The Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent hadn't forgotten the day he arrested Harper more than twenty years ago for interstate transportation of stolen vehicles. When Brown heard Harper's name on the tail end of an ad soliciting investors in a plan to run a monorail through an old mining tunnel between Idaho Springs and Central City, it got his attention.
"The announcement said the ads were paid for by Argo Tunnel Corporation and Chris Harper," says Brown. "I knew that name."
Brown first met up with Harper in 1972 when, as a Vail police officer, he pulled Harper over during a traffic stop on Interstate 70. The young officer soon discovered that Harper was on the lam from a federal prison in California--and Harper's reputation as an escape artist was confirmed when he broke out of the Eagle County jail and headed for Denver, where he was arrested again in 1973.
Brown hadn't seen Harper since, but when he heard the radio announcement, he knew the ex-convict was back in business. And judging from the ad, Harper's latest endeavor was a doozy. The gambling fever that engulfed Central City and Black Hawk in 1991 had brought on a rush of real estate developers, and Harper had joined the stampede with a bizarre proposal to run trains from the former Argo Mill in Idaho Springs through an abandoned mine shaft into Central City. The plan was touted as a bold way to deal with the stream of traffic overwhelming state highway 119. With his wife, Cheryl, and three other partners, Harper launched a highly visible pitch for investors, running ads and even getting written up on the front page of Denver's daily newspapers.
It was a daring gambit on the part of the 48-year-old entrepreneur. In the last two decades Harper has transformed himself from a car thief into a suave financier who lunches with millionaires and frequently travels on business to Europe. He has gone from fleeing the law on American interstates to racking up frequent-flier miles on flights across the Atlantic. But many of those who've done business with Harper say that while he may have traded in jeans and a T-shirt for tailored European suits, he's still the same old con artist.
Harper's Argo Tunnel scheme was floated just a few days before Christmas 1994. For much of the next year, Santa Claus was a frequent visitor at the posh Harper residence, and he wasn't bringing lumps of coal. Harper raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars from investors in a private placement for the Argo Tunnel project. When he began advertising a planned $5 million penny-stock offering on local radio and cable-television stations, he was inundated with nearly 3,000 inquiries.
But the affable financier portrayed in the news media now looks more like Scrooge to his investors. Last month Harper was indicted by a Jefferson County grand jury on two felony counts of securities fraud. The indictment charges that the Argo Tunnel project was a scam and that Harper lied to investors about the ownership of the mine and commitments from the city of Idaho Springs. Harper also allegedly neglected to tell his investors that he had served time for felony auto theft in the 1970s--or about his multiple escapes from detention facilities.
The indictment also says Harper misrepresented the credentials of his partners, failing to tell investors that Marc Brink, who is listed as president of the Argo Tunnel Corporation, had worked primarily as an auto mechanic; or that Charles Beck, the company's chief operating officer, was a former attorney who had been disbarred by the Colorado Supreme Court for misuse of client funds and had most recently worked as a taxi driver; or that Michael Meenan, the chief financial officer, had been involved with a casino--the Cracker Factory--that went belly-up.
Authorities say the money raised for the Argo Tunnel scheme was never spent on the project but instead went into Harper's pocket. And Harper apparently wasn't afraid to spend it. Until last year he and his wife enjoyed a lifestyle befitting Donald Trump. They lived in a $1.6 million house next to the Pinehurst Country Club in southwest Denver. The 15,267-square-foot home is known as the "Pagoda House" because of its distinctive slate roof and lavish Oriental gardens. With a 2,400-square-foot master bedroom, eight baths, an indoor/outdoor pool known as the "blue lagoon" and features like a shower room with black marble floors and a chandelier, the mansion next to the links certainly looked like the kind of place a big-time developer would call home.
But at the same time the Harpers were living the high life, court records show they were bouncing checks at Safeway and Target. The deed on the Pagoda House was in Cheryl Harper's name, and the former owners of the house forced her into Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July 1995, claiming the Harpers owed them $671,000. Court documents show that the couple is in debt for more than $800,000, with creditors that include SoFine Limousine, Warehouse Liquor Mart, the Cottonwood Riding Club and the Internal Revenue Service.