The sentencing of former Des Moines radio staple Marty Tirrell two weeks ago barely made a blip on the radar for most of us. But for central Iowa investors who were swindled out of nearly $1.5 million by the man who nicknamed himself the “Mouth of the Midwest,” that news mattered a little more.
The 41 months Tirrell is supposed to serve in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release, is a bit of justice for them — but it isn’t going to repay them what they lost. And in Chris Shipley’s case, his family lost a lot more than money.
Chris, a contributor here on the Tailgate Society, just recorded an amazing podcast with Tirrell’s former radio co-host Ken Miller. Chris and Ken talked about their unlikely friendship and their histories with Tirrell, whose scams deeply affected both men in different ways. If you have time, give it a listen.
If you don’t, here’s Chris’ story.
Melvin Shipley was running a small, successful company called Computer Liquidators, selling new and used computers with the help of his son, Chris. It was the mid 90s, when Gateway Computers and their cow-inspired boxes were seemingly in every household in America. Stores like CompUSA were popular, as were small stores selling used and new computers.
Another local business was also gaining tremendous popularity, and that was a sports station in Des Moines called the Jock, KXLQ 1490 AM. It featured up and coming media staples like John Miller, the sports version of Steve Deuce, and a show called “Marty and Miller.” Miller was Ken Miller. Marty was appointment radio — you wouldn’t know what he would say next, and you didn’t want to miss it. He had connections to Boston, including having Bob Ryan from the Boston Globe on frequently. Bob Ryan would become well known as a tremendous sportswriter, but also on shows like “Around the Horn” on ESPN. Marty was a loud mouth, playing up the Mancow vibes. Pure shock jock radio.
Chris, like a lot of young men, was into sports. The Jock was great for sports fans in the Des Moines market. Sports talk radio was really in its infancy at the time, and the Jock had the right people in the right places for what should have been long-term success. This is a common theme with Marty — it should have been successful, but somehow it wasn’t really. Still, Chris heard that the Jock was looking for sponsors, and he brought it up to his dad. His dad, as a businessman, figured this could be a great way to expand his business.
(For an in depth story and timeline on Marty, check out Mark Emmert’s great work with the Des Moines Register) https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/sports/2019/04/26/timeline-radio-sports-talk-pioneer-marty-tirrell-des-moines-iowa-scam-1460-kxno-fraud-bank-scheme/3575075002/
At first it seemed great. Marty was incredibly charismatic. Melvin was your typical go-getter. They started advertising on the “Marty and Miller” show, and Marty would eventually come out and do the show live from Computer Liquidators. Chris was slightly star struck when Marty came out. He could command a room. Unfortunately, the live remote and advertising didn’t really seem to be paying off. This was the first sign that things might not be what they had hoped. Still, whenever Marty would stop by to pick up the check, he’d sit and chew the fat with Melvin for hours. During these meetings, he would drop hints about sponsoring coverage of “the Jockaroony,” as Marty called the station, at the gigantic Tyson/Holyfield match. The fight was set for June 28, 1997.
In February, after several meetings and Marty’s gentle persuasion, Melvin decided to go for it. Marty floated the idea that they would fly out for three days of live remotes in Vegas, go to the press conference, see the fight and stay in a great hotel and, of course, a flight to the and from the fight itself. It was a $4,000 investment in great advertising for the company, but also a once in a lifetime chance with his son and friends. With every investment comes certain risk, but who could say no to that?
Marty would also plant another seed, this one involving the Super Bowl. Buying tickets at discounted prices and selling them for profit. (This isn’t out of the ordinary, there are even people who actually do this for conference tournaments, even the Missouri Valley). Once again, Marty promised the moon — flights, tickets, parties, hotels, etc. This time the cost was $18,000. The payoff was promised to be $60,000 to $75,000.
June came around, and it was time for the fight. Everyone flew out together. When they landed, the hotel was….not as promised. Decent? Yes. On the strip? No. Marty, of course, had an excuse and said it was a last minute mixup and he had to scramble. Also, when they got to a casino, Marty could NOT walk past a slot machine without gambling. He would disappear for long stretches.
