Somewhere in Houston this morning, former ERHC Energy technical engineer James Ledbetter is alone, cold, living in his car, angry and a little drunk.
"I am just so angry," he told us in a 20-minute phone call at 4:37 AM local time.
"Peter Ntephe, the CEO of ERHC Energy, violated the Federal Corrupt Practices Act by making a $240,000 payment to Godsonic to sign off on a document that they were already required by law to so sign off on." He said he protested to Ntephe, to the company's Controller, Sylvan Odobulu, to Howard Jeter, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria who sits on ERHC Energy's board, and the board itself, all to no avail. Instead, he said, on Dec. 17, 2008, then Acting CEO Ntephe "walked into my office and said, 'We need to talk.'"
"I thought something good was going to happen," he said.
Instead, Ntephe introduced a lawyer and fired him, saying "We're not going to continue your employment." He wouldn't answer any questions about why, Ledbetter said, and had an armed guard escort him from the office to his home, where any ERHC documents he had were seized.
"I was not given any unemployment insurance, severance payment or anything," Ledbetter said. On the telephone line I heard a rough, broken sob. Ledbetter said he spent $5,000 on a lawyer to get unemployment, and a month later gave up. ERHC had fought back with four lawyers, he said.
"They paid $1.5 million in two months to challenge me," he said. "One month after I gave up, my lawyer received a $50,000 payment from Nigeria." Friends told him that to accomplish that, "A Nigerian company opened up for one day, for the payment, and closed the next day." None of the payment went to Ledbetter.
Now he's lost his wife and his home in a divorce that ended four months ago. He said he feared that this conversation would cost him everything else he had. Then he went off on a tangent.
"During exploration, they found a lot of oil," he said. "They found gas. But it wasn't enough to develop."
To ascertain that it was Ledbetter, who had called us shortly after his firing, we asked his date of birth. He gave it to us, and then said, "My date of death may be today or tomorrow."
His last words were, "Nigerians don't give a sh-t about other people."
There was a click and the line went dead.
The Houston Police Dept. told us that without an address for Ledbetter, they were unable to help. A national suicide hotline promised to try to get Ledbetter on the phone after a Houston police dispatch supervisor named Wagner said there was nothing they could do with a name, age and phone number. They suggested I call the FBI in Washington.
I told Ledbetter during our conversation that he was not a lot worse off than many ERHC investors. I urged him to get food stamps like I do. When I called back after he hung up, I urged him to get in touch with the police and get help. I gave him the number and I offered to take him in for a while if he would promise not to drink and could get himself to Florida.
He didn't call back. He didn't pick up when I called again.
The company was unavailable for comment.