The Rise and Fall of the Hallmark Kid
Dark-suited attorneys clog the antechamber to bankruptcy courtroom 308. Six days after the World Trade Center towers in New York City and the Pentagon in northern Virginia were attacked, a jittery mood permeates the third floor of the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Snippets of conversations about terrorism and imminent war swirl about the huddles of people waiting for Judge Paul Hyman to begin hearings at 9:30 a.m. One young man, however, stands alone, oblivious to the implications of the terrorist attacks -- just as he's seemingly oblivious to the repercussions of his deeds of the past few years.
Ryan Adam Lipner has forgone the traditional garb worn before a federal judge, donning instead a polo shirt, khaki pants, and sneakers, of which the front left sole has separated, giving his foot the appearance of a small alligator preparing to snap. Lipner can't stop bouncing from foot to foot. Snap. Snap. Snap.
Some attorneys present know him or at least remember his previous antics in Hyman's court, where he has insisted on representing himself in his personal bankruptcy case. Lipner calls himself "the Hallmark Kid" with the braggadocio of an outlaw in the Old West. The nickname, however, is just one of the milder affectations stemming from his obsession with the famed greeting card company that has led him to grand theft, bankruptcy, imprisonment, and possibly insanity -- all before his 18th birthday. "You don't fuck with the Hallmark Kid," he's fond of saying.
Lipner's adversaries are clustered nearby in the anteroom: an assistant state attorney, a representative of a company to which Lipner owes money, and a bankruptcy trustee. As exciting as the prospect of standing before Hyman is to Lipner, however, he's more thrilled about his bid for governorship. "Even if I don't win, it's gonna be so much fun, on-stage with Janet Reno and Jeb Bush, having fun and acting like a fucking asshole," he chirps.
Fun and vengeance -- those are the two self-confessed motives behind many of Lipner's transgressions, which include swindling vendors and skipping out on leases. But those pretexts are merely the water out of the well. The aquifer itself is a deep need for control of a Hallmark store (indeed of the Hallmark company itself), a fixation that began while he was still a preteen working at his father's two Hallmark stores in Cooper City and Bradenton. An only child caught in his parents' divorce in 1992 and subsequent messy custody battles, Lipner seems to have grasped the orderliness of Hallmark displays as a life raft.
At 9:40 scores of people shuffle into the courtroom. Lipner is first on the docket because he had earlier filed an emergency motion to change his bankruptcy from a Chapter 7 to a Chapter 13, which means reorganizing debt and making payments to certain creditors. Lipner, however, is hoping to get in the judge's face about a five-page, single-spaced motion he wrote and filed on August 28. In it Lipner claims that the management of Pompano Square Mall seized his card-and-gift shop, changed the store's locks, and stole thousands of dollars' worth of collectibles the day after the teen had filed bankruptcy in June.
Lipner's wishes notwithstanding, Soneet Kapila, the bankruptcy trustee, has quite a different goal this morning. She has brought with her Margaret Carpenter, an assistant state attorney, who plans to inform Hyman that Lipner has been ruled mentally incompetent in Broward County Circuit Court this summer during a criminal case. Kapila wants Lipner's bankruptcy case dismissed based on that finding.
"So you're here to change from Chapter 7 to Chapter 13?" Hyman asks Lipner, who is now bobbing from foot to foot before the judge.
"No, your honor," Lipner replies. "I now want to change to Chapter 11." Hyman, patient with the request despite a bevy of cases on the docket, informs the young man that he needs to file a new motion to do so. But Kapila interjects that such action is moot given that Carpenter is here to inform the court of Lipner's incompetence. Hyman, however, stymies the move, advising Kapila that she must file a motion claiming such before he'll consider dismissing the case.
Witnessing the setback in the opposing camp, Lipner senses weakness and launches into an ad hominem rant about Pompano Square Mall's management. "I'm constantly being harassed by them," he barks. "They've been calling certain teachers at my school, and now they're hassling me." The mall's attorney, Richard Laren, stands nearby, slowly shaking his head, but says nothing. Hyman cuts Lipner off. "You need to file an appropriate motion," Hyman intones, as though instructing a child to clean his room. As for Kapila's request, any question about Lipner's mental capacity will be the subject of a future evidentiary hearing, Hyman concludes.
