It started over a cherry 1977 Corvette named Betsy.
"Ever since they took that car, the fight's been on," Denny Hardin says. He's talking to The Pitch by phone from the Moberly Correctional Center, where he's serving the first months of a five-year sentence for a probation violation.
By "they," he means the United States of America.
Hardin didn't plan to wage a one-man war against the government. He was once a loyal citizen; he even served in the Navy in the 1980s. By 1991, he was in his late 20s, divorced from the wife he'd met in Tokyo, and back in his hometown of Kansas City. He began dating a hairdresser named Sherry Lee, who wanted to open her own salon. They found a space and started work on it, sleeping on the floor of the shop when they didn't have enough money to also rent an apartment.
But then they were in a car accident. The insurance company paid out $20,000 for medical bills and the cost of the car.
They spent $7,780 on Betsy. Hardin found the car on the lot of a Raytown Chevrolet dealer. It was in such pristine condition that it was just a thousand dollars less than the original sticker price. A '77 Stingray is one of the most popular Corvette models ever made, the type of car that bikini-wearing models still recline against on the covers of muscle-car magazines.
The rest of the money went to medical bills, but Lee couldn't work. Her hands, which she had relied on to style hair, now shook uncontrollably.
"Then I got laid off from my construction job," Hardin remembers.
"The one good thing we had was Betsy."
For the next few months, money was scarce. One day, a friend of Hardin's from grade school asked if Hardin could help him find some weed. His friend promised that Hardin would make a couple of bucks for setting up the deal.
When they got to the dealer's house, the friend feigned shyness, telling Hardin that because the dealer didn't know him, it was better that he stay in the car while Hardin bought the dope. Hardin went in and bought a half-pound of pot. When he came back out, police arrested him.
"It turned out, that friend had been busted by the cops earlier, and he set me up because he'd made a deal with them to deliver people," Hardin says. He served 120 days and got five years' probation.
Even worse, the cops claimed that the Stingray had been bought with drug money, so they confiscated it.
The next time Hardin saw Betsy, almost a year later, she had been painted up as an ad for the D.A.R.E. program.
Lee eventually left him. He knows that she's in Iowa somewhere, working as a paralegal, but they haven't spoken in years. "When they took Betsy away, that just about destroyed her. Betsy was repayment for almost dying," he says.
"I promised her I'd make up for what they did, and I still keep that promise."
He didn't start right away. Hardin spent the next few years in a crack-smoking stupor, dropping down to 87 pounds before checking himself into a hospital for rehab. As he convalesced, he read history and law books. Eventually, the man who was still three credits short of his associate's degree at Longview Community College was offering legal advice to friends and family. Before long, he learned how to make his own bank.
The Private Bank of Denny Hardin, responsible for writing more than $160 million in bonded promissory notes to borrowers all around the country, is a two-story house on the East Side of Kansas City. Taped to the door is a notice declaring that no foreign agents are allowed to search the premises. Inside, shelf after shelf is filled with accordion folders holding the names and addresses of the people for whom Hardin, with the help of his fiancée, Melinda Harrington, has written bonds.