NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. - “The system's really let him off the hook, and the victims have been re-victimized,” said Darlene Heimerl, describing her former business partner Kenneth Stephens.
Heimerl says she lost everything after Stephens used her good credit to obtain thousands of dollars in cash advances, eat out and even buy new rims for his car.
“He comes off very appealing, very charismatic, but it's all a game” Heimerl said.
She invested $90,000 from her retirement account to become Stephens' partner in Chef Ken's Smokehouse Bar-B-Que Restaurants.
Heimerl says Stephens then used her credit information to obtain corporate credit cards he promised in a business contract to repay with restaurant proceeds.
“Within a very short period of time, he had maxed them all out. He had taken cash advances on all the credit cards, and there's nine of them out there,” she said.
Heimerl says Stephens ran up $190,000 in credit card debt in a matter of months.
Some charges were for his personal expenses, including a $667 charge at Wheel Tech, which sells custom rims, and hundreds of dollars to charges at local restaurants.
There were multiple catering charges from Chef Ken’s Smokehouse Bar-B-Que to their own corporate credit cards.
Heimerl says none of the catering was ever done.
But while credit card balances grew, employees say the restaurant was struggling.
“We didn't order food. I had to go get it from grocery stores,” said Christina Kough, who says wholesale food services wouldn’t do business with Stephens because he didn’t pay his bills in the past.
“If a customer came and bought a $40 order, I would take that $40 and go buy sauce or brisket or whatever I could get for the $40,” Kough said.
“Something was wrong from the beginning. The water was shut off my first week of work,” said Sheryl Johnston.
Johnston quit Chef Ken's after her $400 paycheck bounced.
“I got a letter in the mail from Amscot saying that since I had endorsed the check, I was the one who needed to pay for the bounced check,” said Johnston.
At the same time he opened the New Port Richey location,
Stephens also opened restaurants across from Bay Pines Hospital in St. Petersburg and in Bradenton.
Both locations have already gone out of business.
We tried to talk to Stephens at the only open location in New Port Richey, but he hid in the back.
“This is all business partners who did nothing what they're supposed to do,” said Christiane Stephens, Kenneth’s wife.
She is listed on Florida Secretary of State Documents as an owner of Chef Ken’s.
Stephens blamed partners for dozens of failed businesses in the past.
Court records show he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to landlords, vendors and the IRS from previous restaurant ventures.
“$21,000 and not one dime of it back,” said Kevin Ferlita, who invested in four restaurants in 2014, which all closed within weeks of opening.
He went to police, alleging Stephens misled investors.
But the state declined to prosecute.
In 2015, Stephens opened a bakery with backing from new investors, but that restaurant also closed within months.
“I don't want to talk to you. Ok? So you'd better get out of my property. I'm gonna call somebody,” said Christiane Stephens, who later contacted the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office on us, even though we left the property when she told us to.
Heimerl has reported Stephens to law enforcement, hoping this time prosecutors will consider what happened to her more than just a failed business deal.
“Justice has to happen somewhere here. Because if it's not for me and these other people, he's gonna do it again,” Heimerl said.
If you’ve had bad business dealings with Stephens, we’ll be happy to forward the information to law enforcement.