Despite the ominous implications of that statement, Lipner is jubilant about his prospects as he struts out of the courtroom. After all, he has a gubernatorial campaign to tackle and, as it would turn out that week, an $18 billion lawsuit to file against Hallmark Cards, Inc.
Lipner is a handsome young man with short-cropped dark hair, a ready smile, and constantly gesticulating hands. He looks older than 18, an impression reinforced by his precocious verbal skills. For the most part, he's genial and engaging. He suffers from bipolar disorder, or manic-depression, for which he takes medication. Despite the drugs he speaks with machine-gun delivery, and topics switch with the alacrity of a TV remote control. Think James Joyce meets Woody Allen on amphetamines. As Lipner describes his past, he peppers the anecdotes with a high-pitched chortle and the rhetorical question, "You understand what I'm saying?" -- not that he'd ever give anyone a chance to answer yes or no.
Lipner has an ugly side. Take, for example, an e-mail he sent to an attorney who represented a landlord attempting to evict Lipner from his store lease early this year. It begins: "YOU MEAN TERRIBLE JEW HATER. IM A LITTLE BOY WITH A 22 YR OLD... AND SHE IS PREGANT. YOU ARE A MAJOR ASSHOLE... IM THE FAMOUS HALLMARK KID NO ONE FUCKING TREATS ME LIKE SHIT... I PRAY TO GOD YOU GET CANCER OR SOME HORIBLE VIRUS YOU FUCKING KID HATER."
Lipner laughs about the e-mail. No, he says, there was no pregnant girlfriend. As for the threats and race-baiting, Lipner explains, "I was a kid. I had to use whatever means available to protect myself, you understand?"
During a series of interviews, Lipner willingly speaks of his youth and growing mania for all things Hallmark, but much of the tale could be confirmed only by his mother or father, neither of whom would grant an interview for this story. "It looks like I'm a crazy con artist," Lipner says gleefully in the midst of describing his life. "But this is the truth, and I want it in [the story]. I'm proud of myself; I'm happy with everything I've done."
Ryan Lipner was born in September 1983 in Miami to Linda and Larry Lipner. The couple moved to Pembroke Pines, then divorced in 1992. (Both have subsequently filed for bankruptcy.) The court granted custody of Ryan to his mother, but the two did not get along. Lipner alleges that his mother at times hit him but stopped when he began resisting at about age eight. Larry Lipner bought a Hallmark store in Cooper City and another in Bradenton in 1992; the boy spent time at the stores during visits with his father. He wanted to live with his father, and a struggle over custody ensued. This clash seems to have fueled Lipner's obsession for all things Hallmark.
At one point Lipner spray-painted Ryan's Hallmark on the front of his mother's garage, dragged long tables from the house, and made paper cards to sell. "In my head I was very proud of myself," he says. "I just sat there all day staring at them in my driveway." The breaking point for his mother came when he trashed the house while rearranging it into a Hallmark store. His mother kicked him out, and he moved in with his father.
"Then my dream became real. After school my dad would pick me up, and I'd go to football practice, then I'd go to the store. It became a habit. I started to get obsessed with it." By age ten Lipner was managing Ann's Hallmark, his father's Cooper City store.
In the fall of 1994, when Lipner was 11 years old, he claims Hallmark was pressuring his father to sell the Bradenton and Cooper City stores to settle outstanding debts to the company. The father and son willingly sold the Bradenton outlet and paid Hallmark $150,000, Ryan claims. "[My] dad told [Hallmark] that my therapist said that, if the store was taken away from Ryan, it would mentally destroy him for the rest of his life," he says.
Nevertheless, one would-be buyer came close to buying the Cooper City shop. Rick Wilber owned four Lynn's Hallmark stores in South Florida and was interested in purchasing the Lipners'. In order to set a purchase price for it, Wilber and Hallmark tabulated the store's inventory. Ryan Lipner, however, claims to have tampered with the results of the report, inflating the value from $150,000 to $385,000. "He knew he was being ripped off," Lipner says. "Rick got into a big fight with me and my dad, and then he went away because he didn't want to get ripped off."
Wilber will not elaborate on the deal, saying only, "I just saw too many things I didn't like, and I pulled out."
Asked to explain in depth what the Cooper City store meant to him, the young Lipner responds: "It's not that store -- it's Hallmark stores. It can be anyone's fucking Hallmark store. I have friends with Hallmark stores, and it can be one of theirs. I gotta be looking at their logo. Every time I see a store with a Hallmark logo, I have to smile. When I look at a Hallmark sign, I see me. It makes me feel like I'm God. I feel like I have more power than anybody, than any human life form. Swear to God... more than any judge. I feel like I'm in total control, like I am the one. What I say, goes."
He recalls trying to juggle junior-high football practice with working at the store. "Sometimes I didn't want to show up to practice," he says. "I wanted to go to the store. I don't know why, but I just had to go there. My dad would say, "You're fucking crazy. What's your problem?' Eventually it got so out of control that he just left me alone. He'd pick me up after school, but he wouldn't argue anymore. When I turned 12, if Ryan wanted to do something, it wasn't worth arguing."
Lawrence Webb and Anna DiVietro became acquainted with Larry and Ryan Lipner in the late 1990s, an association Webb and DiVietro came to regret. The Coral Springs couple was in charge of an annual collectibles show in the area and was soliciting donations from businesses that sell brands such as Precious Moments and Vanmark. "That's how we got to know them," DiVietro says. "Ryan's extremely smart in a devious kind of way. He's always plotting something. I remember talking to Larry, saying, "You've got to rein this kid in.' He said, "No, he's having fun.'"
Webb recalls: "We know that, from the time he was four years old, [Ryan has] been in his father's store -- all the time. He's a living store. He wouldn't talk about anything else."
The 16-year-old Lipner took a fancy to DiVietro's daughter, Amanda Gesce, in the fall of 1999, when she was 17 years old. Gesce remembers, "We met at a show one time, and he said, "Maybe we can go out sometime.' I said, "Maybe, whatever.' He stopped by one day with a limo." Another time he stopped by in a Hummer limo and took Gesce and some of her friends to dinner in South Beach. "I thought he was a weirdo, because that one night in the Hummerzine, he must have pulled out 100 hundred-dollar bills," she remembers. Why carry so much? she asked him. "I feel important with it," he replied.
Lipner began his sophomore year in 1999 at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines but claims to have dropped out after three months. "From what I understand, he didn't have that many friends, because he'd walk around and brag about how much money he had," Gesce says. "He used to tell me stories about when he was in Flanagan, how other kids chased him because he had so much money, and he'd talk so much garbage to other people. He told me he didn't have that many friends because other people didn't like him."
"Everybody thought I was psycho," Lipner concurs but brags about dating many girls around that time -- though dating might not be the precise word for it. "I used to take girlfriends and spy on Hallmark stores," he says. "That was a date. I'd take them to dinner and then go Hallmark hunting. That's what I called it. Isn't that sick? One girl came up to me and said, "Hey, you're the cutest, nicest kid in school, but you're so fucking retarded.' Can you imagine a gorgeous girl doing that to you? But it was the truth." For a while Lipner hoped to find a future wife at one of the greeting card conventions he and his father attended, perhaps the daughter of another Hallmark store owner, but he never met a young miss who was as, well, intense as he was about the company.
Lipner's real passion wasn't for girls, however; that was reserved for expanding his father's business. In the fall of 1999, Larry Lipner hired Webb, a builder, to enlarge the Cooper City location into a high-end Hallmark Gold Crown store, funded through a loan by Hallmark. "I got a deposit, met with the Hallmark people, got plans to the building department, and started work," Webb recalls. "Then I found the [Cooper City] building department had serious problems with [Larry Lipner]. The relationship between them was hatred." Webb finessed his way through those problems as well as standing violations by the fire marshal. "Then there was no more money," he says. "I lost money on the deal."
Hallmark had backed out of the loan, according to a court affidavit filed in December 1999 by the corporation on behalf of Bruce Vorsanger, a Florida district sales manager for Hallmark. (Hallmark declined to comment about the Lipners for this story.) In reviewing the application, Vorsanger noticed that the loan amount seemed high in light of the level of sales at Ann's Hallmark. The company's credit department informed Larry Lipner of this fact. Shortly thereafter Ryan Lipner telephoned Vorsanger and identified himself as his father. Later in the conversation, he admitted his true identity. "I explained to Ryan that I had no business purpose in speaking with him, and that any dialogue concerning Hallmark matters would be conducted solely with his father," the affidavit records Vorsanger saying. "Ryan then stated, "Shut up and listen to me. I am going to kill you, and when you're dead I'll still be running the business.'"
