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Fugitive Md. S&L; figure captured Hunt for Billman, accused of stealing $28 million in 1988, ends in Paris


Tom J. Billman, accused of stealing $28 million from his failed Maryland savings and loan, was captured yesterday in Paris after a four-year international hunt.

Using his latest alias -- the name John Rink on an English passport -- the 52-year-old fugitive chairman of the former Community Savings and Loan Association was arrested by French authorities at 2:30 p.m. as he left his Paris apartment.

In Baltimore, U.S. Attorney Richard D. Bennett said the government will seek extradition of Mr. Billman to Maryland to face charges of siphoning $28 million from Community in transfers that officials blame for the thrift's collapse in 1985.

"He denied being Billman," said Steve Hess, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office, "but when they got him in to the police station to fingerprint him, they showed him his picture and he said, 'Yep, that's me.' "

Mr. Billman had been sought on federal indictments charging him with conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and racketeering, as well as passport fraud.

"You're not talking about a minor figure who was on the lam. He was charged with major offenses," said the gleeful U.S. attorney for Maryland, whose office was frustrated last year by the acquittals of two of Mr. Billman's colleagues and a corporation he headed.

The Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund (MDIF) and U.S. Postal Inspection Service had offered a $200,000 reward for information leading to Mr. Billman's arrest and extradition.

Mr. Bennett would not say if the reward played a role in his arrest -- only that the capture resulted from a cooperative effort by postal inspectors, the FBI, U.S. Marshal Service and international police agency Interpol.

Three years ago, Mr. Billman narrowly eluded arrest in Spain. He had owned two yachts but left them behind, apparently fearing capture.

Mr. Billman fled the United States after a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury returned a verdict in 1988, in a civil case brought by MDIF, ordering Community and its officials to pay $109 million.

"Community was the last of the big ones," Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said, referring to thrifts involved in the state's savings and loan crisis.

Mr. Curran said the state was looking forward to recovering what it can on the $109 million judgment -- money that would go to MDIF, which reimbursed the principal on savings accounts to Community depositors.

Mr. Billman and his associate, Clayton C. McCuistion, owned Equity Programs Investment Corp. (EPIC) when it bought Community in 1982. The thrift was a Gaithersburg institution with $55 million in deposits and branches in the Washington suburbs and Columbia.

The indictments allege that Mr. Billman used $28 million in Community's deposits to prop up failing real estate and partnerships owned by EPIC. It charges that he used the thrift's money to pay himself millions of dollars in unearned dividends.

Authorities believed that Mr. Billman stashed $22 million in a Swiss bank account before fleeing to Europe in 1988, using as an alias on his passport the name of George Lady, a college roommate. Mr. Billman was indicted in December 1989.

Barbara S. Sale, an assistant U.S. attorney, said the government was still trying to find out what happened to the $22 million in the Swiss bank account. She said she had no reports about Mr. Billman's lifestyle in France.

"We don't know whether he was living in lavish circumstances or whether he was living in a low-rent walk-up," Ms. Sale said.

Mr. McCuistion and Barbara A. McKinney, a former Community vice president and legal counsel, were acquitted in April by Chief Judge Walter E. Black Jr. of conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud in Baltimore's U.S. District Court.

Authorities said Ms. McKinney was also Mr. Billman's girlfriend.

The Crysopt Corp., of which Mr. Billman had majority ownership, was acquitted after the trial, which lasted nearly five months.

The charges against Mr. Billman carry maximum penalties of 115 years in prison and $4.75 million in fines.

But Robert M. Disch, his Washington lawyer, said a trial now also would lead to acquittal if prosecutors use identical evidence.

"It would be a colossal waste of time to retry the case," Mr. Disch said.

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