By October 1997, Anne Liv Slemons had run out of options in Southern California. She'd never liked the warm weather anyway. So, six months pregnant and on probation for forging a $5,000 check, the 22-year-old ran. She didn't know where she was headed until she arrived in Colorado and found herself working for--and stealing from--one of Colorado's most notorious embezzlers.
"I was pregnant and just needed time alone to build myself back up," says Slemons, after being led into a makeshift interview room at the Pitkin County Jail. "My home life was completely dysfunctional, and I knew that the only way I was going to get my life together was to leave," she says. "I couldn't survive in California."
But Slemons had jumped from a sinking boat into shark-filled waters. Brushing her long, strawberry-blond hair out of her eyes, she looks more like a kid working the counter at the local Dairy Queen than an embezzler facing eight years in prison. Her polite demeanor belies the hard times she's had in her short life and the fix she's in now. As she sits in the cramped interview room, usually reserved for giving Breathalyzer tests, Slemons seems almost serene.
In fact, for Slemons, the 25-cell, carpeted Aspen jail--which sits a block away from the ritzy Hotel Jerome and, perhaps influenced by the hotel's four-star restaurant, served inmates quail and prime rib for Christmas dinner--is a respite from several years on the run. Slemons was born in California. She never knew her biological mother, and she never got along with her adoptive parents, who divorced when she was 22 months old. The father, a Mercedes-Benz dealer who split his time between Palm Springs and Hawaii, wasn't around much. When Anne was fourteen years old, she and her adoptive mother moved to Colorado so that, in Slemons's words, "my mom could hang out and ski with her friends."
Money wasn't a problem. Upon arriving in Colorado, Slemons's mother bought the first house in the upscale River Run development in Sopris Village. The development on the outskirts of Aspen had been bankrolled by Michael R. Wise, the man for whom Slemons would end up working eight years later.
But changing the scenery didn't help Slemons's relationship with her mother, who would come off the slopes, get drunk and, Slemons says, beat her senseless. After a few months of abuse, she went to social services and asked to be placed in a foster home. That didn't work out, either, and after two abysmal years in Colorado, Slemons and her mother returned to the West Coast, where her troubles continued. By the end of the year, her mom had kicked her out of the house and, at age sixteen, Slemons was on her own. She got office jobs to pay the rent, but even her work life proved to be a struggle.
In July 1996, Slemons was convicted of forging a check from her employer.
"She worked for me for about seven months," says Trudy Hanscom, who was Slemons's boss at Phantom Marine, a boat-electronics store in Newport Beach, California. "I gave her a check to go get supplies, and instead she made it out to herself for $5,000. I never heard from her again after that, but nothing would surprise me about Anne at this point." Slemons served no time for the forgery but was placed on probation.
Shortly after her conviction, Slemons got pregnant (she says the father is one of two men, but she's not sure which and doesn't seem to care) and made her decision to leave California for good--even though by doing so, she would be violating her parole and breaking off a marriage engagement. She says that at the time, the move was the scariest thing she'd ever done.
Arriving in Colorado with little more than the maternity clothes she was wearing, Slemons moved into a Carbondale trailer park with 24-year-old Michael McCarty, who had driven with her from California. The trailer park was a few miles down the road from the country-club development where she and her mother had lived six years earlier.
Court records say that Slemons and McCarty were lovers, but Slemons insists that the relationship was platonic--just two kids trying to get by. And getting by was tough. Not only was Slemons pregnant, but she had little money, and office jobs were scarce. Most of the positions she applied for in the high-toned area around Aspen wouldn't hire her because she didn't have the right clothes. The area was as unfriendly as it had been back when Slemons was fifteen years old.
Eventually she got a job through the S.O.S. temp agency. The firm assigned her to work as a file clerk at Cornerstone Private Capital of Aspen, a company specializing in high-interest real-estate loans. It was while working at Cornerstone that Slemons ran into the company's CEO, Michael Wise, whom she had known briefly when she and her mother lived in his Sopris Village development. Perhaps because of the fact that her mother was a former client, Wise helped Slemons get back on her feet. Maybe Wise also felt compassion for the young woman since he, too, had experienced his share of troubles over the past decade.
They say the best way to rob a bank is to own one. Michael Wise didn't get away with it, but he acts like he did.
Appearing in U.S. District Court on March 2 for a preliminary hearing on wire-fraud charges, Wise looked like the most well-behaved kid in class. While spectators, including Wise's own sunglass-wearing attorney, slouched on the wooden benches of the hangar-like courtroom, Wise sat at attention in the same gray suit he'd worn to every previous court appearance.
When his case was called, Wise held the gate open for the prosecuting attorney, whose job it is to put him away.
But despite this pleasant demeanor, Wise has been accused over the years of some very unpleasant financial dealings.
Wise first ran into trouble in the late Eighties when, as CEO of Denver's Silverado Savings and Loan, he was charged with bilking bank investors out of more than a million dollars, some of which he used to remodel his house. Considering that the government had to fork over more than a billion dollars to cover Silverado's bad investments of depositors' money, the 1988 fraud charges against Wise were relatively paltry. One attorney observing the 1988 case described the charges as a "traffic ticket."
In her book S&L Hell, author Kathleen Day describes Wise as "a glib go-getter in the world of banking, a champion schmoozer used to getting his way." When Wise flew out to meet with regional S&L regulators in Topeka, Kansas, the regulators--who were supposed to be making sure that all of his dealings were legit--often sent a limousine to pick him up at the airport.
Wise was found not guilty of the 1988 embezzling charges, but the dustup put a temporary crimp in his lifestyle. After his trial, the onetime high-roller was reduced to paying off his lawyers with two sets of sterling silverware. But in 1991 he reappeared in Aspen, where he started another investment company, called Cornerstone of Aspen Ltd. Like Silverado, the company acted as a middleman, matching people who had excess cash with those who needed to borrow it. Despite his tumultuous financial past, Wise managed to drum up business with his charisma--and a public perception that he hadn't been at fault for Silverado's demise.
"Everyone was aware of his past," says one of Wise's former business associates, who asked that his name not be used in this article. "But the consensus was that the guy was very bright and played by the rules but was just a victim of politics with the Silverado deal. A lot of people felt like it was a case of him being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The political explanation for Wise's problems stems from the fact that Neil Bush, son of then-vice president George Bush, was a member of Silverado's board of directors. At the time of the country's savings-and-loan disaster--which ended up costing taxpayers more than any other government action outside of war--many critics blamed the Republican administration for the fiasco. During his 1988 presidential campaign, Democrat Michael Dukakis said Bush could have headed off the crisis when he'd been director of the White House task force on financial regulation. "Mr. Bush's inattention will cost tens of billions of dollars," Dukakis charged.
Silverado was a natural target for politicians and regulators who wanted to convince the public that they were doing something--anything--in the face of the multi-billion-dollar government bailout. But like Wise, Neil Bush managed to slip away unscathed, due to what many believed was his father's influence. In fact, the Silverado investigation was held up for two months while George Bush campaigned for president, and it was only on the day after the election that the government finally seized Silverado. In subsequent hearings, there were plenty of memory lapses by government regulators as to who had ordered the delay; by the time the government shut down the bank, Silverado executives had removed or destroyed evidence that could have further incriminated them.
Blaming Silverado's demise on Neil Bush's involvement was justification for many new investors to give Wise a second chance and invest several million dollars in his company.
Cornerstone would provide Anne Slemons with a second chance as well. When Wise's executive assistant quit in November 1997, he asked Slemons to move up from her temp job in the file room and fill in while he looked for a replacement. For a couple of months, the suave Wise and the 22-year-old fugitive hit it off.
