part 2 of 2
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Savage spent a lot of time jetting back and forth between England and Colorado, where he had also developed a number of business contacts. One was Michael Bergman, a Fort Collins man who hoped Savage would provide him with money to help fund an idea he and a friend had for a nonfogging dental mirror. Another was Robert Clark of Colorado Springs, former publisher of a magazine called Counterterrorism and Security, a short-lived venture in which Savage invested.
For a while, Bergman says, he believed Savage's line that he was a secret agent investing on behalf of the Kuwaiti government and, unknowingly, helped recruit investors for the advance-fee scam. "He knew how to mix just enough truth with something to make it plausible," Bergman says. "You got to fill in the blanks. At this time, I would have to say that I'm looking at everything that John ever did as suspect. [But] at that time, it looked good."
Later, when Bergman realized Savage was lying and refused to help him anymore, Savage tried to scare him, Bergman says. Savage began making vague allusions to the "Star Chamber," a group of powerful figures that Savage claimed "really ran the world." The Chamber had compiled a dossier on Bergman, Savage said, and he'd better "get in line."
"I don't think he [Savage] was capable of actually taking someone's life himself," Bergman says. "But he would be the type that would pay to have someone's life taken. I can truthfully say, in all the time that I spent with John, that he was incapable of having deep feelings for anyone other than himself."
During his frequent trips back to the States, Savage found time to add American victims to his list of European conquests. One of them, Gordon Erkfitz, a brash Texan who ran for that state's House of Representatives in 1978, lost more than $1 million to Savage.
"I don't know how prudish you are, but the guy literally fucked me," Erkfitz says. "I mean he literally fucked me. He just really put me through the coals, and my family. It was devastating. I ended up filing Chapter 7. I lost everything."
In the Eighties, Erkfitz says, he had "the Midas touch." Every venture on which he embarked earned him scads of money. He owned a cemetery, a funeral home, insurance companies, shopping centers and a number of other businesses in and around Waco. At the end of the decade, however, the Texas economy went south, and it started taking Erkfitz's highly leveraged little empire down with it.
In 1989 Erkfitz began searching frantically for a loan, but banks in Texas seemed to be failing every day and were no longer a viable source of credit. "When you're this damn desperate, you're like a guy that's hanging on a cliff," Erkfitz says. "You just try and grab on anything you can." Then one day he spotted an ad in the Money section of USA Today. The ad, which listed a telephone number in San Francisco, offered interested parties access to large amounts of cash in return for a 1 percent "loan origination fee." Erkfitz called the number and spoke with a man who put him in touch with a contact in England. The contact turned out to be John Savage.
Erkfitz says he flew to London to meet Savage, who told him he was working as an intermediary for unnamed Arab investors. The Arabs, Savage told him, couldn't make the loans directly because the Koran forbade them to charge interest. Savage told Erkfitz that if he came up with $1.4 million, he would have access within a few weeks to a $100 million line of credit.
Erkfitz scrambled to come up with the money, spending the next several weeks at a London hotel called the Rathbone, making phone calls and typing up a blizzard of documents that Savage gave him. And for a while, things seemed to be happening. Erkfitz was dispatched to Geneva one day, where an Arab named Al-Masri met him carrying a suitcase full of cash. Another man, a black American from Germany whom Erkfitz knew only as "Dr. Bronson," flew to London later to participate in the deal.
Despite all the sound and fury, nothing ever happened. Erkfitz eventually flew home to Texas--out $1.4 million and empty-handed--with Savage still promising that the loan would be wired to his bank account any day. "I wanted to kill him," Erkfitz says.
The British law enforcement official who investigated Savage and his partners says Erkfitz's tribulations--the flurry of documents, the international phone calls, the mysterious figures like Bronson and Al-Masri who appeared out of nowhere--are all typical in an advance-fee sting.
"You can't do these things on your own," the official says. "The essence of a good advance fee is as many players as possible who spend all day on the telephone, all day on the fax machine. You just bury your target in paper and phone calls. You promise the world. And you flood him from all points of the globe--flood the poor idiot with paper.
"A lot of these guys--on another day, they wouldn't have gone along with it," the official adds. "But they get worn down."
Erkfitz says he continually harassed Savage to repay him but only got about $100,000 of his money back. The rest he never saw again.
He didn't mourn when he heard Savage had died, adds Erkfitz. His only regret was that Savage's family didn't bury him in Colorado. "The reason they flew the body back to England was the fact that there were so many of us that wanted to find him and piss on his grave," Erkfitz says.
