"When I spoke to you at 2:30pm today, you stated that you were on your way to the bank to wire out all of those proceeds and that you would call me by 3:30 pm to give me a status report. I have heard nothing from you, and you have not returned my calls to you. On Monday you will be contacted by Jeb Blankert, our Eastern Operations Counsel. If we have not received all of the outstanding proceeds by noon eastern time on Monday, Jeb will commence proceedings against you with the appropriate authorities. You may reach me over the weekend.... I truly hope that you will rectify this situation and prevent Horton from having to take these actions. I will do whatever I can to help."
—E-mail from Kenneth Bagwell, an attorney for homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc., to Chapel Hill attorney John McCormick at 6:13 p.m. on Friday, July 7, 2006. McCormick owed the company $802,000 from six property closings. It subsequently emerged that about $1.1 million in clients' and friends' money was missing, plus a claim from McCormick's siblings that he hadn't paid more than $800,000 in taxes from their parents' estate. McCormick disappeared the following Monday and hasn't been seen since.
There's no shortage of wild rumors concerning where exactly John McCormick is and what happened to the money: He accrued debt cladding beautiful women decades his junior with expensive accoutrements; he became involved in drugs through his low-rent properties; he has a particularly painful order of pancreatic cancer and fled to relieve the burden on friends and family. The most concrete possibility comes from family friends who say they think they spotted him in Spain. Or, he just had an innate character flaw, a pathological need to take the money.
Those who know McCormick are decidedly tight-lipped, doubtless out of respect for him and the wife and three children he left behind, but one gets the sense that perhaps he left as many red faces as wounded souls. No one wants to see a loved one driven to desperation; it's more complicated when your money goes away with them, when grieving must make way for financial prudence, and when, for example, an estranged wife must take the uncomfortably rational step of filing for involuntary bankruptcy only days after the father of her children disappears.
Perhaps most candid about the secrets is Eric Tate, son of George Tate, the Chapel Hill real estate baron for whom McCormick was an attorney, client and friend. The younger Tate also knew McCormick well, is privy to the kind of talk that spawns colorful myths, and in his way—with a smile that brings his tongue up to the corner of his mouth, flicking a graying mustache as if to verify that it's still there—neither confirms nor denies them. While he repeats his cryptic mantra that McCormick "wasn't a deceptive man, he just got caught up in some things," he can't in good conscience, he says, tell me exactly what this means.
No matter; where McCormick is and why he fled is a compelling story. But what's more important is how it got to this—how a kind and hard-working man, a man by all accounts incapable of malice, was allowed to get himself into such trouble, to infect so many others along the way.
And perhaps most crucial about the story of John G. McCormick, lawyer, husband, father, friend, and attorney for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, is that it was entirely preventable. The Independent has discovered that McCormick was involved in shady dealings as early as 1993 that caught state regulators' attention; one particular case in 1995 cost Tate his real estate license and compelled the state Real Estate Commission to ask the N.C. State Bar to investigate McCormick. But the Bar did virtually nothing.
Jackson Allison walks slowly and when he stops to sit down, it's an unceremonious affair; he doesn't alight so much as he collapses into a chair in a huff of motion, hoping rather than knowing he'll hit it square enough to stay put. It's a sad state for a man who would be enjoying the twilight of a life spent working hard at a furniture store, cleaning inventory to support his family. But for Jackson, aging has been less than graceful; his mind and body have been ravaged by a series of strokes and heart attacks that have left him lucid occasionally but often distant and removed, relegated to alternately watching daytime television and going to his three weekly dialysis appointments.
In his living room, his eyes fix on an old piano pushed up against a wall. "You play?" he asks. "I bang around a little, hymns and stuff, but I'm not all that good." Then, unsolicited, "I used to spray furniture."
Jackson and his wife, Dorothy, belong to a generation of black families from Efland, in rural Orange County, who watched their community change around them and tried to adapt. They both grew up in the area that, before the widening of I-85, was something of an enclave of antebellum gentility. Dorothy and Jackson were in the servile class, but they were respected, and they have an old-time Southern warmth about them—hospitable, trusting and kind, raised in a time and place where integrity and hard work were rewarded with a pleasant life and just enough comforts. Jackson's father was still sharecropping for a white landowner into the 1950s, an arrangement notorious for exploitation and often indistinguishable from outright slavery, its immediate predecessor. But he loved his job and never complained of mistreatment; when Jackson announced he would spurn farming for factory work, his father said he was "giving up the best job in the world."
