside compound near Brainerd, a handful of other million-dollar homes, 500 pairs of pants, 325 golf clubs, 100 watches, and four ex-wives. He had a long way to fall.
Of course, the feds felt that Christi had done more than just watch. She pleaded guilty to lying on a credit application to purchase a Land Rover for Denny and to lying while testifying under oath. Prosecutors also said she used credit accounts seized by the FBI to charge things like a $400 hair appointment. Given the maximum sentence of 14 months, she spent most of 2011 at a prison camp in southern Illinois before being released to a Twin Cities halfway house last November. Now serving five years’ probation, she lives with her 15-year-old daughter, Rachael, and 7-year-old son, Fysher, in a modest new home of their own in a western suburb of Minneapolis. She sends the kids to parochial schools (where both play lacrosse) and regularly attends mass.
She is 38. Denny turns 60 this month. Although he could be released from prison as soon as 2016, he’s not due to get out until July 4, 2019. Christi smiles easily given the circumstances, given that she says, “I don’t really feel comfortable anywhere.” When she talks about the recent past, she is serenely certain of a good and grander purpose. “My faith,” she says, “has been the guiding light through this beautiful mess.”
This, in her own words, is her story.
I met Denny at the Randy Shaver Celebrity Golf Classic in 2001. I was working at Pax TV, volunteering on different boards. Denny was on the tourney board but he wouldn’t show up for any of the meetings, so I’d volunteer him for things. Then, at events, he would blow me off, like, “Okay, run along, nice to see you; you cost me a lot of money.”
We didn’t have our first private sit-down meeting until 2007. I was at KARE-11 then, and was trying to sell him on a promotion for the game show Deal or No Deal. I thought it would be good for his business. I couldn’t get a yes, though, so I called him again. He said, “Oh goddammit, come over and we’ll talk.”
We hashed out a plan and then, sometime later, on a Sunday morning, he called me back into his office and I went over for what I thought was going to be a big boost in my business. I showed him what I’d put together. He said, “This is phenomenal,” and he gave me a big hug. He was a different person from then on.
A couple of weeks later, I got everything together and went to his office about 6:30 in the evening. He was taking his time and I was starting to get antsy. I told him, “Look, I’m a mom, I have to go.” He walked around the desk, stopped right in front of me, and said, “I know what I want.” I said, “Alright, what do you want to buy?” And he said, “No, I want to marry you.”
I was married at the time and so was he. I thought he was joking. I said, “Mr. Hecker, no, you can’t marry me. That’s called polygamy.”
I quickly learned that Denny had a plethora of relationships going on at once, all very sex-driven. He didn’t know the difference between sex and love. He didn’t get any love at home growing up, so it made sense that he looked for it in every possible direction.
There wasn’t anyone he couldn’t have. If you sat down in a room with Denny, you wouldn’t have any choice but to like him. He can create something, a business, from nothing, from an instinct. And he’s done everything in his life, been everywhere—his bucket list is so different from everyone else’s.
I always explain Denny’s life at the time like this: you had one rooster and a lot of hens, and Denny could make everyone feel like they were the No. 1 hen. When he told me, “I want you,” I think he was saying, “Let’s see what kind of girl this is, let’s see if she’s like all the others.”
It wasn’t romantic at first. It was friendship. He started showing up at events whenever I would be there. We’d talk about his wife. We’d talk about his other relationships. I thought we’d make good business partners. He respected me because I wasn’t afraid to tell him what I thought. At the same time, I didn’t throw anything back in his face.
Of course, he would try to buy me things and then expect something—not sexually—just to be there when he needed me. The first thing he sent was a huge bouquet to my office at KARE, probably $500 worth of roses. I was like, “Denny, you just can’t do this.” But he couldn’t stand it when I didn’t accept his gifts. I was very naïve until I met Denny: I didn’t think people could be bought. But everyone around Denny could be bought.
My husband was naturally upset, but I was upfront with him about Denny from the very beginning. Things had not been going well in our marriage. I had asked for a divorce in November of 2007 and then agreed to try to work things out for a year. But relationships were never the first priority in my life. I’ve always been very much about business. I had relationships of convenience, even with my now ex-husband.
Denny was different—he demanded to be first.
On June 21, 2009, Denny called me in the middle of the night. He said, “I’m leaving the cabin, everyone’s locked me out.” I said, “What do you need?” He said, “Come get me.”
He was driving from the cabin in Crosslake, near Brainerd, and I met him at a gas station near St. Cloud. I picked him up in the infamous black Land Rover and he passed out the minute he got in. I opened up his briefcase and there were all these pills: uppers, downers. Many of them didn’t match the containers.
He’d been broken for years, you know. He made so much money that he didn’t think anything that was happening to him really mattered. But he’d had a Vicodin addiction since his gastric-bypass surgery in 2005. And he kept a lot of strange characters around his businesses—he’d be disloyal to himself before he’d be disloyal to others. They all enabled him.
I was a fixer.
