It was a Tuesday eight years ago when Robert Johnson realized he had a week to get out of Washington before his career as a con man would be unmasked.
He booked seats on a flight to Nassau for the following Monday and reserved a room at the Sheraton British Colonial Hotel. At a Connecticut Avenue jewelry store he sold about $20,000 worth of $20 gold pieces. He withdrew about $776,000 from his McLean bank in the form of a cashier's check. Then he delivered two checks totaling $557,000 to his business partners; it would take a few days for them to learn the checks were worthless.
On Friday night, while his two daughters packed to attend a summer camp, Johnson took from the Mosler safe in his suburban Virginia home about $85,000 worth of emeralds and diamonds and some bundles of cash left over from an investment in a B-girl bar.
The next morning, a serene Robert Johnson said goodbye to his daughters at their camp. He didn't know if he would ever see them again, at least in the United States, but his farewell was a study in normality; he couldn't afford for his family to sense his panic.
On Monday morning, just before he boarded his flight to the Bahamas, Johnson mailed his lawyer a note written in longhand on personal stationery. He outlined in brief the incredible lie he had been living and said he was going to Nassau.
Ten years and $58 million after it had begun, Johnson's scam was over. Within a week of his departure, the secret he shared with no one, not even his wife, was front- page news. Careers and reputations were ruined. There were bankruptcies, lawsuits and a suicide. Prosecutors marveled at the size of the sting. Reporters tried to learn how a man who once sold Boy Scout uniforms in a Charleston, W. Va. clothing store, taught Baptist Sunday School and labored anonymously as a Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. executive for 15 years pulled off Washington's biggest scam.
But the only man who knew the answer drank scotch while his wife played the quarter slots in a Paradise Island casino. Robert Dale Johnson was on the lam.
The best swindles are simple. They rely less on sophistication of design and more on the universal, timeless appeal of greed. A swindle should appear plausible, but at the same time its victims should be made to feel like insiders granted the opportunity to make a quick buck.
Over the years, Johnson learned those lessons well. By the time his game was up in 1974, he was a professional liar, an expert at the soft sell, a master at collecting money. Sometimes he spent months refusing money from eager investors before relenting and accepting their cash.
Investors handed him their money to buy what Johnson called "industrial" wine, low-grade wine from Portugal that he said was "a cut above vinegar." He said he shipped the wine to the United States to companies that used the product to make salad dressing. It was such a good investment that he could promise investors between 32 and 100 percent on their money within eight months. In the low-interest late 1960s and early 1970s that was a spectacular return by any measure.
For 10 years, until 1974, everything went fine. But there was one problem: There never were any ships carrying anything for Johnson. He was running a classic Ponzi scheme, named after Charles Ponzi who became rich in the 1920s by offering Boston investors 50 percent interest on money in a phony "International Postal Union Coupon" swindle.
A Ponzi scheme uses the money of later investors to pay off earlier ones, many of whom are so delighted by the astounding rate of return that they plow their capital and interest back into the scheme; the perpetrator uses some of the money for high living while he searches for legitimate investments that might allow him to pay back his debts.
Johnson's ruse earned him four years in Allenwood Federal Prison where he was known as "The Little Old Winemaker." He never talked publicly about his swindle. There was no trial to air the details of his scam; Johnson simply pleaded guilty to violating two mail and securities fraud laws and left the courtroom without comment.
After eight years of silence, Johnson is living quietly with a girlfriend in Bethesda. His marriage is over, his daughters are young adults, and for the first time since he began his fraud 18 years ago, he is willing to tell his bizarre story.
Robert Johnson is a tall, pleasant-looking man
with the look of an insurance agent. He is everybody's next-door-neighbor, the kind of a guy who would be happy to lend you his hedge clippers.
The son of a Union Carbide engineer, he was born an only child 48 years ago in Charleston, W. Va. He attended Morris Harvey College there, graduating in 1956 with a degree in education. He was offered a teaching assistantship at Ohio State University but decided instead to marry a home-town girl and take a job in the accounting department of C&P Telephone Co.
Like other young couples married just out of college, Robert and Carolyn Johnson eventually borrowed some money from their parents -- $900 from her father, in this case -- to buy a modest house priced at $12,000 in 1960.
