Go Tell It on the Mountain

For accused con man Christian Lawless Harper, a mine is a terrible thing to waste.

Christian Lawless Harper is aptly named, according to some former business associates.

"He's a crook," says Thomas Flaherty, an Omaha attorney who represents an investor in one of Harper's previous deals. "He's a consummate con man."

Flaherty's client, Charles Myers, owns thousands of shares in a Southern California company Harper promoted, Renaissance Golf Products Inc. That company raised as much as $7 million through an initial public offering in 1992, but its stock is now next to worthless. In an attempt to recoup his losses, Myers filed a legal claim known as a trust deed for $1.3 million on the Pagoda House, but that effort went nowhere. He also sued a company controlled by Harper that later declared bankruptcy.

Documents on file with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission show that, for the six months ending June 30, Huntington Beach-based Renaissance sold $1.2 million in golf clubs and accessories, compared to $2.9 million in sales for the same period in 1995. "This decrease is due mainly to lack of sufficient capital to fund inventory purchase requirements," says one document. The report also shows that shareholders took a bath--it lists the total deficit in stockholders' equity at $11.9 million.

Harper's critics say a pattern of disappearing assets is a common one in his career. In October 1995, a $12 million default judgment was entered against Harper and others by a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles. That case, known as the Northstar Minerals deal, involved more than 600 people who invested in sixteen limited partnerships created by Harper and several cohorts. All the partnerships were based in California and were supposed to be buying oil and gas properties. Instead, according to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, millions were invested in shell companies without any assets. The suit alleges that one limited partnership paid Harper $1.5 million for coal mines in Kentucky that he never owned, as well as $501,000 for "expenses."

"The money disappeared, and so did Harper," says a California attorney involved in the case, who asked not to be named. "He left right after he got the money. He sold the company things he didn't own and then split. That's his modus operandi." The attorney adds that the plaintiffs don't expect to see their money again, despite the judgment in their favor.

Harper is no stranger to the court system. According to a motion for bond reduction filed by his own attorney, he was first charged with a felony when he stole a car at age fifteen. Harper has told law enforcement authorities that he'd been fighting with his father and started stealing cars as a way to rebel. He also rebelled by escaping every time authorities rearrested him--in the words of his attorney, "choosing to avoid prosecution." After escaping, Harper kept on stealing cars and drove some of them across state lines, which landed him in the federal prison in Lompoc, California, in the early 1970s. He escaped from Lompoc in 1972 and fled to Colorado, where Brown caught up with him.

"I've arrested a lot of people in my time, but I've never forgotten his name," says Brown.

After wrapping up his federal prison sentence in 1975, Harper apparently turned over a new leaf--or at least moved into a more sophisticated line of business. He told acquaintances that he began reading the Wall Street Journal while in prison and also met several successful white-collar criminals there. After learning the ins and outs of the penny-stock game, Harper eventually became so good at it that he was able to live the life of a multi-millionaire. A slender man with graying hair and a deep voice, Harper dresses impeccably, favoring tailored suits, silk ties, cuff links and freshly polished loafers. He looks like someone who'd be right at home in the first-class cabin of a Swissair jet, a style appropriate to a man who has made numerous trips to Europe.

Harper has done business with Swiss merchant banker Michael Harrop, whose name appears on the sales brochure given to investors in the Argo Mine project. In the private-placement document for Argo, Harper said that since 1988 he had directed U.S. operations for the merchant banking firm of Harrop et Cie. That job, he said, required that he be "responsible for all merchant banking investments, merger and acquisition projects and investor relations in the U.S." Because European tax rates are much higher than rates in the U.S., many wealthy Europeans are eager to hear about potential tax shelters in this country, and Harper has learned how to make pitches to those investors.

Indeed, Harper has told friends that he was invited to join a U.S. Commerce Department junket in 1994 to meet some of the wealthiest investors on the Continent. Acquaintances have told authorities that Harper was embarrassed midway through the trip when he ran out of money and had to scramble to find the funds to pay his way back to the States. A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C., says that agency has no record of Harper being invited to join any formal trade mission.

Harper's suave appearance and aggressive approach have allowed him to thrive in the through-the-looking-glass world of penny stocks, where it's often almost impossible to tell the scams from the legitimate investments.

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