The Road to Ruin

updated 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/28/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN HER HUSBAND, RON, DIED AFTER a car crash three years ago, Sally Beadle was left heartbroken, frightened and with insufficient money to care for her three small children—because Ron, 28, had canceled his life insurance. "I had always been dependent on him," says the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, homemaker. "When he was killed, I didn't know what to do."

But when Sally's lawyers told her that the disastrous decision to drop the insurance was based on bad advice from Charles Givens, 52, the high-rolling financial planner and author of the million-plus best-seller Wealth Without Risk, she hauled Givens into court. A jury found that Givens had lied about his money making credentials and was unqualified to give; financial advice; it also held Givens responsible for the Beadles' plight. Last month, after paying an undisclosed settlement to Sally Beadle, Givens declined all invitations from PEOPLE to defend himself. But Sally, 31, has no qualms about speaking out. "When you become a member of the Givens Organization and start altering your insurance coverage," she warns, "you're playing Russian roulette."

The Beadles were just another young couple striving to achieve the American dream. But with children Emily, 5, Sarah, 3, and Curtis, 1, and mortgage payments on a new house, the Beadles had trouble stretching Ron's $33,000 annual income as a machine operator at a grain company.

Then Givens, self-styled Prophet of Profit, entered their lives. In July 1989, Sally saw the flashy multimillionaire promoting his financial planning organization on TV and was impressed: "His rags-to-riches stories capture you and you think, 'If he can do it, why can't we?' "

Two weeks later, Sally and Ron attended a free seminar conducted by Givens son, Charles J. Givens III, 26. "He said that by joining the organization, anyone could be worth over a million dollars," says Sally. "I kept turning to Ron and saying, 'Honey, this is so neat.' "

The excited pair plunked down $399 and received Givens' Financial Library audio and video tapes and a 500-page manual. Following their advice, the Beadles canceled their uninsured motorist insurance ("a complete waste of money," Givens claimed, because it duplicated hospital and life insurance benefits) as well as their universal life insurance ("a rip-off"). Jeff Valentine, the Beadles' insurance agent, was dumbfounded when Ron stormed into his office and canceled his uninsured motorist coverage, hut his efforts to talk him out of it failed.

Ron also let his universal life insurance lapse and was still shopping around for term life coverage when, while driving home from work, his car was struck head-on by another vehicle that had swerved over the yellow line.

When Sally realized that the $2,000 monthly Social Security benefits and the $55,000 life insurance payout from Ron's employer would not go far, she asked her lawyers to pursue a claim against the insurance company of the other driver, who had also died in the collision. But Charles Thurston. 73, had no insurance—and Ron, of course, had no coverage against uninsured drivers. When Sally explained that Ron had followed the advice of Charles Givens, her attorneys scrutinized Givens's Financial Library and concluded that the author had misrepresented the facts and that Sally had a claim against Givens.

What emerged during the March 1993 trial was a portfolio of deception. In a pretrial deposition, Charles Givens III, who conducted the Beadles' seminar, was unsure how to explain universal life insurance or uninsured motorist coverage. He also said he had no financial training and had acquired his knowledge "through osmosis"—by being around his father.

Charles Givens himself fared even worse. During the trial, his tales of making million-dollar fortunes in a Nashville music business, on the stock market and in a Florida yacht club—self-testimonials that had inspired people to buy his success secrets—were exposed as false. Says attorney Brad Brady: "It was like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz."

For Sally, the issue went beyond money. "The more I found out how Givens had lied, the more my lawsuit turned into a crusade," she says. Ultimately the jury found that Givens, his son Charles III, associate Rick Jensen and the Givens Organization had committed 35 instances of fraudulent and negligent misrepresentation. But before the jury could decide a damages award to Sally, the Givens Organization settled out of court.

Givens now faces lawsuits in Texas, Indiana, Connecticut and Illinois. and a task force of securities regulators from several states is also probing his activities. Says New Mexico's securities chief, Nancy Smith: "What he is selling is his past experience, and when people find out that his image is not real, that is a source of potential liability."

Meanwhile, Sally Beadle is moving on. Next month she will marry electrician Ed Scholl, 36, and head for a new home in Florida. Still, her battle with Givens has changed her. "When I realized how naive I'd been," she says, "I became angry. I made a promise to myself that no one is ever going to take advantage of me or my kids again."

CIVIA TAMARKIN in Cedar Rapids

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