Do the Hustle

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...
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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.

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.

Seems reasonable enough, but the story is, well, incomplete.

An American University registrar confirmed that Wolfer attended and pursued a political science degree but said he never graduated. In Hawaii, he was hauled into civil court seven times in the 1980s for unpaid debts and damages ranging between $13,000 and $32,000. In 1982, Wolfer and his dad declared bankruptcy. In 1984 and 1985, he was convicted of criminal theft charges and, after the second of those trials, was sentenced to five years (only part of which he served).

He has been employed at least once. About 13 years ago, Wolfer worked for Cooper City-based Quick Notes selling medical transcription software. One of his former superiors at the company confirmed, reticently and on the condition his name be omitted, that Wolfer's time there was a slow demise from bad to worse. Immediately after his job interview, the former superior alleges, he even borrowed $20 from the interviewer.

At first a competent salesman, he began abusing the company's American Express card by renting cars and buying suits from Macy's, his former boss says. Confronted with his spending, Wolfer would pay part of it back in dribs and drabs, always vowing to repay it all. When his sales suffered, Wolfer was taken off salary. He responded by making inflated claims about the product, and the result was copious returned merchandise. To this day in the Quick Notes office, fibs are referred to as "Wolferisms."

When he left the subtropics for California, things worsened, according to public records. In 1997, he lost a $510 small-claims judgment to a company called Dreamcatcher. In 1998, a judge ordered Wolfer to pay $250 to David Kates of Encinitas after Kates wasn't paid for a home inspection. Kates contends he never expected to collect, and didn't, but was glad to "ding the guy's credit."

"He was kind of a little round guy, balding," Kates says. "He seemed nice enough, but I can certainly see how the guy could be a con man."

Leonard Wolfer's 1997 death precipitated a falling-out between Mark and his mother and sisters, who were unavailable to comment for this article.

In 1998, a court ruled in favor of family friends of the Wolfers, Phyllis and Stanley Footlik of Carlsbad, California, who say Wolfer never delivered on a computer he had promised. Wolfer was ordered to pay $600, which Phyllis Footlik says the retirees never received. "Stupid he's not," she says. "I think that, had he gone on the straight and narrow, he could have been a successful businessman, because he really did have knowledge. But I think there was a gene missing there."

Wolfer explains that the Footliks "fucked up" a computer he gave them, returned it to him, and then didn't want to reimburse him for the cost of fixing it.

In 2000, he was convicted of using a stolen credit card to pay for a $4,266.03 bill at a Mountain View Ramada Inn. He got three months in the cooler along with three years' probation.

As for his recent history, the San Jose Fire Department has no record of a house fire fitting the time and vague location Wolfer describes. (The drifter says the house was "on Third Street" but can't recall the house number, even though he lived and had most of his things there. "Don't ask me to remember the address," he says. "I bought it when I was overseas.")

He claims to have moved back to Fort Lauderdale only nine months ago. But Fort Lauderdale police say that for a couple of years off and on, they received complaints about Wolfer from real estate agents, yacht dealers, car dealers, and luxury stores. The callers described a man who claimed to be a millionaire, flirted with the idea of buying large-ticket items, accepted the largesse of free meals and gifts, then bobbed away, with maybe a no-trespass order to make the separation formal.

His software company, Virtuality Inc., which he says is incorporated offshore in Turks and Caicos, did in fact exist at one time in Silicon Valley, but Wolfer didn't have anything to do with it before it went bankrupt a few years ago. Fort Lauderdale detective Randy Pelham suggests Wolfer approached the busted company like a hermit crab crawling into a shell to fool people. "So you can't confirm it," he says. "And you can't deny.

"Bullshit," Pelham laments, "is not illegal. So he was skirting along."

Dan Taback is very much a 27-year-old bachelor, and he says as much when he points out the mild disarray of his posh but sparsely appointed Hallandale Beach apartment. A framed Ansel Adams poster sits on the carpet beside his cell phone charger, and his glass-topped coffee table is cluttered with magazines and family pictures. Taback is not quite six feet tall, wears glasses for reading, and has a handshake befitting a former college pitcher. He talks quickly and intensely, but he's a gracious fellow -- asking permission, for instance, before smoking in his own living room.

He considers himself a trusting person, but since moving to South Florida from New York City early last year and starting work as a mortgage broker, he says he had never encountered anyone quite like Mark Wolfer. He believed he could earn a hefty profit in a mortgage deal, so he fronted Wolfer thousands of dollars for a hotel, clothes, and a rental car. But the drifter dithered and didn't pay up. So Taback conjured up a shrewish wife who was demanding the cash and even told Wolfer the IRS was after him. Still, nothing.

By mid-September, he was threatening to put a bullet in Wolfer. "I hope he dies of cancer of the eyes," Taback says, his voice rising in volume and speed as his anger swells. "He's wasted a lot of people's time, but he burned me financially. He really burned me. I was livid. Livid. But what are you going to do?"

