Grift and Run

The FBI doesn't want you to know about Mel Ruth

The FBI didn't shut Ruth out, though. Instead the agency embraced him as an asset.

Even a cursory look at Ruth's slippery past clearly shows why the FBI's decision to employ him as an informant was reckless. Before Ruth ever dreamed of eight-figure scams, he spent nearly 20 years plaguing South Florida as a tremendously prolific but relatively smalltime grifter. Numerous police departments, prosecutors, and state agencies knew of Ruth's scams, yet they either couldn't stop him or simply failed to do so. Ruth showed cunning in exploiting some glaring holes in Florida criminal laws and benefited from bureaucratic bungling and a lack of aggressive prosecution.

Ruth almost pulled off the ultimate con: He's accused of ripping off millions of dollars while working for the FBI
Ruth almost pulled off the ultimate con: He's accused of ripping off millions of dollars while working for the FBI

Robert Crespo, a 15-year veteran investigator with the Florida Comptroller's Office, calls Ruth one of the most active con men he has ever run across. "He's a smooth talker, and he's spent years finding new ways to take people's money," says Crespo, who keeps pictures of about 30 con artists in his office, on his "Wall of Shame."

"Ruth is in the middle of the Wall of Shame. I've known about him for 12 years, and our offices in Miami, West Palm Beach, and Broward have all worked cases on him, if that gives you any idea of his prevalence."

While Ruth's crimes are known in law-enforcement circles, little is known about his personal history, just bits and pieces that can be gleaned from court documents. Ruth, who is currently being held at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, wasn't available for comment; he's restricted from seeing anyone but family members and his lawyers.

He was born in Blanchard, Oklahoma, on January 23, 1941, and reported to authorities in 1996 that he had a normal childhood with good parents (both of whom are now deceased). He graduated from high school and took classes for two years at Oklahoma University. What he did during the 20 years following his flirtation with college remains a mystery. It is known he came to South Florida in 1983 and was soon accused of taking people's money.

During the 1980s he was sued in civil courts in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties for failing to pay debts owed to stores, banks, and individuals who claimed he'd ripped them off. When he lost judgments in these cases, he usually failed to pay up.

Police started catching on to him in the early 1990s; court records reveal a dizzying array of scams during the past ten years. State probation records show he was convicted of credit card fraud and writing worthless checks prior to 1996, but New Times could find no court record.

One of his various businesses was selling cookware and vacuum cleaners door to door. In 1992 the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office charged him with scamming a credit company called Beneficial Finance out of $20,000 through his vacuum cleaner business. He quickly bonded out of jail.

Ruth, who often lived in a Boca Raton house with long-time girlfriend Kathy Masseo, obtained a mortgage broker's license from the state in 1992, before the criminal charges began piling up. Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show that he was arrested in Palm Beach County in 1995 on charges of larceny and writing worthless checks, but prosecutors dropped the case. Allegations that he was writing bad checks would continue to dog him, and what he did with the money he received led to more criminal charges. Under the guise that he would help save their homes, Ruth swindled numerous people who were behind on their house payments, court records show. Albert Talerico and his wife Jeanne, who owned a house in Pembroke Pines, paid Ruth $2600 on July 23, 1995. Ruth promised he would loan them an additional $2800 to stave off foreclosure. Instead he simply kept the money.

"We checked his office, and it seemed to be legit," recalls Talerico, who is vice president of a marine-electronics company. "I checked the state for his license, and he did have a license. Ruth was driving a brand-new Beamer, so he looked legit. He was well dressed, well groomed, and he seemed educated. He's just a very good salesman."

Talerico decided Ruth was also a crook, so he complained to police, who began an investigation. Ruth, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in January 1996 to fraud in the Beneficial Finance case. Judge Virginia Broome sentenced him to five years' probation and ordered him to pay restitution of $19,788.99. He did no prison time.

In June 1996 a warrant was issued for Ruth's arrest in the Talerico case. He remained a fugitive until he was picked up that December at Miami International Airport. Ruth quickly bonded out of jail -- again -- and continued using his mortgage broker's status to rip off people. The state could have stripped his license shortly after his felony conviction, but the bureaucracy moved at a snail's pace and didn't revoke it until February 1998.

In April 1997 Ruth was charged with grand theft, mortgage fraud, and violation of probation for taking $2400 from a Boynton Beach woman named Helen Swain in another scheme. He "has displayed a complete disrespect to the court by continuing to violate the law. He preys on vulnerable persons looking to him for financial assistance," a probation officer wrote. Ruth could have been hit with another parole violation for the Talerico case, but in a bureaucratic mix-up, the probation office never learned of it.

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