Grift and Run
Inside the palatial Palm Beach County Courthouse on March 29, 2000, Melvin Donald Ruth pleaded for his freedom, trying to convince the judge he wouldn't run if he were let go. Ruth, who had been jailed on a probation violation stemming from a 1996 fraud conviction, had reason to feel some confidence. Most everyone who has ever met the tall and trim Ruth attests to what a smooth, almost magical salesman he is. But Ruth is much more than that; he's also a predatory swindler who, during the past decade, has been charged with numerous crimes in Broward and Palm Beach counties. And it was in courtrooms where Ruth practiced his greatest trick: making justice disappear.
In an amazing run of cons, the now-60-year-old Ruth slipped through the system's sometimes faultlike cracks, leaving behind a trail of angry, bitter victims. This time, however, the man who sometimes calls himself "M.D." was destined to lose. The two witnesses lined up against him were too convincing. A family man named Randy Odom told Judge Kenneth Marra that Ruth had bilked him out of thousands of dollars in a home-buying deal. "They kicked me out of my house because of him," an emotional Odom complained to Marra. "I had to leave one day with my son being sick.... I want to see [Ruth] put away so that nobody has to go through what I went through. My wife still cries over this man."
The other witness -- Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Steffan Nass -- was even more damaging to Ruth's hopes. While it's rather rare for federal officers to testify at state probation hearings, Nass was determined to keep Ruth behind bars. Nass is one of ten agents assigned to the Bureau's special telemarketing (or "boiler-room") unit, which also handles Internet fraud. He complained to Marra that Ruth was involved in the telemarketing scam du jour: luring investors into the foreign currency exchange market and stealing their money. Ruth also used two aliases and four social security numbers and ran several fraudulent companies listed under the name of straw owners, Nass testified. Further, he said, the suspect traveled "extensively" outside the country and had transferred significant amounts of cash to the Bahamas. "He is a risk of flight and a danger to the community," Nass declared to the judge.
That was enough for Marra, who promptly ordered Ruth back to jail. A few weeks later, on April 18, Nass charged Ruth with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, alleging the suspect had swindled investors out of a cold $1 million. Facing an airtight case, Ruth pleaded guilty, and finally it seemed as if the con artist would be going away -- for as long as five years.
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But in May of last year, Ruth proved he still had some magic left: He walked out of Miami's Federal Detention Center a free man. The FBI arranged for Ruth's release after he sold agents on his ability to infiltrate other boiler-room operations. Ruth was no longer a prison inmate; he'd become a "C.S.," a confidential source working for the most powerful law-enforcement agency in the world.
But Ruth was really thinking only of himself. He'd duped the FBI. Within a year after he was set free, Ruth helped orchestrate alleged scams that generated $12 million and left dozens of victims, New Times has learned. And he did it all under the FBI's nose. When agents finally realized what Ruth had done, he went on the lam. U.S. Marshals caught him in late July, and this time Ruth -- a man the federal government didn't want you to know about -- was kept behind bars. The damage, however, had already been done.
To understand the kind of pain Ruth has inflicted on people, consider the story of Martha Powers, a 63-year-old mother of two grown sons, who literally made angels for a living. While many of Ruth's countless victims were sucked into his scams by their own greed, the same can't be said for Powers: She was just trying to stay above the poverty line. After 20 years making and selling angel-shape jewelry (most pieces were crafted from pewter) in a little South Carolina town oddly called "96," she retired last year. But she worried about her sparse income; social security checks would pay her about $1000 a month, and she had a grand total of only $11,500 in savings. Because she needed extra income, she began exploring the stock market in 1999, when it was still soaring.
In the fall of that year, a salesman identifying himself as "Bob Barakis" called her out of the blue to entice her to invest in an Internet company. She resisted, but he kept contacting her. After a couple of months, Barakis told her he'd changed jobs and had begun working for an outfit called Barclays Management Company, which he claimed was associated with the London-based international investment-banking giant of the same name. Barakis told Powers that the Miami-based Barclays specialized in the foreign-currency market. Adding to the company's seeming legitimacy was its professional-looking Website and colorful "Welcome Packets," brochures that were sent to potential investors.