Even before he met Taback, Wolfer was apparently looking for a handout. At one point this summer, he called an old friend in Hawaii, Steve Nobler, to ask for about $260 to cover a four-night hotel stay, Nobler recalls. He also asked the sometimes web designer to build a site for his company, Virtuality Inc. Nobler paid the hotel and created the web address, but no money arrived so in early December, he deactivated the site. "He's brilliant, one of the smartest people I know," Nobler says of Wolfer. "Personally, I hope he never calls me again."

In April, Wolfer was arrested at the Beach Plaza Hotel on North Atlantic Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale for allegedly trying to pay with the credit card number of an Irish guest staying at the inn. He pleaded no contest. In July, he was arrested again and charged with grand theft after running up a $1,375.11 bill in six days at the posh Pillars hotel on North Birch Road, then trying to pay with a declined credit card and a check from an account that had been closed for two years. He pleaded no contest and received two years of probation. Wolfer attributes the first snafu to the desk clerk, who he thought was covering his room because he had worked on her computer. He didn't offer an excuse for the second one.

Taback heard about Wolfer in mid-August, when he learned that Wolfer was making an offer on a $4.1 million home on Fort Lauderdale's Mercedes Drive. Taback contacted Wolfer and asked whether he could help the drifter secure a mortgage -- the deal could mean a $200,000 payday for the broker if completed. When Taback asked for ID, Wolfer said one of his employees had totaled his car and, with it, practically all his financial documents. All Wolfer had was an uncertified balance sheet and a corporate ID number. His lawyer would fax the rest, he said.

Wolfer was down on his luck, Taback figured. No big deal. At least the guy was versed in finance and international banking. "When I met him, no matter what you asked him, he was very, very thorough," Taback says, still incredulous. "You ask him about cars, he can tell you. You ask him about wine, he can tell you. You ask him about cigars, he can tell you. You ask him about shoes, suits, shirts -- he can tell you. You ask him about where are the most exclusive places to live, he knows. You ask him about boats, he knows. I own two boats. He just knows."

Wolfer told Taback that he owned a company called Pegasus Factors Ltd. that supplied virtual-reality training programs for the Navy SEALs. (Florida records list no such company, and Pelham could find no trace of it.) "I actually did some business with the Department of Defense," Taback continues. "He knows these guys. He knows their names and their titles."

So Taback agreed to float Wolfer $200. And, since Wolfer said he had lost his clothes in the alleged crashed car, Taback bought him a $1,500 wardrobe at Carriage Clothiers. He also paid for a Toyota Camry from Enterprise Rent-a-Car. And he covered Wolfer's hotel room at AmeriSuites, where the drifter checked in with an AARP discount. Meanwhile, the documents that Taback sought -- a 1040, a sales contract, a balance sheet -- were still in lawyer-land limbo.

"Now, the question you're going to ask me is, why didn't I think to myself, 'Well, if he's worth a billion dollars, why doesn't he have more than one pair of jeans?'" Taback says. "You know, I deal with so many people a day and field so many phone calls, I just didn't think."

Taback saw the first real cracks in the façade when he took Wolfer and a real estate agent friend to dinner at Timpano, an elegant Italian steak restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard. Wolfer arrived in a floral-patterned shirt and shorts. "I'm embarrassed," Taback says. "This is a restaurant where The Rock and Jason Taylor eat. I'm in a suit, my partner's in a suit, and this guy looks like you just picked him up off a bus." Wolfer downed several of the finest vodka drinks there and spoke eloquently on politics, Taback recalls, but at the end of the evening, the real estate agent told Taback to watch out: Anyone unable to produce so much as a business card was trouble.

After about ten days, when Wolfer's huge check still hadn't arrived and he couldn't repay Taback for the more than $3,000 in favors nor produce any ID, Taback started running credit checks. He saw the small judgments, the bankruptcy. The corporate ID was bogus.

Although the broker usually reached Wolfer on his cell phone (which Wolfer would answer "Good morning" and "Good afternoon"), this time, a furious Taback left him a message at his hotel to the effect of, "Fuck you, if you don't give me $3,000, I have a .38 and a shovel, and nobody will miss you." That evening, with no word from Wolfer, Taback called the AmeriSuites and said he would no longer pay for the room, which had to that point cost about $800. Then, to protect himself, Taback canceled all his credit cards. When Enterprise called about the canceled card, the broker told Wolfer that he would call the cops if the rental car weren't returned.

What the broker can't figure, though, is how Wolfer talks so authoritatively about fine wines and Ferraris (of which Wolfer says he has owned eight in his lifetime) if he is just a bum. "He's a piece of shit," Taback says, "but he's as good as it gets, lemme tell you."

The New Auto Toy Store on Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale is an automotive harem packed with gleaming Porsches, Ferraris, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis that reside mostly behind crimson velvet ropes, out of reach in so many ways. Jose Yunen's desk is closest to a speeding-ticket-red 2003 Ferrari on a metal turntable that hums low as it rotates. The Puerto Rican-born salesman has wavy black hair, thin sideburns, and broad shoulders. He addresses friends -- and sometimes visitors -- as "bro." On his desk is a calendar book that shows a June 12 date listing Wolfer's name. Beside it is the word scammer in parentheses.