In high school, Dorothy was a house servant for the Eflands, the white family from which the community took its name. The Eflands treated her well; she left them reluctantly after finishing school to work in the Alamance County Hospital's cafeteria. In time, she and Jackson were able to save $5,000 for a small house just across the railroad tracks from where she'd lived and worked her whole life. It was in this house that their first child was born in 1954.
In short, life was pleasant, the Allisons got along fine and had no qualms respecting implicit white dominance. Business with whites was a personal matter, always cordial. They had a loan for their first house, and Dorothy would go down to Burlington and walk right into the office when payments came due; if there was a problem, she'd talk congenially with the officer until the issue had been worked out. Same for all her other bills.
But just as Efland began to change with the influx of eager Realtors riding the lifeline of a widened I-85 into an Eden of naive homeowners, business changed to accommodate it. Dorothy was accustomed to dealing with "people, not computers" and struggled to adjust. But not until John McCormick and George Tate entered their lives did they began to lose the struggle.
George Tate was an old-fashioned real estate baron; he'd sharpened his teeth in the early days of North Carolina land dealings when it was still a mill area. Back then, a man could get ahead by talking smooth and winking at regulations, and the business wasn't sophisticated enough for anyone to do anything about it. When things began to change, Tate for the most part didn't.
The first sign was RTP opening in the 1950s and the new guard of tech workers who began migrating to the Triangle and looking for housing; the development of the UNC medical system in 1952 and its expansion in the late '60s; and finally, the demise of tobacco and textile mills in the '80s. All this marked the ushering out of the tobacco era, and the re-establishment of the Triangle, this time as a tech destination. Real estate, accordingly, was becoming a sophisticated, more diligently regulated venture. Tate, however, had always run the business from his head. He kept records, but not very good ones, and when he didn't adjust the way he operated, he stopped getting away with it. Now, state regulators were paying attention to him. He found himself in hot water and began getting in trouble with inspectors, creditors and the IRS. By the '90s, he began operating solely in cash and had stopped using bank accounts altogether, because every time he opened one, the IRS would garnish it.
Tate was running scared and running out of options. You could see it in the way he was operating—he showed up late to a closing in 1992 carrying a foul-smelling sack of cash and claiming it was $27,000, then tried to confuse a secretary charged with counting it by switching bills between piles.
But Tate would always have two things going for him: He was well connected in the black community that he championed loyally, and he always had an impressive Rolodex of suits who would vouch for him. He was one of the early African Americans to get a general contractor's license, ditto for a real estate license, and through his early success he had crystallized himself as a presence in the community. Because of what he would do for others, he could usually count on someone pulling rank to get him out of the hot water and onto dry land. When Tate came under scrutiny from the N.C. Real Estate Commission, state Sen. Howard Lee—beloved as the first black mayor of a predominantly white municipality in America when elected Chapel Hill's mayor in 1965—sent a letter attesting to Tate's character.
John McCormick was by no means a malicious man. He was kind and quiet; he would become a loyal friend to Tate and to those who were close to him. He may have had it in him to ultimately take money from friends and family, but he didn't have it in him to demand repayment from those who owed him. When George Tate died in debt to his friend, McCormick told Tate's son Eric not to worry about it, to take as long as he needed to settle all other debts first. He even helped find Eric work. Eric would come to regard McCormick as a dear friend and even confidante, and soon found himself as close to McCormick as his father had been, talking to him on a weekly basis and turning to him for help on personal as well as professional matters. When Eric was going through his divorce, when he found himself more than $1 million in debt to another Realtor, it was McCormick who "always had time," who "always seemed to have answers." When Eric's mother needed to borrow money after his father's death, it was McCormick they called first. "She needed $10,000. He didn't ask any questions, he just wrote a check."
McCormick was "a hell of a nice guy," he was "a very real white man. There was nothing shady about him. He was a family man." And, Tate insists, "there was never any fake component about him; he would always deal with you from a real perspective.... What you met with John, that's what he was."
But Eric began to notice a change in McCormick. It was around the time McCormick opened up a second office in Raleigh that he started to withdraw a little, it seemed like maybe it was "too much for him, because he was trying to spread himself between here and there," and "sometimes you wouldn't see John for a couple weeks at a time."