The live remotes never happened, but Marty would always have an excuse. They assumed all the advertising that was promised was being played back at home in Des Moines. Back in the 90s there was no way to check in on it. The internet was still in the AOL days. No smart phones. No streaming.
The night of the fight, they were supposed to meet at 6 PM at the MGM Grand. They would do the live remote, get their tickets and go to the flight. Everyone gathers at 6 PM. That is, everyone but Marty. And Marty won’t answer his phone. Melvin’s anger goes from six to midnight, reasonably so. He knew what was happening. They walked around for three hours and couldn’t find him. Eventually Mike Tyson got hungry and Evander Holyfield’s ear was on the menu. All hell breaks loose. Pretty much around the sports world and definitely in Vegas.
Melvin and everyone else took an early flight the next day because Melvin was going to kill Marty if he saw him. Only Chris stayed behind to take their scheduled flight and see if Marty would show up. Marty strolls in like nothing was wrong, and Chris confronted him. He delivered his dad’s message and his anger. Marty claimed he was trying to call them all night. Chris called him out on his BS and told him, “when you get a phone call from my dad, you better answer.”
Melvin called. Marty never answered.
When Melvin returned home, he wanted to make sure that nobody else fell for this scheme. Taking a man’s pride and money will conjure up certain feelings. But no lawyers would touch the case against Marty. WHO-TV Channel 13 News did a story on Melvin. Tom Witosky, a veteran investigative reporter for the Des Moines Register, told Melvin, “You aren’t the only one this has happened to.” Marty had screwed over Okoboji Bar & Grill, a very popular and successful chain of restaurants in Central Iowa. The article was exposed Marty for what he truly was but the audience wasn’t big enough. The true audience was listening to the radio, where Marty publicly called Chris and Melvin names. Eventually the haranguing got so severe, Chris’s wife ended up weeping. Chris went to the radio station and confronted Marty, saying he’d beat the snot out of him if he ever mentioned his name again.
Finally a lawyer took the case. They settled out of court for measly $10,000 because they feared Marty didn’t have enough assets to go after. The lawyer took $3,500. His father lost more than $22,000 to Marty and got $6,500 out of it. A loss of $15,500. To a small business owner, that’s a death sentence. That $22,000 could have been spent on growing the flourishing business.
The business would survive, barely, for a few more years until 2003. It was a struggle to make ends meet, and it was just Chris and Melvin keeping it alive. They were lucky to bring in $7,000 a month, and rent alone was $1,500. Melvin sold his house for $190,000 and moved into a trailer. That house would be worth $400,000 now. It was the type of house you retire in and watch your grandchildren grow up from.
Everything that happened to Melvin ate him alive. It ate him alive that nobody listened to him about Marty, and that other lives and businesses and families were ruined because of him. He felt like a failure, but the only person who ever thought he failed was himself.
“I and my sisters were proud of him, proud of what he accomplished and who he was,” Chris says. “His dream was always to be rich and successful, and in my eyes he was exactly all the way to the end.”
After his business closed, Melvin would do odd jobs like working as a security guard, but after a relative committed suicide he just couldn’t do it anymore. He quit and lived off Social Security. Melvin ended up passing away of a stroke nineteen days before Chris’ marriage to his second wife.
Melvin Shipley was once living the American dream. He was running a successful business with his son. He was providing jobs and income to employees he loved like family. He had a forever home he could eventually retire and grow old in. He had it all. But he lived out his final days nearly broke and feeling broken in a trailer park because of Marty Tirrell.
Chris has worked through many feelings about this chapter of his family’s life. “I don’t wish Marty ill, but I do want him to serve time for what he did,” he says. “I can’t let this consume me for more than 5 minutes, anymore — it’s just not worth it. I take no pleasure in any of it. I just want the story to be told.”
“Forgiveness is the hardest thing to give away and the last thing on your mind. It always goes to those who you don’t think deserve it, and it’s probably the opposite of how you feel,” Chris says. “However, when you forgive someone one, it will clear the bitterness away, and the prisoner that it really sets free is yourself.”