Truck deal an apparent hoax
City doesn't expect to see any money from California man
Leada Gore, Hartselle Enquirer
The list reads like a who's who of philanthropists from throughout the world: Bill and Melinda Gates, former Beatle Paul McCartney and members of the Walton family who made their billions with Wal-Mart. About halfway down the Center for Philanthropy's list of heavy hitters is a listing for Wayne Heyman-Hanks and a notation of his $1.1 million donation to the Hartselle Fire Department.
There's one problem, however. It appears the "donation" was a hoax, a complicated ruse that has left city officials scratching their heads as to why Hanks, who said he is from Pinson and now works as a movie producer in California, would make such an offer.
Hanks contacted Hartselle in March, offering to donate three fire trucks – worth about $1.1 million – and some $30,000 for new firefighting turnout gear. At the time, Hanks said the only requirement was for the city to hire three additional firefighters, no small feat for a cash-strapped city. The city signed the agreement with Hanks.
Hanks said he was making the donation because of his admiration for volunteer fire departments and wanted to use the money he earned as a moviemaker and CEO of Light Force Productions to help under-funded and under-equipped fire departments. He said he grew up in Jefferson and Blount counties and his parents and relatives still reside in the area.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime golden opportunity," Hartselle Fire Chief Steve Shelton said at the time of the donation.
The story unravels
The first indication that Hank's "once-in-a-lifetime" offer wasn't real came as city officials prepared the budget for the coming year. Shelton said the three additional fire fighters would cost the city some $108,000 a year and the other equipment would have to be ordered, too.
Shelton said Hanks agreed to set up a meeting in Auburn to discuss the donation. Hanks cancelled the meeting, Shelton said, reportedly because he was ill. Shelton said he was unable to get any additional details from Hanks.
"We would set dates and he (Hanks) told me things were going to happen and they never did," Shelton said. "He always had to change or cancel for various reasons."
The city was supposed to receive the equipment money in June. The check never came.
"That's when we realized if he couldn't afford $31,000, he couldn't afford the rest, either," Mayor Dwight Tankersley said.
Tankersley said because the problems were caught before any equipment was ordered, the city isn't out any money and won't pursue legal options against Hanks.
"All we're out is the cost of some long-distance phone calls," he said.
The city is planning to purchase the equipment but has no plans to buy new trucks. "That's not something we have to have," Tankersley said. "But we could have used them at a third fire station."
In the agreement, Hanks said the equipment would come from California-based equipment manufacturer American LaFrance. Officials there said they were contacted by Hanks, but have ended any talks with him.
"As of now, there is no communication (with Hanks) and no agreement," American LaFrance sales manager Jon Holmes said. "There is no deal. We've taken ourselves out it."
Hartselle is not alone
In the last year, Heyman-Hanks has made similar offers for fire fighting equipment to departments in Athens, Anniston, Auburn, Boaz, Jacksonville, Scottsboro, Florence and Dothan.
In Athens, he pledged to donate two engines this year, another next year and to foot the bill for the construction of a third fire station in 2007. In Scottsboro, he offered to pay for an aerial truck and a new fire engine. He made the same offer in Jacksonville.
Similar offers were made in other cities, with Hanks pledging more than a million in most cases with promises to help in the future.
As of yet, no one has received any money from Hanks.
Athens Fire Chief Cliff Christopher said he was told about an Auburn meeting, too, but was told the meeting was cancelled because of Hurricane Dennis. He said he also understood Hanks had split with his business partner.
"If this (the donation) isn't true, he (Hanks) has really mislead a bunch of people," Christopher said.
Who is Hanks?
The identity of Heyman-Hanks remains in question.
In various published reports, he has described himself as a producer with Nebula Filmworks; owner of Lightforce Productions LLC of Hollywood; and a principal in Capacity Crowd Pictures LLC, with whom he recently completed work on a picture he said was titled "Soldiers of Rome."
According to its web site, Nebula Filmworks is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. There are several California-based companies using the word "Lightforce" in their name, the largest and most well-known being the Lightforce Entertainment founded and operated by former Lorimar movie executive Merv Adelson. Heyman-Hanks is not listed as being employed by the company.
There is no telephone or internet listing for Capacity Crowd Pictures or information about a film titled "Soldiers of Rome." Hanks' other claims of working with Broadway productions such as "Cats," "Steel Magnolias" and "Driving Miss Daisy" couldn't be verified.
Efforts to reach Hanks were unsuccessful.
Shelton said the last time he talked to Hanks, he told him he wouldn't be calling again and would wait until he (Hanks) made the next move.
"We've moved on," Shelton said.
Still, Shelton is baffled as to why someone would make such an offer and not follow through.
"It really bothers me that anyone – especially after 9-11, that someone would say he was going to do something like this and not do it. After all that firefighters and police went through and then for someone to mess with us," he said. "It has hurt my guys and effected their morale."