By DAVE ELLISON
These days, some might call the piney woods palace near Hawkins a faded yellow rose.
Yet at one time, not all that long ago, it was a rural showplace so brimming with opulence that the possibility of owning it would have caused even J.R. Ewing of Dallas television fame to drool.
Now the magnificent home – centerpiece of the 800-acre Yellow Rose Ranch – sits for sale, vacant, lonesome and desolate off County Road 3600, about three miles north of downtown Hawkins. Though still stunning inside and out, its previously immaculate condition and landscaping is somewhat less manicured than during its halcyon days of a few years ago. Back then, the ranch’s multimillionaire owner took great pleasure in awing the guests who attended his lavish get-togethers, replete with gourmet meals, trolley tours, and the opportunities to tan on a private white sand beach or wet a hook on numerous fish-filled reservoirs.
Ruel Morton, who purchased the spectacular property in late 2005 definitely knew how to entertain, how to impress. And he seldom missed a chance to inform anyone in listening distance how they, too, could become rich.
But that was before the self-described supersalesman became mired in a scandal of international magnitude, a financial fiasco that Kentucky’s attorney general called “one of the most prolific pyramid schemes operating in North America.”
By 2010, after the 40+-year-old Morton (through Anover, his Longview-based operating company) had sunk more than $12 million into the ranch and improvements, his days of wine and yellow roses began screeching to a halt. That was when the Federal Trade Commission launched its investigation of Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing of Louisville, Ky. for fraudulent business practices. Morton was one of a few top performers at FHTM, earning about $1.2 million annually and considered part of the leadership team. Comparatively, about 95 percent of FHTM’s representatives made less than $3,100 in 2009, the company eventually admitted. Of those in that sizeable group, 29 percent made zero dollars.
FHTM’s independent representatives, more than 104,000 in 2009, incurred a $99-$299 annual fee and were paid just a minute commission on related products they sold or personally purchased – typically nutritional supplements, beauty aids, and cable and telecom services. If representatives made any meaningful money it was through bonuses for recruiting others (building a team) and residual commissions based on the performance of the additional recruits and then their recruits and so on.
Morton further supplemented his substantial income by hosting upscale, three-day motivational seminars at the Yellow Rose, where thousands of FHTM representatives or prospective disciples (up to about 70 week) each paid $395 to “choose to be a king rather than settle for being the subject of someone else’s kingdom,” preached the charismatic pitchman. Of course, Morton also collected impressive profits from FHTM bonuses earned when he signed on seminar guests as new representatives and when his rousing spiels helped later to boost the sales/recruiting performance of attendees.
Despite all the hoopla and superlatives and promises doled out by Morton and FHTM, there was a problem. A mammoth problem called the federal government. According to the Federal Trade Commission, FHTM was nothing more than an illegal pyramid scheme, an enterprise that focused mostly on recruiting new participants rather than selling products. An FTC official estimated that Fortune’s reprehensible sales tactics rewarded the firm with a jaw-dropping $30 million per month.
After a lengthy investigation involving the FTC and several states, FHTM was shut down by court order. In mid-May 2014, the FTC announced that a settlement had been reached. Although admitting no guilt, the company agreed to permanently cease operations and “surrender assets totaling at least $7.75 million, which will be returned to consumers.” No FHTM officials went to prison.
Almost three years earlier, in November 2011, the office of Texas Attorney General (now Governor) Gregg Abbott negotiated a settlement whereby FHTM agreed to repay claimants in the state about $1.3 million, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state for its legal expenses.
Financially crippled by the ongoing troubles of FHTM as well by ranch operating expenses and the loss of a lawsuit involving employee overtime pay, Morton reacted the best way he knew how: declaring himself a “missionary evangelist,” he started another multilevel for-profit marketing company – this one linked to the needs of starving children.
Called Hidden Hunger Global (HHG), the enterprise operated similarly to FHTM and other pyramid-style endeavors (many of which are legitimate and function legally). “Members” buy HHG products – micronutrients, mosquito nets and water purification devices – then those products reportedly are distributed by a third party at no cost to needy children and others, usually residents of developing countries.
