Rogue bankers Tom J. Billman and Joseph Mollicone Jr. aren't household names. But in some law enforcement circles, they're more notorious than Charles H. Keating Jr.
True, Mr. Keating has become the symbol of the thrift debacle, and his trials for fraud and embezzlement have made headlines across the country. But like most bank and thrift executives charged with a crime, Mr. Keating was easy to find.
Mr. Billman and Mr. Mollicone, on the other hand, are members of a very exclusive club Bankers who went on the lam.
This is the story of the two executives, both wealthy men with families, who shocked their friends and relatives by becoming fugitives.
With the help of spy novels, Mr. Billman planned such an elaborate disappearing act from his home in McLean, Va., that after more than thre years, he is still one step ahead of an intensive international search involving Interpol and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Price on His Head
He is wanted for his part in the Equity Programs Investment Corp. scandal, which resulted in the 1985 collapse of his Community Savings and Loan Association, Bethesda, Md. There is even a $200,000 reward for his capture.
Mr. Billman filed in December 1988 after the state of Maryland entered a $112 million civil judgment against him and several other Community Savings executives. He was also indicted on federal racketeering charges.
With $22 million allegedly hidden in a Swiss bank account to support his appetite for yachts and fast cars, the 51-year-old Mr. Billman has little incentive to turn himself in. He might well end up in jail like Mr. Mollicone, president of the failed Heritage Loan and Investment in Providence, R.I., who made a clean getaway but grew so weary after 17 months on the lam that he surrendered to state authorities on April 12.
Now he's facing charges of embezzling $13 million from Heritage.
Mr. Billman faces 115 years in prison, $4.9 million in fines, and $29 million in forfeitures.
Not Fit for Flight:
As clean as Mr. Mollicone's break was, it was an afterthought compared with Mr. Billman's.
Mr. Mollicone, 48, disappeared after flying from Boston to Newark, N.J., following his bank's failure, leaving behind his wife, Joyce, and four children.
Heritage was seized on Oct. 18 by its private insurer after an examination turned up millions in losses. Its failure sparked the Jan. 1, 1990, closure of 45 banks and credit union, freezing more than $1.7 billion of depositors' funds. In the panic that ensued, troubled Bank of New England experienced a major run.
Shortly before he ran, Mr. Mollicone reportedly told a bank examiner to "pray for me."
Assortment of Rumors
He left so few clues that after a month or two, many people assumed he had been rubbed out by the Mafia. After all, he palled around with Luigi "Baby Shanks" Mannocchio, an alleged up-an-comer in the New England mob.
Others thought they had seen the black-haired, brown-eyed banker in Florida, Texas, and even at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France.
The state police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Interpol launched a massive manhunt. Because Mr. Mallicone is an avid golfer, the attorney general's office placed ads in a dozen golf magazines, hoping to smoke him out.
"That turned up some [reported sightings], but nothing panned out," said Thomas Connell, a spokesman for the Rhode Island attorney general's office.
"We used to have Mollicone sightings weekly," said Rhode Island Attorney General James E. O'Neil.
A Good Reputation
Friends of Mr. Mollicone said he was generous and friendly, the type of person who would give you his last dime.
"The guy needed nothing," said Hugo DiMascolo, president of Cransion Typewriter Co., and a Heritage customer. "He'd do anything for you. He was a very proud man, a five-star guy. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke. He never had girlfriends."
"Joe was a hard-working individual, who I think got in over his head," said a credit union manager and friend of the Mollicone family, who requested anonymity. "He surprised everybody by leaving. There was no warning. Things must have been closing in on him. He panicked."
Mr. O'Neil began talking to Thomas R. DiLuglio, a Millicone family friend, radio talk show host, and former lieutenant governor, who eventually arranged for Mr. Mollicone's surrender at 1 a.m. on April 12.
Mr. O'Neil said he would never forget the evening Mr. Mollicone surrendered. He said he wasn't sure the arrest would come off. Negotiations had been under way for weeks. But at 12.05 a.m., he got the call from Mr. DiLuglio that Mr. Mollicone was ready to surrender.
"I don't carry a firearm or wear a flak jacket, but I did put on a bulletproof vest and I kissed my wife good-bye. At 2 a.m., I said, 'My goodness, we have done it,'" Mr. O'Neil said.
Neither Mr. DiLuglio, Mr. Mollicone, nor Julius C. Michaelson, Mr. Mollicone's lawyer, could be reached for comment.
