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I-Team: 'Baalers' investors anticipated big returns that never materialized

Convicted felon collected thousands over three years
Nate Lawhorn and Chris Lee
Posted at 2:30 PM, Apr 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-28 20:58:16-04

TAMPA, Fla. — A Tampa man convinced people to invest in his new business called “Baalers." It was supposed to be a Hooters-style restaurant chain targeting women diners.

But the I-Team has learned that after years of collecting thousands of dollars from investors in at least five states, there have yet to be any restaurants opened.

Tampa Bay is the birthplace of some of America's most successful restaurants like Outback, Bonefish Grill, and Hooters, which now has more than 400 locations.

Tampa resident Nate Lawhorn told investors he planned to be part of that success story with a new restaurant he calls "Baalers."

Like a Hooters for women

“It was supposed to be like a Hooters for women,” said investor Lisa Stone, who was a high school classmate of Lawhorn.

The restaurant would feature an upscale menu and handsome young male servers.

“He said ‘I want to bless you with something’ and it was a business he was trying to start up,” said investor Chris Lee, who is a disabled veteran who served with Lawhorn in the U.S. Air Force.

Nate Lawhorn and Chris Lee

“He’s calm and smooth-talking and he uses religion and he’s going to pray for you and he wants to share the wealth,” said Stone.

Investor Ann Paterson said she learned about Baalers when she was attending a church retreat at a Tampa hotel. She said Lawhorn struck up a conversation with her in the courtyard during a break between sessions.

“He had overheard my husband had lost his job so he caught me later and said listen, 'I’ve got an opportunity for you,'” Paterson said.

Big names with big bucks

Those investors and several others who didn’t go on camera were given the impression that Baalers had strong financial backing because they said Lawhorn dropped the names of wealthy individuals who allegedly were investors or potential buyers.

“He threw out the name Jay Gruden,” said Lee.

“Gruden was a football coach for the Washington Redskins at the time,” Stone said.

Gruden grew up in Tampa and attended high school during the same time as Stone and Lawhorn.

In a text message Stone said Lawhorn sent her, Lawhorn said he and Gruden would cut her in on a profit-sharing opportunity.

“It sounded like an easy deal at the time. It was only $300,” Stone said.

Stone said she signed a document agreeing to invest in the business.

Lisa Stone

Paterson said she also received a contract and a prospectus, which included menu items. Most of the items and descriptions were nearly identical to items featured on Hooters’ online menu.

“He said $350 is all you need to invest and you’ll get a certain percentage of the buy-out. And I expect the buy-out to be very, very big,” Paterson said.

Nate Lawhorn and Ann Paterson
Proposed Baalers Menu

“We were getting emails from someone we thought was Jay Gruden, and you know what, this sort of validates it,” Lee said.

One email Lee initially believed was from Gruden said, “this is an incredible high volume of money investment return.” When we contacted Gruden, he said he didn't send the email and was never involved in Baalers.

National television exposure

Lawhorn also solicited partners in Las Vegas, where he met Niger Innis.

“What I would bring to the table is I would leverage my political and/or media capital for Baalers,” Innis said.

Innis — a frequent talk show pundit — is the son of Roy Innis the longtime chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, who serves as an officer for the right-leaning group.

“My father, if he could throw a lightning bolt at me from heaven, he would. Because I’ve tarnished his name, my name," Innis said.

In exchange for a 25% share of the company and a $10,000 loan, Innis said he would promote Baalers. He wore shirts and hats bearing a Baalers logo designed by Lawhorn on national television shows.

Niger Innis and Nate Lawhorn

Innis appeared wearing the gear on Fox Business News, Fox News, and CNN.

“I like what you’re wearing, Niger,” former CNN host Chris Cuomo said during one appearance.

Niger Innis pitches Baalers on Fox Business Network

“A producer of Laura Ingraham’s program said, ‘Niger do not wear that outfit again. Don’t wear that hat again,’” Innis said.

Lawhorn sent Stone a picture and a text announcing a Baalers would soon open in Las Vegas.

A grand opening that never happened

“He had supposedly rented a space in the New York, New York in Las Vegas,” Stone said.

Innis said Lawhorn asked him to arrange a big meeting to pitch Baalers.

“I got us a meeting with Sheldon Adelson’s company,” Innis said.

Investors said Lawhorn later claimed billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson was getting in on the deal and Lawhorn claimed he would open a Baalers location at the Las Vegas Fashion Show Mall.

“And he was telling us the deal’s been bought. Everything’s settled,” Paterson said.

Investors were invited to the grand opening in a group email and were told Lawhorn will release investor payouts one week following the grand opening. Paterson bought plane tickets and reserved a hotel room in Las Vegas, but the grand opening never happened.

Investors said Lawhorn claimed to be trying to purchase the Rusty Pelican Restaurant and the Lucky Dill, two Tampa sites that were not listed for sale.

Commercial real estate brokers Lawhorn claimed to work with told the ABC Action News I-Team Lawhorn never produced proof of financing.

 “He always needed money”

Investors said he kept hitting them up for more money.

“He always needed money,” Stone said.

In an email to Paterson, Lawhorn wrote, “If you could Venmo that to me, I’d really appreciate it. We will finally be sending the checks out this week. Be blessed."

Stone said Lawhorn sent a text to investors appearing to show a $10 million wire transfer from Wells Fargo Bank.

Investors the I-Team talked to said they sent routing and account numbers so Lawhorn could wire them money. Investors claimed they were anticipating millions from a sale of the concept and franchising deals.

“It was something like $75 million, some crazy figure like that,” Innis said.

Chris Lee was expecting $8 million to $10 million and Paterson said she expected to receive around $1.2 million. But the big payouts never happened.

Stone said Lawhorn paid back most of her money after she confronted him, but some said they got nothing more than Baalers merchandise.

“I have all this swag,” Paterson said. “And a lot of heartache.”

“That’s all Baalers is... hats, shot glasses, and shirts,” Stone said.

Baalers founder had criminal past

Investors later discovered Nate Lawhorn is a felon. He pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Hillsborough County in 2011 and in 2008 pleaded guilty to false pretenses with intent to defraud in Michigan, where he is listed as a parole absconder.

He was arrested on April 7 for petit theft at a Tampa Walmart, where he is accused of taking $100 in merchandise.

Lawhorn petit theft arrest HCSO.png

Lawhorn sent hundreds of texts and spoke on the phone but refused to do an on-camera interview. He said Baalers hasn't opened because Innis and others are trying to steal his idea.

“No one is trying to steal his company. That’s absurd,” Innis said.

The I-Team went to the address listed on Lawhorn's recent arrest report. He wasn't there, but his father Don Lawhorn, another Baalers investor, was.

“I really don’t like news, cause I think most of you guys are fake,” Don Lawhorn told us.

I-Team investigator Adam Walser asked Don Lawhorn if his son was in a position to give investors their money back.

“No, probably not. Not at this point. As soon as he opens, he will. He has to under the contract,” Don Lawhorn said. “How can he not open? He’s got a business license. He’s got a trademark.”

“People shouldn’t be taken like this,” Paterson said. “I feel like one of the lucky ones with the little bit that I lost.”

Lawhorn’s attorney, Trescott Gear sent a text telling the I-Team, “this firm does not have any comment at this time, beyond noting that Baalers and its team is working diligently to open."

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