Eric noticed McCormick getting a little sloppy, making careless mistakes with the handling of his father's estate, failing to file papers, neglecting to go to an important hearing, delegating tasks that perhaps he should have done himself. "But he'd done so much for me that I never got mad at him."
Still, when Eric met with McCormick a few days before he fled, Eric had no idea how desperate McCormick had become, he "never saw any signs of him doing anything to hurt anyone or that he was going to bail out. He didn't seem stressed at all." Tate did, however, notice that McCormick didn't seem well, that perhaps the rumors about cancer were true. "John was sick when he left here, so I'm not sure if John's OK or not. I hope that he is, I pray that he is ... I miss John, I really do."
In McCormick, Eric's father had found a kind man and an easy friend, as well as a mind keen to the new-school nuances of real estate regulation. "John was very bright," Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools Superintendent Neal Pederson would later say. "He had a lot of institutional memory, so he was a great resource for what had occurred in the district." In McCormick, Tate would find an able partner.
Tate's financial ills weren't so much of a liability for McCormick, who would prove to be something of a Merlin in the manipulation of money, adept at the sort of now you see it, now you don't wizardry that often proves too laborious for investigators to unravel. And Tate was by no means a charity case for McCormick; their relationship was based on something he otherwise would have had trouble getting: access to a steady supply of black clients. Early in 1997, Tate and McCormick took their road show to Efland, which had become an investment hot spot overnight when I-85 was widened from the I-40 junction up through Burlington, and the town went from rural outpost to accessible suburban refuge for RTP-types. Together, Tate and McCormick championed their own brand of morality, skirting the fine print to get houses to people who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford them.
Tate would no doubt become an influential presence in McCormick's life. Like McCormick, Tate was full of conviction, ambitious and well-intentioned, and had lived, learned and worked in the area his whole life. Both were invested in their communities—Tate as a self-styled champion of the region's black populace, McCormick as a longtime school board lawyer. And both would drive themselves to the same tragic irony, hurting worst of all the very people they aimed to help.
Together they complemented each other though, and Tate's old-fashioned ethics, his relentless conviction to empower his community, was a compelling thing to behold. McCormick allowed himself to be swept away, and began working with Tate not just as his lawyer but as his friend and partner. Tate could get people's assets in front of McCormick, and for better or worse, McCormick knew how to play the system. He knew how to fake a down payment, how to get people loans for as much and sometimes more than the value of the house they wanted to buy, how to fool loan officers to get homebuyers cash.
But when you take out a second mortgage and borrow 20 or 30 percent against the value of your house, throw in some credit card debt and maybe a few judgments against you, all of sudden you're liable for half-again the value of your house, which may or may not be appreciating. You've got what amounts to negative equity, and by the time you realized what hit you, McCormick and Tate have moved on down the line.
It's a clever con that's not altogether extraordinary to real estate regulators but is nonetheless difficult to prove and therefore almost impossible to punish. So within a few years, McCormick and Tate had been reduced from civic-minded businessmen to what regulators would later regard as little more than sophisticated con artists.
Still, the most a regulator can do is take a Realtor's license, which in Tate's case is precisely what the N.C. Real Estate Commission did. But Tate had McCormick, and the Real Estate Commission has no jurisdiction over lawyers. So long as McCormick stayed under the radar with the State Bar, Tate's troubles with regulators would be a minor inconvenience.
Growing up, George Tate lived in Efland, right across the tracks, in fact, from his first cousin, Jackson Allison. But despite their proximity, the two boys had vastly different upbringings. Allison's community watched closely over its young, kept them from crossing the tracks and punished them when they did. On the one occasion Allison snuck across to shoot marbles with some boys from the other side, his mother crept up behind him and landed three healthy swats with a wooden switch before he'd scrambled to his feet and taken off toward his house. Right alongside him ran his mother, swatting him all the way home.
The rules on the Allison family's side were strict and seldom evaded, and all the adults looked after the young like their own. Young Jackson learned to be honest, caring and reverent.
Across the tracks, Tate and his friends had another experience entirely, Allison recalls. They went wherever they wanted, roaming and wreaking havoc. As far as he could tell, breaking the rules on the other side wasn't met with any signifiant punishment; parents seemed less involved in their children's lives and altogether uninterested in any sense of community.
