Is Stan Van Etten a new man or just a cad with nine lives?
Down there, 50 feet below the spring's surface, at the back of a 100-foot-long cave, lay the keyhole, a 15-foot passage to an underground river that had never seen light of day. Something fierce, more dangerous than darkness, dwelled there. The river's current, swirling swiftly past the aperture, had sucked a dozen divers through it, drowning them in its depths.
Everybody who grew up in Panama City, Fla., knew the danger. A sign beside the spring spelled it out, warning them to stay away. But 16-year-old Stan Van Etten and his friend wanted to see the huge catfish and eels that lurked in the back of the cave. Donning scuba gear, they went down.
Though he knew it could happen, when the current snatched Van Etten, he was as helpless as a goldfish flushed down a drain. In a second, he was 100 feet deep. The pressure, with no time to equalize, split his eardrums. Banging and scraping along the limestone, he clawed for a hand hold, his only thought - his only hope - was to wrench himself around and climb back to that receding circle of light before it disappeared.
When he finally broke the surface, blood was streaming from his ears. For a week, he was stone deaf. Later, doctors told him he'd never hear 40% of the decibel level of the human voice. But for all he had lost, he knew he had gained more: He had learned he was a survivor.
Though the circumstances have never been quite so dire, Van Etten, now 35, has repeated the feat again and again, surviving a series of events that would have sucked most people under for good. Each time, whether from his mother killing herself with his hunting rifle or a tangle of investigations, bankruptcies and lawsuits, Stan Van Etten has surfaced again, resurrecting and, in turn, recreating himself.
By the time he was 30, he had made more than a million dollars selling penny stocks. A hotshot broker for F.N. Wolf & Co., he excelled at its high-pressure sales, which drew the attention of state and federal regulators. The company and its top executives were barred from the securities business and, along with Van Etten, wound up in court. But he was the hero, he claims, the whistle blower who exposed Wolf's wrongs. "I have morally cleansed my soul," he says, "by working to get investors' money back."
His next incarnation was as an investment banker, a career path that kept carrying him back to court - an investor won a judgment when he didn't repay $175,000 he borrowed for a failed deal; a law firm sued him for not paying its fees; a Raleigh restaurant he was hired to save ended up going under. Again and again, Stan Van Etten surfaced, survived.
Now he's a savvy, button-down CEO out to clean up the sullied image of multilevel marketing, a Triangle philanthropist who donated $125,000 to Meredith College. Not everybody's buying it. "I don't think he's trustworthy," says a lawyer who has negotiated with him. "But he's trying real hard to promote the notion that his problems are in the past."
His 2-year-old International Heritage Inc. sells gold jewelry, collectibles such as Hummel porcelain figures, golf gear - high-quality stuff, he takes pains to point out, not the "lotions, potions and pills" sold by Amway and others in the industry. It's not what he sells that has drawn state regulators' attention. It's how. They suspect his Raleigh company is little more than an elaborate pyramid scheme. It has 135,000 salespeople who make money not just by peddling products but by recruiting new reps.
The attorney general's office began its investigation in March. A month later, regulators told the company to change the way it did business or face being barred from North Carolina. More than 200 sales reps and consumers had complained - "an unusually large number," one official says. By the end of September, the number would reach 584. The particulars of the complaints vary, but all share a central conviction: International Heritage misled them.
Former sales rep Kerry Kisslinger, of Larned, Kan., claims International Heritage field reps led him to believe he'd be able to sell Waterford crystal, Lladro porcelain and products of other well-known companies. In fact, he could only earn them as sales prizes. The company's marketing material makes that distinction clear, Van Etten counters. "As far as him feeling misled, it would be a rep in the field who did it." It's hard to police them...