Metro-East News

Worm seller got $500,000 of public land for $0, gets 30 months for Missouri bank fraud

Roger Strong sold nightcrawlers on the side, but his life’s work, real estate development, had to be put on hold when he pleaded guilty to bank fraud in Missouri.

Strong, who operated his development business out of a New Athens bait shop, convinced officials in Centreville several years ago to transfer $500,000 worth of public land to his holding company without any upfront payment, a deal that left taxpayers in debt with nothing in return.

But in federal court in St. Louis on Thursday, Strong, 57, was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison for bank fraud in connection with a $2.99 million loan from a Missouri bank to build a lock manufacturing business. The Missouri bank scheme was the same plan that Strong initially proposed in Centreville before it morphed into a 100-room hotel and then fell through altogether.

In 2013, Centreville Mayor Mark Jackson was left with nothing to show for $500,000 in taxpayer money he directed to be wired to pay a private seller for 55 acres off Illinois 15 opposite the Flying J Truck Stop. The land’s ownership was then legally transferred to Strong’s company without payment as part of the hotel plan. Jackson could not be reached for comment. Nothing was ever built on the Centreville site.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Missouri, Strong pleaded guilty in August in Missouri and admitted he lied on a small-business loan application.

Interviewed by a News-Democrat reporter in 2013, Strong mocked the Centreville officials who allowed his holding company to own the property without paying for it.

“I wasn’t going to ask any questions. I found it absolutely ignorant,” Strong said at the time.

Property records show the site, which is swampy and probably could not have been developed because of environmental concerns, is still owned by Strong Holding LLC. However, last year it was assigned a market value by county assessors of about $11,000, a fraction what taxpayers paid for it when it was transferred for $0 to the convicted bank defrauder’s company.

George Pawlaczyk: 618-239-2625, @gapawlaczyk

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer