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Impostor Stole Hearts, Money as Celebrities’ ‘Sons’

Times Staff Writer

When the blond, suntanned man approached her in a Tennessee singles bar last year and introduced himself as the son of media magnate Ted Turner, 23-year-old receptionist Callie Maldonado thought she had finally met her ideal man.

The next day, she invited him to move into her Nashville apartment. On the third day they were together, she gave him her automated teller bank card. She was so enraptured with the man, she later told a Tennessee court, that she didn’t flinch when he began pawning her jewelry.

She also thought nothing of his request that she take out a $4,000 bank loan, ostensibly so he could buy a car for transportation to work.

It was not until a friend became suspicious and called Ted Turner’s office in Atlanta to verify the man’s identity that Maldonado learned the truth: She had been the victim of an elaborate con.

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The man was not Ted Turner’s son, James. He was really James B. Turner, a 27-year-old former resident of Huntington Beach with no known relation to the media tycoon. Maldonado tearfully preferred charges against the impostor, who eventually served eight months in a Tennessee prison for stealing $700 from her.

“I liked him,” Maldonado said she testified in court last year. “He was real attentive toward me. He told me he loved me. He said he wanted to settle down and have children.”

Maldonado is not the only woman who has lost her heart--and pocketbook--to Turner. For at least the past five years, police investigators say, he has crisscrossed the country bilking young women out of thousands of dollars.

Wined and Dined

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To some, he introduces himself as the son of Ted Turner. To others, he is the son of actor Dick Van Patten, the patriarch of television’s “Eight is Enough.”

Before they find out he is a fake, police detectives around the country say, the women put him up in fancy hotel suites, wine and dine him in exclusive restaurants and take out bank loans for him. He also has bragged to police about some women buying cars for him. Some have even accepted his marriage proposals, police say.

Turner has been named in police theft and fraud reports in Orange County, Palm Springs, Hawaii, Denver, Las Vegas, New York and Orange County, Fla. He is now in jail in Columbus, Ohio, waiting to be sent to Florida to face charges that he bilked a woman out of $1,500 and violated his probation.

Turner is such a well-traveled con artist that FBI officials say they have decided to put him in their National Con Index, a running tally of the various con artists known to be traveling from state to state.

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Yet the subject of all this notoriety is described by police as an outwardly nice guy.

“He’s a likable character, and that’s exactly what con men are,” said Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Police Detective Don McCawley. “He told me, ‘Hey, I meet women. They want to wine me and dine me.’ ”

As far as police and private investigators who have been tracking him can tell, Turner has been pursued by women almost since he moved out of his parents’ home on Freshwater Circle in Huntington Beach about seven years ago.

Dick Van Patten said he first became aware that someone was impersonating his actor son, James, when fans in Hawaii five years ago began sending letters asking for the money they loaned “your son.”

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Next, the impostor turned up in the Midwest, where more angry Van Patten fans began firing off letters to Hollywood asking for repayment.

“They would say, ‘I love you, but your son owes me money,’ ” Van Patten, 58, said in a recent interview.

Van Patten said one Arizona fan actually managed to get his private telephone number and call him about his “son’s” request for a $3,000 loan. The impostor was sitting in the man’s living room as he called.

“I told him that man is not my son. I said whoever is sitting there is an impostor,” Van Patten said. He said he immediately called the police in that town, but the impostor vanished before officers arrived.

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“He’s lousing up my reputation,” Van Patten said.

Calls to Turner

Ted Turner, owner of Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta, was not available for comment.

But Joe Shirley, director of security for Turner Broadcasting, said he has been getting calls for the past year from police departments and citizens wanting to verify whether Turner’s real son, James, needs money. Shirley said Ted Turner has retained a private investigation firm to try to keep tabs on the impostor.

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Turner’s son looks nothing like the impostor, Turner security officials said. They declined to release the son’s photo on security grounds.

“We assure the folks that he has no connection with the Turner family that we know of,” Shirley said.

James Turner, incarcerated in Ohio, refused to be interviewed.

His family in Huntington Beach declined comment, except for his older brother, Tom, who said only: “This is hurting our family.”