In this environment, individuality is learned by necessity—while Allison was being imbued with a sense of collective welfare, respect and contentment, Tate was learning autonomy as virtue, authority as unworthy of attention, and that breaking the rules was often a necessity, and thereby justifiable.
A young man weaned in these conditions blanches at paternalism, which Efland had in no small order. It was largely black in population but it was named after white people and served overwhelmingly by white-owned businesses. Getting by meant getting along, doing all the little things black people did to curtsy to whites, but appeasement was never in Tate's nature. He developed a discomfort with white paternalism and an allegiance to the black community, perhaps in that order. When, in 2002, Tate received the honor of having a day named after him by Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, he said from the podium: "Thank you all, but you know, these taxes are killing me . . . you all do something about these taxes, and I'll come down here and give you all an award."
When Tate was growing up, the black communities in Efland and particularly Chapel Hill were, though still beholden to whites, certaintly vibrant. He saw before anyone else how technology and modernization would begin to tamper with that, how RTP and a widened I-85 brought new residents into Efland and put pressure on the blacks who had lived there for generations. How when the textile mills closed down and jobs went overseas, blacks—who had only recently been allowed to enter the textile work force—were hit hardest. He saw how after the war, when the UNC medical center was built and the university expanded, whites began to move into Chapel Hill and blacks holding down staff jobs couldn't keep up with the rising real estate prices. He saw the community leaking away as black families who had been there for generations made way for whites coming for four-year forays into higher education.
Tate decided to dedicate himself to reversing the trend, or at least to stop the bleeding—to preserve what he could of Chapel Hill's black community. He wouldn't care about how he was remembered, wasted little energy on anything like legacy, sought no recognition. Instead he put his head down and began buying real estate and building houses.
Tate was a visionary. He divined the tides of change in Chapel Hill before the first black family was forced out, devised a strategy to provide affordable housing before the term was even invented. He built "starter houses," bare-bones floor plans that could be easily augmented with additions once the occupants were able to afford them. In this way, blacks could live in Chapel Hill without resigning themselves to permanently humble accommodations. Tate became a prominent businessman in part through guile, but largely through sheer determination; by the mid-'90s he had amassed 150 parcels, holding until death more than 50.
Often, Tate parlayed his land and property into black start-up businesses for favorable deals. Many of Chapel Hill's black entrepreneurs owe him a debt of gratitude: Mildred Council of Mama Dip's restaurant, Ray Butler of Butler's Garage, Arthur Brown of Brown's Auto and Collision, the list goes on. If Tate couldn't stop the influx of whites, at least he could make sure they had to patronize black-owned businesses, a satisfying symmetry to his early life in Efland.
Tate made himself an example of what a black man could accomplish, a self-appointed benefactor for an era that had already begun to fade and make way for the next. Even with the promise of social progress the '60s and '70s held for blacks, from Tate's perspective, all modernization was doing was damning the black community. It seems fitting then that until the day he died, Tate never had a computer in his office; in working so diligently to brake the changing tide, he never adapted to it.
Tate's was an uphill battle, and for all the black familes that attribute their home, their business, their success to Tate, Tate himself died a poor man, leaving debt to his heirs and his family unstable. Nine days after his death in 2003, his younger brother shot and killed a man outside the very office Tate opened nearly 50 years before.
It's ironic, given Tate's rigid allegiance, how Tate and McCormick would end up crippling the Allisons, just the kind of old-guard family Tate had sought to empower. For the Allisons, Tate became the depersonalized cast of modernization, visiting upon them the very detriment he was trying so desperately to combat.
The Allisons were already having trouble keeping up with the changing face of commerce in the region; Pacific Life had bought out their loan company, and the customer support people started calling from all over the country. Dorothy felt disempowered, she could no longer look the loan officer in the eye. It became impersonal and alien to her, and on the day she got her first call from a customer service agent in India who wouldn't give her his last name, Dorothy just about lost it. "Listen," she mustered, "if your boss won't let you give me your last name so we know who you are when you call us, but you know my name, you know all of it, you know where I live, you know my telephone, you know my address, and you know me—but I need to know you. Well, you tell your boss that if you can't give me your last name, don't call me no more."
