August 06, 1979 12:00 PM

They started out three years ago selling manure and killing neighbors’ gophers outside of San Diego. In no time they diversified, acquiring a whole town in Northern California and incorporating (in the Cayman Islands tax haven)—all at an age usually reserved for thoughts of Little League and first kisses. But Dickie Cessna, 14, and his three siblings—the board members of Kidco Ltd. Ventures—were out to prove that even youngsters can make a bundle from simple ideas and hard work. They seemed in fact to do spectacularly. Their success story made the networks and newspapers, and Hollywood took an option on it for a movie.

But the script, it now appears, may have to be rewritten. “This isn’t Wallace Beery and The Champ…but something right out of The Flim-Flam Man,” contends San Diego lawyer Robert Dierdorff. He is one of a growing list of people convinced that the kids have been exploited by their father, Richard Cessna, 44, to solve his own financial problems.

Kidco started when a real estate developer asked Dickie, Bette, now 13, NeNe, 11, and half sister June Cole, 16, to clear some property of rubble in 1976. By the next spring the kids claim they were making up to $3,000 a month from the manure and gopher-killing business—and from a mail-order gopher trap sideline. Then the state requested that they obtain a pest control license and start paying sales tax. “Gosh, if kids need licenses for everything, they won’t want to mess with it,” pleaded Dickie. “It’s like asking paperboys to take a test.” When public sympathy welled up for Kidco’s plight, Ronald Reagan championed its cause and Warner Bros, announced plans to film the Kidco saga. Aided by the movie advance ($10,000 against a total of $125,000 plus a percentage), Kidco bought the unincorporated coastline hamlet of Gorda, which consists of a gas station, restaurant and general store. The selling price was $580,000, with $75,000 down. A few days before the kids closed the deal, their father—a self-described “horse trader” and a distant cousin of the Cessna airplane family—went bankrupt.

Several of Cessna’s creditors believe he sank his assets into Kidco to avoid debts accumulated over the past seven years. He had reportedly transferred his interest in a horse-and-stable operation to the company. “The bankruptcy has nothing whatever to do with Kidco,” insists Cessna, who says he takes a salary for running the stable but none for his other work with Kidco. He claims his assets are only $5,000. On the other hand, he drives a ’79 Cadillac Coupe De Ville leased by Kidco and the family lives in a plush four-bedroom house, which he says the kids’ company owns. The Cessnas include Richard, three children by his second wife, Joan Cole, and her daughter by her first marriage.

His creditors have found him to be frustratingly elusive. Attorney Dierdorff won a default fraud judgment against him four years ago—Cessna sold his client a wild horse that had apparently been drugged and passed off as trail-broken—but is still trying to collect. Cessna’s financial affairs, charges Dierdorff, are “muddled up in corporate shells and funny business.”

Other critics of the Cessnas contend that the father runs Kidco, not the kids. “Now that the children are successful, people want to say I’m fronting for them,” responds Cessna. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.” He concedes that “they couldn’t have negotiated the Warner Bros. contract or the property deals by themselves—they’re just kids.” But he maintains that “they make all the decisions,” and he calls Kidco a way of teaching them “old-fashioned values comparable to a farm family 50 years ago. They learn very young that certain things are expected of them. We have no discourtesies, no disrespect and no fighting.”

Kidco itself, however, remains embattled. The licensing dispute ended when Kidco stopped exterminating gophers, but the company may face a series of audits over its failure to pay back sales tax on the manure it sold. Some of Gorda’s 20 citizens complain that Kidco is attempting to turn the place into a tourist trap, and Dickie himself admits the purpose of owning the town is “promotion.”

Beyond that, the Cessna children are far from united themselves in their pursuit of the buck. Dickie, who is the most active in the business, shares his father’s dream of expanding it into a nationwide organization. “We see kids getting in trouble all the time,” Dickie has noted. “We’re too busy for that.” But his sisters say Kidco’s success has been decidedly double-edged. As one complains privately: “We don’t have time to ride or swim, with all our chores and the Kidco stuff.”

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