Mr. Mollicone, who is now prisoner 088280, is being kept at the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston, R.I. He faces nearly two dozen charges, including counts for embezzlement, which carry a penalty of 10-year sentence, and altering bank records, 20 years.
"I think [Mr. Billman and Mr. Mollicone] are two distinctly different human beings." Mr. O'Neil said. "I think he panicked and wanted to distance himself from what was before him. I had always thought he couldn't stand being on the run."
Flair for Planning:
Tom J. Billman
Mr. Billman acted with the adroitness and cunning of someone accustomed to living under cover. The man who goes by the names "Mr. Spain" and "George M. Lady" secured a phony passport and other fake identifications three years before his transgressions were discovered in December 1988.
"This is a guy who plans ahead," said David Cyr, an inspector with the U.S. Postal Service, who has dogged Mr. Billman throughout Europe, but has since turned the job over to the U.S. Marshals to take on other tasks in the case.
"How many regular Joes would stash $22 million in Swiss bank accounts? That alone puts him in another category," the inspector said.
He also reportedly removed the monograms from his dress shirts, and from spy novels he paid heed to the techniques the protagonists employed to evade their enemies.
Wary of Meetings
"If you read some of those books they go into a lot of detail about countersurveillance," said Mr. Cyr. He said Mr. Billman wouldn't walk into a meeting with a person if he thought the person was being followed. So Mr. Billman would scope out the situation prior to the meeting.
In 1990, Mr. Cyr tracked Mr. Billman to a yacht in Spain, but he came up empty-handed. He wouldn't disclose how he picked up the fugitive's trail. But he did describe how he found a spy novel called "The Negotiator," by Frederick Forsyth, in a bookcase on board.
"There was a bookmark about halfway through it," he said. "It was a book that I was reading at the time."
The book is about an attempt by the military in this country and the former Soviet Union to scuttle a peace treaty between the nations by kidnapping and killing the President's son. The book is packed with mercenaries, arms dealers, and bungling FBI agents.
Waiting for a Mistake
Mr. Billman "is pretty sharp," added Rodney Johnson, the supervising deputy for the U.S. Marshals Service, who is tracking the fugitive these days. "But he'll make his mistake. "We've got to catch the right one at the right time"
If Mr. Billman was counting on being forgotten, he miscalculated. He is on the most-wanted lists of both Interpol and the U.S. Marshals. And he was featured on the "America's Most Wanted" television program, as was Mr. Mollicone. The FBI got about 50 phone calls about Mr. Billman following the broadcast, including one from a former high school classmate who swore he saw the fugitive at a reunion.
Mr. Billman's break with the law came as a complete surprise to his friends. He was a very successful businessman who was making $12 million a year in 1984 and 1985, according to Regardie's, a slick Washington-based business and political magazine.
He grew up in a working-class family in Woodsfield, Ohio. After high school, he worked as a clerk with the FBI. He attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Later, he drove a Cadillac and lived on a large, wooded estate in McLean, Va. with his wife, Clare, and three children, a boy and two girls who are now in their 20s.
"He was not distinguished," said a former college friend, who asked not to be named. "He didn't drink any more or less beer than anybody else. He was just another O.K. person."
J. Denis O'Toole, chief lobbyist with the U.S. League of Savings Institutions, used to play squash with Mr. Billman at the University Club in Washington.
"He was a great squash player and a fascinating guy," Mr. O'Toole said. "He reminded me of the Schweppes effervescent guy. Your jaw broke when you heard what he was doing."
Mr. Billman was chairman of Community Savings, and founder and chairman of Equity Programs Investment Corp., a real estate tax-shelter company.
He founded EPIC, a tax shelter business, in 1974. EPIC bought sample homes from builders for its partnerships and leased them back until the developments were sold. By 1985, EPIC had 76 affiliated companies, more than 300 limited partnership, and more than 20,000 houses and condos across the country.
But the company was blind-sided by the recession, falling real estate values, and higher interest rates. In the fall of 1985, it defaulted on $18 million in loans, and later filed for bankruptcy.
To stave off a liquidity crisis in the early 1980s, Mr. Billman acquired Community Savings in 1982, a Bethesda, Md., S&L with $400 million in assets. In September 1985, Community, a state-insured thrift, was seized by Maryland regulators when EPIC collapsed.
About 27,000 accounts were frozen. Regulators later accused him of illegally diverting money from the S&L.
Why did Mr. Billman run?
:He was a boy from a small town who made it big," said the college friend. "The very thing he had got, he was scared was going to be taken from him."