Derek Dion Curtis is a genial fellow, the kind of guy who knows bank tellers by name. He has used his charm, authorities in Maryland said, to defraud banks, car dealerships and employers over the last three years, and then, when arrested, to avoid going to jail.
In Prince George's County, there are 15 cases of fraud, theft and bad-check charges pending against him, but he has never come to trial there. He was convicted on the same type of charges in Montgomery County last summer, but he never showed up to serve a six-month sentence.
Curtis, 27, has charmed his way out of court the same way he charmed tellers out of money, prosecutors said in interviews. "He is the quintessential con man," Prince George's Assistant State's Attorney Michael Conway said of Curtis, who is now in jail for the first time, awaiting a Feb. 28 trial on the fraud, theft and check charges.
Court papers show that various judges have agreed repeatedly to delay Curtis' court appearances, often at his request, for reasons ranging from purported illnesses to a failure to be represented by an attorney.
Curtis and his court-appointed attorney, Gary V. Ward, declined to be interviewed.
White-collar crimes such as those Curtis is accused of often take less precedence on crowded courtroom calendars than do other offenses, said Prince George's Circuit Court Judge G.R. Hovey Johnson.
The crimes Curtis has been accused of are nonviolent, Johnson said. "On the face of it, when you're looking at one or two cases, it doesn't seem necessary to take unusual action."
When Curtis has failed to appear for court dates, judges have issued bench warrants for his arrest. But because Curtis has given so many different addresses -- in the District, Odenton, Laurel, Bowie and Indian Head -- sheriff's deputies say they have had trouble tracking him down.
Authorities found him on his most recent charges on Nov. 27 at a church in Annapolis where he was known as the Reverend Curtis. He was arrested there by deputies who said they followed a paper trail of bounced checks imprinted with the church's address that were made out to his Odenton landlord and an Annapolis car dealership.
At that time of his November arrest, there were eight Prince George's bench warrants outstanding against Curtis for failing to appear for trial. Montgomery County officials, it turned out, also were looking for him because he failed to appear for the first day of a six-month jail sentence he received from Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge DeLawrence Beard in October.
That conviction -- on July 11 -- on theft and check charges was the first official blemish on Curtis' record. Even though he had been arrested 10 times in Prince George's since June 1983, his only previous conviction was on a minor traffic offense.
"This guy was playing the court system for all it's worth," said Montgomery Assistant State's Attorney John McCarthy.
McCarthy has added up 25 continuances he said judges have granted Curtis in a handful of cases, some as old as two years. In several of those cases, prosecutors said, the judges set bail and granted continuances without knowing that other charges were pending against Curtis because there was no single listing to draw from.
In one such case, on Nov. 15, Curtis was scheduled for his third appearance before Johnson in Prince George's County. A letter arrived in court that day signed by Curtis' wife, Diane, saying that Curtis could not come to court because he had "experienced an emotional breakdown after his unsuccessful suicide attempt."
Johnson did not believe the letter or the excuse was genuine, he said later, and he issued the warrant for Curtis' arrest. Curtis was arrested on Nov. 27.
Curtis' brother Don, 23, said in a courthouse interview that Derek has gotten through much of his life on his "winning personality."
But, he added, Derek Curtis only got away with what the system allowed him to.
"All he did was take a pen and spout a few words and he got money," Don Curtis said in describing his brother's behavior in banks. "If someone in the banks had boisterously just said, 'No!' I think he would have got up and left."
Court papers allege that besides writing bad checks on his own name, Curtis used the name of the business he founded, Community Services of Maryland, in an elaborate check-writing scheme involving different bank accounts at several Maryland financial institutions.
He allegedly used aliases when signing checks made out to Community Services from an organization called the New Zion Resource Center and deposited them in banks, subsequently drawing on the Community Services accounts before his original checks had cleared. Sheriff's department officials said the New Zion Resource Center apparently was a nonexistent organization. Prosecutors charge that this scheme allowed Curtis to withdraw thousands of dollars in cash.
Curtis also faced several theft charges after automobile leasing agents in Bowie, Chevy Chase and Hyattsville complained that he rented cars from them and never returned or paid for them.
"He's very flamboyant and believable in his speech," said Prince George's Deputy Sheriff Robert Kiker, who has arrested Curtis several times.
Curtis has lived multiple lives, officials in Prince George's and Montgomery counties allege. He has been a preacher, a psychiatric technician and a mental health counselor at a home for delinquent children. He also opened his own counseling service, all by claiming to have credentials from four colleges that said they never granted him a degree.
Prince George's officials said Curtis told them he received a psychology degree from Towson State University in Baltimore County. Montgomery County prosecutors report he told them he had degrees from Bowie and Morgan State colleges. Employes who worked for his now-defunct Silver Spring counseling firm said Curtis told them his graduate degrees came from the University of Maryland.
Officials at all these institutions said they have no record of graduating a Derek Curtis.
His past employers confirmed that Curtis held jobs as a mental health counselor at the Regional Institution for Children and Adolescents in Cheltenham from April until July this year and as a psychiatric technician at Montgomery General Hospital from November 1982 until March 1983.
In May 1983, according to court papers, Curtis started his own mental health counseling business, Community Services of Maryland, leasing space in a Silver Spring bank building on Georgia Avenue and hiring nine employes. Former employes said the company, which closed in August 1983 after Curtis was arrested by Montgomery County authorities on theft and bad check charges, never treated a single client.
"He was fronting that he had a PhD in clinical psychology," said Janice Williams, a former counselor at Curtis' firm who said she has a B.A. in social work. "Matter of fact, we called him Dr. Curtis in the office."
Another of Curtis' former employes, who asked not to be identified, said, "He told me he was going to graduate school at the University of Maryland. He said he was going to get a master's degree in psychology, that he was a former schoolteacher."
The man, who holds a bachelor's degree in social work, added, "This guy really snowed me. You talk about being humiliated and embarrassed. How could somebody con someone who was in the field?"
Daniel Melvin, the owner of Melvin Motors in Bowie, said he was fooled too.
"He was very well dressed in a suit and a tie," he said. "He was the type of person you wouldn't normally question."
Melvin said he leased a 1984 Plymouth Reliant station wagon to Curtis on Oct. 13 for $24.95 a day. The car was never returned, Melvin said. Curtis faces theft charges in that case.
Curtis' real identity, his wife Diane and brother Don say, is that of an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church. The Rev. Robert Freeman, pastor of New Hope Freewill Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, said he accepted Curtis as a licensed preacher in the Pentecostal Church when Curtis presented a card showing he had been ordained. Freeman remembers serving with Curtis at the church in Southeast and described him as an energetic person and an accomplished musician who worked hard in his church.
"I caught him in a couple of tales," Freeman said, adding that none of them involved money. "He asked me to forgive him and I forgave him."