Former Wilmington-area theater owner Finley Powell on April 22 committed suicide at a Kure Beach house owned by his father.
He was 52 and left behind a wife and three children.
The day he died, the Greensboro News & Record published a story that Powell was living a double life.
From 2010-15, he was an economic development official in the Triad, known then by his given name David Powell, and he was awaiting trial on charges of allegedly embezzling more than $200,000 from the Piedmont Triad Partnership he once headed. It’s possible he took much more money from the partnership, but officials have closed the criminal case against him, and the partnership has refused to disclose any financial information about the matter with Carolina Journal.
In 2011, Powell became the point man for the development of the 1,500-acre Greensboro-Randolph Megasite project, an industrial site south of Greensboro in Randolph County designed to attract an automotive plant. Along with PTP, the project involves Randolph County, the City of Greensboro, and the state-owned North Carolina Railroad.
Powell became the CEO of PTP, a 12-county economic development organization, in August 2010. Powell’s salary and benefits in 2013 were $326,000, according to Form 990 federal tax return filing.
According to the N&R, Powell first took money from PTP in October 2011. Initially, he issued checks totaling $128,671 to numerous business entities but deposited the checks in his personal account. In 2013, he allegedly spent $68,000 on landscaping services for his home and $41,000 on a boat with another $110,214 he took from PTP.
Powell resigned from the partnership unexpectedly in January 2015. In April 2015, PTP officials notified the Greensboro Police Department about financial irregularities involving Powell. In January 2016, the Guilford County District Attorney filed charges against Powell for embezzlement totaling $240,000. His court date was postponed multiple times.
The full extent of Powell’s alleged embezzlement isn’t clear. Chief Assistant Guilford County District Attorney Howard Neumann told CJ that with Powell’s death, the criminal case is over. His office won’t disclose a final report. “But PTP officials are free to release information if they chose,” he said.
PTP officials said they will not disclose details of Powell’s alleged embezzlement.
N&R reporter Richard Barron documented Powell’s new life in a story titled, “Lost and found: Former exec David Powell, charged with embezzlement in Greensboro, resurfaces in Wilmington.”
“My fellow reporters and I were heartbroken by his suicide. I think David Powell’s death sent a shockwave through our newsroom like nothing I’ve seen in a long time,” Barron told CJ.
The N&R reported that sometime in 2016, Powell moved in with his parents at their home in Kure Beach, just south of Wilmington. Powell’s life then revolved around The Throne Theater, a downtown nightclub purchased in July by his father, Orville. David Powell used the name Finley Powell and told people he was an Ohio-based events promoter and marketer who had owned a house in Kure Beach for many years. Finley Powell lowered his profile in the Wilmington area after Orville sold The Throne Theater in late 2016.
The Kure Beach Police report states the department was notified at 1:03 p.m. April 22 that Powell was found dead at his parents’ home.
“A half-hour after my story published online at 8:00 p.m. I started getting calls about his death.”
Barron reached Powell’s lawyer, Locke Clifford, who confirmed the suicide.
“I drove in to write his obituary on Sunday, reflecting that his death was a stunning conclusion to one of the most baffling stories about a top businessman that I’ve covered in 30 years of business news,” Barron said.
“Lost and found” background
Barron said he first learned of concerns about Powell from Dustin Pendleton, a Wilmington real estate agent. Pendleton said his fiancee’s father became friends with “Finley” Powell, and immediately recognized Powell when they met. Pendleton had family connections in Greensboro and regularly read N&R’s website. Barron said Pendleton began passing him leads about Powell’s new life — and his effort to hide his previous life in Greensboro.
Barron began making calls about Powell in late March this year. Barron and his editor thought there would be great interest about a once-prominent local businessman. “The charges against Powell and his resignation were already big news here as people became fascinated about the economic development leader who had moved in circles that included CEOs, university presidents, and other major local figures,” he said.
Powell gained notoriety in the Triad because of his leading role in the megasite project. Barron has reported on the project for the N&R. CJ published several stories over the past year about the project.
Pendleton put Barron in touch with former employees of The Throne Theater. Barron said he learned Powell had become a prominent man in the Wilmington club scene, with a charming style, tales of past success, and a grand vision for his new venture.
“But the most interesting of the people I interviewed declined to go on the record and, because we don’t publish off-the-record sources, I was still struggling. By the time we began work on the story, Powell had washed his hands of the theater and sold it to a Carolina Beach cardiologist named Damian Brezenski,” he said.
“On my first call to Brezenski, however, he said he would ‘love’ to talk to me but that his lawyers advised against it. He wouldn’t say why,” Barron said.
Barron and an N&R photographer traveled to Wilmington in late March to get a flavor for Powell’s environment. By then, he had been unsuccessful in contacting David or Orville Powell.
Eventually Brezenski came around, and gave Barron theater contracts that David Powell had signed as Finley — something Orville had said that Finley wasn’t allowed to do.
The day after Easter, five days before David Powell killed himself, Orville called Barron.
“Orville Powell explained the structure, admitted he had signed for the theater and borrowed the money to buy it. But he said he never authorized his son to sign any documents or act as the owner of the theater — which David Powell had clearly done as Finley,” Barron said.
With the materials Brezenski provided and the phone conversation with Orville Powell, the N&R was ready to report the story.
CJ asked PTP if the organization planned to issue a report on the extent of the Powell’s activities, including the source of the funds he allegedly embezzled and if any of the money was recovered. On May 17, PTP said it did not.
“We have taken the investigation seriously, cooperating fully with law enforcement as this matter moved through the legal process. During the investigation, we maintained focus on bringing jobs and investment to the Triad. The investigation has ended. Under the circumstances, it is not appropriate for PTP to comment further or answer questions about legal matters:” the organization said in a statement to CJ.