Jon J. Grow, a former Baltimore police detective who became a nationally recognized bunco expert and co-founded and served as executive director of the National Association of Bunco Investigators, died Sunday of pancreatic cancer at his Parkton home. He was 70.
The word "bunco" is derived from the Spanish word for banking and means a swindling game. Mr. Grow's work targeted the con artists, swindlers, pickpockets and confidence men and women who preyed primarily on the elderly and trusting.
"Jon was an extremely valuable asset to the law enforcement community throughout the country. His vision enabled us to network transient criminals in a way that was never possible prior to NABI's existence," said Keith A. Striffolino, the president of the organization and a detective with the Bayonne Police Department in New Jersey.
"His knowledge was unmatched, and I never have met anyone who knew more about bunco than Jon. He was an absolute expert in this field," Mr. Striffolino said.
The son of an engineer and a homemaker, Mr. Grow was born in Little Rock, Ark., and raised in Tamaqua, Pa., where he graduated in 1960 from Tamaqua High School.
He joined the Air Force that year and served with the Air Police until 1964, when he was discharged and joined the Baltimore Police Department as a detective.
"He worked in burglaries and became interested in investigating con games and transient criminals," said his daughter, Jennifer Grow, who lives in Rodgers Forge. "He, along with other police officers across the country, recognized that the same criminal networks were perpetrating the crimes from state to state, then leaving town before they could be apprehended or before warrants from neighboring states could be determined."
Mr. Grow co-founded NABI in 1984 while still a detective and was executive director for 28 years. He retired from the police force in 1992.
"The crooks that Jon Grow is after aren't usually packing pistols and drugs. Loaded dice, marked cards and wads of play money sandwiched between a couple of $100 bills are the tools of the trade," The Baltimore Sun reported in a 1996 profile.
Mr. Grow was the author of the "Bunco Investigators' Handbook," which was used by more than 600 police detectives from coast to coast.
"It was and is an incredibly useful reference guide," Mr. Striffolino said.
In it, Mr. Grow described age-old illegal schemes, including "The Jamaican Switch," the "Social Security Rebate Ruse," the "Latin Charity Scheme," "Gypsy Buju," "The Texas Twist," "Three-Card Monte" and the "Pigeon Drop."
"This isn't 'The Sting,' and these aren't adorable people. This is a national problem, and we're here to catch thieves," Mr. Grow told the newspaper. "People think only the dumb, greedy and stupid get taken. That's not the case. Anyone can get taken by these people."
"Bunco teams often consist of several suspects who have carefully rehearsed their parts, and have one common goal: to manipulate the victim," Mr. Grow wrote in the guide. "Confidence schemes are carefully rehearsed plays in which every member of the cast, except the mark, knows his part perfectly."
According to Mr. Grow, the bunco artist is generally an avuncular male between 40 and 60, who dresses stylishly in a suit and wears a hat. They often have families.
The primary focus of NABI is to gather and disseminate to investigators nationwide information on traveling and transient criminals. It has a monthly newsletter and a database that includes police mug shots of known swindlers.
"These are expert thieves, and we really need to be organized about how we keep track of them," Mr. Grow said in The Sun interview. "They have their own little world and move around a lot."
Mr. Grow's work led him to conduct numerous informational seminars across the country and appearances on "Dateline NBC" and "The Today Show." He was sought after by national publications investigating bunco crimes.
The former Freeland resident, who had lived in Parkton since 1991, operated NABI from his home.
In the newspaper interview, Mr. Grow warned against romanticizing a criminal element whom many thought robbed only the rich.
"Never forget who they really are," he said. "They are a ruthless, tenacious group of thieves. They think they are better than everyone else."
"My father always said he was the luckiest man in the world because he stumbled into a profession that he loved," Ms. Grow said.
For many years, Mr. Grow was a water safety instructor at the community pool in Freeland. He enjoyed gardening, playing cards and hosting an annual Christmas open house that featured his homemade eggnog, his daughter said.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at the J.J. Hartenstein Mortuary, 24 N. Second St., in New Freedom, Pa.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Grow is survived by a son, Jeffrey Grow of Shrewsbury, Pa.; a sister, Susan Grow Leiby of Tamaqua; a stepmother, Joice Grow of Chattanooga, Tenn.; and two grandchildren. His marriage to the former Mary Louise Rodgers ended in divorce.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun