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CONFIDENCE MAN

HE SAID HE WORKED FOR THE CIA AND HAD A HIDDEN PIPELINE TO KUWAITI OIL MONEY. BUT POLICE NEVER DID CATCH UP TO COLORADO SCAM ARTIST JOHN SAVAGE--OR HIS MILLIONS.TRUE LIES WHEN HE DIED IN AUGUST, MASTER CRIMINAL JOHN SAVAGE LEFT BEHIND A TRAIL OF UNANSWERE

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The cancer, Brian Rusca remembers, seemed to devour John Savage from within, like a weevil inside a boll of cotton. In May, when Rusca flew out from Fresno to Colorado Springs for a final visit, his normally robust, six-foot-one-inch friend was down to a wire-thin 140 pounds. The point of the trip was to relive old times and say goodbye, but Savage spent most of the time fast asleep, oblivious to the welter of luxury he had built up around himself in the $490,000 house on Orion Drive. When Savage was able to get up and walk around, he had almost no strength at all. "His clothes looked like they were on a hanger," Rusca says. "It was a sad thing."

For Rusca, though, the final days of Savage's life remain a source of emotional solace. From his youth in Northern California to his mysterious career in England to his final years in Colorado, Savage had always been bent on material gain. How Savage amassed his wealth Rusca had never been exactly sure. But Rusca, a devout Christian, believes he was able to get through to Savage before the end--showing him that true happiness lay not in his possessions but in turning to God.

"I've seen a lot of people come to the Lord," says Rusca, who played Little League baseball with Savage when the two were boys, "but nothing that comes close to John. He was at peace--as happy as I've ever seen him. He recognized finally that his life was not in the material but in the spiritual. Now he had something to look forward to. I think the Lord just set him free."

It's impossible to know, of course, whether John Patrick Savage's deathbed conversion was sincere--or just another con.

According to documents filed recently in Denver's U.S. District Court, Savage, who died August 15 at a Colorado Springs cancer hospice at the age of 39, was a lead conspirator in an elaborate international financial fraud scheme. With a handful of British and American cohorts, he duped a long list of sophisticated investors out of more than $30 million over a period of several years. Working from England, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, he concocted wild stories about himself, posing as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency who had access to the money of Ferdinand Marcos and oil-rich Kuwaiti sheiks. He used a series of brazen ploys to target his marks, taking out ads in USA Today and forging letters from George Bush on White House stationery. At the time of his death, he was the target of investigations by the U.S. Attorney's office in Denver, the Internal Revenue Service, the Fort Collins Police Department, police in the English counties of Surrey and Staffordshire, and the Serious Fraud Office of the British government.

A list of Savage's victims suggests he was an extremely convincing liar: millionaires from England, Texas and Denmark, a German armaments concern, the pension fund of a well-known British kitchen-appliance maker and Ingman Foods, the largest food company in Scandinavia. "He was obviously a very plausible, very likable guy," says a British law enforcement official who investigated Savage for years. "The best con men have got to be."

So as certain as Rusca is that his friend is now in heaven, there are others equally sure that Savage's misdeeds have taken him straight to hell. "I feel sorry for the guy, because his life now is meaningless," says Gordon Erkfitz, a Texas businessman who gave Savage $1.4 million and lost almost all of it. "Whatever he hoped to accomplish in life is now marred by the people he's ruined. And when the scale is balanced Up There, no way is he going to make it."

As a boy growing up in Northern California, John Patrick Savage had only one ambition: to play professional baseball. And it wasn't just a pipe dream; an official with the San Diego Padres confirms the team picked Savage as a pitcher in the second round of the 1975 draft. But due to an injury and conflicts with coaches, Savage's pro sports career collapsed before it ever got started--a disappointment, his ex-wife says, that never ceased to haunt him. "When he couldn't do that anymore, I think that's when a lot of his happiness went," says Sharon Savage, who now lives in San Jose with the couple's thirteen-year-old daughter, Jennifer. "[Baseball] was his dream. When that bubble burst, so did John."

The third of six children, John Savage spent his youth in Saratoga, a pleasant upper-middle-class enclave not far from San Jose. His father, John Savage Sr., owned a local pharmacy, and there was enough money so his mother, Roberta, could stay home with the kids. Young John, a beefy left-hander blessed with a vicious fastball, stood out on baseball teams at high school and later at nearby West Valley College. "That's when his arm was the strongest," says Robert Steacy, who grew up with Savage and remained one of his closest friends. "He was throwing like Nolan Ryan."

Steacy, who kept in close touch with Savage during his years abroad and in Colorado, describes his friend as an enigmatic combination of charisma, intelligence, arrogance and insecurity. And he was driven, Steacy says, by an almost manic thirst for action, which he slaked in a variety of ways.

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