For several days last week, the world's most exclusive club accepted a new member, Nicholas W. Leeson, a balding, 28-year-old bond trader in Singapore. Not Harry's or any of the other tony drinking establishments of that steamy Asian metropolis, but the club of fugitive financiers. Leeson is the chap who sank $29 billion into an ill-advised derivatives bet, bankrupting Baring Brothers & Co., the 233-year-old London investment bank, and then had the nerve to do what most in his situation contemplate, but few try. He ran.
Ten days ago, Leeson and his 23-year-old-wife, Lisa Simms, left their fifth-floor apartment, the day's laundry still hanging on the balcony, piled their belongings into a white Mercedes and slipped across the causeway into neighboring Malaysia. They sped through the night to Kuala Lumpur, where they checked into the luxurious Regent Hotel. Early the next morning they left, vanishing into the jungles of Southeast Asia. Singapore police alerted countries as far afield as the Philippines to keep a lookout.
By midweek, the Leesons were still eluding capture, rumored to be somewhere in the South China Sea aboard Nick's yacht--perhaps lurking off the Thai resort island of Phuket. Other reports had them in Bangkok or on a flight to Europe. That last one turned out to be true. Thursday afternoon, border guards at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, grabbed the Leesons off a flight from the island of Borneo, where they had been holed up at the plush Kota Kinabalu resort. They were heading home to London, having hatched the brilliant getaway scheme of purchasing airline tickets in their own name.
Something told you they weren't going to last long. Nick wasn't the type to head for some jungle hideaway--his idea of outdoor activities, friends suggest, is the pool bar at the Singapore Hilton. Nor could they melt into the throngs of Hong Kong. As U.S. POWs in Vietnam discovered, it's nearly impossible for Western faces to disappear into an Asian crowd. The yacht would never work. Good for crossing borders, but too easily identified. So they got caught. Dammit.
This is infuriating. The sudden end to Leeson's stunningly inept week on the lam robs us all of something special. Few stories, after all, appeal to the imagination more than that of the fugitive financier. It's not just the moral outrage we share at the despicable felon, how we can all cluck at the millions he bilked from widows and orphans. It's the sheer fantasy of escape, the dream of overworked Western suburbanites and city dwellers alike--be it the harried checkout clerk at Home Depot or the ambitious Bank of America v.p. who wants to see his 9-month-old more than three hours a week.
Think about it. The fugitive financier is the only person in society who gets to do what every one of us at some point longs to do: Escape with the money.
Forget the rhetoric. This is the real American Dream, the very essence of the happy ending. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four movies--"Body Heat," "True Romance," "The Firm," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Great McGinty"--that end with fugitives of one stripe or another escaping to the tropics. "Take the Money and Run" isn't just a Woody Allen movie. It's a national mythology.
Which is why it puzzles me that Americans--Brits, too, it now seems--make such lousy fugitives. Several years ago, a book called "Exit the Rainmaker" chronicled the curious case of a Maryland college president who simply vanished one day, presumably sick of his administrative and familial responsibilities. Some time later, he was found tending bar in El Paso. This alone suggests Americans need to work on their escape fantasies.
But with few exceptions, U.S. financiers haven't gotten as far as El Paso. Consider all the wealthy Wall Streeters ensnared in the insider-trading scandals of the 1980s. Most were greedy Yuppies intellectually willing to go on the lam--but not if it meant losing security deposits. Despite their sizable fortunes, such men as Dennis Levine and Martin A. Siegel meekly accepted their fates. Michael Milken never gave escape a thought. Among other complicating factors, Milken has children, who don't tote well.
The closest Americans came to a fugitive financier in recent years was Ivan F. Boesky, who became a de facto fugitive from the press after his release from the Club Fed in Lompoc. Several years ago, I spent some time looking into Boesky's new life. Turns out he was living in a plush hacienda in La Jolla, chasing young blondes, jetting around the world and generally living it up. He has since been seen on the French Riviera, and may be eyeing a permanent haven in Italy. "In Italy," a friend explains, "everyone's done what Ivan's done."
