DAYS OF LUXURY, MOMENTS OF FEAR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The street had seemed safe enough moments before. But now, as he stood near a newsstand in the South American town, Tom J. Billman noticed a man who appeared to be surreptitiously taking his picture.

The stranger held his camera inconspicuously at waist level, aimed at Mr. Billman and snapped the photo. A simple movement, but to Mr. Billman, a camera seemed as menacing as a loaded gun.

And he could not afford to gamble. Only recently, he knew, the International Herald Tribune had published his photo and noted the $200,000 reward on his head. He quickly packed his bags and disappeared -- again.

It was another day on the run for the fugitive, who since Feb. 7 has been standing trial in Baltimore on federal charges that he looted more than $100 million from a small Maryland savings and loan. Using aliases and fake passports, he skipped from country to country, continent to continent, for more than four years, adopting new identities and careers with aplomb -- one day a construction executive, the next a vineyard owner.

With millions allegedly stashed in Swiss bank accounts, he relaxed on Spain's Costa del Sol, partied in Tangier and outfitted himself in expensive clothes from Paris. In palm-studded Estepona, Spain, he was captain of a pair of yachts -- the 54-foot motor cruiser Gloriana Dee and the Altair, a 45-foot sailing vessel.

Yet the portly, bearded financier preserved his freedom with a ruthless will to drop everything and disappear at the first hint of danger -- eluding postal investigators, the U.S. Marshals Service, Scotland Yard and Interpol, as well as police in Switzerland, Spain and Belgium.

The chase was grueling, and in the end, his life less than glamorous. It wasn't until March 1993 that the former chairman of Bethesda-based Community Savings and Loan was captured outside his modest Paris apartment, to be brought to Baltimore for trial on the fraud charges.

Still, Mr. Billman has cause for hope. Two co-defendants were acquitted in 1992, and he is said to be confident that he will be found not guilty when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz reaches a decision next week. At worst, the 53-year-old financier might spend 15 years in prison before easing into a comfortable retirement. Authorities say it may be tough to recover what remains of the multimillion-dollar horde believed to be squirreled away. The failure of Community has cost Maryland taxpayers $80 million.

Despite the pain and notoriety, Mr. Billman is still admired by friends, here and in Europe; his mistresses still warm to his memory; his long-abandoned wife remains in their $1.5 million McLean, Va., mansion.

"Most of [his friends] just hoped he'd got away," recalls Carole Christian, co-owner of the marina where Mr. Billman kept his yachts in Spain. "If he did, so be it. He was quite pleasant."

Disappeared in 1988

Mr. Billman disappeared from the United States in late 1988, after he and other executives were ordered to pay $112 million in a Montgomery County civil judgment. At the time, he was under federal investigation and would later be indicted on charges of diverting $106 million from Community Savings and Loan to prop up his failing real estate companies and $28 million for his own use.

He had long planned his departure. The passport he used bore the name of George M. Lady, a former college roommate, and had been obtained by Mr. Billman three years earlier as his bank was crumbling. About the same time, federal prosecutors say, ++ he began to wire millions to Swiss bank accounts.

Switzerland was his first stop overseas, followed by trips to London and Paris, authorities believe. Then, in spring 1989, he surfaced in the tiny coastal town of Estepona.

An obviously well-to-do gentleman, he introduced himself to the locals as George Lady. He set up a base, renting a small flat, buying the yachts and hiring a British husband-and-wife crew to maintain them.

In many ways, Estepona was the perfect hideout for an American on the run. In contrast to glitzier retreats along Costa del Sol, Estepona is used mostly by Spaniards. There were few American tourists likely to recognize Tom Billman, whose picture by now graced "wanted" posters.

His hopscotching about Europe on frequent business trips fit the patterns of many others there. And, by local standards, even his two yachts -- the $180,000 Gloriana Dee and the $60,000 Altair -- were run-of-the-mill.

Paul and Pat Manning, who tended the yachts, say their employer lived very well.

To the Gloriana Dee, which featured an oak-paneled master cabin with a seven-foot square bed, Mr. Billman added $60,000 in improvements. They included two top-notch stereo systems and teak cocktail cabinets containing a freezer and ice-maker on deck.

Usually Mr. Billman dined in local restaurants, but occasionally he invited friends on board, where he would uncork a bottle of wine and serve steaks and salad on fine china. Much of his clothing came from London and Paris and appeared to be custom-tailored. And he was a stickler for fresh towels and cleanliness.

"In his bathroom everything was lovely and neatly laid out, his different combs and brushes," Mrs. Manning said.

He also was fun -- upbeat, unpretentious and friendly. A fellow who could talk about everything from baseball to Ibsen. And someone who could strike a chord with strangers, crafting a new persona with confidence and style.

"He used to be the life and soul of the party," said Mr. Manning.

On a two-week Mediterranean cruise on the Gloriana Dee, a British couple from the town accompanied Mr. Billman and his crew. He arranged for a driver with a large Mercedes to chauffeur them about when they arrived in Tangier.

Jim Smyth, one of the guests, fondly remembers the man known as George Lady: "When we went into the casbah in Morocco, George more or less took over. He bought us all caftans. He was going around with a big bundle of money in his hand . . . endless money he had in his pocket."

Still, he kept his secrets.

Although Mr. Billman made only vague references about work in the construction business and never supplied details of business trips, nothing caused the Mannings to be suspicious.

"As far as Paul and I were concerned, his business was his own and we didn't pry," said Mrs. Manning.

Sometimes he would wander into town for the day. Other times he stayed on board, closeting himself for hours in his cabin listening to tapes of Patsy Cline or his favorite, Roger Whittaker. Often he sat at a table writing letters or recording notes in a diary. Frequently he would talk on his cellular phone -- with whom, the Mannings never knew.

Although he usually appeared very relaxed, the carefree facade sometimes cracked.

"He might be sitting at the dining table doodling on a paper, and he would be far away," she said. "I used to look at him and think, 'What are you worrying about?' "

With the police tracking him, Mr. Billman had plenty to worry about.

He could never drop his guard. Arranging a safe phone call sometimes required two or three days.

Mailing a birthday card? It had to be "hand-carried to a far place before it gets dropped in a mailbox," he once said in a conversation that, ironically, was taped by authorities.

When he did make an important phone call, the conversation was cryptic. Like the call to Barbara McKinney, an ex-lover for whom he had wired $500,000 to the United States.

"It's my understanding that the eagle has flown and landed on your end," he told her after the money had been sent to a Detroit bank.

"Oh, ah, I've not been told," said Ms. McKinney, a former Community director.

"Well . . . it should be done, so -- ah, normal tomorrow."

"OK," she responded. "That's, ah, that's wonderful. I, I think I understand, the word normal."

"Yeah, 703," he said.

The next day he contacted her on a different phone line in Virginia's 703 area code, where they talked openly for a half hour. But investigators had followed Ms. McKinney and set up a tap on that phone, too.

When authorities froze the money, it became apparent that federal agents had been listening in.

For much of 1989 he had stayed in touch with Ms. McKinney, who kept him informed about the criminal investigation and the resolution of the civil suit. She also passed him messages from others -- a mixture of business and investment advice as well as friendly communiques.

Meanwhile, he told her about the tremendous stress he felt.

"The world has changed so much in the last six or eight months, you can't believe it," he said in May 1989. "I just want a big zipper, a big black hole . . . zip it up tight."

He said he feared every unidentified sound at night. Strange dreams plagued him. Matters once important to him had become insignificant.

"Basically, I'm excited about the sunshine and sunlight and staying in it," he said.

But the calls to Ms. McKinney stopped after authorities froze the $500,000 in the Detroit bank. Shortly afterward, he wrote to her, explaining that he would not be calling again and that he did not expect to ever return to the United States.

An important break

As postal investigators continued their investigation, they won an important break while questioning Mr. Billman's former employees. They discovered that he had used a traveler's check to pay a bill related to Goldsborough Hall, his Eastern Shore estate.

That led them to the records of other traveler's checks in that series -- which told them that Mr. Billman was in Estepona.

About a week later, Mr. Billman disappeared again.

Kaja Olsen, who had moved to the south of Spain and become a companion of Mr. Billman, remembers the October 1989 evening when he made a phone call as they prepared to go out to dinner. Whom he called, she never knew. But he was shaken when he hung up.

He told her that he must leave immediately. He mentioned going to the United States to handle financial problems -- the dollar was down, he said. Later, as he packed, he said he might go to Switzerland.

