Man who aids the poor loses savings to scam suspect
Steve Bagga made a good living for a long time in the Grand Valley on seconds, as it were.
He sought out the Grand Valley for a second chance when he left his native India.
He built a prosperous optical business that he was set to expand in early May 1982. He made his second chance after the oil shale bust work even better than the first.
And, Grand Valley television-watchers recognize him instantly as the “Second pair free, second pair free!” pitchman for his business, The Optical Center, 1316 North Ave.
Bagga, 67, doesn’t know how to recover from the most recent blow, though.
He was contemplating a retirement spent traveling the world, in particular his native land. Bagga said he wanted to take the money he had earned in western Colorado, consolidate it into one place where it would earn enough interest to pay for his taxes, his travels and his charities.
His financial adviser worked it out so he could expect $15,000 a month, divided three ways: $5,000 for himself, $5,000 to pay off credit cards and the tax man, and $5,000 to India, where he was helping to support 245 people, many of them widows and orphans.
About a year ago, Bagga decided the time was right to move forward with his plans.
He sold the business and investment properties he owned, maxed out his credit cards and put the bundle, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, into the hands of a man he trusted: Valley Investments owner Philip Rand Lochmiller.
“Phil encouraged me to borrow,” Bagga said.
It seemed like a good idea because his high credit score made it possible to borrow on his plastic at no interest, he said.
At the high rate of return that Lochmiller was promising, Bagga figured he could make money and make his credit-card payments, Bagga said.
Soon after he turned over his money, though, Bagga realized something was wrong.
Unable to reach Lochmiller on the phone, he drove to the Valley Investments office at 1445 N. Seventh St., during business hours that afternoon.
The doors were locked and another investor in the parking lot said she also was unable to get in the office.
Bagga looked around the outside of the building, where he found files and computers filling two large trash containers, Bagga said.
State regulators closed Valley Investments on May 29.
Lochmiller, his son, Philip Rand Lochmiller Jr., and an employee, Shawnee Carver, face charges related to mail and securities fraud in connection with the collapse of Valley Investments.
Like many other Valley Investments investors, Bagga was being prudent when he invested with the company. He watched Valley Investments for some time, spoke with other investors and visited the company’s affordable-housing development, Country Living Mobile Home Park in Mack.
“Valley Investments worked like clockwork,” he said.
Lochmiller knew of Bagga’s plans to help the people in India and encouraged him to invest so he could continue to help them, Bagga said.
Bagga, who was raised a Sikh, converted to Christianity when he was in his early 20s. When his mother discovered a Bible in his clothing and showed it to his father, a local religious leader, Bagga was banished from the family home under pain of death, he said.
With his clothing, about $290 and the skills he acquired working in his father’s optical shop, he set out for the United States and Grand Junction, where he hoped to meet a Peace Corps volunteer who had invited him to visit someday.
He arrived in New York on Christmas Eve 1968, he said, and through a providential series of events, found his way to Denver and then Grand Junction.
Bagga laughs now about his arrival in Grand Junction. He wore a red turban, red sport coat and had a traditional Indian mustache, the kind that reached around his face and merged with his sideburns.
He found a job at a downtown Grand Junction optical shop, eventually worked in one on the Front Range and then found his way back to western Colorado in Montrose.
When he went into business for himself, he opened stores across western Colorado, the last in Grand Junction in May 1982, he said. The timing was unfortunate, because on May 2 that year, Exxon shuttered its Colony Oil Shale Project, triggering the oil shale bust that devastated the region’s economy for several years.
“I lost everything,” Bagga said. “I had $10 left in my account.”
He consolidated his stores in Grand Junction and by 1989 was a sales leader in his industry, and he has, as he says, “36,000 happy customers.”
He went once or twice a year to India, taking with him clothing, eyeglasses and other necessities for the people there.
When he had a son, he made peace with his father, he said.
On his trips, he takes photographs of the people who have come to depend on him, he said.
“These are the people I help,” he said, dabbing tears as he showed photos of them, including a man who was blinded by smallpox and his mother, with a leg swollen by elephantitis.
“Look at the faces,” he said, “they have no hope. I help these people.”
He also has traveled to Russia and speaks passable Russian, he said, as well as six languages spoken on the subcontinent. He is learning another one so he can speak with people who have come to depend on him, he said.
Now, instead of being retired and traveling to India, he reports to work as an optician at the Optical Center.
The free airline miles he hoped to use from his credit cards no longer are available to him, and his interest rates on those cards have been boosted to 29 percent because he can’t make the payments, he said.
He drives only out of necessity and has lost weight, he said.
Once again, he’s in need of a miracle, and he prays for one, Bagga said.
“I lost money,” he said. “I don’t want to lose my dignity.”