"For some reason, Carolyn was very anxious to pay back her father," recalls Robert Johnson, who did that by borrowing some money against shares of AT&T stock he was buying for his father through a payroll deduction plan. C&P deducted money from Johnson's paycheck to buy AT&T stock, and Johnson's father reimbursed him. Then every two years Johnson signed the stock certificates over to his father.
Except Johnson couldn't give his father the stock certificates he'd pledged as collateral for his bank loan, and he began to make small excuses to explain the delay. By the early 1960s, his family included two daughters; Johnson bought a bigger home for about $23,000 and slipped deeper into debt.
In retrospect, Johnson's financial situation was hardly desperate. His salary at C&P kept improving, and he was living only slightly above his means -- a few thousand dollars would have squared his accounts. But one day in 1964, Johnson had lunch with an old friend, a local lawyer named Andy Raptis. Johnson mentioned that his brother-in-law, who worked for the Agency for International Development, had recently returned from Tunisia with some Carthaginian artifacts.
"And then it just came out of me," Johnson remembers. "I gave him a pitch on the Carthaginian artifacts."
Johnson told Raptis he had "certain contacts" overseas who could obtain items -- Tunisian bird cages, in this case -- that could be imported at a profit. The lawyer expressed an interest in participating in a deal and asked Johnson how much money might be needed. Johnson threw out the figure of $5,000, and the two men eventually signed a contract stipulating that Raptis would receive back his principal plus a share of any profits in six months.
"I was thinking I was in a crack and needed to get out," Johnson says today. "I thought by the time the money was due, I'd borrow the balance from a bank. But a strange thing happened: his (Raptis') associate, Jack Friedman, called. He'd heard about the deal, and he asked if he could participate. I told him if he could be accommodated, I'd let him know. But I was already scared, petrified at what I'd done."
What he'd done was lie to Raptis about the existence of an artifacts deal. Johnson took the $5,000, paid back his bank loans and delivered the tardy stock certificates to his father. Six months later, he took out another loan and visited Raptis and Friedman to deliver the check.
Had he stopped there, Johnson could have resumed his unremarkable life having only flirted with fraud.
"But it was the go-go period in the stock market, and I'd always had for legitimate investmea passing interest in the market, and the natural thought was, 'If I had any money . . .' And then I thought, 'Well, I do have access to capital . . .' "
Indeed he did. In the next 10 years, Friedman grew accustomed to sending Johnson hundreds of thousands of dollars. Friedman, and others he brought into deals, reaped profits as high as 75 to 90 percent.
Mathematicians call that impossible, hustlers call it a finanical pyramid, and the law calls it a felony.
As he watched a 1965 television commercial for a new Portugese wine called Lancer's, Johnson hit on his scheme. He called Raptis and Friedman and told them he "had a piece of this new rose wine in a brown bottle."
Johnson figured he could earn a 30 to 35 percent profit playing the stock market, so that's what he told his first two potential investors they could expect as a return if they invested in the importation of Lancer's wine.
Johnson then took several thousand dollars of the lawyers' money and bought a half- dozen stocks on which he was bullish. To his horror, the prices on most of his stocks dropped. A month before he was supposed to repay Raptis and Friedman, Johnson began looking for money to cover his shortfall.
"I had a woman on my staff I'd known since I first got in the phone business, and I knew she'd inherited a sum of money," recalls Johnson. "She invested. In just general conversation and bull sessions with other people I began to drop hints that I was on to something.
"Then the most extraordinary thing began to happen. Word began to spread, and people began coming to me -- I was being deluged with offers of money. You'd think the tentacles would be coming out to me, but it was the other way around: The octopus was the available cash floating around. It found me."
Soon Johnson's checking account balance was more than $70,000, though he did not significantly alter his life style for fear of making his wife suspicious. But his new affluence put him in a quandary: He needed the money of new investors to pay back promised interest to earlier ones, but the more money he accepted, the greater his obligations. He began searching for investments that might allow him to "clear the books."
In the spring of 1968, when C&P offered him a new job in its Washington marketing office, Johnson jumped at the chance. He was convinced the opportunities for investments in the Washington area were greater than those in Charleston. He was right.
The nightclub on 14th Street, the one with a marquee featuring a woman scantily clad in black leather, left no question about the specialty of the house. Downstairs at Le Marquis, women stripped naked on a small stage and hustled men in the shadows of the lounge.
