Woman testifies to European travels, Billman's departure


Valentine's Day was cruel to Tom J. Billman.

Sitting not five feet from him in U.S. District Court in Baltimore yesterday was the blond Danish woman who had been his companion in Europe for several months of 1989 -- a time when prosecutors say he lived lavishly as a fugitive in Spain on $22 million taken from his failed Bethesda savings and loan.

Kaja Olsen's sketch of that precarious life opened the second week of Mr. Billman's trial on federal mail fraud and wire fraud charges.

For more than 30 minutes, Ms. Olsen described their relationship and travels, which began in the summer of 1989. But she said Mr. Billman abruptly disappeared after receiving disturbing news by telephone one October evening. She didn't see him again until yesterday, she said.

Prosecutors say Mr. Billman masterminded a plan that diverted millions from Community Savings & Loan to prop up failing real estate ventures and fled the United States knowing he was under federal investigation. He wired $22 million to two Swiss bank accounts as the thrift was collapsing, prosecutors say.

After testifying, Ms. Olsen stepped down from the witness box and requested a private meeting with Mr. Billman. A few minutes later, with the judge's approval, they were face-to-face, out of the public eye.

Mr. Billman, 53, sat handcuffed in a cell in the U.S. Marshal's office, and Ms. Olsen stood a mandatory two feet to the other side of the cell's metal grate.

"She said she was sorry she testified," Mr. Billman's lawyer, John R. Fornaciari, said later. During the meeting, Ms. Olsen, whom prosecutors had subpoenaed, also thanked Mr. Billman for helping her pay medical bills in 1989, Mr. Fornaciari said.

The last time Ms. Olsen saw Mr. Billman she knew him as George M. Lady, the alias prosecutors say he used to flee the country in early 1989 after he and his partners at Community Savings & Loan were ordered to pay $112 million in a Montgomery County civil judgment. A few months later, he met Ms. Olsen.

She was going through a messy divorce and was living on the southern coast of Spain that summer.

He was living nearby on a large boat that was maintained by a staff of three people, she said. In the ensuing months, they hopscotched around Europe together -- flying to London, then to Copenhagen, Denmark, where Ms. Olsen was hospitalized with a heart ailment, then to Majorca for rest and recuperation.

Ms. Olsen identified 10 American Express traveler's checks in the name of George Lady that had been signed over to her just before Mr. Billman's departure. They totaled $5,000 and were intended for her medical care, Mr. Fornaciari said.

About a week later, their relationship abruptly ended. Ms. Olsen said they were on their way to dinner one night when Mr. Billman excused himself to make a phone call. When he returned, she said, "he looked very unhappy and a little confused maybe.

"He said he had to leave -- he had some troubles with his money because the dollar went down," she testified.

Later, she said, she found Mr. Billman packing some of his belongings at her apartment. He seemed nervous and told her he hoped to go to Switzerland, she said.

Police arrested Mr. Billman in Paris last year, and he was extradited in December. If convicted on all 18 counts of wire fraud, he could be sentenced to up to 90 years in prison.

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