Straw Man

A boiler-room denizen describes a hustling career

Once free, Ruth quickly helped set up a huge scam called Payday Today USA with a 31-year-old named David L'Hoir, who'd made some money in California in the check-cashing business. Ruth used his boiler-room prowess to help raise nearly $12 million for L'Hoir's chain of stores. Long, for his part, drummed up investors on the phone.

Problem: The stores didn't exist.

Things eventually soured between L'Hoir and Ruth, and Ruth went crying to the feds. Soon, FBI agents raided Payday Today's Fort Lauderdale office, froze more than $5 million in bank accounts, and indicted L'Hoir on fraud charges. He pleaded guilty last fall.

Long swears he had no idea Payday -- or any other business he's been involved in -- was a scam. "Hell, until L'Hoir pled guilty, I thought Payday was legitimate," he said as he poured a bit of Diet Pepsi into an old paper-clip holder he'd made into a makeshift ashtray. "I honestly believed the man was going to pull it off."

L'Hoir could have been sent away for up to five years, but what Judge William Dimitrouleas had in store for him is unknown. L'Hoir didn't show up at the January 4 sentencing hearing, and he's now a fugitive from justice. Dimitrouleas should have known that L'Hoir was a flight risk. The FBI had recorded him on an undercover tape telling Ruth that he could run and that he had already moved some of his cash out of the country. "I got everything fuckin' covered," he said on the tape. "No one can trace me.... At the end of the day, I know the game." Yet Dimitrouleas allowed him to post a $500,000 bond and walk out of jail.

When I spoke to L'Hoir in August, the man had an air of desperation. "The only thing more important than money is freedom," he told me.

I guess he meant it.

After the Payday bust, Ruth went on to another scheme, which he called Cash Today. Again, it was an operation to raise money for a check-cashing company, this one called Republic Advance Cash. The combination of Cash Today and Republic, which was owned by a 73-year-old Arizona businessman named Curtis J. Billups, turned into a $5 million mess.

Long was listed as the sole owner and president of Cash Today, but he was simply Ruth's front man. "I was, as you would put it in your article, the "straw man,'" Long told me.

Long and Ruth raised $2 million in boiler rooms in just a few months. The problem was that only $750,000 of that money actually went to Republic, which raised another $3 million through other telemarketing operations.

Ruth somehow forgot to tell his benefactors at the FBI about his booming new business. Agents found out anyway, and on June 29, they raided Long's Margate office and froze his corporate bank account, which held only $275,000. Soon, Cash Today and Republic, which had 17 stores around the state, were out of business. The millions vanished. Ruth ran from the feds but was nabbed by U.S. marshals in July. He's expected to get out of prison in 2004.

One of the first things Long said when we sat down was that he remained loyal to Melvin Donald Ruth. "If M.D. Ruth ever had a friend, it's me," he began. "I would make a deal with the devil to get him out of prison."

I found his loyalty hard to believe. Ruth, it seemed, had duped Long into the Cash Today business and hung him out to dry. Long admits Ruth never told him he was working for the FBI. "I wonder sometimes if he wasn't setting me up," Long said, "but I don't think so."

I asked him if he ever felt any guilt about his boiler-room work. "If I tell you, "Bob, give me $10,000, and I might double it, or I might lose it,' and you give it to me, whose fault is that? Yours or mine?" he answered. "I have no sympathy for anybody who is too stupid to hang the phone up."

Long blames the FBI, Billups, and L'Hoir for his problems -- anyone but himself and Ruth. He insists Cash Today would have earned investors plenty of money were it not for the FBI's raid. It sounded more like a pyramid scheme to me, so I asked him to explain exactly how it could have worked.

"I would have to tell you figures, and I can't do that," he said with a smile. "Directions and figures are two things I can't tell a man."

To test Long, I asked him to compute 40 percent of 2 million. "You tell me," he muttered blankly. He truly had no idea. The man involved in those multimillion dollar swindles can't even do simple arithmetic.

It figures. Long is no cunning con man. He's not in the class of a Ruth or a L'Hoir. He's just a half-baked, morally stunted salesman. And he's not without some charms. Like most Southern-born hucksters (and having been raised in Kentucky, I've met a few), he's quick with a laugh and doesn't take himself too seriously. He said he didn't steal money from Cash Today, and for the most part, I believe him. Long drives a Daewoo, and he's genuinely bitter about the FBI raid and dissolution of Cash Today -- which is neither the typical transportation nor disposition of a man who made off with a bundle of illicit money.

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