I hated him at some point. I hated what he was doing to me. He was a really unhealthy human being—everything I would have run from in the past.
He didn’t have any spiritual background and once, when he saw me praying, he asked what I was doing. “Praying,” I said.
“For you!” I said. “You’re not in control of anything! I’m praying that you get some sense!”
After I came to get him that June, he was still very sneaky about his personal life—he was embarrassed—and was sneaking prescription drugs behind my back. But skeletons began flying out of the closet. At one point, I said, “Make a list of all the women you’ve slept with in Minneapolis, just so I don’t run into them without knowing.”
I believe all the people he attracted were like him: they were dishonest, they were sneaky. He was just the king of them all.
I know I could have walked away at any point, but I didn’t. I loved him, though I didn’t know why. He empowered me, I think, made me feel I could do anything. When you’re around Denny, the relationship is magnetic, you function as one. I never felt complete until I met him. It probably has to do with security—with Denny, I know it will all work out.
To this day, I know nothing about his business affairs. That said, I don’t think Denny was always telling the truth. He was ill. He was broken. He wasn’t coherent. Denny loved money more than anything, so to throw all that away—hell no!
The day the federal marshals raided his home in Medina, in 2010, Denny called me and said, “They’re coming to the house and taking everything.” I said, “Let them have it. You’re holding onto something that’s completely meaningless.”
He said, “I can’t do that to the kids.” You have to understand, his relationship with his ex-wife and kids was purely monetary. I don’t believe they knew how to be loved any other way and Denny didn’t know how to love them any other way.
I told Denny, “The Bible says that when the tax collector comes around to take your shirt, you’re supposed to give him your coat, too. It doesn’t matter, see, because he can take everything you have but still never take your soul.” Well, Denny fought to keep everything he had because that was his soul.
Denny wanted to get married at the Basilica of St. Mary. We got our marriage license in October 2010. But he was placed in custody on October 18—we missed our chance.
On February 22, 2011, Denny called me and said, “Be at Lord of Life Church [in Maple Grove] at 5 p.m. We’re getting married. Marry me today!”
I said, “Ooohkaay.” Not that I didn’t want to. I mean, c’mon, when you imagine a fairy tale, I’d found it, right? To get married over the phone to someone in jail?
Well, I went. Why did I still marry him? The truth is, I was in love with Denny. He is absolutely my soulmate. And I wanted to teach my children that you stand within your truth, no matter what is going on.
the yard of the federal prison camp
in Duluth in October 2011.
Eventually, of course, they came after me, too. I pleaded guilty because I wanted peace for my family.
The day I was being sentenced, Denny was being taken to prison in Duluth. I prayed to see him one last time. As it happens, we were transported from jail on the same van. I looked up and there he was, dragging a huge plastic bag full of stuff—of course.
He said, “You look so pretty.” I said, “Let’s not lie. I’ve been in jail. I know how I look.” Then he told me that he thought I would only get probation, but I knew in my gut that it’d be 14 months.
My son was so young. I told him, “You know we all work for God. How would you feel if God said I needed to work for him away from home for a little bit?” I had to let my kids go. That was the hardest part.
I cleaned out all of the houses—I donated about 200 winter coats to charity. Then I moved the children into a two-bedroom apartment where they would live during my absence. My brother, Beau, was here from Dallas, helping me out. Molly Jensen, a close relative, came to stay with the children until I came home. The people who gave our family their faith, food, and financial support were sent from heaven.
On the eve of February 23, I was taken into custody.
Denny is not Tom Petters—he wasn’t sitting in his office scheming. He worked from his gut, and he believed in the people working for him. Unfortunately, the people around Denny were toxins—he paid them to be his friends.
When everything fell apart, he began to get those toxins out of his system. He started to look younger. He lost weight. He’s returning to the person he was 25 years ago. He says he wants children. He thinks he’s in his early thirties.
He’s the spitting image of Job in the Bible. God will take the top dog and put him down to the bottom just to show you he’s fair. I tell Denny, “You can’t look at this as a sentence—you’re doing this time for you. To heal yourself, to recover yourself.” And this time alone has been good for him. If he had simply been slapped him with a fine, I don’t know if he would have gotten so deep within himself.
Don’t get me wrong: he’ll always want to have his own plane again and his houses. But he also knows that comes with a lot of heavy burdens.
He tells me, “Thank you for helping me and changing me.” No, I didn’t change him. I just believed in him. I fell in love with him when he was at his worst. So I’m not being loyal to him, I’m being loyal to myself. He’ll figure that out some day.
His out date, more than likely, will actually be 2016. When he comes home, he will not be the husband I married. I will have to fall in love with this new person. But I’m not going anywhere.
I don’t know that I really have friends. Well, I do, but they’re people I’ve known for a dozen or more years—before I came here. My family has always been supportive of my relationship with Denny. The people who really know me know that it would have been harder to walk away.
To most people, I’m seen as not really human. They would rather ignore what’s happened than simply ask, “How are you today?”