"He called me and called me and had a very persuasive and kind voice, and I think he caught me at a moment when I was lonely or needed someone to talk to, because I listened to him," she recalls. "He said they were the best in the business. He said he could double my money in a month."
On November 16, 1999, she succumbed to the sales pitch and wired $5000 from her savings account to Barclays. Eight days later Barakis called with good news: Her money had already doubled. He persuaded her to send another $5000. A few weeks later, another telemarketer, this one calling himself "William Buhler," called and said he'd taken over her Barclays account, which he claimed had again substantially grown in value. On January 14, 2000, Buhler, whom Powers remembers as an exceptional salesman, talked her into investing another $8000 -- the remaining $1500 in her savings account plus another $6500 borrowed on her MasterCard.
A week later Buhler phoned with more sparkling news -- her total $18,000 investment was now worth $37,500. "Buhler assured me he knew what he was doing and that he'd helped literally thousands of people," she remembers. "He said he didn't have much time to waste talking to me, but I needed to send him more money. I said, "I'm getting scared.' And he said, "No, no, no, we're going to do you good; we're going to make you money.'
"I told him that was as good as it will get. I told him to just send me the $37,500 minus whatever commissions I owed."
Buhler hesitated, and then abruptly hung up the phone.
When Powers speaks of what happened next, her voice cracks; she still sounds shell-shocked. Troubled by Buhler's rudeness, she tried calling back. No one answered. She faxed a letter to Buhler, asking for her money. No response. The next day, she faxed another letter and called several more times. Nada. "They shut me out," she surmises.
Powers then contacted the FBI and was forwarded to Agent Nass in Miami's boiler-room unit. "I'm the one who turned the whole company in," she says. "And I talked to Mr. Nass almost every day until the arrest."
According to FBI reports filed at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Nass began his investigation of Barclays on January 27, 2000 -- about the time Powers reported her complaint. It's no wonder the FBI jumped on the case; the Bureau has stepped up efforts to stop people like Ruth for good reason: U.S.-based telemarketing scams now total $40 billion a year. And South Florida, as an FBI spokeswoman puts it, is the boiler-room "capital of the world."
Nass quickly gained the cooperation of two Barclays employees, whose identities remain secret. The FBI agent, according to court filings, learned the company was run by Melvin Ruth and that "William Buhler" was, in fact, one of two phone names Ruth had used at Barclays. (The other was Wade Chandler.)
Nass discovered that Ruth had formed a new company called Chase Capital Management Group (borrowing another well-known, respected name in world finance) and was running telemarketing offices in both Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He was also starting an operation in Newport Beach, California. Most of the victims had answered ads Ruth had placed in major newspapers, including USA Today, which listed the phone number of one of the boiler rooms. Others investors (including Powers) apparently had been contacted from phone lists provided by Ruth.
Of the $1 million raised by Barclays/Chase, Ruth actually invested only $7500 in the foreign-exchange market, according to the FBI. All the rest, including Powers's entire $18,000, went to Ruth and his employees. (An alleged partner of Ruth's, Gregory Swarn, was never charged and couldn't be reached for comment.) On March 15 the FBI raided Ruth's offices and arrested him on a warrant for violating his probation. Two weeks later Nass testified before Marra, and on April 18, the FBI charged Ruth with mail and wire fraud.
Ruth's arrest went unnoticed by the media. (His name has never appeared in any South Florida newspaper.) The FBI didn't send out a press release, but it did inform Ruth's investors of the bad news. A federal-government retiree named Joseph Q. Whitley, of Tavares, Florida, lost the most money to Ruth's operation -- $70,000. "After I had given $30,000, they called and said it had gone way up, and I thought, I'm going to make this move, and I wired another $40,000 to them," says the 82-year-old Whitley. "There is no need to cry over spilt milk; I'm a fighter. This isn't virgin pain. I've been in the market for years. It's the biggest hit I ever took."
Powers, the angel maker, didn't take it so well; she felt as if she'd been taken in by the devil. She says $18,000 might not sound like much to some people, but it was all she had in the world -- and more. She had to sell some of her belongings to pay off the credit card. Powers says she has tried to contact Nass at the FBI to see if she might get any money back, but he doesn't take her calls anymore. "They're just like Ruth and that company: When they're done with you, they just shut you out," she remarks of the Bureau. "I lost everything I had. That's hard to take."
