Martin Frankel, the fugitive financier who allegedly stole as much as $350 million in a bizarre global insurance swindle, was captured yesterday in Germany, the FBI reported last night.
The arrest of Frankel on a tip ends an international, four-month manhunt for a recluse who lived an apparently kinky life in heavily fortified mansions and allegedly managed to ensnare well-known lawyers, state insurance regulators and even the Vatican in a complicated fraud that authorities are still trying to untangle.
In hiding, his heavily publicized notoriety took on proportions not known since the 1970s flight of Robert Vesco, who popularized the phrase "fugitive financier" to the point that it became an appendage to his name. Vesco has remained exiled for almost three decades. Frankel -- described in recent accounts as depressed and erratic -- lasted four months.
"You got me," he told German police who arrested him at the Hotel Prem -- a Michelin one-star in Hamburg where the FBI said he was using an alias and was accompanied by a woman using an alias as well. He was being sought on a warrant accusing him of wire fraud -- technically, using interstate communications for fraudulent purposes. Extradition to the United States -- if he fights it -- could take months.
His lawyer, Hugh Keefe of New Haven, Conn., said last night that he learned of Frankel's arrest through the media. He said he has spoken with Frankel during the past 48 hours but declined to characterize his conversations.
Frankel allegedly masterminded one of the largest insurance scams in history. Fobbing himself off as a brilliant stock trader based in Greenwich, Conn., he raised enough money in 1991 to establish Thunor Trust, a corporate entity that authorities contend he used to purchase a group of small and ailing insurance companies, most of them based in the South.
Acting as a financial adviser to Thunor, Frankel directed the companies to send him millions in assets, which he claimed he would invest in the stock market using an esoteric market-timing theory.
With those credentials and the money, he appeared all the more successful and enlisted more and more companies to pay him premiums, offering them irresistibly deep discounts on various forms of reinsurance, essentially the insurance purchased by insurance companies to conduct their own operations.
In reality, Frankel drained the cash to sustain his own rather eccentric lifestyle -- women, cars, bodyguards, multiple homes and multiple identities -- and parlayed his reputation as a millionaire genius into contacts with highly regarded business and religious leaders. Dropping ever more impressive names, Frankel was able to assuage increasingly anxious regulators and gradually expand his empire.
At one point, those contacts included the Vatican, which Frankel had approached after launching an organization called the St. Francis of Assisi Foundation and offering to donate many millions to Catholic charities. Those millions never materialized, but Frankel acquired additional credibility by mentioning Vatican officials in business dealings.
The man behind this sprawling scheme is a shy, nebbishy Toledo native who operated with a handful of aliases and kept his interaction with others to a bare minimum. Frankel was rarely photographed and he once instructed the University of Toledo, where he took some courses, to seal his record.
Those who met him say he played the charming financial whiz with utterly convincing brio. In reality, Frankel was downright phobic about investing in the stock market. In previous jobs with securities firms, his bosses fumed as Frankel spent day after day promising to earn a fortune for his clients, only to stare endlessly at his computer screen. At one point, according to an associate, Frankel consulted a hypnotherapist to help him screw up the courage to trade.
The search for Frankel began in May when firefighters were summoned to an empty house in wealthy Greenwich, where they found smoldering documents in a file cabinet and signs of a hastily planned departure. There were notes left behind suggesting that the Toledo native had been searching for a country to flee to and consulting astrological charts to determine the right moment to leave. Among the findings: a task list with reminders to "launder money" and "get $ to Israel get it back in."
His disappearance followed the opening of an investigation by Tennessee and Mississippi insurance regulators, who grew suspicious of the activities of Frankel-owned companies and brought court actions against them.
Frankel had reportedly boarded a plane to Italy with a few million in diamonds and several young women. There, he managed to elude authorities for months, though he reportedly found life on the lam a disagreeable annoyance. At one point, he sent friends searching around Rome for Chinese food.
The capture of Frankel ends a mounting embarrassment for the FBI, which had launched an exhaustive investigation that had proved largely fruitless until yesterday. The quarry in this chase was hardly a savvy fugitive. In fact, Frankel was nearly captured several times, once by a British tabloid that almost nabbed him a few weeks ago in a complex entrapment scheme.
Undoubtedly, Frankel missed the comforts of his home, a 6,000-square-foot, $3 million house that was a high-tech marvel, studded with locks, video cameras, 100 computers and a security command post with a bank of televisions. Limousines arrived and departed at all hours of the day and night. There, he kept pornographic videos and sado-masochistic literature, and as many as 20 women at a time, many of them Eastern Europeans recruited over the Internet and through personal ads. He took his favorites shopping at New York's priciest stores, and many of them were placed on his payroll.