In the midst of this period of change, Dorothy saw a sign for Tate Realty outside a house she wanted to buy, walked into George Tate's office, and told him she was interested. She was just two years from retirement, she'd supported her three kids into adulthood, and it was time she and Jackson were a little more comfortable. She brought with her the deed to a small rental property they owned, their principal source of income, to prove her credit. Dorothy made an appointment to come back with her husband the next day and left the deed with Tate. "I trust people," Dorothy says, "because your word is all you have."
When they came back the next day, Tate wasn't there. When they called, he wasn't available. They started coming back, calling, talking to coworkers, but Tate was never there, had always just stepped out, was on the phone, couldn't be reached. The Allisons began to worry about the deed. They retained a lawyer, but the lawyer had no luck reaching Tate, either. When they went to his office, they were told they couldn't get the deed back without Tate.
The next sign that something was amiss came when Dorothy went to make a payment on a home improvement loan they had taken out to fix up the rental house. "It's already been paid off," she was told. Dorothy was puzzled.
Then they got a call from their tenant, asking if they'd sent someone over to do some work at the rental house, because someone was there making all sorts of noise. Dorothy had not. They heard from him again: He had been kicked out and the locks on the door had been changed.
Then the Allisons went to close on the new house they wanted to buy, and John McCormick gave them a check for $2,800. Dorothy was confused. Why would they get money when they were buying a house? She wouldn't realize until days later that the reason they had received money was because when they went to sign the closing statements to buy their new home, they'd been fooled into signing away their rental house. McCormick had taken the deed from Tate, transferred the title to himself, and sent in a new tenant. The $2,800 was the Allisons' cut.
It's not altogether surprising that the Allisons fell for this. A deed is based on language drawn from 600 years of English common law; it's not necessarily intuitive for the lay person to discern, especially when a family of humble means and modest education sits across the table from a seasoned lawyer. Without the aid of an attorney, Dorothy didn't know what to do but sign. "I didn't have anybody to talk to about it."
What transpired so severely crippled the Allisons that they reported Tate to the N.C. Real Estate Commission and tried to sue McCormick, even though, as an investigator would later put it, "I can find many facts and circumstances that support the fact that the Allisons knew what was going on all the time."
Whether the con was performed to or for the Allisons can't be said conclusively because the investigation ended when McCormick convinced Tate to give up his license, and it never went to hearing. But there is no question how much the Allisons have suffered as a result.
When they realized they'd just lost their primary source of income, the Allisons tried to hire lawyers. They talked to seven or eight, but nobody wanted to touch the case. An attorney in Hillsborough briefly agreed to take it on, only to change his mind after meeting McCormick. "He came back and he told us he couldn't help us. No explanation. He went to talk to McCormick and came back and said he couldn't help." Jackson rubs two fists together. "They was in cahoots," he mutters to himself.
It wouldn't get any better for the Allisons. They couldn't get anybody to take the case, and finally a judge told them if they were serious about suing, they ought to go outside Orange County to get a lawyer. Jackson editorializes quietly: "They all work together. They didn't wanna work against each other."
The Allisons eventually found a lawyer who was willing to take their case and submitted a formal complaint about McCormick to the N.C. State Bar. The N.C. Real Estate Commission also opened an investigation of Tate and found enough evidence of McCormick's wrongdoing that they subpoened him and told Tate he ought to find other representation. When McCormick realized he was going to have to testify, he convinced Tate to surrender his license, and the case died without McCormick ever testifying; there was nothing else the Real Estate Commission could do. They forwarded the case to the State Bar, offering to help with the investigation. The Bar never took them up on the offer. (See "State Bar on the hot seat," page 20.)
Where McCormick got in trouble—and the Bar finally took notice—is when his swindling shifted from the small and politically silent to more influential folks with the means to retaliate. Whether, in the months before his disappearance, trying to scam a national corporation was hubris or an uncharacteristic spasm of desperation, McCormick had been in a different league since George Tate passed away in 2003 and McCormick no longer had an ambassador to the black community. The Allisons were a quiet family of humble means; D.R. Horton is a national corporation serving 77 markets in 26 states. A man of McCormick's intellectual capacity is unlikely to have believed Horton wouldn't notice, so when he started dipping his hand into Horton's cookie jar, he was probably already planning his escape, or at least aware that desperate measures would soon become the only kind of measures available.