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Authorities in Florida said Turner is wanted for skipping town without making court-ordered restitution to his victims there and for not filing monthly probation reports. Turner waived extradition and is scheduled to be transferred to Ft. Lauderdale as soon as possible, where he faces a possible prison sentence.

Same Story

At the time of his arrest April 13, Ohio authorities said, Turner was pulling the same scam on another unsuspecting woman. He had walked up to her in Miami Beach, where the Ohio woman had been staying with her parents, and introduced himself as the son of Ted Turner, said Police Detective James Rothwell of Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus.

As he has before, Turner told the 30-year-old woman that he and his father had had a fight and that his living allowance had been cut off, Rothwell said. He asked her to pay his way, Rothwell said, until his father could pay her back. He also told her he was awaiting a $150,000 insurance settlement from a boating accident, which authorities say never happened.

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The woman, who has a doctorate in education, paid for his room and board in Miami Beach and then for his transportation to Ohio so he could live in her home in Upper Arlington, Rothwell said. The two had known each other one week.

The couple had been in Ohio only a few days when Turner asked her if she would get him a bank loan for $4,000 so he could buy a motorcycle and commute to work, Rothwell said. He was arrested before the funds could be drawn. Because no crime had been committed yet, the woman did not press charges.

A crime is committed, police say, when Turner obtains a loan by posing as a celebrity’s son, giving the victims false expectation that they will be reimbursed. When the loan is not repaid, it becomes a theft.

Turner has been charged with essentially the same scam in a number of cities.

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Scam in Florida

In Ft. Lauderdale, Turner told a vacationing Virginia woman during Christmas week, 1985, that he was Van Patten’s son and asked her to take him in for the night, Detective McCawley said. While she was in the shower, he took $1,233 from her purse as well as a $300 gold chain, court records in Florida show. He was not caught at the time.

Four months later, a police officer was told that a man at a hotel in the Ft. Lauderdale’s beach strip area was passing himself off as Van Patten’s son. Two men had paid the impostor $60 on the promise that they could perform in television commercials the next morning, said a witness, suspicious about the man’s true identity.

Remembering the previous incident involving the Virginia woman, the officer went to the hotel room and asked if James Van Patten was staying there, police records show.

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The occupant replied, “ ‘No, I’m Matt Turner.’ The two would-be television actors turned to him and accused him of lying to them, McCawley said.

Turner, who had used his younger brother Matt’s name, was arrested and convicted on charges of grand theft stemming from the incidents involving the Virginia woman and the two men. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and ordered to repay his victims. At Turner’s request, the probation was transferred to Huntington Beach, where he temporarily moved back home with his parents.

Turner did not stay long in Huntington Beach. Officials with the Florida probation and parole department said that when they tried to contact him after he failed to submit restitution payments, Turner’s mother said he had moved out March 9, 1987, and his whereabouts were unknown. A warrant for probation violation was issued later that year.

Incident in Cypress

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Shortly before he moved, police in Cypress were investigating a complaint that Turner had borrowed $2,000 from a woman after telling her he was Van Patten’s son. The two had met on a beach in Hawaii, Cypress Police Lt. Phillip Satterfield said.

Cypress police issued a warrant for grand theft and had Turner arrested in Palm Springs, where he had registered at an exclusive hotel under the name James Van Patten. The hotel owner reported the impostor after receiving a flyer that Palm Springs police distributed to all area businesses warning about the impostor, Satterfield said. Cypress police had notified Palm Springs police about Turner’s suspected presence in the city.

The Orange County district attorney’s office declined to prosecute the grand theft charge, however, because there was a question of whether the money involved a loan, Satterfield said.

Turner left town, resurfacing in Nashville, where he was convicted of grand larceny. According to Sgt. John Patton of the Metro Nashville Police Department, the impostor dressed up in designer clothes and hit the local nightclub circuit.

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In the clubs, Patton said, Turner approached cocktail waitresses, saying: “You don’t know me, do you? I’m Ted Turner’s son.” Then he waited for the waitresses to excitedly spread the word of his presence to other single women in the club. Patton said the response was always swift.

“Let’s face it, the man (Ted Turner) is a multimillionaire, and money makes a man more attractive,” Patton said.


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