Mr. Big Shot | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


Mr. Big Shot

This was a first for the two veteran fugitive trackers. Never had Miami-based FBI agent Paul Russell and Fort Lauderdale detective Chuck Morrow busted a crook in exclusive Colee Hammock, one of Fort Lauderdale's priciest waterfront neighborhoods. But here they were, casing a new, $5 million estate, catercornered across the New River from H. Wayne Huizenga's lavish spread.

Their target had eluded the grasp of the government for almost nine years, and the agents knew their guy was equipped with, at the very least, yacht-loads of cash and church-bell-sized balls.

On October 1, 2004, after nearly a month of on-and-off surveillance, a team headed by Russell and Morrow was ready to move. They had spent the morning watching the house from a school parking lot across the street. Then they spotted a Federal Express truck squeaking to a stop on the street in front. The truck was buzzed through the gate to deliver a package, and the agents watched the driver hop back in and head for the next house.

An agent tailed him. After traveling a few blocks, the black Crown Victoria flashed a blue dash-mounted light and pulled over the FedEx truck. "Who answered the door?" the agent wanted to know. "A woman," the driver replied. The agent showed him a photograph of a man and asked if he was in the house too. Yeah, the driver confirmed that he had noticed the man in the background.

The man in the photograph, 57-year-old Richard Hirschfeld, had been careless. He knew people wanted him arrested; he knew that every ring of the doorbell could bring a small army of federal officers waiting to drag him from his luxurious Mediterranean manse.

Just five months before, Hirschfeld had paid $4.8 million for the 8,400-square-foot dwelling, where he and his wife were trying to live a low-profile life.

With a four-car garage, separate staff quarters with covered loggia leading back to the main house, a two-story living room, fountains, climatized wine cellar, and elevator to a third-floor deck providing panoramic views from the downtown to the oceans, it was a top-tier residence befitting a man of his stature. "It's not every day we wander into mansions and arrest people," Morrow says. "I mean, this guy was literally on top of the world for a long, long time."

But then, Richard Hirschfeld's life always had the lurid quality of a Danielle Steele miniseries. Hirschfeld had rubbed shoulders with foreign royalty, climbed the pinnacle of international celebrity, even sneaked into the inner sanctum of Congress. There were outrageous stories, fancy cars, prison cells, international espionage, and island hideaways. And, of course, the love of a good woman.

Hirschfeld's only crime, his friends and family insist, was pissing off the wrong people. Sure, he had a ruthless swagger. But in truth, say his defenders, he was a lion-hearted family man, never less than a loving father, doting grandfather, and ultradevoted husband. Rarely seen without a cigar in the corner of his mouth, Hirschfeld attracted powerful people with a magnetic personality that snared enemies as readily as friends. He made and lost fortunes, paid huge fines, served prison time, and became the subject of scores of magazine and newspaper features. And his connections in the government knew him as a renegade patriot, offering services -- sometimes shadily -- in service of his country.

None of that mattered to Morrow or Russell and their men as they surrounded the 17,000-square-foot lot. Once the delivery driver confirmed that Hirschfeld was in the house, there was no escape. The front was fenced and gated, but the rear flank was wide open. One of the world's wealthiest, jet-setting, hobnobbing, law-breaking, asylum-seeking fugitives could run no more.

Hirschfeld's life and career took on such fabulous trappings that they often challenge belief. While in law school, most of his classmates lived in modest student apartments, but he had the top-floor penthouse in one of the tallest buildings in Charlottesville, Virginia. Early on, Hirschfeld's high aspirations gave him an instinct for the quick killing. After graduating from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1971, Hirschfeld decided to start a bank. The quick and inglorious demise of the Hirschfeld Bank of Commerce in Virginia Beach was the first in a bitter string of failures, and in 1977, he declared bankruptcy.

"A lot of influential people in Norfolk lost money in that bank and thought Richard had scammed them," says Ronald Tweel, a Charlottesville lawyer who is Muhammed Ali's personal attorney. Tweel first befriended Hirschfeld in the late 1960s. "So they were out to get him. They investigated him for five years before they could find bogus charges to bring against him." To Tweel, Hirschfeld was a dynamic, brilliant attorney and confidante. "His mind just went 120 mph at all times," he recalls.