Bella's Markets in 3 Colorado towns closing; empty shelves focus of 7NEWS investigation

AKRON, Colo. - 7NEWS has confirmed that the Bella's Market stores in Akron and Wiggins have closed their doors Tuesday and the store in Walden will be closed on Thursday.

The owner of a chain of grocery stores has been part of a 7NEWS investigation into rural Colorado food deserts, with undercover video showing empty shelves with limited fresh produce.

"We've been kept in the dark," said Wiggins Town Administrator Jim Musgrave. "We really don't know much of what's going on over there."

Wiggins Mayor Pro Temp, Mary Ellen Mercer, said it came as a surprise to her.

"We've been doing our best to try to help the store stay open," said Mercer. "We need a grocery store here. It's really devastating."

The mayor said they had an economic development council meeting Tuesday morning to explore options for another store in the tiny town.

"But we just don't know how soon that is going to happen," said Mercer.

Wiggins Bella's Market employee and Town Trustee Kyle Holloway said his paychecks haven't bounced recently, but there had been a delay in getting the money. 

In the undercover videos shot by 7NEWS in June, we found no fresh meat, no eggs and few staples on the Akron store's shelves. It was the same case in Wellington during July.

After Jaclyn Allen's story, Akron residents said they had seen a huge response, but not from the owner of the store.

"We got boxes of food, which we donated to a food bank," said Akron Town Clerk Annette Bowin, "we don't need handouts, we need a grocery store."

Mancini owns eight Bella’s markets across Colorado, and not all of them will be going out of business.

In fact, the Mayor of Wellington, Jack Brinkhoff, said he spoke to Mancini Tuesday afternoon.

"He told me that he has full plans to have the store restocked by August 5," said Brinkhoff. "He said he was making some other changes to make that happen, but he did not go into detail about that. So, we're still in a holding pattern."

Last month, Mancini also promised people in Limon that the store in that town would be fully stocked by August 1.

"We are all happy. That guy doesn't care anything about the community. He didn't do anything with the store here," said Jackson County's Assistant County Administrator Colleen Conroy from Walden. "If the Odell's take it back over, we might have a grocery store again."

She said it has been two years since Walden has had a fully stocked grocery store, and they have to drive 60 miles one-way to go shopping elsewhere.

Conroy said Mancini called a meeting with commissioners last week, but he never showed up.

7NEWS received the following email statement from Mancini on Tuesday:

"As a result of ongoing litigation to protect our leases we are being forced to temporarily close certain stores.  We do not want to and have not wanted to take this action.  Over the last two years, during the bankruptcy we never laid off an employee or changed their medical benefits, at significant cost to the company.  Our employees at stores that we close will have benefits extended through the end of August to make their transition as easy as possible.

We are very disappointed to continue to be put on the defensive by our landlords.  We have been committed to our communities and our employees.  

Our employees will have no problems with their pay checks.  There was a previous problem with a hold on two checks due to miscommunication but that has been fixed as soon as we were made aware of it.  There is much miscommunication due to the press and self-serving, misleading statements by others.

I will be happy to consider an on camera interview with you near the end of next week or the following week.  Provided my terms can be met.  If any of my quotes are taken out or context, misquoted or used in part but not in whole on your news show, I will not work with you in the future.  

Our goal has always been to resolve this with the landlords, however their attorney has not returned one of our attorney's calls in the past 4 months and he has never returned a voicemail and he has never taken a call from our attorney. 

I'm not sure how the landlords attempts to push us out of the stores helps our communities, employees and customers?

Akron and Wiggins has been closed and Walden will be closed on Thursday.  No other stores will be closed.  

Thank you"

That statement was news to employees at the Walden store, who said on the phone that they had not heard the store was closing.

The town is 60 miles one-way from the nearest grocery store.

"We are all happy. That guy doesn't care anything about the community. He didn’t do anything with the store here,” said Jackson County’s Assistant County Administrator Colleen Conroy from Walden. "If the Odells take it back over, we might have a grocery store again."

Conroy said it has been two years since they've had a fully stocked grocery store, and that Mancini called a meeting with commissioners last week, but he never showed up.

Town leaders from Haxtun and Limon also told 7NEWS that the once thriving grocery stores in their towns, bought in 2006 by Mancini, were seemingly run into the ground.

"He [Mancini] said it was a direct result of some litigation between he and the previous owner, Mr. Odell," said Lisa Noder, with the Lincoln County Economic Development Corporation in Limon.

In town meetings and in an email to 7NEWS, Mancini has blamed his problems on Leroy Odell, the landlord and previous owner.

But long before any agreement with Odell, Mancini had a laundry list of creditors demanding payment, including a 2006 federal tax lien for more than $111,000.

Brinkhoff, said he worked hard to bring in Mancini, who bragged he had attended the West Point military academy to gain trust.

"The implication was that he graduated from the academy," said Brinkhoff. "I wish now that I had done more research on his background."

A West Point spokesman confirmed that Mancini attended, under a different last name, but he never graduated.

Bankruptcy filings obtained by 7NEWS and our partners at The Denver Post allege that Mancini's company, VM Odells, defaulted on its loans to Odell during the first year. Despite two loan modifications, the company declared bankruptcy in 2012.

Bankruptcy filings state Mancini was using the business income to pay personal creditors and finance his "excessive lifestyle."

Mancini repeatedly refused 7NEWS' requests for an interview, but in an email claimed that Odell is trying to take back the stores through legal actions.

Odell would also not speak on camera, but his attorney issued a statement saying, "The Odell family is very concerned about the current condition of the stores and the welfare of the communities."

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