There are still plenty of people around who continue to claim that John Savage really did work for, or at least with, covert U.S. government agencies. Some of them even say Savage helped bring about a peaceful end to the Cold War--and should be considered an American hero.
"He wasn't exactly a spy," says Robert Clark, the former magazine publisher from Colorado Springs. "But the impression I got was that he had been left out in the cold."
Both Clark and Robert Steacy, Savage's friend from San Jose, claim that Savage was a financial genius who helped the CIA funnel huge sums of money into the hands of allies in Eastern Europe and other global hotspots. "John knew ways of moving large amounts of money around the world," Clark says. "Essentially [he moved] them away from hidden accounts internationally and put them where our government or other friendly governments felt that they might do more good, in the cause of eliminating the Communist empire."
Clark says he found Savage's undertakings "very exciting" and even helped him out on one occasion, going to a Washington, D.C., bank to wait for a wire transfer that never came through. Steacy declines to go into details, but he says he also assisted Savage in a peripheral way, vouching for Savage with various parties his friend was dealing with.
"There was a lot of high-level political things that were going on with all this money," agrees Steacy. "There were some real worrisome times back then with the USSR and what they might do with their nuclear weapons. There was a lot of financial help going on. There's no way I could actually say this as fact, but from what I understand, without his involvement and abilities to move funds around, things could have really taken a bad turn. Conflicts could have taken place--possibly military. I don't want to get too trite about this, but actions taken by John allowed democracy to win over."
Clark and Steacy say Savage became the target of investigations in Britain and America only after the CIA cut him off. "When things break down, they know the risks," Steacy says, referring to CIA operatives. "They know they're probably going to be kind of left out there dealing with it for themselves. And I think that's exactly what happened."
Savage's friends aren't the only ones who say he was a spook. In August, less than a week before Savage died, a California attorney named Finn Martensen sued the U.S. government in a Washington, D.C., court, claiming Savage was an agent of the CIA--and that American taxpayers should be held responsible for compensating one of his victims.
Martensen filed the suit on behalf of an Englishman named Thomas Patrick Denton Taylor and Monarch Assurance, a life-insurance company on the Isle of Man of which Taylor is managing director. Taylor claims to have given Savage and Deacon $8 million in advance fees in 1989 and 1990 in return for a $35 million payment that never came through. The suit alleges that Savage was "deputy director of the CIA's European Operations" in 1989 and that a year later he moved to the agency's division of "Global Affairs."
Savage, the suit claims, was intimately involved in two CIA projects, one code-named Bluebook, the other Ultima. "These operations were concerned with the processing of large sums of U.S. dollars," the suit contends. "Specifically, operation `Bluebook' is concerned with obtaining control over United States dollar funds claimed by a foreign country and held by a number of banks in Switzerland and Austria, and the transfer of substantial foreign gold holdings. Operation `Ultima' involves the making available of substantial U.S. dollar funds to specific foreign countries."
To back these claims, Martensen points in the suit to the existence of dozens of letters allegedly exchanged by Savage and high-level officials in the U.S. government. There is, for instance, a January 1990 letter from Savage on CIA letterhead, three letters from former president George Bush on White House stationery, two from William Webster, former director of both the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and two from John Sununu, Bush's White House chief of staff.
But the affidavit on file in Denver suggests that British officials are convinced the letters are forgeries. The document also lists Taylor as a suspected co-conspirator with Savage in one of the advance-fee schemes. Most of the $8 million given to Savage and Deacon, the affidavit says, actually belonged not to Taylor but to one of Taylor's clients, an English millionaire named John McDougle. McDougle allegedly was told the money would be used to "unlock" a loan of $350 million and would be repaid within a month. McDougle never got his money back, and ended up filing a complaint with police in Staffordshire.
Attorney Martensen says he's confident the British authorities' version of events is false. "I've heard this allegation," Martensen says. "I can't see that there's any merit to it. We have found no background for this point of view. If we had, we couldn't represent the client. It's as simple as that."
John Savage came back to Colorado because he got sick. At some point around 1990, Sharon Savage says, doctors in England diagnosed him with cancer. They removed most of his stomach, and he seemed to recuperate well, but John was unsure enough of his health that he wanted to come home.
"If he was going to die, he did not want to die in Europe," says Sharon. "He always loved Colorado."
Savage left his second wife, Sarah, and their children behind in Surrey and returned to Colorado, where, in the words of Michael Bergman, he "spent money like a drunken sailor." In Fort Collins he purchased a $950,000 home on a 35-acre lot, complete with pool and tennis court, and filled it with expensive artwork. He bought $500,000 airplanes and a string of sports cars, including a $150,000 Ferrari. A history buff, he acquired a series of rare documents from a gallery in Washington, D.C., including a framed arrangement of the signatures of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy--the four American presidents killed by assassins. "He was looking for museum pieces," says Greg Peeples, a salesman at the Gallery of History. "He tended to get the best."
It wasn't long before Savage's "unexplained assets" caught the attention of a police informant, says Francis "Paco" Gonzales, a detective with the Fort Collins police. Gonzales, who was working in the narcotics unit at the time, suspected Savage was involved with drug trafficking and began delving into his affairs in late 1991. Gonzales says he found that Savage was buying and selling assets over and over again--often through "nominee" corporations that concealed his ownership, and usually at a loss. "What he was doing was laundering the money," Gonzales says. "He was getting about 50 percent on the dollar, [but] he didn't mind."
Robert Clark recalls that his friend Savage's spending habits "astounded everyone." "He was always on the precipice--always," Clark says. "If John had any cash, he'd turn it into assets--collectibles, expensive cars and such--that he figured would grow in value. And then he'd get tight on cash and sell everything at a loss. He did that time after time after time. A lot of money slipped through his hands."
Steacy theorizes that Savage spent so freely "because he was insecure about himself. Probably 75 percent of the time it was emotional buying. To make himself feel better, to make himself look better, he'd go out and buy a $2,000 suit on the spur of the moment. He'd buy a car on a whim. He threw away a hundred thousand dollars so easily it could make you cry."
Detective Gonzales soon discovered that other law enforcement agencies were looking at Savage as well. The Internal Revenue Service had an agent checking him out; the U.S. Attorney in Denver had convened a grand jury to consider possible criminal indictments. People connected to Savage--his ex-wife, Sharon, his mother, Roberta, Michael Bergman, Robert Steacy--were receiving subpoenas to testify. In England, meanwhile, the Staffordshire police, Surrey police and the national Serious Fraud Office were actively investigating Savage, Deacon and other members of the alleged advance-fee ring.
Feeling the heat, Savage eventually sold his place in Fort Collins and bought the home on Orion Drive in Colorado Springs, the British official says. Savage's English wife, Sarah, and their two daughters moved to Colorado to live with him. But word of the investigations was out, and it discouraged Savage deeply, Steacy says.
"He was really downtrodden with everything," Steacy remembers. "He complained that people he answered to--whoever they were in the government--were letting him hang out to dry. He was just real depressed and upset about that whole situation. I think it all kind of came down on him really hard."
But Savage hadn't lost his taste for adventure. Intrigued by stunt flying, he bought a $200,000 Russian aerobatic plane called a Sukhoi SU-29. "It was top of the line," says Carol Germanatta of Aviation Sales Inc., a Denver aircraft dealer that sold Savage several planes. "That was the way John went."
Last year, on May 14, Savage took the plane up to practice Immelmans, Cuban 8s, aileron rolls and other rudimentary aerobatic moves. With him was Dennis Noll of Colorado Springs, a professional pilot with years of aerobatic flying experience. Savage, Noll recalls, was having some difficulty getting the plane to perform in the thin Colorado air. "He expected more out of it than he was getting," Noll says. "I went along basically to bring him up to speed on the way things fly up here."
The pair took the plane to an area about ten miles east of Fountain that Friday morning. They were flying at 6,500 feet, with nothing below them but barren, cactus-covered prairie. Everything went fine until the pair turned around to come home around 12:45 p.m.
Anxious to practice flying upside down, Savage flipped the plane belly-up for fifteen seconds or so as he and Noll cruised back toward the Colorado Springs airport. But when he tried to roll it back upright, something went wrong. Savage later told the Federal Aviation Administration that the plane pitched forward into a steep nosedive. As the plane sped toward the ground, Savage pressed the intercom button and told Noll to get out. He popped the Sukhoi's canopy, bailed out and parachuted to the ground. Noll, who had never skydived before in his life, did the same.
"I've got no memory of the actual flight or the accident," Noll says today. "The next thing I remember is waking up at the hospital at 9 o'clock that night."
According to news reports, Noll landed without serious injury, but he was knocked unconscious and thrown out of his shoes. High winds dragged him by his chute through so many cacti that his bare feet were bristling with thorns. He eventually managed to get his chute off and stagger to a road, where a motorist stopped and took him to safety.
Savage broke both his ankles when he landed. He told the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph that he crawled toward Pikes Peak with his left foot "dangling and swiveling" behind him like the neck of a dead bird. A search party found him that night, about 1,000 yards from the aircraft's shredded remains. "I kept hoping Dennis was alive," Savage told the newspaper from his hospital bed. "I worried that the plane landed in a schoolyard with a bunch of kids in it."
Savage told FAA investigators that he believed a jam in the Sukhoi's controls caused the crash. Noll feels the same way today. "There was nothing mysterious," Noll says. "The airplane broke." An FAA report on the crash, however, concluded otherwise. According to a letter attached to the report, Noll and Savage had had another problem while flying the craft only a few days before. The reason: Noll had attempted to pilot the plane, which has two sets of controls, when Savage appeared to be having trouble. Savage "emphasized" to Noll afterward not to touch the controls while he was flying; Noll said he was "not totally confident" in Savage's ability to handle the plane and would have "no hesitation" in taking control of the plane again if another problem arose, the FAA report says. The May 14 crash, the FAA said, probably occurred because Savage and Noll had been trying to fly the plane at the same time again and were operating the controls "against each other's input."
Savage recovered from his injuries. But within two weeks after he was finally back up and around, says Noll, the stomach cancer returned. Sharon Savage confirms that he took a turn for the worse shortly after the crash. But she doubts the plane accident was at fault. The cancer, she says, had made it into John's lymph nodes by the time it was first detected in England, which sharply increased the probability of a fatal relapse. "I knew it was only a matter of time."
In May authorities in England charged Charles Deacon with sixteen counts of fraud and other crimes in connection with his alleged role in the advance-fee scheme. His trial is pending and may not take place until 1995, but he has lost his house, and his personal possessions have been sold. "The guy's a broken man," says the British law enforcement official. "He's finished." Another alleged co-conspirator, James Fuller, has been charged as well, and the affidavit filed in Denver indicates that authorities are continuing to investigate Thomas Patrick Denton Taylor and at least four other suspects. Savage, says the British official, was only a few weeks shy of a U.S. grand jury indictment when he died.
Even now, however, some key questions about the case remain unanswered. For instance, investigators aren't sure who was the brains behind the scam--Savage, Deacon or somebody else.
"There are some imponderables in this, and there's more than one way of looking at it," says the British investigator. "There's no doubt that when [Savage] met Deacon, his career took off. So you could say Deacon was the driving force. Deacon and Deacon's contacts provided the expertise. But then, on the other hand, where's the money gone to? The bulk of it went to Savage. And it cannot be traced from then on. There's no indication at all that it ever comes back."
With the exception of Sharon Savage, members of John Savage's family either declined comment when contacted by Westword or could not be reached. "I wouldn't know what to say," says Savage's brother Robert, who owns a fly-fishing shop in Fort Collins. "My brother was a mysterious character. They accused him of all sorts of stuff." Savage's second wife, Sarah, has moved back to England with her children.
Robert Steacy, meanwhile, says he's sure the allegations against Savage are false. Like Brian Rusca, Steacy visited with Savage shortly before he died. He says he detected no hint of guilt in his old friend.
"He felt very comfortable with dying," Steacy says. "I don't think he was tormented at all as to any negative or bad things he might have done in his life. If he had been, I'm sure I'd have been the one he would have told it to. At the very end, I was 99.99 percent sure he never did anything wrong to further his own interests. I can't say 100 percent just because I'm never 100 percent sure of anything."
But Steacy and Rusca weren't the only ones to talk with Savage on his deathbed. In August a pair of investigators from England flew to Colorado Springs to interview Savage at the cancer hospice. They had a tape recorder in hand, hoping he could provide them with information that would help them nail his alleged co-conspirators back home.
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Savage was so close to death that he looked like a prisoner of war. His skin hung loosely from the bone, and his stomach was distended like that of a starving child. But he was only partly cooperative, says a law enforcement official assigned to the case. "He made general admissions as to his activities in the U.K.," says the investigator. "Yes, he had committed fraud, he had obtained money fraudulently, he had purported to be a member of the CIA."
Savage, though, never came completely clean. When the detectives asked him where the money--close to $30 million--was hidden, and who controlled it, he was either too sick or too smart to tell them. Says the investigator: "He took that secret to his grave."
end of part 2