Strangest State: Mickey Mouse Cons, Outerspace Scams

Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.
U.S. Attorney's Office
Thomas Lucas Jr. organized land deals in rural North Texas at inflated prices, promising investors prime access to a planned Disney resort that was entirely make-believe.

Strangest State is a recurring feature on local news you might have missed from around Texas. From profiles of small-town doctors to monstrous swamp creatures found by local kids, they’re stories that don’t fit… anywhere, really, but we want to be sure don’t go unnoticed. Got a local oddity or some small-town news to share? Tips are welcome at [email protected]

CELINA // Investors planning to turn this small North Texas town into the happiest place on earth claim their hopes were dashed by Dallas real estate scion Thomas W. Lucas Jr., who raised millions for a real estate scheme designed around a supposed Disney theme park. Lucas, 40, was convicted in February of bilking more than 100 international investors out of $60 million, using “sophisticated digital architectural plans” and a forged letter from Southwest Airlines regarding a fictional “Frontier Disney Airport.” Initial investors included retired NBA center Jon Koncak and some of his former Southern Methodist University classmates, who, according to The Dallas Morning News, gathered to watch the 2007 Super Bowl around a Mickey Mouse cake, anticipating an announcement from Disney during the game. Lucas promised a huge return on real estate near the resort, claiming advance information supplied by a secret source—a man the Morning News reported was a “Hurricane Katrina transplant with a drug habit who delivered milk and worked other odd jobs before committing suicide in 2012.”

EARTH // Federal authorities say Donald and Karlien Winberg were on the run from the law with their seven children when they were spotted by tourists and arrested in the Bahamas in February, far from their home in West Texas, and even farther from the Denver courtroom where they were supposed to stand trial earlier this year. The Winbergs, authorities say, marketed corn and hay online, gave potential customers tours of fields they didn’t own, and then accepted payment up front for grain they never delivered. The Winbergs apparently made a prior attempt to leave the country in the fall of 2014, paying cash for a sailboat, the Houston Chronicle reported, which they wrecked on their way out of Galveston Bay.

HUNTINGTON // KTRE news reporter Erika Bazaldua peeled back the mystery of the moon’s true nature in a mid-January news report, settling the “controversy” over whether the moon is a planet, a star or a moon. Soliciting opinions from local high-schoolers, fourth-graders, and even quoting an on-air argument broadcast by the shopping network QVC, Bazaldua settled the matter with a visit to a mobile science museum, where retired teacher V.J. Willis explained: “Contrary to common misconception, the moon is not a star or a planet. It is a moon. It orbits a planet.”

CRYSTAL BEACH // Vidor construction worker Larry Nash was working a job near the beach when, he said, a glowing orb in the sky caught his attention. “It was like a bubble,” Nash told the Beaumont Enterprise in late January—a bubble that changed from purple to green as he and co-workers watched. They observed the bubble for 45 minutes, “taking pictures and calling friends,” the Enterprise reported, until their boss told them to get back to work. “That was the last we saw of it,” Nash said.

DEL RIO // A ghost hunt during the town’s annual UFO festival revealed no evidence that the Kress Building downtown is haunted. “But there’s no denying that its dark and empty second and third floors are downright spooky,” Karen Gleason reported in the Del Rio News-Herald. Fifty brave souls joined in the hunt led by Rosa Linda Sanchez, who admitted that she’s “never had any strange experiences inside the Kress.” Amber Street, a San Antonio college student, psychic and “seeker of higher knowledge,” said there were in fact “spirits in the building, but none who wished to make contact with us.”

HOUSTON // Japanese Internet entrepreneur and businessman Takafumi Horie sued Houston attorney Art Dula late last year, alleging that Dula talked him into investing nearly $50 million in a private spaceflight startup called Excalibur Almaz that, Horie said, was never intended to make money. The company announced plans to convert Russian space capsules and space station parts into modern launch vehicles, and even mine asteroids for rare materials—but Horie said the equipment was never fit for anything more strenuous than display in a museum, according to the Houston Chronicle. Another investor made similar allegations in 2012, and in May 2014, the company auctioned off one of its space capsules for $1.39 million, according to the blog Parabolic Arc. In February, Dula denied Horie’s fraud allegations, noting that Horie had signed an agreement not to sue the company—before his own recent imprisonment in Japan for securities fraud.

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

Published at 3:11 pm CST