Lipner doesn't deny the threat. "Hallmark backed out of the loan after we'd committed to the lease for an extra 3000 square feet next door, after I'd ordered $200,000 worth of product. That's when I went crazy." The teen has a more detailed and vivid recollection of his fulmination, as follows: "Sir, you have probably now destroyed my business. I'm going to kill you. I'm going to find you and fucking kill you. I'll bring your ass all the way up to the Hallmark headquarters, and I'm going to bury you there. And when I die, they'll bury me there too. So for until the end of eternity, you and I are going to Hell together. I'll drive you nuts and haunt you for the rest of eternity."
The exchange was the death knell for Ann's Hallmark: The company withdrew its support, leaving the store a half-remodeled mess.
Hallmark was founded in 1910 and is now the largest maker of greeting cards in America. Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, the company also manufactures gift wrap, stationery, party goods, photo albums, calendars, ornaments, and collectibles. The firm spends more than $100 million a year promoting its products and for that reason goes to great lengths to protect its trademark name. It is especially cautious about handing out licenses for Gold Crown stores, its top-of-the-line outlets, so that no two stores are in close proximity.
So it was with some alarm that Vorsanger received calls from authorized Hallmark dealers in Miami-Dade County in November 1999 complaining that a new Gold Crown shop had opened at the 163rd Street Mall in North Miami Beach. Christmas season, the most profitable for card purveyors, was nigh, and the dealers didn't want to lose sales to an illicit merchant. Vorsanger knew that no new dealer had been approved for that area. He telephoned the mall and was connected to the purported Gold Crown store. "Ryan's Hallmark," a clerk chirped into the phone.
Soon David Spurgeon, a retail representative for Hallmark, visited the store. According to Spurgeon's court affidavit, the store's sign read "Ryan's Cards and Gifts," but Hallmark Gold Crown decals were attached to the shop's windows. He found Gold Crown displays throughout the store. And behind the store's register was a picture of Ryan Lipner under a Gold Crown badge and a sign reading "Ryan's Hallmark." Upon further investigation Spurgeon and Vorsanger discovered that the store's lease had seemingly been signed by Lawrence Webb, the would-be builder at Ann's Hallmark.
Vorsanger had not forgotten the threats that Ryan Lipner had made a month earlier about Ann's Hallmark, and he immediately suspected the merchandise had been routed through the father's store. With that in mind, Vorsanger and other Hallmark representatives met with Larry Lipner to review the state of business at Ann's Hallmark. The elder Lipner said sales had dropped 70 percent that fall because of the stalled remodeling project. When Vorsanger turned the subject to Ryan's Cards and Gifts, Lipner said he knew his son was operating the shop but had no involvement with it. Vorsanger then showed him a tally of Christmas sales orders from October for Ann's Hallmark, pointing out that the order was nearly double what was called for. Lipner confirmed that his store had no need for so much merchandise. So is it possible Ryan took these items to his own store? Vorsanger asked. Lipner said, "Yes, it looks that way," according to court documents.
Vorsanger then met with Lawrence Webb and asked him to remove all Hallmark signs from Ryan's Cards and Gifts. It was only then that Webb learned Ryan Lipner had forged Webb's name on the lease agreement with 163rd Street Mall. "I was very upset," Webb says now. "[Ryan Lipner] told me, "What could I do? I wanted the lease. I wanted that store, and I was only 16.'"
Ryan Lipner told Hallmark he'd remove the signs within 24 hours but did not do so. Hallmark filed suit against him on December 21, 1999, along with an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order. The case, in which a guardian ad litem, Abbe Cohn, was assigned to represent the juvenile, was settled in May 2000. Lipner is permanently barred from using the Hallmark logo, representing himself as a Hallmark dealer, attending any function sponsored by or associated with Hallmark, or contacting any Hallmark employee.
