by Yves Jaques
A con, a hustle, a swindle; cheating people out of their money is a practice which goes by many names, but whatever the name, all scams break down into two fundamental groups: the short grift, and the long grift. The short grift is more commonly practiced, since it doesnt take nearly the same set of skills. Things like card-sharking, pool-sharking, the pigeon drop, are all common varieties of the short grift. They tend to rely on the momentary weakness of the victim, on speed, and timing.
The long grift is in another category entirely. The long grift takes a master tactician. Like the short grift, it also relies on the weakness of the victim; but instead of taking advantage of momentary infirmity, it fosters infirmity as a state of being. The timing is also important, but it is a timing of a very complex sort, the organization of people and details into an exacting structure. The grifter working the long grift has to construct a seamless imaginary world. And this takes seed money. The long grift may take months between initial contact with the victim, and final reward. Money needs to be spent on accomplices, equipment, office space, and living money.
The people who work the long grift successfully are the Kings of the Grifters. They have a set of skills that could place them in a good position within any organization. But the grift, the grift is a beautiful, precious thing to them, an intoxicant, an addiction. Walter Wagner, in his book "The Golden Fleecers," quotes Fraud Investigator Donald L. Lundquist, who views the con man in psychological terms. "Greed isnt their primary motivation. They have a quirk or twist in their ego that makes it absolutely mandatory that they put something over on the other guy in order to exist. The majority of them could make a very substantial legitimate living."
Precious metals are an area where grifters are abundant. Any history of the American gold rushes has an annal devoted to scams and scammers. But the most celebrated grifter of the gold-fevered came long after the end of the gold rush.
Homer Mills, from the late 1930s until the late 1950s, bilked investors of millions. His technique was fairly simple. First, hed file as a corporation. Then, hed buy a played-out mine for a few thousand dollars, and stock it with street people running jackhammers and posing as miners. Homer would then invite a group of investors to the mine, and show them around. Hed even seed the mine floor with chunks of shiny ore, casually picking them up and handing them to the investors. Homer Mills earned millions of dollars bilking would-be gold tycoons. A master at playing to the sympathies of jurors, he spent less than two years of a twenty year string of fraud behind bars.
My Uncle and I meet with Foraker early the next morning, at one of the many theme restaurants tucked into the massive guts of the Excalibur Hotel. Over omelets and croissants we discuss the contract which Bill Foraker has brought with him. A one-page affair, to someone like myself, with a real-estate background, its obviously a joke. Venture capitalists do not sign one-page contracts. The agreement offers little more than a vaguely defined limited partnership between my Uncle Pierrot, and United States Platinum Refinery, Forakers company. The price to buy in: $75,000.
My Uncle explains to me that he has a cashiers check for $25,000, and that he plans to wire for the other $50,000 when he sees Forakers refining setup. I explain this to Bill, who grimaces slightly. There is some back and forth about Foraker having too many engagements to take us out to the refinery, but seeing that my Uncle is not to be moved, he acquiesces.
We leave almost immediately in a four-wheel Rover. It turns out that the refinery is actually just over the state border in Arizona, a little town called Oasis. As we drive the endless desert, I begin explaining to my Uncle the many reasons why the contract is a joke. "First of all," I tell him, "its not even set up for a notary. A contract like this definitely needs to be notarized. I mean, have you seen this guys ID? A notary is a good, non-threatening way to do it. If hes legitimate, it shouldnt be a problem."
"But you dont understand, Yves," replies my Uncle. "This is an agreement between gentlemen. The contract is a formality. I know this man."
I see him staring excitedly out the window at the low, dry hills. Hes never seen the desert before. Hes never seen this much desolation. Hes taking pictures with a top-of-the-line Nikon. Hes not even listening to me.
Before Id left Denver to meet my Uncle in Las Vegas, Id set-up an appointment with a contract attorney in Las Vegas. I was looking out for my Uncle. He was after all my favorite Uncle. The one who lived in a converted farmhouse, and had a loft full of instruments. This was the man that had blown up a baby carriage with home-made black powder. I love this man.
Coming from a less attorney plagued society however, Pierrot pooh-poohs the idea of meeting with this attorney. Given the brevity of the contract, he has a point. But I still try and convince my Uncle. Im thinking that maybe hell listen to an outside party, someone who really knows contracts. The attorney will tell him hes insane.
As we drive across the border, over the stylish Hoover dam with its gorgeous art-deco angels, I stare at the transmission lines climbing vertically out the canyons mouth. Thats my Uncle. Thats my family. Stubborn as hell.
After getting fired by the new owner of his Fathers music-box factory, Pierrot had cast around desperately for new employment. The baby of the family, hed been coddled his entire life. Suddenly, in his mid-thirties, with a house, a wife, and three children, hed been let out into the wilderness.
Responding to an ad in the paper, hed come home one day after months of joblessness with a brand new cargo truck. Hed spent the last of their money.
Even after he explained himself his wife remained furious. A Swedish manufacturer of office furniture was just moving into the Swiss market. The ad Pierrot had responded to was a call for independent short-haul drivers to ferry and install office furniture around Switzerland. Hed bought the truck knowing nothing about the company, and little about the prospective delivery job.
His wife told him he was insane. His Father told him he was insane. Everyone in Ste. Croix told him he was insane. But ten years later, he was a regional distributor, with a group of drivers reporting to him. Hed made it. In the face of everyones criticism, hed persevered and made it.
This was the psychological history that was working on him now. Just like ten years ago, everyone was telling him he was insane, that this could never work. He was going to show them once again. And become truly rich this time.
At last, Foraker pulls in at a desert pit stop. Theres a restaurant, a garage, a gas station, and a few scattered mobile homes with large air-conditioners strapped to their backs. I notice the sign atop the restaurant reads "The Oasis."
Foraker turns to my Uncle and I, sweeping his hand expansively. "Well this is it guys, Oasis, Arizona. U.S. Platinum Refinery owns this whole place."
We grab a lunch at the dowdy, forgotten diner by the side of the desert highway. This is Oasis. Im watching my Uncle. I cant believe the squalor of the thing has no effect on him. Never having been to the United States before, he has no yardstick to measure by.
Fifty paces behind the restaurant sits a typical pre-fab metal warehouse. In the lot to one side of the building stands a collection of abandoned construction equipment, baking in the noon-day sun. Foraker has a monstrous set of keys on a fat silver ring. He tries them slowly, methodically, rejecting them one at a time. His consternation grows as he continues to fail at unlocking the small side door to the warehouse.
My Uncle and I stand staring off at the low red-brown hills, in an attempt to appear unconcerned. Finally Foraker turns to us. "Damnit, I just cant believe it. I dont have the key for the warehouse. The damn thing must be at home."
My Uncle queries me in French, "He doesnt have the key?"
"Correct," I say, a bitter smile on my face edging the look of triumph in my eyes. I am sure that this will put my Uncle over the top and back into reality. "He says that he left it at home."
"A shame theres no windows to the warehouse," says my Uncle.
"Indeed," I say.
"Tell ya what," says Foraker, already shifting gears, "Lets head up into the hills, visit a miner friend of mine."
And so were off again, down the state highway for a while, and then off-road, up into those dusty, uninviting hills.
King of the Grifters, Part 3