Le Marquis opened with a splash one night in the spring of 1969. The supply of champagne seemed endless, and it was obvious from the professionalism of the women in attendance and the free-spending habits of the gentlemen customers that the manager, Emelia Schmitt, knew her business.
She had learned her craft working as a stripper at the Silver Slipper, where one night she had slapped a rude customer, a businessman new in town who spoke with a slight southern drawl. He was Robert Johnson, on the prowl while he waited for his family to join him in Washington. Johnson returned to the Silver Slipper, and despite their inauspicious beginning, he and Schmitt struck up a casual acquaintance that led to his investing $20,000 in a nightclub she and her former husband, Marcel, wanted to begin.
"I suddenly found myself 51 percent owner of a whorehouse," recalls Johnson.
On opening night, as a silent partner, Johnson watched the ribald festivities with some amusement -- Le Marquis was a long way from the telephone company's accounting department in Charleston. As some of his investors might have added had they known, it was also a long way from importing Portugese wine. The place prospered like few of Johnson's other investments -- businessmen sometimes dropped as much as $2,000 a night for booze and company.
"I don't know how many times I made my original investment back before she finished buying me out in '73," says Johnson. "The thing produced huge amounts of cash."
In the meantime, news of Johnson's Midas touch in Charleston preceded his arrival at his new job. A C&P executive in Washington, knowing of Johnson's growing interest in investments, offered to introduce him to John "Chip" Schrott Jr., a 22-year-old investment counselor who enjoyed a reputation as a financial whiz kid.
Before he met with Schrott, Johnson refined his scheme. He dropped any mention of Lancer's because he thought providing a brand name made checking on him too easy. And during a visit to a public reading room at the Commerce Department, he came across a brochure that mentioned industrial wine, which, Johnson remembers, was not subject to import duty.
"To this day," says Johnson, "I'm not sure what industrial wine is."
But it sounded appropriately vague, and for his luncheon meeting with Schrott, Johnson wanted to be vague and careful. As it turned out, Schrott left that lunch dubious about Johnson's wine deal. But when he told his mother about it, she and a friend took a $5,000 "flier" that, after it paid off, began a close relationship between Johnson and the Schrotts.
Near the spring of 1969, just as Le Marquis opened for business, Johnson joined young Schrott in the purchase of a publicly owned, nearly defunct Fairfax company called Computer Age Industries. Schrott wanted to begin his own holding company that would include investment services. The company's name was changed to Vortex ("as in whirlpool," notes Johnson dryly) and it acquired, among other small companies, a Pennsylvania firm that made cable reeling equipment. Schrott soon began investing Vortex money in the wine program.
While Johnson appreciated the Schrott family investments, he viewed Vortex from his own, different perspective. He wanted to buy Vortex stock, (then worth next-to-nothing), watch the company become profitable and then cash in big when the public began bidding up its price.
"My constant thought was how to keep everybody happy until such time as I could wash the whole thing through," says Johnson, who by then kept meticulous records on dozens of investors.
Though Schrott had no way of knowing it, his penchant for putting Vortex money in the wine scheme frustrated Johnson, who knew unless Vortex invested in some legitimate businesses, the company would never prosper. For obvious reasons, he couldn't confide in Schrott, who was already touting Johnson's wine program to investors he knew. So late in 1971, Johnson quit C&P to become a Vortex vice president with the hope of steering the company into legitimate investments.
By this time, Johnson had begun using some of the money for his own living expenses to such an extent that in 1969, he finally told his wife that he'd invested in a wine importation program that had hit the jackpot. In 1970, Johnson paid $115,000 for a large house near Chain Bridge in McLean -- he put $90,000 down and took out a $20,000 mortgage that he paid off five months later. Among his neighbors were a former high-ranking White House aide, a senator and the president of a computer company.
A year later, the Johnsons paid $72,000 for a vacation home in Sarasota, Fla., and began collecting Mercedes and a 1939 Delahaye V-12 Roadster. The family began traveling widely.
But if he was smiling on the outside, Johnson was wracked with anxiety about how he was going to extract himself from the complex web he'd woven. Since the early days of his con in Charleston, he'd never lost his cool demeanor. But about twice a week he would awake at 4 a.m. trembling and perspiring. He'd go to the kitchen and pour himself a glass of orange juice to try to halt what he called "the night sweats."
