TheBigStore: A big bust?

A controversial CEO's five-month-old venture tanks, leaving hundreds of customers demanding refunds -- even criminal charges. is apparently a big bust.

The shopping site launched five months ago by CEO Robert J. McNulty has apparently closed up shop, severed advertising relationships and left hundreds of customers wondering what happened to their orders. In addition, former suppliers have filed more than $4.2 million in lawsuits against the company.

McNulty is a former Navy Seal who has launched 11 companies in his time -- including, a business-to-business e-commerce site sold to Compaq Computer Corp. (cpq) last year for $220 million.

While McNulty was at the helm of, the Security and Exchange Commission investigated stock manipulation allegations. McNulty left the company while SEC officials combed company records. That investigation is ongoing.

McNulty filed for bankruptcy after a string of business failures in the mid-1990s.

"He took the money and ran," writes Jeff Kilsdonk of Milwaukee, Wis., one of the dozens of customers who have flooded consumer complaint Web sites recently.

Within the past two weeks, TheBigStore ended its affiliation with TBS, a shopping Web site that features other "Big" franchises like TheBigRx, TheBigFNI and TheBigBallot. CEO Frank Denny said that, although McNulty is the registered owner of the BigHub domain name, the two companies are separate and distinct from one other.

"TheBigStore is having some problems. They couldn't pay for the ads on the site and asked us to take them down," Denny said.

The company has also taken down a link to the Chinadotcom Corp. from the site, which is the last vestige of a planned affiliation between the Asian shopping portal and McNulty's company.

In January, the two companies announced they were going to create BigStoreAsia. McNulty hailed the agreement, calling TBS "the leading innovator in Internet retailing."

But Chinadotcom had concerns and the agreement was never carried through, said Craig Celek, Chinadotcom investor relations manager.

McNulty couldn't be reached for comment, and no one answered the phones Friday at the San Antonio, Texas, office of TBS. Voicemail boxes, including one for the refund department, are so filled they are no longer taking messages.

There may be no one in the offices, according to one former employee who said he was laid off in June along with a majority of the employees. At one point, the offices bustled with more than 200 people, said the employee who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In a posting on, the employee said TheBigStore burned through its initial investments with a loss-leader strategy, selling books, computers and music at well below cost to attract customers.

In May, the former employee said, the company stopped paying its distributors, or "did so on an erratic basis."

Even after the company laid off all employees, its order-processing system was still taking requests. But there was no one to fix the occasional bugs, so the "system blew up after they fired everyone," the employee wrote in an e-mail message.