Straw Man

A boiler-room denizen describes a hustling career

Every time James "J.W." Long hears his phone ring, he gets a little pang in his gut. He knows it might be a threat from one of his former investors. The calls have gotten so bad that he ends the greeting on his home answering machine with a taunt to one of his more persistent tormentors: "If you are the guy threatening me, then all I got to say is, bring it on, big guy. Let's see what you got."

Long knows the "big guy" isn't me, but he blames me anyway. He complains that four or five people now want to kill him because of a story I wrote this past September 20 about a prolific con man and former FBI informant named Mel Ruth.

He called not long ago to rant at me.

"You weren't even mentioned in the story," I countered.

"Well, I worked with Mel Ruth, and word gets around," he replied in his booming, Southern-accented, salesman's voice.

Then he claimed that the FBI was crucifying him and insisted he'd done nothing wrong.

But was he in the boiler-room business with Ruth?

"Yes, if you want to call it that," he answered.

South Florida, the FBI will tell you, is the world capital of boiler rooms -- telemarketing operations -- that take exorbitant fees and engage in scams. Boiler-room operatives like Long usually keep themselves as far under the radar as Jeb Bush kept daughter Noelle before her recent arrest. They never draw attention to themselves. Scandals do the job for them. The businesses are hidden in strip malls and office buildings, and the people inside them don't like to talk unless they are doing the calling. You don't see the denizens of boiler rooms; you just taste their seediness in the South Florida air.

Now a player in the trade was opening up to me. All I could think of was that new rallying cry of Jeb's older brother. What exactly G.W. Bush means by it, I'm not sure. But it made a lot of sense in regard to J.W. Long.

Let's roll.

So I met Long on Monday, January 28, in his shut-down Margate office, which was a check-cashing store/boiler room before it was raided by the FBI last June 29. It is a white building, about the size of a fast-food restaurant, located across the street from the north outlet of the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop.

When I knocked on the locked glass doors, a man who looked like Tom Waits on his worst day emerged from the dim interior and greeted me. He had bushy sideburns and thinning, dirty-gray hair pushed straight back and was wearing a green, button-down shirt, white pants, and black tassel loafers on his small feet. A Kool cigarette dangled from a mouth defined by two upside-down, rabbit-like front teeth. He shook my hand and with a smile led me from the check-cashing store, where tellers once worked behind bulletproof glass, to his dim and empty office. A glass wall revealed another office with seven cubicles, each with a black phone. It was a dead boiler room.

He pieced together a vague outline of his past for me. His mother died while he was an infant, so he grew up with his grandparents in Knoxville, Tennessee. His father, whom he never got along with, worked as both a Baptist minister and a law librarian for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. Long has apparently been rebelling against all that God and law ever since. After high school, he spent ten years in the Marines before going to work in Nashville as a country-western guitar and keyboard player. He married and divorced four times (and had four kids) before moving to Miami in 1994 to wed wife number five, a Cuban immigrant he met in Nashville.

In the Sunshine State, Long was determined to make some real money as a stockbroker. "I heard they could make $40,000 in a good month," he said. A friend referred him to Biltmore Securities, a Fort Lauderdale brokerage, where Long started making cold calls to investors. But he failed the state stockbroker's test and thus was relegated to boiler rooms, or "independent sales offices," as they are called in the business. (Biltmore, incidentally, went down in flames in 1997 amid fraud allegations.)

In 1998, Long met Mel Ruth at a boiler-room operation called the Sheffield Group, which was later raided by the FBI and shut down. The two men teamed up -- Ruth as the brains, Long as the trusty follower. To even begin to understand Ruth, consider that he's ripped off countless struggling homeowners and once swindled his own neighbors out of thousands of dollars while walking his pooch. The man is an economic viper -- and he's brilliant at it.

In 1999, Ruth set up a boiler-room scam called Barclays Management and employed Long to work the phones. On March 15, 2000, the FBI raided the business and charged Ruth, who was already a convicted felon, with fraud. Ruth pleaded guilty, but in lieu of forcing him to serve his 33-month prison sentence, the FBI unwisely made him a confidential informant and persuaded a judge to turn him loose.

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