When the Reagan administration called on American businesses to help economically struggling Grenada after the 1983 U.S. invasion, Virginia toymaker William H. Ingle was one of the first to answer the plea.
And when Ingle laid out his plans for hiring hundreds of Grenadians to churn out wooden ducks and trains and toys, the president was one of the first to thank Ingle. As he began converting a bullet-scarred munitions warehouse into a toy factory, Ingle was headlined in the island's press as an economic savior.
But the president's praise and the enthusiastic expectations of the islanders were premature. Within four months Ingle's business collapsed, as the result of a scheme that prosecutors say cost American taxpayers $525,000. The 60-year-old toymaker has pleaded guilty to defrauding the government out of $350,000 and is awaiting sentencing in a federal court.
Government officials and his attorney say Ingle's fall -- the first criminal prosecution involving funds from the 15-year-old Overseas Private Investment Corp. -- is one of capitalist enthusiasm gone sour. Ingle attempted to transform a basement hobby of carving wooden toys for his grandchildren into a multimillion-dollar cottage industry that included a major contract with Hallmark, the greeting card company.
"It might have done more harm than good for the American cause," said Sally Harland of Virginia Beach, Va., who headed the employe training program for the short-lived Ingle-Grenada Ltd. "The fact the enterprise went down there and failed did not make the Americans look good."
Ingle, who is credited with setting up the first American industry on the tiny Caribbean island after the invasion, admitted in court that he lied to obtain the loan from OPIC, which provides financial support for American enterprises in developing countries. In all, Ingle's toymaking operation cost the U.S. government $525,000 in bad loans, training programs and legal fees, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert J. Seidel Jr.
Ingle, who still sells wooden toys at shops in Norfolk and Williamsburg, could receive up to five years in prison, a fine of $10,000, and could be ordered to repay the government the $525,000 it lost when he is sentenced Feb. 4. Seidel said in court last week that "further criminal charges will be filed" in the case, but he did not elaborate against whom.
The White House pleas for capitalist ventures on Grenada caught Ingle's ear as demand for Ingle's wooden toys outgrew the capabilities of his small crew of toymakers in Virginia Beach.
"Our country made a commitment to save Grenada when it was taken over by a few Marxist radicals," Ingle said in a 1984 interview. "The president made that commitment. If he can do that, I can have enough patriotism to support it."
He won a $350,000 loan from OPIC, telling agency officials he and his partners had enough collateral to match the loan, agency officials said. A later investigation into the failure of Ingle's Grenada company disclosed that a $200,000 certificate of deposit Ingle and his partners used as collateral previously had been pledged as collateral on a loan to a Virginia Beach builder.
"They felt they'd never be found out," said Berry D. Willis Jr., the Norfolk attorney representing Ingle. "Like the average individual who figures he's not going to get caught on his income tax. They felt like they had such a good deal and the profit would be such they were never going to need the $200,000."
But the venture encountered problems from the start, said instructor Harland. She said that employes were put to work in the factory even before they were fully trained, prompted by an expected rush for Christmas toys.
Within weeks, the company -- which at its peak employed about 85 Grenadians at the equivalent of $1 an hour -- was failing to meet its payrolls. "Employes' checks started bouncing and everything went to pot," said Willis.
The company was having trouble receiving money from its American partners, said Harland. "We had to go through the embassy to get money sometimes."
Initially, Willis said, OPIC seemed willing to overlook problems. "They were so happy to have this enterprise started . . . . The president was hellbent on seeing this enterprise succeed."
Reagan wrote Ingle a personal note saying, "I wish you success in your new venture."
Harland said she and others involved in the operation believed the U.S. government went out of its way to keep the factory afloat until after crucial elections involving the American-backed political parties.
"The great American industry was promised and it failed," said Harland. "Rather than close right before the election, it was better to maintain the status quo."
"It's in the vested interest of OPIC to keep an operation going . . . rather than folding it," said Bob Shanks, an OPIC lawyer.
Ingle, who was on network television and featured in numerous newspaper stories when he started the Grenada factory, declined to be interviewed for the story. When the island ventured failed during the summer, he told The Virginian-Pilot that he was downcast.
"I kind of got caught up in the glamor of it all," he said. "Everybody was on my team. Now . . . I'm a zero."