If the people who knew McCormick well are few, those willing to comment on him are fewer still. It's now clear that in his capacity as the school Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board's lawyer, McCormick was a receding presence. Very few of the administrators knew him in any substantial capacity, and while he showed up at the meetings every two weeks, he maintained a low profile, sitting quietly to the side, speaking only when questions were asked of him. McCormick was slowly removing himself, beginning to pass off school board tasks to another lawyer in his firm.
The changes in McCormick were not superficial; they were subtle, nothing that would arouse suspicion. "I wouldn't have seen any signals that he was over his head," says school Superintendent Neal Pedersen. "Frequently, when I called the office and asked for John, the answer was he was 'in the Raleigh office today,' which I think is the office that handled non-school business, so there was certainly an indication that he was less accessible to the school."
After McCormick disappeared, the school board went back and checked their coffers. Not that they had any reason to suspect McCormick had stolen from them; indeed, he didn't even have access to their accounts. But then, the board had hired McCormick almost 30 years ago, and his two-year contracts were always renewed without much discussion. As McCormick weaned himself away from school board duties, there was less and less contact with him, certainly little knowledge about his personal life. No one really knew what to expect when he vanished.
In the last few years before his disappearance, McCormick maintained a private life few knew about. To Eric Tate, it wasn't that McCormick was necessarily a deceptive person; he was just an outwardly gracious man who held his secrets close to the vest and perhaps had a few more than most. As close as he felt to McCormick, Eric admits that he didn't know his family, met his wife only once. McCormick seemed to be keeping his worlds separate.
To the Chapel Hill Police, McCormick was more of a visible figure; he cut a different form there than he did at the school board, further testament to the dichotomy that was eroding a schism in his life. "A lot of us knew Mr. McCormick, he's been in town so long," says Lt. R. Carden. Carden describes an unremarkable but amicable man with whom the police department worked well, whether it be McCormick offering legal advice to officers going through divorces or the police department helping McCormick with evictions. Carden describes a man who was "always to me a real nice person, very gentleman acting."
McCormick and Carden first became well acquainted about five ago on a fraud case. McCormick had a problem with a tenant in one of his rental properties who tried to pay rent with a counterfeit check. Carden tried to help McCormick, but they were never able to confront the man about the problem. Before they could, the man "skipped out on him, kind of disappeared."
A decade after their run-in with McCormick, the Allisons are still struggling. Dorothy was two years from retirement, but without the income from the rental property, she had to take up a second job, then a third. They'd never had a credit card before, but after Tate and McCormick, she got one, then a second to offset the debt; now she has three. Always diligent to avoid outstanding debt, the Allisons now have one mortage stacked on another. Jackson tried to keep up and contribute, but the stress was too much, and his body relented.
Dorothy has tried to declare bankruptcy but has been turned away. "They told me I have too many assets and they won't even let me do that. And they said people going bankrupt is because they're being lazy. But I wasn't lazy, it gone done to me ... I need to preserve what I do have. And I told my husband, If Donald Trump can go bankrupt and he's a rich man, I'm poor—why can't I go bankrupt and keep what I got?"
A few months ago, the Allisons' car was stolen, and Dorothy couldn't summon the energy to do anything about it. She just let it be. "I'm more tired now than ever."
As for McCormick, the fact that he convinced Tate to fall on the grenade by giving up his license without contest so McCormick could avoid taking the stand was apparently insufficient to incriminate him in the eyes of the State Bar. When the Allisons filed their grievance with the Bar, their plight didn't seem to generate any interest at all. They didn't hear back, even after sending follow-up letters.
Finally, two years after submitting their complaint, the Allisons received what would be their only compensation—a letter from a paralegal. "I apologize for the confusion, however, for some reason the State Bar is listed in the computer as the complainant," it said, though this is actually standard practice. "That would explain why I could not find the case without a file number and why you apparently did not receive notification of the case.... The case was ultimately reviewed by the chair of the grievance Committee and was dismissed on September 29, 1998."
Two years after filing a complaint, the Allisons had nothing to show but a paragraph on State Bar letterhead. They have received no compensation, and due to the State Bar's confidentiality rules, which prohibit disclosure of investigations as well as all but the most severe reprimands, no one would know about how McCormick effectively stole a house from an old couple of humble means. McCormick would be able to continue operating the way he did for another nine years, collecting more unsuspecting victims, all of whom easily could have been forewarned.