People say, “You shouldn’t have been with Denny Hecker.” No, that was pre-planned. God gifted me. So many beautiful things have come out of this that I don’t see the downside. I’ve seen a man whose life was in a million pieces get down and pick them up. It’s been an inspiration and a test of my faith.
I always say to Denny, “All of God’s disciples went to prison—they were thieves and liars. But now we look at the disciples as God’s chosen ones.”
I feel I’ve been chosen for something great. That statement of greatness being thrust upon you? I didn’t have a choice. I don’t know what I’ll do yet—I want to fight for the people of Minnesota, maybe programs to fight poverty—but I do know that after going through what I’ve gone through, I have no weaknesses. If I could survive this….
When my kids and I moved into our new home, I ran into a neighbor. I stuck my hand out and said, “I’m Christi Rowan—I’m Denny Hecker’s wife. I’m going to be way upfront because I’m not leaving.”
And that’s the truth: I’m not ashamed of anything. There’s nothing I could possibly be embarrassed by anymore. I mean, c’mon, I married Denny Hecker!
My Heart’s On Fire
The love letters of Denny Hecker
Denny Hecker can’t always get a stamp these days—they cost money, even in prison. Still, he writes a letter every day to Christi, the bride he’s never lived with as husband and wife.
Christi spreads a foot-tall pile of his most recent letters on a table, page after page of handwritten sentiments. It’s stream-of-consciousness, passionate, full of dropped words. “His spelling was atrocious at first,” says Christi. Her loyalty figures prominently in his thoughts. So does her “gorgeous” posterior.
He includes more smiley faces than you’d expect. More Bible verses, too. He and Christi trade recommended readings. Psalm 52: “Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?” Psalm 86: “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.”
Christi writes him just as often, enclosing photographs of herself and the kids and articles about him from the newspaper. He often returns the letters with comments. On a Star Tribune story in which Christi is referred to as his “brazen bride,” he circled the term and wrote, “Bold, brave, direct. It’s you, baby!”
“He was never a narcissist,” Christi says. “He didn’t know who he was, so he allowed people to tell him who he was. Now, he’s become much closer to understanding himself and how to express that. It’s like he’s not even the same human being.”
Christi told Denny as much in a prayer she wrote to him: “Take care of my husband, God, bring him home and allow his health to be as young as he feels inside and out. I need and want my forever with him. Dennis, you will always be a dream come true.”
Here, a sampling of sentiments from Denny.
“My heart’s on fire. Come take me in your arms. Make love to me tonight.”
“I feel great—mentally sharp. I look great [smiley face]. For sure I’m rested. I look to you for guiding me.”
“There is no hidden money. No hidden assets. Hell, I don’t own a watch, no clothes. I have $20 left.”
“I’m the luckiest man alive [smiley face].”
“Shit happens. Let’s make sure no one shits on us.”
“God’s closest followers all did prison time.”
“Job, 42:10. The Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends and the Lord gave Job twice as much as before!”
“I’m working hard to stay positive and pray all the time. But being without your voice, your touch, is driving me out of my mind!”
“Four years, 6 months from now. Homecoming without any change in law. 6/19/2016, only 4 more birthdays to go!!!!”
“When I leave here, no one, including myself with the Lord’s blessing, will ever keep me from spending the rest of my living days with you.”
“This too shall pass.”
The Many Wives of Denny Hecker
The auto king lived fast and loved faster, racking up five spouses in 40 years
1. Judith Martin — Hecker and Martin were sweethearts at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis and were married the fall after graduation, in 1970. The marriage lasted less than two years.
2. Sandra Storm — Hecker met Storm (the first of two spouses with a name like a comic-book heroine) when he was 20 and working as the used-car manager at a St. Paul dealership. They married in 1973, had two children, and stayed together for 10 years. These were the first of Denny’s boom years, though the couple burned through the money as fast as it came in: at the time of the divorce, they claimed to be $1.2 million in debt. They would battle over alimony for 14 years until the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that Sandra had failed to become self-sufficient, relying instead on Hecker’s support and a $5-an-hour part-time job in a coffee shop.
3. Marsha Drapes — Hecker married Drapes in 1984. They divorced nine years later and Marsha asked for $20,000 a month in spousal support. In court documents, she argued that this was necessary to maintain the lifestyle to which she was accustomed: “[We took] 12 vacations per year…Paris, Venice, London, Maui, Honolulu” and “I replaced virtually my entire wardrobe seasonally.”
4. Tamitha Pownall — Hecker was 42 and Pownall was 27 when they married in 1994. It was Hecker’s longest marriage, spawning two children, though not necessarily his most successful: cracks appeared long before it fell apart. In finalizing their divorce in 2009, a judge referred to a “history of ambivalence” in the marriage, including two previous divorce filings (never acted upon) over several years. Toward the end, Hecker was openly romancing Christi Rowan.
5. Christi Rowan — The current missus, married to Hecker since 2011.
Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.