Dixon officials were warned months ago that Carissa Carpenter could not deliver on her proposed $2.8 billion movie studio, but they forged ahead with enthusiastic support for the now-troubled project, according to interviews and documents obtained by The Bee.
City employees who vetted Carpenter and her proposal warned City Manager Jim Lindley and Mayor Jack Batchelor Jr. that Carpenter's history should be assessed, with one former official cautioning that the project "is not legitimate."
"There is no money there, and it will not come to fruition," Michael Guss, the city's former economic development and grants manager, wrote in a March 10 email directed to Batchelor.
"This scheme – and that is what this is – works because it plays into people's dreams and makes it hard for those with legitimate questions to speak up without fear of reprisals or other negative information," Guss wrote. He added that he resigned (in January) because he believed he would be fired if he raised questions about Carpenter.
He also indicated that Dixon was at risk by continuing to support the project.
"If statements made in the press were used to solicit investment in a project that the City had reason to know or should've known was not legitimate, it's a potentially catastrophic development," wrote Guss.
Guss' warning and other documents related to Carpenter and her Morning View LLC were released to The Bee in response to requests under the California Public Records Act. Guss, who has moved out of state, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Carpenter and her Sacramento attorney, Robert W. Naylor, did not respond Tuesday to interview requests.
Guss was not the only one telling Dixon officials to be cautious.
Mark Heckey, the city's economic development director until last year, said he researched Carpenter on the Internet and contacted an official in Vallejo, where her previous studio proposal had failed in 2011. His conclusion, he said, was that Dixon needed to "be careful, be cautious."
"All I can say is, I came across information that indicated there wasn't a strong track record on her part," he said. "There just seemed to be a pattern of nonperformance."
Heckey's position was eliminated in June 2012, not long after Carpenter began courting Dixon with her latest studio dream – her seventh such proposal in 16 years.
Her promises in Dixon caught the attention of a Utah attorney, who also attempted to contact city officials about his concerns. Salt Lake City area lawyer Jake Hinkins won a $448,000 default court judgment against Carpenter after his client invested in one of her proposals in 2006.
He said he sent Batchelor a copy of the court judgment months ago after seeing media reports about Carpenter's discussions with the city.
The response from Dixon?
"Nothing," Hinkins said.
Batchelor said he does not recall receiving such correspondence.
City officials said at a June 11 council meeting that the project is on hold until Carpenter comes up with funding for the land and a $100,000 deposit she promised Dixon.
A week earlier, however, Lindley continued to express strong support for Carpenter and her project, encouraging Carpenter to press forward even after a Bee investigation revealed her extensive history of financial difficulties.
Carpenter, a 50-year-old former Sacramento area resident, has been hit since 1990 with more than $1.4 million in court-ordered judgments and a lawsuit settlement. The debts stem from bounced rent checks, breached contracts and unpaid medical bills.
In a May email to The Bee, she denied failing "to pay any debt justly owed." She blamed the numerous court actions against her – including two felony criminal cases – on identity theft and on a catastrophic series of health problems that allegedly befell her or her family members.
Carpenter began touting her series of movie studio projects in 1997 in Northern California, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors but never resulting in a shovel of earth being turned.
Instead, some investors say they feel duped and have abandoned hopes of ever seeing their money or any return on their investment.
"She had a deal that's going to be able to triple your money," said Ryan Willden, a Utah dentist who invested with Carpenter for a project she was promoting in San Joaquin County in 2006.
Instead, Willden said, he was left with a series of promises and eventually filed suit, winning a $448,000 judgment against Carpenter and one of her companies in 2011.
By then, Willden said, he could not locate Carpenter and has yet to be paid.
The Utah judgment is one of at least 27 judgments lodged against her in courts for nonpayment of debts.
But that did little to sway the most ardent supporters of the studio project in Dixon.
Emails obtained by The Bee from a source show a flurry of communications between Carpenter, her "Morning View team" and Lindley, the city manager who used his personal Gmail account to offer her advice and encouragement after The Bee's findings were published last month.
Dixon officials say they cannot release those emails because Lindley "regularly deletes his personal emails as his normal practice."
However, emails obtained through a source highlight the close attention Lindley and other project supporters were paying to Carpenter's proposed project.
After The Bee investigation was published June 2, Lindley sent an email at 8:50 a.m. on his Gmail account advising Carpenter and her team that "it would be a mistake to overreact" to the newspaper story.
"Our focus should be on the positives of the project instead of the negatives of your personal life," Lindley wrote. "It's good strategy to counter negatives with positives while refocusing the public on the project and away from you."
Other members of her team also weighed in with advice, and hours later Lindley again emailed Carpenter, telling her that "we need to focus on the project."
"We can worry about Carissa's image later, because it is sure to come up again at some point," he wrote.
Carpenter replied about 20 minutes later in an email using all upper-case letters. The email exchange had several spelling and grammatical errors.
"I AGREE JIM ITS JUST HURTFUL LIES THAT MAKE ME LOOK BAD," she wrote. Lindley replied with a message urging her to "invoke the 'no whining' rule and buck up."
"Do what a leader does and stop the pity party, keep you eye on the ball, and finish this thing; that's where the victory lies, not in getting back at a superficial press report."
Carpenter replied, indicating that she agreed.
"NO FEAR, JIM, STRONGER THAN EVER !!!" she wrote. "ITS NOT DONE FOR ME YET WE HAVE TO OPEN THEASE DOORS SEE THE KIDS WE TRAIN FROM HIGH SCHOOL GROW TO OLD WORKMAN AT THE STUDIO.
"WE WILL LEAVE OUR MARK ON DIXON AND THE WORLD AND ONE DAY FAR FAR FROM NOW !!"
On June 3, Lindley notified Carpenter that he had declined an invitation to discuss her on "Insight," a Capital Public Radio interview program, and urged her to deliver the $100,000 deposit she had been promising Dixon since January to cover future work by the city for the project.
"Time to step up," he wrote.
Carpenter has said she cannot deposit the $100,000 until she closes the purchase of the 548 acres needed for the studio.
That same day, Carpenter advised Lindley and her team that she had retained a new adviser on public relations and branding.
Later in the afternoon, however, Carpenter introduced a new crisis, writing that her daughter, who is married to a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne and lives on base at Fort Bragg, N.C., was attacked.
"THEY WALKED UP TO HER HOME AND BEAT THE HELL OUT OF HER !!!!! WITH HER KIDS IN THE HOME," she wrote.
A day later, Carpenter advised her team that her daughter was hospitalized and "not doing well" and she might need to travel to take care of her twin grandchildren.
Lindley weighed in with an email: "I've been searching the Internet for an hour – I can't find any news story about this," he wrote.
An Army spokeswoman told The Bee that no such assault had been reported.
The next day, June 4, Carpenter was back to business, writing to Lindley and her team that she was moving forward.
While Carpenter refuses to talk with The Bee, she told the Dixon Tribune and Dixon Patch she planned to up her offer for the land from $50,000 an acre to up to $100,000 per acre.
There is no indication she has raised the millions needed to buy the land, or make the $100,000 deposit to the city.
Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091. Follow him on Twitter @stantonsam.