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Correction to This Article
The Jan. 13 obituary of fugitive financier Richard M. Hirschfeld incorrectly described him as an acquaintance of Judge Robert H. Bork. According to Bork, Hirschfeld called him once from prison, requesting legal advice. Bork referred him to another lawyer and had no other contact with him.

Flashy Fugitive Richard Hirschfeld Dies

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 13, 2005; Page B07

Richard M. Hirschfeld, a flamboyant lawyer and confidant to Muhammad Ali whose shadowy life on the fringes of high finance, politics and espionage led him to prison and, eventually, to life as a fugitive, committed suicide Jan. 11 at a federal jail in Miami.

Mr. Hirschfeld, 57, was captured Oct. 1 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was about to be transferred to Norfolk to stand trial on a variety of federal charges. He apparently hanged himself with plastic wrap in a jailhouse laundry room.


Richard M. Hirschfeld committed suicide at a federal jail in Miami while awaiting trial. He fled the country after his indictment in 1996. (The Virginian-pilot)

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Mr. Hirschfeld spent much of his life in the headlines and in trouble for his high-profile schemes, his veiled suggestions that he performed espionage for U.S. intelligence agencies and his close association with Ali, whom he represented for more than 15 years.

But as with so many of Mr. Hirschfeld's endeavors, the relationship with Ali ended in dispute. In August 1999, the former boxing champion sued Mr. Hirschfeld, alleging that the lawyer had duped him into signing away the lucrative rights to his life story. Two months later, Ali withdrew the suit, and the terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Mr. Hirschfeld, whose primary residences were in Virginia Beach and Charlottesville when he wasn't on the run, cultivated a shadowy image of intrigue and never confirmed or denied the cloak-and-dagger rumors that swirled around him. When asked directly, in a 1989 interview with The Washington Post, he said only, "Nobody's ever heard of a Jewish James Bond."

Nonetheless, at least one former CIA agent claimed Mr. Hirschfeld had performed special assignments for the agency.

In 1987, Mr. Hirschfeld and an associate posed as arms dealers and taped ousted Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos plotting an invasion to reclaim control of his homeland. Mr. Hirschfeld later testified to a Senate subcommittee about Marcos's plans. In 1989, Mr. Hirschfeld's partner in that caper, Robert Chastain, died mysteriously in Vienna, shortly after a suicide clause in his insurance policies expired. Mr. Hirschfeld was the primary beneficiary of almost $5 million in life insurance.

Mr. Hirschfeld had already pleaded guilty in 1986 to criminal contempt for securities violations and for misleading investigators about the financing of a boxing camp he had formed with Ali.

In 1991, after claiming a $42 million tax write-off from a nonexistent lawsuit, Mr. Hirschfeld was convicted of tax evasion and conspiracy, fined $460,000 and sentenced to six years in federal prison. When he was released in 1995, he took up the life of a country squire in Charlottesville, raising horses on a 50-acre farm. His office had an unlisted telephone number.

He was indicted in 1996 in a scheme to obtain an early work-release furlough while still in prison. He was accused of fraudulently arranging to work for Habitat for Humanity rebuilding houses damaged by Hurricane Andrew in Florida. Facing a possible sentence of 70 years if convicted, Mr. Hirschfeld fled the country and had lived as a fugitive until his capture.

A gregarious man of charm and persuasion, Mr. Hirschfeld had many acquaintances in high places, including Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, entertainer Kenny Rogers and members of the Saudi royal family. At the Republican National Convention in 1988, Mr. Hirschfeld and Ali sat behind Barbara Bush as George H.W. Bush delivered his acceptance speech for the presidential nomination.

Mr. Hirschfeld was born in Hampton Roads into a prominent family. His father was a dentistry professor at Old Dominion University. Mr. Hirschfeld graduated from the University of Virginia Law School in 1972. Within two years, he attempted to open the Hirschfeld National Bank, but debts and poor financing drew the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which closed down the project.

There were other questionable business ventures, as well, including one that claimed to have found a cure for herpes. Mr. Hirschfeld was accused of setting up shell companies and of giving misleading information to investors and federal authorities. The SEC barred him from dealing in securities.

Living in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, he hobnobbed with Hollywood stars, but by 1980, he was back in Virginia Beach. He was known for throwing extravagant parties with luminaries from sports, politics and entertainment. He bought his wife a Rolls-Royce and owned a limousine that had belonged to Elvis Presley.

After meeting Ali in 1980, Mr. Hirschfeld became the boxer's lawyer, evidently on Ali's mistaken belief that Mr. Hirschfeld had represented John Wayne. The two often were seen together, and in 1985, Mr. Hirschfeld accompanied Ali to the Middle East in a failed effort to secure the release of American hostages in Beirut.

In 1987 and 1988, someone purporting to be Ali made hundreds of telephone calls to senators, press secretaries, journalists and even Attorney General Edwin Meese III. The calls urged action on legal or legislative matters that would have benefited Mr. Hirschfeld or his friends.

Some people who received the calls were suspicious because the "Ali" they heard had a grasp of foreign policy and American political history and spoke in the boxer's quick-witted manner of the 1960s, not in the slurred whisper of Ali's post-boxing years. Mr. Hirschfeld, who was known to do a convincing impersonation of Ali, denied making the calls.

Even in prison, Mr. Hirschfeld remained a wheeler-dealer who believed judges, prosecutors and federal agencies were conspiring against him. He was implicated in a 1993 plot to have acid thrown in the face of the Virginia federal judge who had sentenced him to prison or, failing that, to have the judge's legs broken. A maiming was never carried out.

After his 1996 indictment on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury and subornation of perjury, Mr. Hirschfeld went on the lam.

He turned up in the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands, where he had a Rolls-Royce shipped to him. He was arrested in December 1997, but Spanish authorities refused a U.S. request to extradite him.

It could not be learned when Mr. Hirschfeld returned to the United States, or how he eluded authorities before federal agents captured him Oct. 1 hiding in the closet of a $4 million waterfront mansion in Fort Lauderdale.

Survivors include his wife, Loretta Hirschfeld; and five sons.


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