Then he was gone, leaving the Mannings with $26,000, power of attorney over the boats and a promise to see them in the spring. By the time the authorities arrived, they could only pick through his belongings, the expensive sports coats with the Billman name embroidered inside, the handkerchiefs monogrammed "TB."

Visit to Argentina

For investigators, the trail from Estepona was colder than ever.

They placed "wanted" ads with Mr. Billman's picture in international periodicals that specialized in his interests: yachting, wines, jewelry. They advertised the reward.

However, after his near-capture in Spain, Mr. Billman switched aliases and continents. He traveled to Argentina and in May 1990 obtained a passport in Rio Negro under the name John Rink.

Later he returned to England and, in March 1992, obtained a British passport, also in the name of John Rink. He claimed to be the owner of champagne vineyards in Argentina and Venezuela.

In September 1992 he moved to Paris, and by year's end he had established himself in a modest one-bedroom apartment there.

Still, he could not relax, he later told an investigator. One day, while sitting in a local cafe, he heard the words "America's Most Wanted" blare from a nearby television. Mr. Billman, who spoke no French, knew that the American program had produced a segment about him.

Should he stay seated and risk someone recognizing him if his face appeared on screen? Or should he leave, and risk raising suspicion?

He decided to stay put. A French band called "America's Most Wanted" soon appeared on the television, and he breathed easily again.

Many reports from tipsters

Hundreds of people claiming to have spotted Mr. Billman contacted the U.S. Marshals Service in Maryland while he was on the run.

One report had Mr. Billman in Cancun, Mexico, "talking about a big deal" and flashing a lot of money. Another claimed that Mr. Billman was working in a Sears Credit Center in San Antonio, Texas. Yet another tipster said that Mr. Billman had been seated next to him on a flight from Bombay to Frankfurt during the summer of 1991, and had conversed about precious metals.

"You're talking about a man with a lot of assets and the ability to move around," said Deputy U.S. Marshal Rodney G. Johnson, who traveled to the Philippines in search of Mr. Billman. "I always felt we would get him. We couldn't say it would be this month or next month or next year. We just had to be ready when he made the right mistakes."

In early 1993, the big break came.

Someone recognized Mr. Billman from his picture in the International Herald Tribune and contacted authorities.

Investigators won't identify the tipster, but apparently they learned that Mr. Billman frequented a restaurant on the Rue Felix Faure in Paris' 15th Arrondissement.

On Feb. 10, American investigators issued a request for his arrest.

More than two weeks passed before police approached him outside his apartment, down the street from the restaurant.

At first he denied he was Tom Billman, showing them his phoney John Rink British passport.

But when police produced a photo taken of Mr. Billman during his years as chairman of Community, he admitted his real identity. He was carrying more than $4,500 in three currencies, plus plane tickets from travels to London and Vienna.

Five days later, in the presence of Mr. Billman and U.S. postal investigators, the police searched his tiny apartment. In the oven, wrapped in black tissue, they found a British driver's license, the Argentinian passport, an Argentinian driver's license, birth certificate for a John Rink born in London the year after Mr. Billman's own birth and 15 credit cards issued to John Rink.

As Mr. Billman sat on a couch, Postal Inspector Randall Willetts walked to the rear of the living room and looked out the window at a dismal view of a cemetery.

"This is the luxurious lifestyle that I've been reported to be living," Mr. Billman quipped.

"It's one of the things you never know," he later told the investigator. "Whether to keep moving or stay in one spot. I guess I made the wrong choice."

A FUGITIVE'S TRAIL

Some of the ravels of fugive financier Tom J. Billman:

*November 1988 - Santa Ana, Calif. First known stop after leaving Maryland. Checks into the Registry Hotel under his real name, but uses a false address. Hotel records show a phone call to Switzerland.

1 Early 1989: Vists Geneva, Switzerland, presumably in connection with Swiss bank accounts, alleged to contain some $22 million.

2 Spring to October 1989: Estepona, Spain. Purchases two yachts and settles in this town on Costa del Sol, using alias George Lady.

3 May 30, 1990: Rio Negro, Argentina. Obtains Argentinian passport using the name John Rink.

4 March 1992: London. Obtains British passport using the name John Rink.

5 September 1992: Paris. Rents an apartment. Identifies himself as John Rink, owner of champagne vineyards. In March 1993, he is arrested by Paris police after tipster recognizes him from a 'wanted' notice in the International Herald Tribune.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
75°