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.
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.
Ruth's long-time attorney, Matthew Destry, didn't dispute any of the allegations in the Talerico and Swain cases. Yet, incredibly, Ruth was able to walk away from both a free man. Destry's argument in court filings: Yes, Ruth took the money, but he didn't intend to commit fraud. In short, Destry argued, it wasn't a criminal matter but a business blunder.
The Talerico charge was dropped by Broward prosecutor Greg Rossman. Rossman laments the fact that fraud artists like Ruth often walk. "I have to prove criminal intent, and in mortgage fraud it is very difficult to do that," Rossman says. "You and I know it's wrong, you and I know they intended to take the money, but I can't prove it. In that case we knew the judge would grant his motion to dismiss."
The Swain case, however, was dropped by Judge Broome for another reason: Palm Beach prosecutor Preston Mighdoll made a technical error in a court filing. Mighdoll says Broome found a minor mistake in his answer to Destry's motion to dismiss. Broome also dropped the violation-of-probation charge against Ruth, so he got off scot-free.
But Ruth's probation officer, Janine Calabrese, continued to hear complaints. Her notes on Ruth reveal that she heard from many of his victims, ranging from neighbors duped into giving Ruth money for bogus real-estate investments to a Fort Lauderdale jewelry store that complained Ruth had written $6000 in bad checks for diamond rings. Many victims complained to police and prosecutors, but their allegations were rarely investigated. Ruth took advantage of loopholes in the law that served to protect him from prosecution. For instance he postdated bad checks to the jewelry store. He would also often reimburse investors with postdated rubber checks. When the victims went to police, they learned the ugly truth: Prosecutors in Florida will not criminally try check-kiting or fraud cases when the checks are postdated. "You simply can't win a conviction in those cases," says Rossman, who is in charge of Broward's economic-crime-prosecution unit. "It's not a crime because the victim knows when he receives the check that the perpetrator didn't have the money in his account."
As Ruth kept scamming people, Calabrese seemed helpless: "My hands are tied," she wrote in her notes. Even when victims took Ruth to civil court, a time-consuming and costly process, they found no justice. If they won judgments, Ruth followed his old m.o. of simply not paying them. Instead he hid from everyone -- judges, Calabrese, detectives, and victims -- by moving from motel to motel.
Ruth also flouted the criminal court, not only by repeatedly breaking the rules of his probation but also by failing to pay restitution. In late 1998 Calabrese charged Ruth with violations for failing to reimburse Beneficial Finance and moving without permission. At the court hearing on January 22, 1999, Ruth conceded guilt, and Broome ordered him to enter the Probation Restitution Center (PRC), a halfway house in West Palm Beach. Ruth agreed to begin residing at the PRC on February 15, and Broome let him go free.
Ruth never showed up at the PRC. Instead he called Calabrese and said he'd been working his "butt off" doing "bridal shows" around the state and couldn't slow down to move into a halfway house. The next day, on February 16, Ruth's girlfriend, Masseo, called Calabrese and told her that Ruth wasn't in the bridal business but was working at an investment firm in Miami called Barclays. Masseo was angry with her boyfriend; she claimed he'd charged thousands of dollars on her credit card and wouldn't repay her.
In March 1999 Ruth was hit with two new charges: contempt of court in a civil case and another probation violation. He disappeared again. Then came the FBI investigation, and finally Nass arrested him on the probation warrant March 15, 2000. Six weeks later, on April 29, Ruth was indicted on the federal fraud charges. But he wouldn't remain incarcerated long. The FBI struck a plea deal with him on May 3, 2000. In the agreement, Ruth pledged to cooperate fully with the FBI on other criminal cases, and the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office promised to recommend that he be given a light sentence. On May 8, Ruth was allowed to bond out of jail.
He remained free until January 24 of this year, when U.S. District Judge Wilkie Ferguson sentenced him to 33 months in prison -- the lightest sentence possible under federal guidelines. But rather than serve the time, the FBI, along with assistant U.S. attorney Jeffrey Kay, asked Ferguson to allow Ruth to remain free. The judge obliged. "Execution of the sentence was postponed in view of [Ruth's] cooperation..., which may result in a reduction of the sentence," the agency wrote in court documents.
