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.
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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.