The lure of fast money is hardly the province of the poor or middle class, as Johnson learned in Washington. Through Schrott came bigger investors than Johnson had seen in Charleston. His technique, however, stayed the same.
"If you came to me and said, 'Look, I was talking to Joe Smith and he was telling me about some money you invested for him,' my first reaction was always, 'Yes, I did do that for Joe, but it was a personal favor,'" remembers Johnson. "'I'm involved in the importation of certain kinds of low-grade wines, but I'm not really sure I can handle anyone else at this time.'
"Nine times out of 10, the guy would say, 'If you don't mind, I'd like to hear about it anyway.' I'd explain I had access to certain information as to the availability of certain wines. I'd say I was a low man on the totem pole without a great deal of personal wealth, so I was looking for others with capital. I said that we didn't actually handle the wine. I said the shipments were insured by Lloyd's of London--it had a certain connotation.
"The reaction usually was, 'I'd apprciate it if you'd let me know when you have something available.' I'd ask them the amount of money they were talking about. Then, when I had a person catalogued and, normally speaking, after a lapse of two or three weeks or months, I'd give them a call.
"The interesting thing was that nobody I can recall ever really asked where they could check it out. I always tried to leave the impression that this was a very exclusive thing," recalls Johnson. "And I couldn't afford every Tom, Dick and Harry to learn about it; word would get out I was being indiscriminate, and they'd cut me out. Most people took this to heart. The reason: Anyone who has spent much time involved in financial markets knows that insider trading goes on everyday, irrespective of securities laws and the SEC. Everyone understands . . . It's the delicious feeling of being inside."
Even the most sophisticated of investors found Johnson's lure irresistible.
Consider the case of Erle Cocke Jr. A graduate of the Harvard Business School, former assistant to the president of Delta Airlines, presidential appointee to the World Bank, and twice an unsuccessful candidate for Congress from Georgia, Cocke was no stranger to financial matters. He was introduced to Johnson's wine program by a mutual friend, Thomas W. Gilliam, who, like Cociculouke, was a graduate of Harvard Business School. Gilliam, in turn, knew of Johnson through Chip Schrott, and one afternoon in the spring of 1972, the four men had lunch at a Falls Church Chinese restaurant.
Before that lunch, Cocke had made some inquiries with contacts at the State Department and the Agency for International Development and had learned that "there had been an AID program years before to increase the quality of grapes for wine in Portugal and in Spain." From a source at the Department of Agriculture, Cocke learned there were no quotas on the importation of wine. From other sources he learned that there was such a thing as industrial wine that "starts at vinegar and goes all the way up to table wine . . . It is not alcoholic, it is a filler, the wine that goes bad."
Cocke recalled talking during the lunch about local banks into which Johnson might want to move his funds. After the lunch, he continued checking on Johnson, and Cocke learned from his banker that he "was the biggest depositor of the McLean Bank." A friend who worked as a lawyer for C&P in West Virginia attested to Johnson's good character and record.
"I went out to West Virginia to check him out," recalls Cocke today, "and talked to everybody who went to high school with him. He sort of addded up."
Eventually, Cocke wrote out a check for $5,000 to participate along with Gilliam in the purchase of a $10,000 contract with Johnson. With the assistance of Schrott, Gilliam and Cocke, new financial doors opened for Johnson. Partnerships and syndications began, groups of sophisticated investors who began depositing with Johnson tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And then came the biggest investors who would fall the hardest: the banks.
Johnson remembers a feeing of "semi-panic" the day Chip Shrott happened to mention to him that for a period of time, he'd been borrowing money from the United Virginia Bank-First & Citizens National to invest in Johnson's wine program. And he was even less thrilled at Schrott's suggestion that the bank might make millions of dollars available so others could invest if Johnson moved his $1.5 million checking account from Riggs National bank across the Potomac River to UVB.
"You become convinced that the ultimate disaster -- exposure -- is lurking somewhere in the prospect of each new experience," says Johnson, who felt sure any banker would see through his wine scheme. Schrott suggested Johnson meet with a UVB officer, George Hicks, to discuss a long-term banking relationship.
"What made this prospect even more distressing," recalls Johnson, "was the inherent dilemma. If I agreed to talk to the bank, I felt there was a sure risk of exposure. But if I didn't meet, I ran the risk of alienating Schrott, who was the best bird-dog in my kennel for sniffing out new money."