Lipner, however, was not chastened by the Hallmark suit. His zeal for the company was indefatigable. "I love the company, but I hate the people who work there," he dissonantly sums up. Nor had his dream of a greeting card fiefdom dimmed. Although just 16 years old, on April 3, 2000, he filed incorporation papers with the Florida Department of State establishing Ryanone Inc. During the following months, he drained his father's business by using it as a pipeline for stockpiling merchandise for newly leased space in Dadeland Mall in the Kendall area of southwest Miami-Dade County. Larry Lipner's store closed in July 2000; he filed for bankruptcy in December 2000, claiming almost $2 million in debt. Creditors received not one cent when the bankruptcy was discharged in June 2001.
Ryan Lipner had not, however, relied solely on Ann's Hallmark for increasing his stock of cards and collectibles.
Rick Wilber had given little thought to the Lipner kid since the aborted store purchase in 1994. But in the spring of last year, the budding teen mogul came crashing back into Wilber's world. In early April 2000, Wilber received a phone call from several of his suppliers questioning "outlandish" purchase orders from Wilber. One, Enesco, had shipped $40,000 worth of products to an address in Cooper City, a location, the company had been told, near a new Hallmark store Wilber was now building.
Wilber recognized the address as Ann's Hallmark and drove to the Cooper City Police Department to report the fraud. "I was at the police station, and a freight company beeped my pager," Wilber recalls. When he called the delivery company, a voice said, "Rick, I've got 90 cases for you." Wilber's response? "I told him I hadn't ordered anything. I just handed it over to the detective right then."
At the request of Det. Chad Strachan of the Cooper City Police Department, Wilber joined in a sting operation to snare Ryan Lipner during which police recorded telephone conversations between the two. On April 19 Wilber called Lipner's cell phone, from which the fraudulent orders had been made. According to the police report, Lipner admitted ordering the goods, adding that he used Wilber's name because he had excellent credit. With great pleasure Lipner also admitted to ordering $7000 worth of fixtures from Hallmark using the same name. During a call Wilber made the next day, Lipner confessed to ordering about $100,000 of merchandise that he was storing in a warehouse in Pompano Beach. Lipner said he'd pay Wilber for the goods.
On April 20 Wilber met in Pembroke Pines with Lipner, who promised to lead him to the missing products. Instead of heading north, however, Lipner brought Wilber to Dadeland Mall in Kendall, where Lipner had leased shop space but had not yet opened for business. Three detectives followed them into the mall and arrested Lipner, according to the police report. He confessed to the thefts, which totaled $106,461 and an additional $13,440 in shipping costs. Most of the merchandise was unopened and was eventually returned to the vendors, including Tumbleweed, Heartfelt Collection, and Dacra Glass.
Although the crime spree didn't cost Wilber any money, he says it left him feeling violated. "Credibility and reputation are what you live on in the business world," he adds. Lipner was charged with first-degree grand theft and released on $10,000 bail. When he pleaded not guilty in August 2000, both The Herald and the Sun-Sentinel wrote stories on the peculiar banditry of the Hallmark Kid.
The felony charge, however, hardly clipped the boy's wings. Although he was evicted from the 163rd Street Mall in April 2000, he'd also been operating a card shop in the Jacaranda Square strip center in Plantation since January 2000. When he was evicted from Jacaranda in June 2000 for not making lease payments, he opened Jenny's Card Shop in the Sawgrass Mills mall and moved his inventory there. That venue forced him out in late August, and Lipner admits he felt it was time to give his obsession with greeting cards a rest. Thus he opened a General Nutrition Center vitamin store in December at Pembroke Crossing Shopping Center. Within a month of his opening the store, GNC sued Lipner for selling its products without being licensed. The court once again assigned Abbe Cohn as guardian. In January 2001 the suit was settled, and Lipner was permanently restrained from trading in GNC products. (Cohn did not return phone calls requesting an interview.) That Lipner, a minor, had been able to enter so easily into lease agreements is a testament to the effectiveness of the fast-talking, brash persona he has cultivated.
Those involved in Lipner's criminal case, however, believed his personality and actions indicated he was mentally incompetent. On March 23 Broward County Circuit Court Judge Peter Weinstein ordered mental competency tests; if Lipner were found fit, he would be tried as an adult. The teen's attorney, Mark Solomon, weary of the boy's antics, filed to withdraw as counsel, citing as reasons that Lipner's "behavior is out of control" and that the boy "believes that he can and should represent himself." Weinstein denied Solomon's request.
