TRAVERSE CITY — William E. Lowder often prayed before he dined with Honor Lofstrom.
They and others regularly met for lunch at Green House Cafe in Traverse City a few years ago. They'd chat about sports, current events or other topics, and Lowder often made a point to fold his hands in prayer before food was served, Lofstrom said.
Those prayers — like so many of Lowder's actions, promises and words — don't seem genuine anymore.
"Now, as I look back on it, he was probably just praying that he wouldn't get caught," Lofstrom said.
Lowder, 57, recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to one count of wire fraud and one count of filing a false federal income tax return. Investigators said he swindled more than $1.5 million from several elderly clients beginning in 2001, largely by keeping money he promised to invest.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of more than 20 years in federal prison, assistant U.S. Attorney Ronald Stella said.
Stella, who handled the case, wouldn't say if Lowder's plea deal included discussions about a specific prison term length.
Lowder is out on bond awaiting his May 29 sentencing. He declined comment for this story through his attorney.
He took $45,000 from Lofstrom, 79, a theft that forced her to go back to work and move out of her condo.
"I had a set amount of money I could live on, and I saved it, and I was expecting to invest and raise a little bit more money for my old age," she said. "It was a devastating thing once I figured out what he had done."
Lowder, who lived in Acme Township and had an office on West Front Street in Traverse City, was a licensed insurance agent and financial adviser. He often visited the Green House Cafe, and it was there he met Lofstrom and her friends, Bill and Delight Fagan.
Bill Fagan, 89, is a retired phone company worker who spent nearly a year in a German prisoner of war camp after his B-17 was shot down during World War II. He and Delight, his wife, moved to Traverse City about 12 years ago and now live in Chelsea.
Lofstrom and Bill Fagan said Lowder had an upbeat, friendly personality.
"Bill could be very charming," Lofstrom said. "He always seemed to want to help people, which we thought was quite nice of him."
Touting his financial expertise, he encouraged the Fagans and Lofstrom to let him invest their money.
"He was a very convincing person on the fact that he could make such good interest for us on anything that he did," Lofstrom said.
Lofstrom gave him about $90,000 near the end of 2007. Roughly half of that was legitimately invested, she said, but she eventually discovered he pocketed the other half instead of investing it.
It was the same story with the Fagans, who lost $10,000 to Lowder. In both cases, Lowder provided fraudulent documents that made it look like the money was being properly handled.
"I received some stuff that looked to me like everything was OK," Bill Fagan said. "But it wasn't. He had kept the money and made it look like he had put it in our account."
Lofstrom is upset she didn't see red flags sooner. Lowder at one point asked to borrow $3,000 from her, and she agreed, as long as he paid interest. He repaid the loan, but wouldn't give her any interest.
"I got suspicious at that time, and I got very angry. I should have done something about it," she said. "I should have reported it then and there, but I didn't."
The son of another of Lowder's victims grew suspicious enough to contact authorities in 2011, and his schemes came crashing down as various local, state and federal authorities investigated his activities.
Lofstrom, who had only a limited amount of money, said she was horrified when investigators contacted her and informed her of the fraud. She ultimately was forced to sell her condo and move into a rental unit, and she's back to work for a company that sells software.
"Raping us senior citizens of our funds is exactly that — rape," she said. "Here we are in an age where we need all the money that we have, and it's been torn away from us."
The Fagans didn't take as much of a financial hit, but they still have a sour taste in their mouths.
"It hurts me to think that he took advantage of our friendship," Bill Fagan said. "It's hard to realize that a guy you're sitting there with, drinking coffee and talking friendship, that in the back of his mind, he's trying to figure out how to screw you."
Joy Green, co-owner of Green House Cafe, considers Lofstrom and the Fagans "like family." Lowder was a regular customer at Green House, and Green is disgusted by his crimes.
"He just hurt so many people and ruined so many lives," she said. "I don't think he has a soul."
'Because it was easy'
Lowder's con game collapsed after a son of Grawn resident Betty Bickel, now 87, approached authorities in mid-2011 with concerns about her dealings with Lowder.
Bickel lost nearly $500,000 to Lowder, documents show. He began a financial adviser relationship with her in 1997, and began stealing her money in 2006. He convinced her to withdraw her assets from various accounts, then he kept the money.
Bickel's sons were suspicious of her relationship with Lowder, said Kathy Bickel, her daughter-in-law. But she rebuffed their concerns and defended Lowder, whom she met through a mutual friend.
"She said, 'Don't worry boys, you're going to be well taken care of. He's my friend'," Kathy Bickel said. "She trusted him with everything."
Betty Bickel began to lose her mental faculties, and her son eventually gained power of attorney. He saw plenty of warning signs when he examined her finances, and contacted police when he couldn't get straight answers from Lowder.
The Grand Traverse County Sheriff's Department began an investigation, and state and federal investigators became involved when the nature and scope of Lowder's crimes became apparent.
The FBI, Internal Revenue Service and the Michigan Office of Financial and Insurance Regulation all had a hand in examining Lowder's dealings.
The OFIR suspended his license about a year ago, and he was charged in January. Meachum said investigators found seven victims — five local, two downstate — and they don't expect to find others.
When sheriff's investigators interviewed Lowder, one asked why he targeted elderly people. His response was simple.
"Because it was easy," he said, according to a police report.
The Bickels are incensed by Lowder's crime, especially because Betty Bickel so completely trusted him.
"My (in-laws) didn't scrimp and save for all those years just to have some creep take it away," Kathy Bickel said as she choked back tears.
Theft is particularly troubling when seniors are targeted, sheriff's Capt. Dave Meachum said.
"It's very upsetting. They're past their ability to truly bring in any more income," he said. "They've already worked their butts off for all of these years, and now all of a sudden they've found that someone who should be in their prime of working is just sitting back and stealing."
Court and investigative documents show Lowder used his ill-gotten funds in a variety of ways.
"A review of (Lowder's) bank account shows that (stolen) money was used to make gifts of cash to his wife, to fund his personal trust account, and to pay ... personal and business expenses."
He had a home near Deepwater Point in Acme Township that authorities said went into foreclosure. His wife recently filed for divorce, court records show.
Joy Green, of the Green House Cafe, said Lowder seemed to know he was bound to get caught some day. Some time before any criminal or regulatory investigation, he hinted to Green that he could have problems in the future.
"He led me to believe he could be in a lot of trouble," she said.