by Yves Jaques
We say a few parting words, get in the Rover, and tread slowly down the worn road.
"You see what I mean," says Foraker, "what gold fever can do to a man. Lost his house, his wife, his children. Digging on his claim with no rhyme or reason, and no money to do it right. Crazy."
We all shake our heads in grave sympathy. Forakers meaning is clear, we are beyond this kind of thing. We are intelligent, rational men, engaging together in a sound business enterprise.
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. Im 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.
As we drive back to Vegas I convince my Uncle that there is one sure way to test Forakers legitimacy, we have to go to North Carolina and visit M & M Minerals, the supplier of the raw ore. Hes come this far, why not take the final step? If these guys check out as legitimate, the whole thing looks much less hazy. My hopes soar when he agrees that we should go. I feel for the first time that Pierrot is listening to reason.
I explain to Foraker that my Uncle thinks its necessary for he and I to visit the ore supplier in North Carolina. Again, Foraker doesnt seem to like the change in plans, but agrees with little protest, telling me to call him at his home when weve settled our travel arrangements.
Back at the Excalibur, I secure plane tickets, and with a heavy heart cancel our appointment with the Vegas contract attorney.
The following morning, we are in Charlotte, North Carolina.
M & M minerals is located in Concord, a small town about an hour out of Charlotte. The weather is superb as our rental car shoots us down the byways in comfort. A few wrong turns righted, and we find ourselves winding down an ancient gravel road that occasionally passes the detritus of a bygone mining age, broken vehicles and equipment strewn haphazardly along the banks of a placid river.
The road terminates abruptly at a two story industrial structure with a tin shack tacked to its rump. A couple of geezers saunter out to greet us. Introducing themselves as Mike and Charlie, they are warm and friendly, very unassuming in their manner. Ive done enough selling to quickly sense that these guys are legitimate; either that, or highly trained method actors. As they show us around their operation, I discard the latter. They know this place and its history far too well. These guys are on the level. Ive been trained to sense when people are lying. I sell real estate. People lie to me the live long day.
Their story is a wonder. This area of North Carolina was mined extensively for gold in the Nineteenth Century. The river we stand next to was once laden with gold ore. All the high grade ore was mined long ago, but the river rock still contains measurable quantities of gold and other precious metals.
Mike and Charlie show us around their elaborate set-up. First they pull up river rock with a backhoe and run it through a crusher. A conveyor takes it over to the main building where the crushed rock is ground into sand. This sand is then run through a Rube Goldberg contraption of their own design (they are both retired engineers) which runs on electrostatic principles. This machine, over multiple passes, separates the metallic particles from the non-metallic. They eventually end up with what they call concentrates. Mike and Charlie claim that theyd had their concentrates analyzed by a local university, and that the content of gold, platinum, palladium, and rubidium was almost enough to make the refining of this black sand commercially viable.
Almost being the key operand. There still wasnt enough precious metal in the sand to make refining it worth the effort. At least not until precious metals made another jump in the market. So theyd been stuck with their black sand not knowing where to turn. That is, until Billy Jerry Foraker came along.
As far as Mike and Charlie are concerned, the man is a saint. The first time that hed visited them, hed taken samples of their concentrates, and had them assayed back in Nevada. Convinced of the feasibility of refining the material, Foraker had bought $5,000 worth, and contracted to buy as much as they could produce.
"He used to work for DuPont, you know," says Charlie with a glowing expression on his face, as we sit at a local restaurant and discuss mining over eggs and browns.
"Hes had a long and profitable career in mining," seconds Mike. "He was a chemical engineer you know, but he just couldnt take all that bureaucracy at DuPont."
"Big company," says Charlie.
"Yep, big company," says Mike.
I start feeling pretty damn well confused. Maybe Ive been misjudging this Foraker guy. Hell, he knows a lot of mining people. No one seems to think theres anything funny about him. These Carolina coots are definitely legit. The man is supposedly a chemical engineer. New manufacturing processes are constantly being devised. Why cant it be true? Maybe I just judged him on his musky cologne, and his pool shark feel. After all, Ive been raised Swiss. Down deep I can be fiercely xenophobic. Maybe Im wrong.
"Putting the mark into the con mans play apparently has another significance, one which joins sociological and economic vocabularies. A player is one who is necessary to a play...the marks irreplaceability is not just asserted but demonstrated." So writes Leff in "Swindling and Selling."
With swindles that rest on new products or processes, theres another way that the sophisticated swindler obscures the nature of the con. He finds legitimate but misguided inventors/engineers/designers to whom he attaches himself. Their belief in themselves (and the con man) is tremendously strengthened by the con mans (posing as an investor) interest. They become convinced that their idea or product, whose miraculous claims have heretofore fallen on deaf ears, has finally found an audience. Their effusiveness and honesty then attach to the con man, plating his con with an armor of sincerity.
The "Casby Craft" swindle makes for a classic study of this type of con. Casby was a physicist by trade, but his true love was boating. He thought he had a revolutionary design for a sailboat that could cut manufacturing costs in half. He found a ready ear in Fred Miller, an LA con man posing as a businessman and boat lover. Using Casbys enthusiasm, Fred Miller quickly amassed a group of excited investors, who spawned in their turn a second wave of investors. Miller paid a few college students to do some bunco designs, and built a scale-model of the boat, but the supposed prototype that "Casby Craft" was building was never even commenced.
It was the innocent Casbys enthusiasm that propelled and legitimized the scam. Miller almost made off with a quarter million profit, when by a piece of personal misfortune, a curious investor discovered an empty shipyard where the prototype was supposed to be under construction.
Authors Mary Carey and George Sherman, in their handbook "A Compendium of Bunk," quote a member of the Los Angeles DAs office as saying, "What Fred Miller did, was to look around for an excuse to get people interested in investing...he could have had some pretty drawings made and tried to sell a train that runs without tracks...He found Casby by accident. Now there was a well meaning guy with a great idea, except that it wouldnt work. That didnt stop Miller. He used Casby as a springboard. He had a sincere, believable front man. Who could ask for more?"
King of the Grifters, Part 4