Ever the businessboy, Lipner managed to sign a lease with Pompano Square Mall in the beginning of May, moved his collectibles stock into the store, then promptly filed corporate bankruptcy for Ryanone Inc. on May 9. He cited 100 creditors to whom the company owed $550,000; his assets totaled $1625. A federal court judge dismissed the case days later because Lipner failed to hire an attorney, a requirement for corporate bankruptcy cases. He filed for personal bankruptcy May 15, claiming $350,000 in assets and citing only a single $20,000 debt to one creditor, Pompano Square Mall.
Meanwhile Margaret Carpenter, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the grand-theft case, filed a motion with Weinstein May 14, asking the judge to revoke Lipner's bond because he had opened a Ryan's Hallmark in Sunrise in January 2001. Lipner was arrested May 25, released June 4, but ordered to wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor his location. The peripatetic Lipner then failed to account for his whereabouts during six separate spot checks. On June 15 he returned to jail, where psychologists would finally gauge his mental state.
Lipner is seated before a mound of stir-fried noodles in the spacious dining area of Dubarry Chinese Buffet in Plantation. He's talking like an auctioneer this September evening, spilling his life story. After an hour of recitation, the heap of food is no smaller. The only time he stops is when asked about discrepancies in the two evaluations performed this summer by court-appointed psychologists -- both of whom found him not competent to stand trial. He smiles wryly, flashes a glance at the tape recorder on the table, then motions with his head to turn it off. "I faked it," he confides once the recorder has been stopped. "I don't care if you write what I'm saying, but without the recorder it's my word against yours." Lipner answered the psychologists' questions with a straight face, he says, and tried not to come off as too over-the-top. For example, when asked what season it was, he answered, "July season." When asked to name the Seven Dwarfs, he led off with "Hallmark, Gold Crown...."
Not that Dr. Charles Winick didn't have his suspicions that Lipner was sandbagging. "It is possible that Mr. Lipner's lack of meeting the criteria for competency to proceed in the present evaluation was related to malingering," Winick wrote of the July 7 evaluation. The psychologist's report suggested that Lipner might be suffering from a delusional disorder or a "psychotic disorder not otherwise specified."
One doesn't need to be a shrink, however, to recognize that Lipner's grasp of reality is on occasion tenuous. At times he actually believes he could win the race for governor in Florida. He expresses no regret for ripping off vendors and landlords. "I sleep very well at night," he says calmly. "I never fucked over anybody who hasn't really hurt me. Remember, you're dealing with someone who's not fully mentally stable. When I was five years old, I was already seeing a therapist." And he has an unwavering belief that he will prevail in court by acting as his own attorney -- despite a ninth-grade education, a grade-school writing level, a nasty temper, and a foul mouth. And why would he make a media confession about duping the legal system unless he was compelled, in part anyway, by a narcissistic personality disorder?
Judge Weinstein released Lipner from jail August 2, ordering him to attend high school and receive psychological counseling. Just as he turned 18 years old September 3, he enrolled as a freshman at Piper High School in Sunrise but was expelled shortly thereafter.
Lipner has been aquiver with the possibilities of litigation now that he's an adult. "I know how to play the legal system, bigtime," he crows. "No longer do I need to call my guardian ad litem." That's led him to file a spate of new lawsuits, but none so important to him as an $18 billion suit he filed against Hallmark on September 20, claiming business interference.
The taste of litigation had him salivating. "I want a hundred lawyers on Hallmark's side against little me. Ha!" he shrieked soon after he filed suit. "That's all I care about. Just to know that Hallmark has to think about me and talk about me -- that's great to me. I just wanna be in the action, you know?"
Well, the Hallmark Kid won't be seeing action any time soon. On September 26 Weinstein, alarmed over Lipner's new litigiousness, sent him to Broward County Jail until he could be transferred to a psychiatric hospital for treatment. "Basically the judge said enough is enough," concludes Solomon, the teen's attorney. "They're going to stabilize him to get him competent. I see him as a very sick young man. He deserves to be pitied, not admired. He's not Robin Hood."
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