Detective Art Droz had cracked more complicated crimes and had arrested people charged with taking a lot more money.
But for five years, the case of Melvin Stuart had nagged at the back of Droz's mind. Droz was always bothered by the disappearance of Stuart, alias Melvin Noskowitz, who had bilked a dozen people of $144,000 in an investment scam.
"It was one of my first real estate fraud cases," Droz said. "If he wasn't caught, he would have totally escaped the judicial system and had the benefit of getting away with all that money, interest free."
Late last week, two weeks before his scheduled retirement, Droz got his man. He learned that Stuart was living in San Gabriel, in an older, middle-class neighborhood, and selling golf equipment.
Before Droz initially arrested him in 1983, Stuart worked as a middle-level manager at the now-defunct Advanced Health Systems Inc. in Newport Beach. In 1982, he persuaded about a dozen people who worked with him, from high-ranking managers to department secretaries, to invest in a Colorado property and a 12-unit condominium complex in Santa Cruz with the guarantee of doubling their money.
A year later, when the investors failed to get their return, they became suspicious and contacted the Huntington Beach police.
Droz was assigned to the case, and rather quickly discovered that Stuart was selling limited partnerships in properties that didn't exist. The first tip, he said, came when he called a Santa Cruz police investigator to check out the address of the 12-unit condominium complex.
"He called back telling (that the address) was a two-bedroom, wooden home that was about 55 years old," Droz said.
Droz also checked property records in Colorado and found that Stuart had no ownership in the land he was offering.
A Laguna Niguel physician who was an administrator at Advanced Health Systems told The Times that he had invested an amount under $10,000 with Droz. Others in the company were devastated, the physician said, because they gave Stuart "their whole life savings." According to police, one man invested $33,000.
The physician, who requested anonymity, described Stuart as "overly sweet, overly kind, overly benevolent." Stuart even invited many employees in the office to his wedding, he said.
"He was very clever," the doctor said. "He didn't push (the investment deal) very hard. In fact, people would come to him."
Droz found Stuart in San Diego. After 18 months and several court appearances, Stuart pleaded guilty. But on the day that he was to begin serving his six-year prison term, he never arrived in court.
"When it came time to show up, he didn't," Droz said. "This was such an egregious crime that I wanted to see him apprehended."
For the next six years, Droz periodically checked computer databases, such as Department of Motor Vehicles records, business and property licenses and voter registration, in an attempt to find Stuart. He even checked motor vehicle records in every state, hopeful that Stuart might have applied for a new license. He had no success.
"The possibility existed, like so many other cases I had, that he left the country," Droz said.
As his retirement approached, Stuart made a final attempt. This time, a database showed that Stuart's Social Security number had been used, and this led Droz to a residence in San Gabriel.
Last Thursday night, Droz and Detective Carrie Dreyer, along with Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, went to the home. Stuart, 53, had been asleep, and when he found authorities at the, door he was "very surprised," Droz said.
"He thought we had forgotten about him," Droz said. "But it was peaceful. He cooperated."
This week, an Orange County judge ordered Stuart to begin serving his sentence at the Men's Rehabilitation Center in Chino.
It is doubtful that investors will ever see their money, Droz said. Still, the Laguna Niguel physician said, "It's nice that they found him. This is different than boiler-room tactics. Somehow it seems even worse. He took advantage of the people he knew, which is pretty bad."
Droz, who has been with the Huntington Beach Police Department for 20 years, passed the bar exam last year. After he retires next week he will work for an Irvine-based law firm, specializing in businesses litigation, personal injury and real estate law. The arrest of Stuart, he said, makes his change all the more comfortable.
"This was the final one that ended it," Droz said. "I feel confident now knowing that he didn't get away with it."