"He's very distinguished," says Slemons, "but despite his commanding presence, he was always soft-spoken and quick to smile. He was a hard worker. He'd be in the office at 8 a.m. on the dot, never late, with papers in his hands waiting to be faxed. He always returned phone calls and was always willing to help investors who called."
On the surface, Wise was the consummate businessman--but the FBI contends that as early as 1996 he had already returned to his old tricks. Slemons says she was aware that Wise was stealing from clients, but that didn't diminish her respect for him.
"He really picked me up when I came here from California with just the clothes on my back," Slemons says. "Cornerstone was the only business in the Roaring Fork who would let me work even though I didn't have business attire. I felt loyalty to Mr. Wise because of that. I had two and a half excellent months there, and I worked my behind off for Mr. Wise, because he was someone who gave me a chance to be a decent person."
By that time, Wise had also been given plenty of chances to redeem himself. The summer before Slemons signed on with Cornerstone, for example, Wise's wife had been found dead at their Aspen mansion, and Wise had been a suspect.
Joe DiSalvo, director of investigations for the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office, eventually concluded that Shelley Wise died from "positional asphyxiation."
"Her blood-alcohol level was sky-high," says DiSalvo, "and she got herself into a strange position with her head sort of wedged in between the bed and the nightstand. The position was awkward enough to cut off her own air supply. Initially, foul play was an issue, and Mike Wise was a suspect for about three weeks.
"But if you look at all the evidence, it rules Wise out as a suspect. Still, [Shelley's] friends automatically got suspicious of Mike. There were a lot of rumors--like she was found with a pillow over her face--because of Mike's character and his past. None of them turned out to be true."
A former business associate says that in public Wise remained impassive throughout the ordeal.
"He never mentioned anything about it or the fact that he was under investigation," says a former associate. "The first time many people knew of his wife's death was months after the fact, when he sent out Christmas cards and she wasn't in the picture."
Wise was equally unruffled when he started embezzling from Cornerstone investors. Since 1991, he had been doing business as Cornerstone of Aspen Ltd. In 1997 he joined up with Aspen millionaire Tom McClosky (they'd met through their kids, who played soccer together). McClosky imposed two conditions on the joint venture. First, Wise had to pass a test administered by an industrial psychiatrist (according to a former Cornerstone employee, Wise breezed through the test). Second, McClosky demanded that Wise close out all of his old Cornerstone bank accounts and process all new transactions through the new company, which was called Cornerstone Private Capital.
McClosky was convinced that Wise would toe the line, but it was not to be.
According to the FBI complaint filed against Wise on February 3, one of the ways he was embezzling was by "overfunding" loans from Cornerstone. He did this by "soliciting and receiving from investors more money than was needed to make the loans. He then converted the excess funds to his own use.
"In one such incident," the complaint continues, "Wise solicited $1,250,000 from ten investors between November 7, 1996 and March 21, 1997 on the representation that the money would be used to fund a loan known as Ridges Funding, LLC. The actual loan amount, however, was only $1,100,000, meaning the investors provided $150,000 in excess funds." According to the FBI, Wise pulled this same stunt several times between 1996 and 1998. Each time, the money went into his old Cornerstone accounts, which McClosky had told him to close.
"What he did wasn't rocket science," says a Cornerstone employee. "But it did take a superhuman effort to keep it all together. He was doing this for several years, and once you start lying, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to keep it up."
Wise's chicanery was still going undetected by Cornerstone officials in late December 1997, but Slemons's past--in the form of her mother--was catching up with her. Slemons says her adoptive mother was obsessed with tracking her down (as was her parole officer and an ex-fiance who claimed that she owed him thousands of dollars in credit-card debts), and she found out through friends back in California that her mother was getting new leads daily on her whereabouts.