Eventually Johnson figured, "What the hell, why stop now?" and he agreed to meet the banker.
"On the way to keep that appointment, a drive of about seven miles, every possible horror crossed my mind," says Johnson. "By the time I arrived," Johnson recalls, "I was convinced that under thorough examination by this banker, the whole scheme would be blown out of the water. But instead of a modern-day version of the Spanish Inquisition, I stepped through the looking glass of the world of corporate banking."
Johnson sensed that the bank was wanted to increase commercial loans as well as assets. Both of those points were satisfied by granting loans to investors in Johnson's program and by transferring the $1.5 million from Johnson's Riggs account.
It was the beginning of a marriage that only the SEC managed to tear asunder years later, after UVB had loaned about $3.8 million to investors in Johnson's scheme.
"I learned that the primary way banks checked me out," says Johnson, "was by calling other banks. And I guarantee you, if you have $1 million at a bank and you represent to some person that 'I'm 10 feet tall, just call my banker,' your banker will probably swear it's true."
With a couple of major investors unwittingly roping in others, and with a handful of banks loaning people money to invest, the figures in Johnson's account book swelled into the millions. He began shoveling cash into other ventures a bit more respectable than Le Marquis: a Virginia lithographic firm, a plastics molding company and a chain of franchised steak and ale restaurants. He helped a friend open a law practice; invested in a bond house in New York; explored along with Erle Cocke the possibility of buying Brazilian timber and lobsters for import to the United States; and extended mortgages to half a dozen friends who wanted to buy homes.
Cocke introduced Johnson to West Virginia's senior senator, Jennings Randolph. When visitors came to town, the senator's office arranged VIP White House tours for Johnson.
"It was another credential, like a bank credential," recalls Johnson, whom Randolph eventually helped get appointed as a trustee on the board of West Virginia's Salem College, the senator's alma mater. Johnson wrote a letter to some of his investors that read rather coyly, "I'm certain that from time to time, you have suspected a 'catch' in the wine deal. Well, your suspicions are well founded. I would appreciate a gift from you of between $1,000 and $5,000 . . . to Salem College."
According to Randolph, Johnson raised about $80,000 from some 30 people. For his part, Johnson gave the college a new car and supplied a new science building with furniture. After Johnson's fall, Salem offered to return contributions solicited "through unethical methods."
By 1973, Johnson was flying high. Money from his investments for that year totaled more than $1.2 million, he says, and he remembers paying more than $300,000 in federal income tax. Investments in the wine scheme were still growing.
Then in March 1974, a doctor in Virginia Beach was approached by a friend to invest in Johnson's program. The doctor agreed to invest $50,000 and called his stock broker to withdraw the money from an account there. The broker asked what he intended to do with the $50,000, and the doctor told him the sketchy details of the wine investment program. The suspicious broker phoned a Virginia securities official.
That call marked the beginning of the end for Johnson. On April Fool's Day, 1974, the SEC began an investigation of the intricate network of investment groups in Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Nebraska and other states that had been created to funnel millions of dollars to Ridge Associates, the legal name of Johnson's fabulous, no-risk scheme.
A principal investor, Tom Gilliam, heard it first, at a cocktail party. He called Johnson to say he'd heard the SEC was about to investigate him. Johnson was puzzled--he didn't think he was selling any securities (which would make his operation the domain of the SEC) because he always had a small number of investors in each deal, and he was appealing to so-called "sophisticated" investors. But Johnson didn't know about the large number of investors in syndicates created by others. He also didn't know the extent to which the syndicates' organizers were taking commissions. But he did know a serious investigation for whatever reason would unravel the fraud.
Says Johnson: "What do you do in a case like mine? I had a business that was not only shady but also illegal to the core and about to be exposed. An obvious answer: You sell the business."
Johnson called on an old business acquaintance, his former partner in Le Marquis, Marcel Schmitt. Schmitt had often mentioned a friend who owned a hotel in Luxembourg who'd expressed an interest in doing business with Johnson. Now Johnson had some business in mind.
In mid-April of 1974, Johnson met Schmitt's Luxembourg friend and explained he represented a "group of fairly substantial Americans which for a number of years had been moving moneys around. I wanted to leave the impression with him that we'd been washing people's money under the guise of a wine importation scheme."