Required to pay an annual fee of $39.95, members also have the opportunity, explained the organization, to capitalize on its “generous compensation plan,” through commissions and bonuses earned on sales by the member and other individuals the member recruited. (Editor’s note: Better Business Bureaus in Longview, Tyler, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston list no complaints about HHG. Nor do the BBBs know of any government actions involving the marketplace conduct of the company.)
Not surprisingly given its focus on needy children, HHG proved particularly attractive to leaders and supporters of religious-based organizations. “It wasn’t long before he [Morton] had busloads of those folks coming to the ranch to be entertained and hear all about Hidden Hunger – how it worked, all the good it was doing and the chance to make some personal bucks out of it,” said a former high-placed employee of Morton, who added that Morton still owes him more than $13,000 in back wages. “And I’m not the only one he burned, many others lost a lot more money,” said the man, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Early in Hidden Hunger’s life, a Houston man named Duncan Dodds entered the organization’s inner circle. Prominent in the religious community, he served for almost 10 years as executive director and chief of staff for Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen Ministries. He later was a partner at one of the nation’s largest executive coaching and leadership companies. Coming aboard, too, was Jeffery Audas, called a “great connector” by Dodds. Previously, as co-founder of a group that helps boost church membership, Audas had forged an abundance of strong religious connections.
For whatever the reasons – money woes, personality conflicts, managerial differences, perhaps a bit of each – the triad’s relationship did not blossom, becoming “considerably less than amicable,” said one insider. In 2014, Morton left the Hidden Hunger organization; he currently is living in Florida. After Morton’s departure, Dodds became HHG’s CEO and Audas its executive vice president. The company now operates from headquarters in Euless, Texas; a spokesman declined to disclose membership numbers but said “we’re growing.”
Also in 2014, Morton sold Yellow Rose Ranch, something he had been attempting to do since at least May of the year before, at which time it listed for $10 million. Details of the sale are unavailable, but several individuals close to the transaction indicated it did not command the asking price. Reportedly purchased as an investment, the ranch sold to Global Vision Properties LLC, whose president and director is Duncan Dodds – the same person who took over at Hidden Hunger.
In late December 2014, Global Vision deeded ownership of the property to YR Ranch LLC, an entity affiliated with the Daystar television network. According to its website, Daystar is the second largest Christian television network in America. It was founded in 1997 by well-known televangelist Marcus Lamb.
Now on the market again, Yellow Rose Ranch could be a spectacular sanctuary for someone who values privacy, thrives in a rural environment, enjoys entertaining and has the money to live like royalty. In this case, living like royalty starts with the price of the ranch: $6.5 million (550+ acres) plus another one-half million for the 200+ acres across the street. And then, of course, there are the property taxes: about $50,000 per year (for all the acreage). Furnishings, staffing and maintenance costs are certain to be astronomical. Morton once told an employee that electricity just to pump water into the lake during hot, dry periods set him back $5,000 per month. There were times, too, when Morton had up to 35 people working at the ranch. Obviously, it’s not cheap to be a king.
Undeniably, though, access to that kind of money buys a lot of extravagance. In fact, the entire Yellow Rose estate reeks of luxury. The two-story, 4,593-square-foot mansion, built in 1994, is equipped with just about every amenity available. A sampling of indulgences include: numerous wood-burning fireplaces highlighted by a floor-to-ceiling brick version in the family room; vaulted ceilings; a huge, appliance-abundant kitchen Gordon Ramsay might covet; extensive wood trim and winding staircase; spacious deck with gazebo; resort-style swimming pool with attached spa; nine waterfalls in pool area; 4-car garage; two lakes, with bass weighing 12 pounds or more; 10 ponds; covered boat house with boat slips; fishing pier; deluxe guest house that sleeps up to 20 people; gun range; myriad security cameras; metal barn; guard house; 8-foot game fence; lush landscaping and countless massive trees.
One other special feature is a man-made 8-foot-tall, 100-foot deep bat cave that, depending on who one believes, was created for mosquito control or just for observers to marvel at when the winged mammals exit their habitat for their nocturnal adventures.
Yet another atypical aspect of the ranch is the grave. Located about 200 yards from the house and near the peach orchard, it supposedly is the final resting place of Ruel Morton’s father, who died in 2007. “I know for a fact that a coffin was buried there, and I know for a fact that Ruel said his father’s remains were inside,” revealed a former employee.
This Yellow Rose of Texas, it seems, has had its share of skeletons.