Knowing that she faced three to five years in jail back in California for her probation violation--and at eight months pregnant, figuring authorities would take away her baby if they caught up with her--Slemons decided it was time to start planning her exit from Colorado. The first thing she needed was money, and after working in Wise's elegant oak-paneled office--where the minimum loan was $1 million for six to 24 months and $100,000 dollar checks got dropped off like the morning paper--she knew where to find it and how to make it her own.
Wise had left town the week of Christmas. Slemons says he entrusted her with blank checks and a copy of his signature so she could make payments for him while he was gone (Cornerstone officials say that Wise told them Slemons got ahold of the checks and the signature stamp because he forgot to lock his safe before leaving town). "He gave me every single tool I needed to get the money," Slemons insists. "He had me cutting checks for him the whole time he was gone. I don't know why he thought he could trust me."
With Wise out of town and her mother closing in on her, Slemons started cashing checks in the amount of $6,000 at Alpine Bank branches across Pitkin County. Slemons says she was so nervous cashing the checks that she might as well have been going in with a loaded gun and a stick-up note.
The check-cashing spree went smoothly. But a couple of days after she started, Slemons says, her mother called her at the trailer park and told her that the cops knew where to find her.
When her mom found her, Slemons says, "she did the one thing she shouldn't have done--she called the cops." After hanging up the phone, Slemons looked outside to see a police car pulling into the trailer park. Although she would later find out that the police cruiser was just on a routine patrol, at the time it seemed like the dragnet was closing in on her. Expecting to get arrested at any moment, she and Michael McCarty frantically packed up their things and took off for a motel in Glenwood Springs, where they spent a sleepless night peeking out the window and discussing their options.
Glenwood Springs was a relatively safe hideout for the couple. Located right off I-70, the tourist trap on the way to Aspen is crammed with other anonymous travelers. But the two decided to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. They picked Alaska, via Canada, as their destination.
But first they needed reliable transportation. Under the cover of darkness the next night, the two young fugitives went to Bighorn Motors to scope out Toyota 4Runners. The next day, McCarty showed up at the dealership with a cashier's check, forged by Slemons, in the amount of $33,899.36--the price of the 4Runner plus $2,900 worth of add-ons such as a brush guard and a CD player. But the two were so anxious, they decided against waiting around to get the extras installed.
"I'm most ashamed of buying that car," Slemons says, holding her head in her hands. "It was probably the easiest sale that dealership ever saw. But that was Michael's dream car, and he wanted it. I agreed because it would be a safe car for my baby."
By now it was two days after New Year's. On the way out of Glenwood Springs, the pair cashed several more $6,000 checks, stuffing the $100 bills into a bank bag in the glove compartment, and they bought a laptop computer for $3,867. McCarty also paused long enough to mail two letters. One was a $1,500 payment to his credit-card company; the other was addressed to Slemons's ex-fiance in California and included a check for $6,000 to cover the credit-card bill he'd accused Slemons of running up on him before she'd split for Colorado. Hoping to permanently ditch her ex, McCarty wrote that Slemons had died in a car accident and the money had come from insurance. The couple then joined the I-70 holiday traffic into Denver, turned north on 1-25 and headed through Wyoming and toward the Canadian border at Sweetgrass, Montana. They hoped to wind their way from there up to Alaska. Slemons says she chose to go north because she likes the cold.
"I was so scared," says Slemons. She meticulously folds a tissue into a tight square. "I'd see a cop and think, 'Oh, my God, it's over.' I was so paranoid, but once you start something like this, you can't go back, especially when you're eight months pregnant. My only thought that kept me going was that no one was going to take my child. It was the scariest thing I've ever done in my life. Scarier than running from California."
It got worse when they reached Sweetgrass. Growing up in California, Slemons had been accustomed to the lackadaisical border checkpoint in Tijuana, where cars streamed in and out of the country after cursory inspections. But out on the desolate high plains of Montana, there are no anonymous travelers.