John G. McCormick, 58, left the back door of his Chapel Hill office around 11:30 a.m. on July 10, 2006, and got into his family's Subaru. He drove down the driveway, alongside the room in which a lawyer for Horton was waiting for him. He turned right onto Martin Luther King Boulevard and headed north.
Martin Luther King Boulevard is a wide-lane thoroughfare with all the accoutrements of commerce along both sides; clear signage and new traffic lights that typify a well-organized and well-funded modern municipality. After McCormick crossed I-40, he effectively initiated his withdrawal from the world he'd made for himself there. When he turned right onto Whitfield Road, he would suddenly be on a winding country lane that dips and weaves through Duke Forest, brushes against upscale subdivisions along with abandoned properties pocked with dilapidated houses, places that modernization missed.
As McCormick passed the New Hope Fire Department on his left and began looking for a place to ditch, his partner, Chris Willet, would have been apologizing to Thomas Holt—a lawyer for D.R. Horton who had come to get an explanation for missing funds—explaining that he didn't know how to account for McCormick's strange behavior. Just as McCormick was likely getting out of his car—appraising his options, confronting and ultimately overcoming any second thoughts—Holt was leaving McCormick's office, calling into Horton, deciding they had no option but to report McCormick to the authorities.
The next anyone heard of McCormick was when an Orange County sheriff's deputy was on patrol around 1 in the morning and came across the abandoned Subaru parked by an entrance to Duke Forest. A man matching McCormick's description had been seen hitchhiking nearby hours earlier.
This story is based on interviews with attorneys involved in the cases mentioned and some who were not, participants in the story, news reports, the staff of the N.C. Real Estate Commission, and staff of the N.C. State Bar.
It is also based on documents in the files of the N.C. Real Estate Commission, the N.C. State Bar and Wake County Superior Court. Of particular value were the letters, depositions, interviews, investigative summaries, IRS reports, financial statements, court documents and other papers in the Real Estate Commission files in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Jackson H. Allison vs. George Tate Jr., and the State Bar's files in the case of N.C. State Bar v. John G. McCormick after McCormick's disappearance.
State Bar on the hot seat
The N.C. State Bar disbarred John G. McCormick in March. By then, it was too late.
Nearly 10 years earlier, the N.C. Real Estate Commission had informed the Bar about the questionable way McCormick had handled the case of Jackson and Dorothy Allison. Blackwell Brogden, the commission's chief deputy legal counsel, wrote the Bar on May 16, 1997: "It is our believe that such conduct violates both state and federal law.... Like many things in this case, the persons involved have made conflicting and inconsistent statements regarding this money....
"Rather than launch directly into this morass, I invite whoever is assigned to this case to meet with the Commission staff, including our investigators, to discuss this matter in the depth it requires to establish the concern I have expressed...."
The Bar acknowledged receipt of the complaint 13 days later. And as far as anyone at the Real Estate Commission knew, that was the end of it. There was no request for documents, a discussion with investigators, anything.
More than two years later, after not hearing a word from the Bar, the Allisons asked what had happened. The Bar responded on Oct. 21, 1999, that Douglas Brocker, one of their attorneys, had investigated the case. The letter said they had contacted McCormick at the time, he responded, and the case "was ultimately reviewed by the Chair of the Grievance Committee and was dismissed on September 29, 1998."
No one would know about the concern regarding McCormick's actions in 1997, and he would continue to practice until he disappeared last summer. He's now been charged by the State Bureau of Investigation with embezzling $802,000, and there's a federal warrant for his arrest.
The Bar is a state agency, but officials declined to discuss the case in any detail citing broad confidentiality rules that have been adopted through the courts, not legislation.
Katherine Jean, a lawyer who works for the State Bar, says the confidentiality rules are "necessary because there's nothing to prevent an allegation of wrongdoing that's not in fact supported by any evidence." In other words, anyone can file an unfounded claim against a lawyer, and there's no reason everyone has to know about it. What that means for a potential client, however, is that they have no way of knowing if their attorney has been accused of professional misconduct. The Bar effectively errs on the side of the lawyer, even though, as Jean herself says, the Bar's charge is to "protect the public."