Do the Hustle

How a slick-talking drifter took America's Venice for a ride

Ron Lawrence has paid $25 to a dump truck driver for a load of dirt that never appeared. He once reluctantly loaned $20 to a man who entered a pool hall swearing he needed to fill his diabetic mother's prescription; the fellow disappeared. And once, after he noticed a guy hobbling along the same stretch of Federal Highway each day, he hollered, "Hey, you're limping on the wrong foot!" and watched the flustered faker switch gimpy legs.

But three months ago, the 69-year-old Lawrence, a hard-boiled Fort Lauderdale wine salesman with dark rings around his aqua-gray eyes, met a hustler so good that to top him, someone "would have to have a doctorate in conning," he says. Mark Walter Wolfer, a 56-year-old drifter, entered 67 Wine & Spirits on Cordova Road in September wearing a tropical-patterned shirt and a smile. He carried high-end condo literature and suggested that he might buy as much as $40,000 in wine.

He said he was shopping to replace bottles lost in a house fire in California, which he said a forthcoming multimillion-dollar insurance check would cover. Over about a half-dozen lengthy visits and some pop-ins, Wolfer, who asserted he owned a software company, spent perhaps 20 hours with Lawrence, perusing $700 bottles of Hartwell and $800 bottles of Barnett, scrutinizing vintages and Wine Spectator scores. He was always kind and polite. On his second visit, in early September, he also charmed Lawrence into floating him $100 for lodging. But the return payment was always delayed -- by the insurance company, by banking holidays, and by a bad chicken salad sandwich that supposedly landed Wolfer in the hospital. The self-proclaimed millionaire never actually bought anything. Lawrence, at first somewhat taken with the eccentric customer, now feels merely taken.

Jose Yunen and Dominick Raneri accepted Wolfer's deposit on two $200,000 cars. They weren't surprised when the $500 check bounced. When Wolfer (in police mug shot, inset) was arrested, he had an empty wallet, a disposable razor, and a purchase order for a $13.2 million yacht.
Colby Katz
Jose Yunen and Dominick Raneri accepted Wolfer's deposit on two $200,000 cars. They weren't surprised when the $500 check bounced. When Wolfer (in police mug shot, inset) was arrested, he had an empty wallet, a disposable razor, and a purchase order for a $13.2 million yacht.

Indeed, Lawrence is just one of 50 or more local merchants who have complained of Wolfer's grifting and welching on debts, according to Clinton Ward, a Fort Lauderdale police detective. Furthermore, in the past 25 years, Wolfer has been sued by friends, tried for at least eight financial felonies and misdemeanors, and has slick-talked his way into uncountable small favors from people whose time and trust he squandered.

Though Wolfer apparently slept in a rental car and was perpetually dressed in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, according to police records and more than two dozen people interviewed, he ate in some of the finest restaurants, toured top real estate, and stayed in among the best hotels in the subtropics. He did practically all of it on someone else's bill. In South Florida, the land of the scam, where the FBI has a special task force to deal with the hustle and where money means, well, everything, Wolfer is only a small-timer. Yet his history offers a rare lesson: Even a homeless man with a long record can pull one over on those who serve the high-rollers.

"It's always the average, gullible individual who gets taken advantage of, but here's a twist," Lawrence said recently during an evening smoke break outside his store, which was lit red by a neon window sign. "This guy scammed the smartest people in town. Try to scam rich people! First of all, they don't have time for you. If I tried to scam Wayne Huizenga, he wouldn't let me in the goddamned door.

"If Wolfer was here," Lawrence concludes, "I'd kick him between the balls."

Since mid-October, Wolfer has been held safely out of kicking range in the Broward Sheriff's Office stockade. Because of some creative banking, he awaits a January hearing on charges of grand theft and identity fraud, third-degree felonies that each carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

He cuts an unremarkable figure: five-foot-six, receding light brown hair, a salty mustache, trim nails, crooked upper and lower teeth, looking slightly younger than his age. When he speaks into the phone receiver that connects inmate to visitor through a clear wall at the stockade, his modest voice sometimes fades. "Grand theft," he scoffs. "All I did is sign an electronic transfer request." Practically every misfortune and miscue in his past is really just a misunderstanding, he explains. "There was no fraud on my part."

His biography, at least as he tells it, starts in New York City, when he was born to an Air Force master navigator named Leonard Wolfer and his wife, Rose. He endured his dad's transfers from Newfoundland to Delaware to Spain to the Azores, back to Delaware and then to Taiwan, where he graduated high school. After transferring from the University of Miami to American University in Washington, D.C., he earned bachelor's degrees in political science and political psychology in 1969, then joined the Air Force ROTC.

An eye infection ended his military career after 27 months, and he returned to D.C. to sell stereo equipment. In 1971, he moved to Hawaii, where he lived for almost 20 years selling pools and life insurance and then developing real estate, at turns in business with his dad. He married and then, after a few years, divorced his wife.

He moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1990, working as a software salesman, and then to California in 1996 when his father fell ill with lymphoma. He returned to South Florida this past March, he says, after his century-old, two-and-a-half-story, San Jose home burned down while he was on vacation. Practically everything he had was lost. He's been negotiating with Lloyd's of London over a $5 million insurance payment. Meanwhile, he's been living in hotel rooms while he programs virtual-reality software that the U.S. Department of Defense purchases for various training, at a cost of $25 million per installation. He says he was busted while conducting honest banking for his company.

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