It was the first time he had confided to anyone he wasn't investing in Portuguese wine.
"I explained we'd begun to have some problems with the SEC and that I wanted to sell him the business on paper and that for his handling of the funds that would flow to him and that he'd pay out on a set schedule, he would earn 1 percent of the monthly outstanding balance in the bank. And I guaranteed the balance would never be less than $1 million. He seemed very enthusiastic."
That afternoon, the men opened an account at the International Bank of Luxembourg and Johnson made another request: Could his new business partner possibly create a phony set of files filled with dummy wine invoices? Johnson wanted to be able to say to the SEC that all his wine dealings had been handled for 10 years by a third-party agent in Luxemburg. He was assured such documentation would be no problem.
While Johnson was in Luxembourg, some of his investors -- Schrott, Friedman, Cocke and Gilliam -- were testifying before the SEC. Though they could not understand the commission's interest in their financial matters, the investors were growing nervous. When he returned from Luxembourg, Johnson could feel a sense of concern on the part of his principal investors.
So Johnson came up with another fast scheme. He said that he'd learned in Luxembourg that the French franc was about to rise 10 or 15 percent on international money markets, and he intended to invest in it. Apparently, if it was good enough for Johnson, it was good enough for his partners; he received $1 million in a matter of days.
For a moment in mid-May of 1974, Johnson thought he might actually get away with it all. He had accumulated enough money to meet his June 1 payoff obligations. He had copies of authentic-looking invoices ostensibly showing where the wine monies had gone over the years.
But on May 28, when Johnson sat down to be grilled by the SEC, he knew the investigators "smelled a rat."
And then, only an hour or so into the questioning, an SEC lawyer mentioned a tiny detail that Johnson had long forgotten. It was nothing really, just a few words on an old wine contract, but the discovery of that detail was a chance occurrence that caught Johnson on his blind side. He knew then his scam was doomed.
The SEC had a contract Johnson had signed with his old friend from West Virginia, lawyer Friedman, in 1968. What caught the eye of the SEC attorney was a small box in the lefthand corner of the contract marked "Approved" and signed by "C. C. Clayton," described as a "coordinator, USAID," and "H. H. Miller," identified as "coordinator, U.S. Department of Commerce."
"What can you tell us about either the typing or the signatures?" asked the SEC lawyer.
"I can't recall," answered Johnson.
"You can't recall?"
"I can't recall. I don't remember there being a place for anything like that."
"Are you able to say whether or not the signatures of Clayton, what purport to be the signatures of C. C. Clayton, and an H. H. Miller, were on that document at the time you executed it?" asked the SEC lawyer.
"No, sir," said Johnson, "they were not."
Later in his questioning, the SEC lawyer asked about the government signatures again.
"Would you have any possible explanation as to . . ."
". . . why it is there?"
". . . why it is there?"
Johnson's lawyers asked the questioning be postponed for a day.
"I felt like the pits," said Johnson, who had added the "government approval bit" on a couple of contracts early in his scheme to lend an air of officialdom to the paperwork.
"I felt like Sidney Greenstreet when he found out the Maltese Falcon was a piece of lead," says Johnson. "I think if it had not been for that one thing, considering the fact that nothing else turned up, there was at least a 50-50 chance we could have pulled it off. But when I said I couldn't explain the Commerce Department approval, that was when I lost my lawyer."
The next day, Thursday, May 30, Johnson made a small admission to the SEC.
"This is the kind of representation that I have never done before or since," he said humbly. "I most sincerely regret ever having done it, and I do most sincerely regret my comment of last Tuesday concerning these documents."
The next day, on Friday, May 31, Johnson paid a $25,000 retainer's fee to hire Jeremiah (Jerry) Collins, a criminal attorney with the Washington law firm of Williams, Connolly & Califano. Johnson remembers Collins telling him that it would be helpful to show the SEC that the approximately $25 million in outstanding funds owed investors was safe and sound, a difficult task considering Johnson had only about $2 million in cash to his name.
To satisfy Collins' request, Johnson arranged a grand gesture: the faked delivery of a worthless $25 million check from the International Bank of Luxembourg.
