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FARMINGTON — It was at a 2009 funeral in Farmington for his grandmother that local businessman Bobby Willis pitched Dr. Ronnie Garner of Albuquerque on a plan to build a sprawling veterans hospital development in the Kirtland area.

Portraying himself as a wealthy investor, Willis offered to include Garner in the project and appoint the retired doctor to oversee medical aspects of the development, according to a lawsuit.

Garner, who is distantly related to Willis, soon began transferring his retirement funds to Willis to manage. In all, the retired doctor gave Willis about $2.4 million to invest in various properties linked to the hospital project. Garner also invested his mother's savings.

Garner, now 71 years old, says Willis misled him into turning over the money. Those allegations are in a lawsuit filed March 15 in Albuquerque District Court against Willis, his ex-wife Carrie Willis and business entities linked to the couple alleging misrepresentation, fraud and breach of contract.

The lawsuit alleges Willis purchased a Kirtland property for less than $400,000 and days later resold one-third of the property to Garner for $1.2 million. Garner alleges his money was used as part of a $132,880 payment for an executive suite at the Denver Broncos football stadium.

The lawsuit adds to a mounting list of legal problems for Bobby Willis, the former owner of New Mexico Title Co. in Farmington.


He is charged with embezzlement, racketeering, fraud and securities fraud in a case stemming from $5 million in precious gemstones and jewelry he obtained from another investor, Michael Atchison. Atchison has filed a separate lawsuit against Willis.

Investigators in the criminal case continue to interview witnesses, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien.

Willis resides in Branson, Mo., where he is under court-ordered electronic monitoring and travel restrictions pending a preliminary hearing.

Willis' attorney, John W. Day of Santa Fe, said he had not seen Garner's lawsuit. But, he added: "It's clear these are civil matters and not criminal matters, and we certainly look forward to addressing all of these allegations in civil court."

The New Mexico Financial Institutions Division has spent more than a year investigating the collapse of New Mexico Title Co. The business closed in January 2012 amid customer complaints of missing money.

Willis, at one time, owned the title business, but Day has said Willis sold the company before it collapsed.

New Mexico Title Escrow Co., which shared a Farmington office with the title company, had approximately 900 escrow accounts when it closed.

Court-appointed receiver Darryl W. Millet has identified claims of nearly $2.4 million on New Mexico Title's assets, including a claim of more than $1.8 million from Atchison.

The receiver has gathered $387,877 of New Mexico Title funds that could eventually be paid to claimants. Millet, in a Jan. 31 report, noted the claims substantially exceed the funds available.

The investigation uncovered questionable accounting practices at New Mexico Title, including a $132,880 check for the Broncos suite. Garner alleges $50,000 of his money was used in that payment.

Investigators also found thousands of dollars in cash and checks stuffed in file drawers, and accounts in disarray.

The Financial Institutions Division in January directed the accounting firm conducting the audit, REDW of Albuquerque, to cease work. REDW billed the state $182,358 for the audit.

It is unclear what further action, if any, state authorities may take. A spokesman for the Regulation and Licensing Department said Tuesday he had no additional information.

The veterans hospital project that Willis, according to the lawsuit, used to lure Garner never advanced beyond a series of unsupported assertions by Willis' associates.

Gary Risley, an attorney who at the time represented Willis, told San Juan County commissioners at a March 12, 2010, meeting of Willis' intention to build a "multibillion-dollar" veterans hospital, gated community and retail development that would create 8,000 jobs.

He explained the developers would seek to obtain industrial revenue bonds totaling $6 billion — an unheard-of amount. Risley also said the U.S. Veterans Administration would likely lease portions of the facilities and had earmarked money for the project, according to minutes from the meeting.

The presentation drew excited comments from county officials, but the project seemingly disappeared. No formal planning application for the project was filed.

Veterans Administration officials later said they were not familiar with the project and had no intention to operate a large medical facility in the sparsely populated Four Corners. One VA administrator called the idea "absurd."

Garner, who had been a physician at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque for 31 years, was slow to become disillusioned with the project.

Garner went as far to present the project in 2011 to Jon Barela, the state's secretary of economic development and a member of Gov. Susana Martinez's Cabinet. The administration took no action on the idea after Garner could not produce a business plan or other details.

In response, Garner issued a statement blasting the administration for its lack of support.

As late as November 2011, Garner rejected suggestions the proposal appeared shaky.

"I understand the rumors for this," he told The Daily Times. "There's no basis to it. I've already checked. I can get the funding."

Chuck Slothower can be reached at; 505-564-4638. Follow him on Twitter @DTChuck.