In 2000, Mimi Belcher enrolled in the PhD program in neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine. Her brother followed her there and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Soon, he stopped drinking and using drugs.
Mimi Belcher recalled Joey telling her about an AA meeting and “coming out of a dark hole after one of those weekend binges” and seeing the stricken look on his sister’s face. He told the audience, Mimi Belcher said, “I don’t want her to feel that way again.”
Sober and rich
At AA, Joey Belcher met Joshua Schwartz, who was impressed that Belcher had gotten his pilot’s license and could play the piano and drums. Schwartz invited Belcher to the movies and bowling, eager to show him he could have fun without being high.
Belcher and Schwartz went to work as loan officers for a friend who owned a mortgage business. They learned to cold call people, trying to persuade them to refinance. “We had a ton of business,” Schwartz said.
They soon opened their own brokerage, J & J Lending, which offered a spectrum of fixed-rate, adjustable and subprime loans. Interest rates were falling, housing prices were soaring and millions of Americans were refinancing. At first, Belcher and Schwartz had a handful of employees, then 20, then 75, then hundreds, including Belcher’s father. At their peak, they had 10 branches and satellite offices, including one in Las Vegas.
By 2005, Joey Belcher was earning as much as $250,000 a month, Schwartz estimated. Sometimes more. He smoked expensive cigars and could spend up to $15,000 in a weekend at the mall. He bought an Aston Martin sports car, a couple of yachts and a house in Vegas with a pool, putt-putt course and home theater. In the summer, he invited dozens of employees to an annual party, at which he seemed content to sip diet sodas.
He took friends and family on trips to Europe and Asia. In Hong Kong, he got the $3,000-a-night presidential suite for himself, his father and Schwartz. He bought his girlfriend a Porsche and paid for her to enroll in a master’s program in education. He paid for his mother’s paralegal classes and bought his parents a townhouse in Las Vegas.
“It was a really joyful, exhilarating time,” Schwartz said. “You had a guy who was at the bottom, and he makes recovery and sobriety the Number 1 priority, and from that all else follows. In a short period, he was able to build a monster of a business.”
Joe Belcher Sr. was proud of his son, even as he worried about his spending. “You’re not always going to be in this position,” he told him. “Things change and sometimes abruptly.”
Joey was ready. In 2008, the economy collapsed, the housing market plummeted, and Americans stopped refinancing. Belcher sold his yacht and cars and his house in Vegas and returned to Washington, where opportunities abounded.