"I got the sense that it wasn't right the moment it came into view," Slemons says. "There were two big buildings and cop cars all over the place. I said we should turn around, but Mike wanted to go and ask what was required to get past. And since it was one lane, there wasn't any way to turn around. We pulled off to the side of the Canadian building, and the Mountie told us to come on inside. I thought we held ourselves together pretty well, but when we came out of the Canadian building, a U.S. Customs officer asked us to come with him and answer some questions."
The border patrol left Slemons sitting in the lobby while they questioned McCarty in a back room. Slemons says she never even thought about running. "You run before you're caught, not after. After you're caught, you just be the best you can be and cooperate."
The border patrol didn't have much trouble getting McCarty to spill his guts, says Slemons. His parents had filed a missing-persons report on him, which stated that he was probably in the company of a felon. The border patrol had stopped them because of the new car, and McCarty told the agents about the rest, including the $47,000 stuffed in the glove compartment. Both Slemons and McCarty were charged with currency violations and taken to Great Falls, Montana, where they spent ten and a half months serving their federal sentences.
McCarty is now doing a three-year state sentence at Canon City for his part in the check-cashing spree.
Slemons pleaded guilty to the theft and forgery charges and delivered her baby in custody. She was allowed to spend thirty hours with her daughter before the child was taken away and placed with foster parents in Black Eagle, Montana. (The only time Slemons sheds tears is when she talks about her daughter, who just celebrated her first birthday.) On Monday, Slemons pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft and two counts of felony forgery. She was fined $25,000 and sentenced to eight years in the Department of Corrections (but was credited for 430 days served). She will be eligible for parole in two and a half years.
Most of the money the pair stole from Wise has since been recovered, including the $2,900 they paid for never-installed accessories on the 4Runner. But Wise will never see that money, because Cornerstone investors are after it and everything else he owns.
"I rerun the scenario in my head all the time," says Slemons. "I don't know if I could have gotten away with it. I was running scared, and most likely I would've screwed up even if we had got across the border. But maybe if I had all my faculties, I might have gotten away."
Wise's game was up in September 1998. While he was out of town, an Aspen investor named Kelley Carson called the Cornerstone office to change her address. Through Wise, Carson had invested more than a million dollars in Cornerstone-generated loans. But when Cornerstone staffers tried to locate Carson's account, they came up with a blank. Wise had put all of Carson's money into his own accounts. From there, the end was swift--but it didn't come before Wise made a nervy attempt for one more chance. He requested to stay on and earn back the money he stole. Cornerstone officials, shocked at his audacity, fired him on the spot. Soon afterward, Wise admitted his guilt to both the Aspen police and the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office. FBI officials say that Wise has cooperated extensively with them since them.
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Like Slemons says, you run before you get caught, not after.
But Wise has yet to serve any jail time. He is working on a plea bargain to reduce the amount of jail time he will serve on two wire-fraud charges. He faces a maximum of ten years, but the likelihood that he will serve all that time is about the same as that of him getting a job at another bank.
Slemons is flabbergasted by this. "They must have had him cold," says Slemons. "From what I know, Wise is unrepentant about taking money, so he didn't admit this out of guilt. They must have plenty of evidence. What I don't get is how he's out on bond. I took $100,000--a fraction of what he stole--and I have a baby. Still, I'm looking at a maximum of seven more years than he is. I don't get it."
"It seems a little unfair," says one of Wise's former business associates. "Slemons stole a hundred thousand dollars from a guy who stole $8 million, and she's looking at doing more time than he is. But I guess that's our society. O.J. Simpson and Clinton get off scot-free, and it looks like Wise might get off as well."
At this point, Slemons says that she just wants to do her time and get back to her daughter. And despite her predicament, she wishes Wise the best. "I'm pretty sure he got more money out of Cornerstone than they're saying he did," says Slemons. "If he can come out of this with three or four million, maybe he can live out the rest of his life comfortably, because I know that after this, nobody else is going to hire him. But as far as I'm concerned, he's still the best employer I ever had.