Nass's testimony in Judge Marra's courtroom was soon proved right: Ruth was still a danger to the community. According to FBI court filings, Ruth did cooperate in some unspecified telemarketing cases, but he initially kept quiet about an alleged scam he helped create.
Ruth began a new illicit venture in November 2000, when he answered an ad in the Sun-Sentinel that sought investors and fundraisers. The businessman who placed the ad, a Canadian national named David L'Hoir, had recently moved to Fort Lauderdale from San Diego and planned to start a new cash-advance company called Payday Today USA. L'Hoir (pronounced "lwyre"), who had previously owned a string of check-cashing stores in California, says he needed millions of dollars to get the company off the ground.
Ruth and a business associate named Ronald Hogan contacted L'Hoir and met him at the Canadian's $470,000 house in the upscale Coral Ridge subdivision of Fort Lauderdale. The deal they presented to L'Hoir was simple: Ruth and Hogan would align Payday Today with about 20 independent sales offices -- or telemarketing boiler rooms -- that would raise the money he needed. Here's how the return would break down, according to L'Hoir: Ruth and Hogan would split 15 percent of the investors' cash, while L'Hoir's business would receive 60 percent. The remaining 25 percent or so would go to those who worked in the boiler rooms.
The investors in Payday Today -- which also had a first-rate Website -- were never told that at least 40 percent of their money would be taken off the top for Ruth and his boiler rooms. Instead telemarketers told speculators only that they would make an astronomical 4 percent a month return on their money. L'Hoir and the salespeople also told investors that Payday Today was aligned with numerous existing check-cashing stores. It wasn't.
This bogus sales cocktail proved intoxicating to investors around the country. Telemarketing offices began pitching Payday Today in earnest this past February. By April an incredible $10 million had been raised. L'Hoir says 500 investors chipped in, including comedian Howie Mandel (who invested $10,000).
L'Hoir used his millions to pay off investors' interest in what the FBI alleges was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme. L'Hoir also lavished $1 million on himself, according to FBI reports. He disputes that figure but admits he bought a $150,000 cruiser-style boat and a $50,000 Porsche Boxster as a "wedding gift" for his fiancée and paid himself a salary of about $20,000 a month. "None of that is outrageous," he says of his expenditures. "We were pulling a million dollars a week."
L'Hoir says he was negotiating with check-cashing companies to make Payday Today a reality. The false claims that Payday Today contracted with existing cash-checking stores was a result of the business using "old stationery," he says. "It was a changing creature."
According to court records, Ruth went to the FBI on March 20, and the Payday Today case was assigned to Rick Kiper, an agent on the boiler-room task force. L'Hoir asserts that Ruth went to the feds only to exact revenge. Ruth told Kiper that he initially believed Payday Today was a "legitimate operation" and that he received 2.5 percent of the proceeds, making a total of $100,000, according to FBI court filings. L'Hoir insists that Ruth was paid 7.5 percent and had made about $200,000 before their falling out. (L'Hoir also says Hogan, who wasn't indicted but was named in court records as Ruth's associate, made about $600,000. New Times' attempts to reach Hogan were unsuccessful.)
On April 4 the FBI wired Ruth with a recording device and sent him to L'Hoir's office. According to a partial transcript of the ensuing conversation, L'Hoir told Ruth, "Between you and me, if we ever get shut down, you know who's going to get hurt? Not me.... I'm so protected it's ridiculous.... Guys like you and me, no one can touch us."
L'Hoir told Ruth that he could "run" and that he'd already moved some of the business proceeds out of the country. "I got everything fuckin' covered," he said on the tape. If the authorities shut down his business, L'Hoir said, he would take "an early retirement.... I can change my name in Canada, and I come back as a new name.... No one can trace me.... At the end of the day I know the game."
The FBI, armed with the recording, raided L'Hoir's office in May and indicted him on charges of fraud and money laundering. Nearly $6 million was frozen in bank accounts held by Payday Today and L'Hoir. This money, if L'Hoir is convicted, may be divvied among investors.