Which is one reason Europeans seem to make far better fugitive financiers. Maybe it's the Continental tradition of political exile; no one is clamoring for Bettino Craxi, the former Italian prime minister, to return from Tunisia to face corruption charges. Is there something in the American psyche compelling us to face the music? Maybe Americans are too pampered to leave the remote control. For whatever reason, America has produced an average of only one major fugitive financier a decade--and often these are schooled in the European tradition.
In the 1980s, it was Marc Rich, the Belgian-born commodities magnate who skipped New York facing fraud charges in 1985. Rich and his partner, Pincus Green, relocated to an office building in Zug, Switzerland, a bucolic little burg south of Zurich, where their firm still operates.
Rich is probably the world's wealthiest fugitive. His company, specializing in international shipments of aluminum, oil, nickel and other commodities, is among the largest doing business in the former Soviet Union. The U.S. marshals service continues to track Rich--and nearly nabbed him when he embarked on quick trips to London and Helsinki. Rich, who was known to duck out bathroom windows to escape journalists, has recently been raising his profile, giving an interview or two and buying a seaside estate in Spain, where he has reportedly taken a second citizenship. Thanks to large charitable donations in both Switzerland and Spain, he will likely never be extradited.
Nor will the world's most storied fugitive, Robert L. Vesco. Charged in 1972 with looting more than $220 million from Investment Overseas Services, or IOS, his Geneva-based mutual-fund company, Vesco disappeared after slipping an illegal $200,000 cash contribution to Richard M. Nixon's reelection campaign. He spent a decade darting between Costa Rica and the Bahamas, even reportedly living on his yacht, before U.S. pressure forced him to ground in Cuba. With Fidel Castro's help, he has settled his family on the resort island of Cayo Largo.
A hazy Dr. No-like figure rumored to be involved in everything from Colombian cocaine to helping Castro circumvent the U.S. economic embargo, Vesco has, for 20 years, been a journalistic El Dorado for writers--most recently for Ann Louise Bardach of Vanity Fair, who managed to get inside his home. Bardach reports the 59-year-old Vesco lives in fear of kidnapers in a two-story stucco house ringed with surveillance cameras. Before being chased from his foyer by a beefy German guard, she saw stacks of papers labeled PATENTS and SYNOPSIS and stamped CONFIDENTIAL in bold red print. "Whatever Robert Vesco is up to in his twilight years," Bardach wrote, "it's certainly not retirement."
Amid last week's hubbub over the Barings bankruptcy, few noticed the passing of Vesco's onetime partner in crime, Bernard (Bernie) Cornfeld. Cornfeld, the gregarious American financier who founded IOS, died of pneumonia at his home in London, at 66. A visionary mutual-fund executive during the "go-go" '60s, Cornfeld once moved with a fast crowd that included Hugh Hefner and paid millions for the 40-room Douglas Fairbanks mansion in Beverly Hills.
But unlike Vesco, Cornfeld never ran. Indicted and jailed after IOS's 1972 collapse, he was acquitted of fraud charges in 1979. Afterward, he drifted into the jet set, a pariah to many, a curiosity to others, popping up every so often in a gossip column. Other than a wild scheme to buy MGM-UA, Cornfeld's sole claim to fame in recent years was the disclosure that he had been Heidi Fleiss' first sugar daddy. Fleiss claimed Cornfeld gave her a million in cash and "a Corniche" on her 21st birthday. Of such moments are the finest scoundrels made.
It's sad somehow, but one suspects poor Leeson won't be giving anyone other than his lawyers a million in cash. After that, he probably won't have enough left for a Corniche. He'll go down as a minor-league Cornfeld--not a Vesco or Rich. There won't be years of random sightings at leafy black-sand resorts in the Maldives. There won't be reporters tracking him down at remote temples atop wind-swept Himalayan plateaus. There won't be rumors he has gone into secret partnership with the Chinese army to pirate Nintendo games. But we can dream.*