Mr. Rich was a commodities trader who made a billion-dollar fortune by doing business with Iran, Iraq, Romania, Russia, Libya and other countries sometimes at odds with the United States.
Called the “King of Commodities,” Mr. Rich dealt in almost anything that could be mined, harvested or drilled from the surface of the earth, including oil, minerals, precious metals, timber and grain. At various times, he was reported to have virtual control over the international markets for aluminum, silver, tin and mercury.
In the early 1980s, he owned half of the 20th Century Fox studio in Hollywood before selling his share to Rupert Murdoch for $250 million. Forbes magazine named him one of the 400 richest Americans and estimated his personal fortune at $2.5 billion.
Mr. Rich defied oil embargoes, price controls and other niceties of law to buy oil from Iran and Iraq and resell it to apartheid-era South Africa and other outlaw nations. Although notoriously shy of publicity, the multilingual Mr. Rich was said to have had personal dealings with many infamous dictators, including Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
His companies did business with Francisco Franco’s Spain, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya and, most notoriously, Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the United States had a strict trade embargo against Iran — and when 52 Americans were held hostage in Tehran — Mr. Rich was negotiating deals to buy crude oil from the ayatollah’s government.
He was credited with developing the “spot market” business practice, or a short-term purchase that could be quickly resold for big profits. Concealing those profits led to Mr. Rich’s indictment in 1983 by federal prosecutors in New York, under the direction of then-U.S. Attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Mr. Rich and his business partner, Pincus “Pinky” Green, were charged with evading $48 million in U.S. income taxes and hiding more than $100 million in profits. The indictment enumerated more than 50 counts of tax evasion, racketeering, conspiracy and fraud. It was the largest tax evasion case in history at the time, and Mr. Rich could have been sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.
One of the most damning charges against Mr. Rich — trading with the enemy, for his dealings with Iran — was later dropped.
Prosecutors turned down an offer to drop charges in return for a payment of $100 million. Several of Mr. Rich’s corporate interests ended up paying more than $200 million in fines and penalties, and some lower-level business collaborators went to jail.
But the man himself could not be found. Before he could be arrested, Mr. Rich cleaned out his expansive Fifth Avenue apartment in New York and moved to Zug, Switzerland. (Green, his business partner, also fled the United States and is living in Switzerland.)