A day after his indictment on bid-rigging charges, Aubrey McClendon, the former chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp., died Wednesday morning in a car crash in Oklahoma.
An Oklahoma City police spokesman said the 56-year-old, also a part-owner of the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, was speeding and "drove straight into the wall" when he was killed in a single-car crash.
Capt. Paco Balderrama said McClendon crossed the center line, drove into a grassy area and crashed into a wall at about 9 a.m. Wednesday.
"He pretty much drove right into the wall," Balderrama said. "There was plenty of opportunity for him to correct and get back on the road but that did not occur."
Police are still investigating the single-vehicle crash, and said it was too early to say whether it was intentional. Balderrama said McClendon was not wearing a seat belt and was driving above the speed limit of 50 mph.
McClendon was indicted Tuesday on a federal charge of conspiring to rig bids to buy oil and natural gas leases in northwest Oklahoma. He was expected to turn himself in and appear before a judge at the Oklahoma City federal courthouse on Wednesday, CBS affiliate KWTV reported.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that McClendon orchestrated a scheme between two large energy companies, which are not named in the indictment, from December 2007 to March 2012. The companies would decide ahead of time who would win bids, with the winner then allocating an interest in the leases to the other company, according to the statement.
McClendon denied violating antitrust laws on Tuesday.
"The charge that has been filed against me today is wrong and unprecedented," McClendon said in the statement. "Anyone who knows me, my business record and the industry in which I have worked for 35 years, knows that I could not be guilty of violating any antitrust laws. All my life I have worked to create jobs in Oklahoma, grow its economy, and to provide abundant and affordable energy to all Americans. I am proud of my track record in this industry, and I will fight to prove my innocence and to clear my name."
The indictment, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, does not name anyone else alleged to be involved.
Leasehold interests usually include the right to develop the land and to extract oil and natural gas for a period of time, typically three to five years.
A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment Wednesday on the status of the case.
"His actions put company profits ahead of the interests of leaseholders entitled to competitive bids for oil and gas rights on their land," said Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division. "Executives who abuse their positions as leaders of major corporations to organize criminal activity must be held accountable for their actions."
Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake said it is cooperating with the investigation.
"Chesapeake does not expect to face criminal prosecution or fines relating to this matter," company spokesman Gordon Pennoyer said in a statement. "Chesapeake has taken significant steps to address legacy issues and enhance legal and regulatory compliance throughout the organization."
The company on Wednesday noted McClendon's death with this statement: "Chesapeake is deeply saddened by the news we have heard today and our thoughts and prayers are with the McClendon family during this difficult time."
McClendon stepped down in 2013 at Chesapeake and founded American Energy Partners, where he currently serves as chairman and chief executive officer.
Forbes estimated his net worth at $1.2 billion in 2011. More recently, following a collapse in the global energy market, the total value of his personal holdings was estimated at $500 million by the website Celebrity Net Worth.
"I've known Aubrey McClendon for nearly 25 years," the oil patch billionaire T. Boone Pickens said in a statement Wednesday. "He was a major player in leading the stunning energy renaissance in America. He was charismatic and a true American entrepreneur. No individual is without flaws, but his impact on American energy will be long-lasting."
McClendon could frequently be spotted in his courtside seats near the Thunder bench in the arena named after the company he founded in 1989 with his friend, Tom Ward, with an initial $50,000 investment. They eventually grew Chesapeake into one of the largest independent producers of natural gas in the United States. He left the company in January 2013 amid philosophical differences with a new board of directors, and founded American Energy Partners, where he was chairman and CEO.
"Aubrey's tremendous leadership, vision, and passion for the energy industry had an impact on the community, the country, and the world," AEP said in a statement. "We are tremendously proud of his legacy and will continue to work hard to live up to the unmatched standards he set for excellence and integrity."
McClendon was renowned for his aggression and skill in acquiring oil and gas drilling rights. As drillers learned to unlock natural gas from shale formations over the last decade, McClendon pushed the company to acquire enormous tracks of land in several states. The strategy landed the company promising assets, boosted the company's own production and helped fuel the national boom in natural gas production. But it saddled Chesapeake with enormous debt.
Chesapeake eventually became victim of its own success. Natural gas prices plummeted along with all the new drilling by Chesapeake and its peers, reducing revenues for the company and making the debt harder to repay.
Chesapeake's 20-acre campus sprawls through an exclusive area of Oklahoma City, its Georgian-style brick buildings surrounded by manicured lawns and sycamore and elm trees.