'I was outsmarted': Ex-auto dealer Denny Hecker speaks after serving sentence

After spending more than seven years in federal custody for committing bankruptcy and wire fraud, former Minnesota car dealer Denny Hecker is a free man.

The 66-year-old was released earlier this month. In an exclusive interview, Fox 9’s Randy Meier sat down with Hecker to discuss the decisions that led to his imprisonment and what he learned while serving his sentence. 

Randy Meier: Denny, a decade ago, [you had] luxury homes, planes, fancy cars, boats, Rolexes, a family, really more money than most people could imagine. A man who was seemingly on top of the world...is it safe to say that federal prison is humbling?

Denny Hecker: Oh, it’s really humbling. It really gives you perspective to look at life different. I don’t think anyone watching today appreciates the value of freedom until it’s taken away.

That freedom ended for Denny Hecker in 2011. The auto mogul, bigger than life in social circles and ads, was sent to federal prison for bank and bankruptcy fraud. It was the end of a lavish lifestyle for the man with humble beginnings as a 19-year-old used car salesman from north Minneapolis, who would eventually employ hundreds.

RM: When the auto empire collapsed - the mistakes, the breaking of the law - left a lot of people in the lurch. Good people, employees of yours - and you had a lot of employees - a lot of people blamed your ego and your greed.  Is that fair? And what would you say to them?

DH: It’s funny about the people. I’ve been friended by or people have contacted me - several previous employees wished me well. 'What are you going to do? Can we come be with you?' So, there’s a lot of people out there that know the real Denny. The situation that happened, happened. I did admit guilt to one count of fraud, bankruptcy and bank fraud. It’s a lesson I’ve learned. But at the end of the day, going forward has some good highlights.

The “lowlights” for Hecker came to a head in 2008: a faltering economy, a more than $700 million loan called in by Chrysler Corp, the loss of other credit lines. Dealerships were shuttered and Hecker’s multi-million dollar a month income was drying up. Hecker was $800 million in debt and filing for bankruptcy.

RM: You’re a smart guy. The most common question asked of me over the last decade by people that knew you was: How can a man who was on top of the world, be so dumb?

DH: I got trapped in a deal where I was outsmarted. The circumstances of the deal were more difficult than I was. So, I wouldn’t say so dumb. Bad choices. A lot of good choices, but bad choices, bad decisions and not having any break with the economy didn’t help at all.

RM: Was it a house of cards at times?

DH: House of cards? Never. House of cards in 2008, late 2007. I was in over my head. I had no good way to figure out how to keep it going until I got it sold. So years of work and often people say this lavish lifestyle - for years I made lots of money, Randy, and I gave lots of money away.  So if anybody feels that this one decision caused a lot of pain and suffering for a lot of people, my kids, my family, me? It’s just stuff. 

RM: I want to go back 15 years or so. You were a pitchman for your dealerships. We saw you on television, radio, buses, billboards. You were everywhere. You were an iconic business figure in this state. Now you’re Denny Hecker, an ex-con. Does any of that previous life appeal to you? Do you aspire to any of that?

DH: Do I miss the limelight? No. I mean when I’m out and frequently people come up and say, “Welcome back, nice to see you, can we call you, what can we do?” 

RM: Does that surprise you?  

DH: No it doesn’t. I was at the Basilica Block Party the other night and I had more people - I felt like I was at the bus stop. The people I was with came by and I said, “Get me off this corner, I need a new corner.” So it’s fun. But in the world I come from, Randy, you know that I was involved in the community - so for all the people watching, when you think about making a decision, make a rational decision and think of the consequences. Because at the time, I didn’t. 

RM: Was it an ego? 

DH: At the time it was ego, it was not knowing what to do. Feeling overwhelmed and when you’ve never failed at anything, it’s pretty hard. So it was not the right choice, the circumstances weren’t good, but I’ll live to serve another day and things are pretty good.

Part two of the sit-down interview airs on Monday night on Fox 9.