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

While still in college, for instance, Savage made money moonlighting as a bouncer, cracking heads in a Los Gatos cocktail lounge. Later he took up skydiving, completing hundreds of jumps before he died. He even tried to become an aerobatic pilot--an ambition that nearly killed him when his $200,000 stunt plane crashed near Colorado Springs last year.

"There's a chemical in your brain called dopamine," says Steacy, who now lives in San Jose. "If you have a lot of it in your head, you can sit there and watch the grass grow, and you're fulfilled. He [Savage] had absolutely no dopamine in his head. He needed to do things constantly, he needed to feed his brain full of excitement. Otherwise, he would just kind of wilt."

Savage left West Valley College and went on to earn a degree in political science from the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated in 1979, marrying Sharon, whom he'd met at the cocktail lounge, the same year. A year or so later, the couple and their new baby were on their way to Colorado, where Savage had landed a job as a stockbroker in the Boulder office of E.F. Hutton.

It was at Hutton that the criminal streaks in Savage's personality first began to show through. Setting up his wife and baby in a comfortable Longmont home, he soon earned a reputation as the office oddball.

John Holland, the former manager of Hutton's Boulder office, says Savage frequently boasted that he was a close friend of rock star and former Beatle George Harrison. It was a tale most of his co-workers chose not to believe. Says Holland, "I thought he was on drugs."

Savage left the firm under a cloud in 1984. Holland recalls that Savage angered a client who accused Savage of trading his money in an "unsuitable" fashion. Holland says he doubts Savage was up to anything criminal. But a former Hutton broker, who asks not to be identified, disagrees, saying that Savage got caught "churning"--engaging in excessive trading for clients in order to inflate his own commissions.

"He was dangerous to his clients," says the former colleague. "He was doing all kinds of things to rip them off." There was "no question" that Savage was defrauding clients and that Hutton had to spend significant sums of money afterward to make his victims whole, says the broker. The matter was handled in-house, the colleague recalls, and Savage was never charged criminally.

Nor was he fired, Holland says. When questions arose about him, Savage simply stopped coming to work. "He literally disappeared," Holland says. "One day he didn't come in, and we never heard from him again."

The so-called "pigeon drop" is a favorite scam of confidence men around the world. It's been going on for hundreds of years, says Terry Vaughn, a fraud detective with the Aurora Police Department. Still, like clockwork, Vaughn gets two or three complaints from "pigeons" every month, many of whom have just lost thousands of dollars by giving it to people they've never seen before.

Vaughn describes a typical scenario: An elderly woman comes out of her bank, where she is approached by a stranger who shows her a briefcase full of cash. The stranger says he's just found the money in the street but claims not to have a bank account. He offers to split the jackpot with her if she'll agree to deposit it in her own bank. There's only one catch: The stranger requires the lady to give him some money up front to show "good faith." While the victim trots back into the bank to withdraw her money, the scam artist dashes to his car and switches briefcases. By the time the woman realizes she's been handed nothing but an attachŽ case full of cut-up paper, the con man and her savings are long gone.

The pigeon drop works so well, Vaughn says, because it appeals to the victim's own avarice. "It's preying on greed," he says.

An affidavit by the British Serious Fraud Office, filed in U.S. District Court this summer as part of a request for American assistance in investigating Savage, shows that Savage perfected the pigeon drop--only on a massive scale. Instead of little old ladies, his targets were jet-set millionaires and international corporations. And instead of thousand-dollar "good-faith" payments, Savage wangled seven-figure "advance fees" from his victims with false promises of huge, low-interest loans.

"If you break it right down into its component parts, it's just a variation on a theme," says the British law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity. What sets Savage's scam apart is "the scale on which it was operated in the latter days, and the audacity of it. Savage was a con man par excellence."

The stage was set for Savage's new career in 1985, when, in the wake of his disgrace at E.F. Hutton, he decided to move to Europe. "He figured his reputation here was shot," Sharon Savage says. "He [knew he] could never get another job at a brokerage firm." Sharon says she moved back to California temporarily with the baby while her husband flew off to England, where he set up a business in the county of Surrey, south of London. He never told her exactly what had happened at Hutton or what he was doing in Surrey, says Sharon, and she didn't ask. "John was a very secretive man," she adds.

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