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The Case of the Cool Con Artist

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In one corner of U.S. District Judge Kim Wardlaw’s burnished Los Angeles courtroom was a 73-year-old defendant who had spent the last year in custody.

Opposing him was a 38-year-old, sleep-deprived federal prosecutor who was still breast-feeding an infant son.

Yet the two of them were going at it like triathletes.

They were fighting over whether Marc Debden Moss, a con man who masqueraded as a British general while claiming to be a commodities supplier, should be convicted of 21 counts of fraud, money laundering and tax evasion--crimes carrying a potential prison sentence of 270 years.

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Moss is indeed British, but according to prosecutors that was about the only truth he told.

Operating out of a plush Sunset Boulevard office, he allegedly made millions by swindling clients out of refundable booking deposits. Moss insisted on the deposits at the outset of each deal to guarantee huge, mythical shipments of commodities such as Brazilian sugar, cement and fertilizer.

But he rarely returned the deposits, prosecutors said. Instead, they claimed, he put the money in numerous bank accounts and enjoyed a lifestyle that included a rented house in Beverly Hills, cars and gifts.

When federal agents arrested Moss last year, they said he reacted in typical grandiose style, calling out to an aide as he was being led away, “Get me Robert Shapiro!”

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In a sign of what was to come, he wound up being represented by a federal public defender.

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During a day and a half of cross-examination last week, Moss showed little wear from incarceration; he was as calm and unflagging as his adversary, Assistant U.S. Atty. Julie Werner-Simon, was relentless and intense.

Werner-Simon often paced in front of the lectern, speaking in a strong, booming voice that rarely needed the microphone provided. She pounced on the business cards that the defendant had made up with the military moniker.

“You didn’t put ‘General’ in quotes to let people know it was a joke, did you?” she demanded.

“It wasn’t a joke,” Moss replied.

“But you were not a general,” she said.

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“People knew me as ‘General,’ ” he parried back.

“But you’re not a general, are you?” she persisted.

“I was given that rank for several jobs during the war,” he insisted.

“Sir, this is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question,” intoned Werner-Simon. “Are you a general?”

“No,” he said glumly.

That was one of the few admissions--if not the only one--to a piece of chicanery that Werner-Simon managed to elicit from Moss.

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The government alleged that from April 1992, when he entered Los Angeles on a one-month visitor’s visa, until July 25, 1996, when federal agents arrested him, Moss spun a web of deceit that swindled clients out of money across continents.

Although only six victims are named in the indictment, federal officials believe that Moss’ scheme netted him $3 million to $5 million, defrauding more than 100 people during those four years. Government officials say he moved more than $1 million in wire transfers through two Los Angeles banks alone--and possibly more funds through other banks. However, at the time of his arrest, the government was only able to seize $14,000.

The undisputed facts were these:

First, from his office on Sunset, Moss--a.k.a. “Marc Debenham” and “Jonathan Hancock"--promised shipload-sized commodity deliveries.

Second, Moss didn’t deliver--at least not to any of the people who were named in the federal case against him.

Along the way, the government alleged, Moss extracted refundable booking deposits, often $25,000. He said they would be refunded only after clients provided his bank with letters of credit--essentially lines of credit to pay for the shipments that Moss promised to get.

Usually Moss claimed that a snafu occurred with his clients’ letters of credit. When the clients got angry or suspicious and began to renege on the credit, Moss would claim they had forfeited the deposit.

“People just seem to have problems getting the letter of credit you like, don’t they?” Werner-Simon asked Moss sarcastically.

“Yes, they do,” Moss replied, with nary a blink of his eye.

Moss, under direct examination by his attorney, federal Public Defender Neison Marks, portrayed commodities dealing as a complex business where nothing is shipped before the buyer proves he is able to pay. “The saying goes, ‘Show me the money. . . .’ ”

He denied trying to defraud his clients of their booking deposits, insisting that he wanted to make good on his contracts. One, for cement, he said, “would have made us $200,000 to $240,000, so we were very keen to complete that deal.”

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Werner-Simon--as well as co-prosecutor Alka Sager, a U.S. Customs special agent and Internal Revenue Service special agents--burned the midnight oil during the weeks of the trial, going over volumes of letters, faxes and bank statements.

On the night before her cross-examination of Moss, Werner-Simon didn’t get to bed until 2:30 in the morning, waking at 5 to feed her 4-month-old son and return to court. During recesses in her marathon (and occasionally tedious) questioning of Moss, she slipped out of the courtroom, picking up a quilted bag covered with pastel animal characters and went off to express milk to be fed later to her baby.

Moss, jailed since his arrest last summer, showed up in court each day crisp in manner and dress, preferring shirts with French cuffs.

“At the beginning I was worried about how he would hold up,” said Marks, quipping, “He’s holding up better than I am.”

Instead of going to sleep at 2 or 3 in the morning, Marks went to bed early and awoke in the middle of the night to prepare for his day’s work.

Werner-Simon tried to use her questions to paint Moss as a master manipulator of words and money. Moss, who dodged and danced around the prosecutor’s questions with so many conditional answers that even the judge essentially told him to quit it, nonetheless tried to convey an image of a sophisticated businessman and an honorable gentleman.

Moss allegedly told clients he was a friend of Bob Dole and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato.

The government presented a number of witnesses to debunk Moss’ lofty titles. A member of the British Ministry of Defense testified that the defendant was never a general, just a “sapper,” or private, in the British military. A Washington politico testified that Moss was a pal of neither Republican he claimed to know.

Still, Moss remained dignified as his deceptions were presented to him.

“Now, you don’t know Bob Dole, do you?” asked Werner-Simon.

“He sent me a photo and a letter,” Moss said. “I presumed he knew of me.”

In the government’s closing arguments, prosecutor Sager invoked Shakespeare from “As You Like It”:

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women

merely players:

They have their exits and their

entrances.

And one man in his time plays

many parts. . . .

“We’ve seen the many parts played by Marc Debden Moss,” she said.

“Many of his clients were reluctant to give him a deposit that nobody else in the business seemed to ask for,” she continued. “He said, ‘Do you know who I am? I know people--senators. . . . I’m an advisor to Congress. . . . Trust me.’ ”

But his public defender countered that Moss was a businessman treading volatile waters. “People have ways of looking at the same thing very differently,” Marks said. “This case was about a series of business transactions. He sees this as a series of contracts. . . . The people who lost money see it through angry eyes, looking for someone to blame.”

In the end Tuesday, the jury blamed Moss, convicting him on all counts. Judge Wardlaw will sentence him Sept. 15.


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