Johnson called on Marcel Schmitt for a final favor. Without explaining his reason, Johnson asked him to find a man of obvious foreign extraction who could meet him and his lawyer at Dulles Airport. The man was to watch the flight-arrival board and, about 40 minutes after a particular afternoon flight from London landed, he was to page Johnson from the Pan Am ticket counter. Upon meeting Johnson, he was to hand him a brown envelope that Johnson would provide prior to the ruse.
A couple of days later, Johnson and another of his lawyers, Stanley Samorajczyk, had a drink at the Dulles bar while awaiting the messenger with the $25 million check. Johnson remembers his lawyer was quite relieved knowing the money was "coming back." They heard the page and walked over to the Pan Am counter.
"If Marcel had gone to Central Casting, he couldn't have picked a better guy," recalls Johnson. "He looked very foreign but at the same time handled himself well. He said, 'I have something for you,' unzipped a plastic briefcase, gave me an envelope and -- as a stroke of genius I hadn't thought of -- pulled out a form for me to sign."
In his Mercedes, Johnson handed his lawyer the unopened envelope into which he'd earlier placed a $25 million check. It was nothing more than a counter check from the Luxembourg bank, but with its fancy design, Johnson thought it looked quite impressive. Johnson endorsed the check, and his lawyer deposited it in an escrow account at the Arlington Trust Bank.
It was Tuesday, June 4. Johnson knew it would take a week for the check to bounce at the Luxembourg bank. By then his daughters would be safely ensconced in summer camp. And he would be curling his toes in the Paradise Island sand just off Nassau.
Johnson had told his wife they could spend three weeks vacationing in Nassau. At the end of that time, he intended to tell her he was having business problems and that she should return to their home in Sarasota, wait for their daughters to return from camp and he would join them shortly therafter.
Two days after his arrival in the Bahamas, Johnson's new attorney, Jerry Collins, called. He'd received the letter of confession Johnson had mailed as he fled Washington, and he told Johnson he was coming to Nassau to persuade him to return to the United States. Johnson told his wife his lawyer was arriving and she'd better leave. Confused and fearful, she accused him of being involved with criminals and refused to depart.
"Then, for the first time since this whole thing started, maybe it was just being tired of the whole thing, rather than following my own counsel and just doing whatever I wanted to do, I decided, well, maybe I should listen to Jerry," said Johnson. "I was wrong in what I was trying to do and everybody would be better off in my coming back."
On Wednesday afternoon, June 5, 1974, Robert Dale Johnson boarded an Eastern flight, took his seat in the first- class cabin, and came back to Washington to admit his fraud. EPILOGUE
Robert Johnson turned himself over to the authorities, took full blame for the swindle and filed for bankruptcy. Sentenced in 1974 to serve six years in jail, he was released from Allenwood Prison four years later, having put the prison's furniture factory on a firm business footing. Since then, he's worked as a consultant for several small companies and, through contacts he made over the years, invests small amounts of money in various enterprises. He says that despite lingering suspicions of former investors, he did not stash away any wine fraud money.
Her husband's gigantic fraud shocked Carolyn Johnson. Reporters and private detectives hired by Chip Shrott (who feared Johnson would abscond again) camped outside the Johnson home. "You'd be surprised, but my husband and I are about two of the dullest people you'll ever meet," she told a reporter who cornered her while she gardened a week after the news of Johnson's swindle hit the front pages. "Did you ever try to pull up weeds?" she asked, "It's very therapeutic, and it helps me to keep from losing my sanity right now."
Among the investors, Cocke, who lost $500,000 and gained an ulcer, is an investment counselor in Washington. Gilliam is a broker for a petroleum group in Appalachia, Friedman remains an attorney in Charleston, and banker Hicks -- who invested $30,000 he borrowed from McLean Bank -- is a senior vice president at the Bank of Vienna.
According to the Virginia State Corporation Commission, four Virginia banks made as much as $6 million in loans to investors in Johnson's scheme; one nearly folded after the fraud was revealed. The Schrotts, who lost $4.5 million, are still repaying the United Virginia Bank $400,000 a year, with a balloon payment of $1 million due in 1985.
One woman who worked for Vortex but who Johnson didn't know had invested through a patnership, killed herself shortly after she learned the savings she'd invested in the wine program were lost. CAPTION: Cover Photo, WASHINGTON PREMIER CON MAN ROBERT JOHNSON, THE $58 MILLION WINE SCAM; Picture, no caption, By GARY CAMERON