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Willoughby Brewing Co. reopens following tax issues; owner accused in lawsuit of fraud

Woman, 73, claims owner coerced her to sell, using pressure and deception

WILLOUGHBY, Ohio — While the iconic Willoughby Brewing Company has reopened after its future seemend in flux, its principle owner finds himself embroiled in multiple lawsuits and his own Chapter 13 bankruptcy, court records show.

Rollin G. Cooke III is accused in one lawsuit of fraudulently coercing a 73-year-old Kent woman into selling her 53 percent stake in the restaurant and brewery in 2018.

The suit alleges Cooke personally pressured the woman into signing a sell agreement that would pay her $530,000 for her share. The payments were to be spread out over 10 years with monthly installments at an interest rate of 0.1 percent.

Cooke’s attorneys did not immediately respond Friday to a message seeking comment.

The restaurant, which grew in popularity since opening in downtown Willoughby in 1998, was closed indefinitely Thursday by the state of Ohio, which claimed it was owed back sales taxes. Willoughby Mayor Robert Fiala told 3News on Friday that he spoke with Cooke, who told him the issue would be cleared up by the weekend, citing an administrative error. Fiala said Cooke was apologetic for the "embarrassment" he caused.

Cooke's prediction turned out to be correct, as the brewery was back in business Friday night. Exact details surrounding the "error" are still unknown.

RELATED: Willoughby Brewing Company indefinitely closed over failure to pay state sales taxes

In her lawsuit, Cheryl Heineman says she met Cooke in late 2017 through Jeremy VanHorn, another minority owner. Heineman’s lawsuit alleges she loaned Cooke $48,000 so he could purchase a 37 percent stake in the business. Cooke has repaid $27,000 of the loan.

In the weeks afterward, Cooke “began badgering [Heineman] to convince her to sell” her shares to him, the lawsuit alleges. Heineman’s suit says she acquired the shares from her son to provide for her grandchildren in the future.

Still, when Heineman declined to sell, the suit contends Cooke attempted to “confuse her, to weaken her resolve, and to fraudulently induce” her to sell. He allegedly made other false claims that “caused her to enter into a state of duress and panic to the extent that her will was overcome and she was induced to sell…”

Her suit alleges Cooke objected to her request to have her lawyer look at the sale agreement, instead telling her she risked losing the business in the event of civil litigation against her son. He said it was imperative she sign over her shares quickly, the suit contends.

To ease her concerns, Cooke is accused of falsely telling Heineman that the contract allows her to buy back her interest in the company, court records show.

By April 2018, Heineman sold to Cooke. The $530,000 price was “well below the fair market value” and with the low interest rate of less than 1 percent, the terms were “unreasonable” and “evidence of fraud,” the suit contends.

The lawsuit and bankruptcy records show Cooke now owns 90 percent of the restaurant.

The original suit was filed in Lake County Common Pleas Court and was included in Cooke’s bankruptcy filing. It is one of seven pending lawsuits filed against Cooke and listed in his bankruptcy case.

Heineman is asking the judge to block Cooke from discharging the loan through his bankruptcy filing.

Cooke’s bankruptcy case lists $3.8 million in assets, mostly real estate. It lists about $890,000 in debts.