Today L'Hoir is under house arrest awaiting trial. He concedes the FBI tape sounds incriminating but insists he was only "bullshitting" with Ruth. "I was drinking, and I was infuriated because Mel was threatening to shut my company down to get all investors to call in their notes," he explains. "Mel Ruth ruined my life. There's one thing better than money, and that is freedom. Mel was getting his sentence reduced."
While L'Hoir may or may not be guilty, there's little doubt Ruth made the scam possible. "Ruth set it all up," says L'Hoir's lawyer, Yale Galanter, who has defended numerous boiler-room operators and is now representing O.J. Simpson. "Mel Ruth is the bad guy here. None of this would have happened without him. He lied to the FBI."
Ruth saved his greatest lie for last. New Times has learned that, even while Ruth was cooperating with the FBI on the Payday Today case, he was setting up a veritable clone of L'Hoir's company called Cash Today. He again used boiler rooms to collect investors' money, which again poured in. Kirk Volker, another attorney defending Ruth, says his client raised $2 million in the venture, but he insists it was a lawful enterprise. "There is a huge difference between what Mr. L'Hoir did and what Mr. Ruth did," the lawyer says. "It's our position that money that was taken in [from] investors was used to a very large degree for what Mr. Ruth and the company said it was used for. We certainly contend that Mr. Ruth had no intent to commit fraud."
The FBI didn't see it that way. While it's unclear how agents found out about Cash Today, Judge Ferguson revoked Ruth's bond on June 29, and a bench warrant for his arrest was issued July 16. Predictably Ruth couldn't be found. Volker says Ruth never intended to run. "He just needed time to get information to prove that what he was doing was legitimate," his attorney claims.
Ruth didn't get enough time. In late July -- the exact date hasn't been released by authorities -- U.S. Marshals caught him at a Holiday Inn in Hollywood. Ruth's two Cash Today bank accounts, which Volker will only say contained more than $100,000, were frozen. "The U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI felt that he may have been engaging in wrongdoing," Volker explains. "There is now an investigation, and we are waiting for the outcome."
L'Hoir's attorney, Galanter, says it's a simple case of the FBI trusting a crook. Ruth is the chief witness against Galanter's client, and the lawyer says he plans to use the Cash Today debacle -- along with Ruth's felonious past -- to help sway a jury to acquit L'Hoir.
"The rattlesnake jumped up and bit them on the ass on this one," Galanter declares, adding that Ruth is a long-time "granddaddy" of boiler-room scams in South Florida. "The FBI just didn't know who they were dealing with. It just so happens that Mel is absolute scum, and he ended up screwing the FBI. I blame the FBI just as much as I do Ruth."
Special Agent Judy Orihuela, the FBI spokeswoman in Miami, doesn't deny that Ruth went out of control after the Bureau sprang him. She concedes that Ruth set up the boiler-room operation for Payday Today and that he started a new scam with Cash Today. She also confirms that Ruth is under investigation and might be hit with new criminal charges.
But she also points out that Ruth led agents to L'Hoir and helped make the case against him. "What Ruth did doesn't negate what L'Hoir did," she asserts. "L'Hoir was really behind Payday Today."
As for Ruth's transgressions, Orihuela says using criminals in investigating other cases is a necessary evil. She says informants swear to be truthful but often aren't. "It would be nice to have confidential informants who were all good, upstanding citizens," she says. "We don't have them under 24-hour surveillance. We don't have them locked up. What could we have done in this case? I don't know. It's a Catch-22: You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. It's just something you have to deal with."
Galanter says the real problem is that the FBI has a culture in which agents expect criminals like Ruth to do their work for them. And they fail to keep a close watch on their informants. "It's laziness," he avers.
Investigator Crespo says he's seen many convicted swindlers get what he calls "free passes" from the FBI. Too often, he says, they betray the government's trust. "Here's a guy that should be serving his time for what he's done, and he gets a free pass," Crespo says of Ruth. "You're never going to change these people. They aren't going to rehabilitate from one day to the other. They just can't change. And while Ruth's out, he went from nickels and dimes to huge amounts of money. That's really what is sad about this."
And with every scam, victims are left hurt, embittered, and usually helpless to get their money back. Like Martha Powers.
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