Yunen says Wolfer visited the store five or six times after that first appointment and made offers on a $205,000 Bentley Continental and a $210,000 Ferrari 360 Spider. It didn't seem to be a whim, the salesman recalls. Wolfer carried reams of documents and notes about Ferraris. After the drifter made the purchase proposal, he learned that a deposit would have to clear before he could have a test drive. So he grudgingly forked over a $500 check but asked that it not be cashed immediately.

"He kept calling me, saying the money would be in [his account]," Yunen says. "He never did actually show up. Who knows what the guy was trying to do? Maybe he just wanted to drive the cars."

Within the week, the dealership tried to cash the check. As expected, it was hot. If Wolfer had returned to take possession of the car, detective Ward says, he would have been arrested. But with no exchange, there was no crime. When told Wolfer was in jail, Yunen had a simple reply: "Finally."

A couple of months after Wolfer's last appearance at the dealership, manager Dominick Raneri went to pick up his son at a sleepover. The mom of the house, Marty, a real estate agent, told him that she was elated about a new client named "Mark."

Marty is 40ish and maybe a biscuit over five feet tall, and she has red hair and blue eyes. She asked that her last name not appear because she's trying to adopt a child but recalls that a referral company told her Wolfer was approved for $4.5 million in financing. In person, he appeared convincing and erudite, she says, able to speak on fine art and high-end kitchen and stereo equipment. She paid for a couple of nights' lodging at the Hampton Inn on Andrews Avenue and NE Third Street. And she bought lunches for Wolfer and a lady friend. The total was "a couple hundred bucks," she acknowledges.

She drove him around one weekend, looking at lavish houses, and he even chose a couple of Harbor Beach homes, totaling $8 million. But the contracts required money being wired in, and that was always delayed, though he would still stop by the conference room at her office to help himself to the computer.

Marty says that when she learned Wolfer was an ex-con, she felt that chill of relief that everyone was safe. She's still out the cash and time, though. "[I'm] a single working mom," she says. "I had sights of paying off all my debts and getting a good commission to support my family. And he just came in and not only wasted my time, my personal money but dashed my dreams, as well."

Marty was in contact with Wolfer almost to the time of his October arrest, as was William Argenbright, a low-key, gray-mustachioed salesman at J.R. Dunn Jewelers on Las Olas Boulevard. Argenbright met with Wolfer about a half-dozen times, he estimates, beginning in late August. By then, he had about $40,000 in jewelry either set aside or on order for the drifter. Argenbright says he believed Wolfer's tales of wealth because the drifter was toting around luxury condo literature and, though casually dressed, he was clean and personable. But no payment ever came. The last time Wolfer stopped by, in late September, he hurriedly explained that he needed to borrow $200 and offered a beat-up watch as collateral. Argenbright declined. "He wasted a lot of my time," Argenbright says dryly. "A lot of my time."

Also in late August, Wolfer latched onto Belinda Grimbeek at 2 Hulls Inc., a Fort Lauderdale boat brokerage. She drove him around for most of a week, showing him different boats. He finally settled on a $595,000 catamaran in Miami. Naturally, he never purchased the boat, but he did ask, in the supposed interest of gauging the vessel, to spend a night or two in a similar model that 2 Hulls had at its dock. That request was denied.

In mid-September, Wolfer mentioned a gargantuan charter catamaran he was having custom-built in Australia to Bob Moorman, owner of Carroll's Jewelers on Las Olas. He would sit for three hours at a stretch, flipping through catalogs of $600 crystal decanters and Versace china, Moorman recalls. On one visit, he tried to buy about $1,800 worth of the stuff with a credit card, saying, "I don't know if this is going to go through or not." The card was, of course, declined.

"My wife always thought that he was a bullshit artist, so we just played with him, let him entertain himself," Moorman says. "We just knew he was dreaming, and he didn't hurt anybody... We have other dreamers in this world, you know? He just was not good at it." The only things Wolfer carried out of Carroll's were mangoes that Moorman gave him, after Wolfer had e-mailed him recipes for mango sauces and chutney.

The Bank of Florida on Broward Boulevard and SE First Avenue is Mark Wolfer's kind of place: high ceilings, plush rugs, free coffee, and individually wrapped Life Savers. It's decorated with squishy leather chairs, white marble floors, and shiny Mars-colored marble countertops.

Wolfer established a corporate account there in late September using a stolen Social Security number, according to Pelham. He told the teller he was going to have more than $5,000 wired from an overseas account. (He says he planned to reimburse Taback and send money to Nobler.)

He recalls he chatted with a banker about Ferraris and some German shepherd puppies a friend was tending. Over the next couple of weeks, he returned periodically. Wolfer tried to convince the bank to go ahead and make the transactions, on his word that there would be money in the overseas account any day.

At one point, he put a disk with puppy pictures in a computer. Bank officials, concerned that Wolfer might have loaded some kind of devious program into their computers, called the Fort Lauderdale police.

About a week later, on the morning of October 7, Pelham went to the bank to investigate. Then, coincidentally, in walked Wolfer. Because Wolfer had used a filched Social Security number, Pelham arrested him on a charge of identity theft. The detective also believes that Wolfer may be guilty of grand theft because he tried to squeeze money from a teller when no wire transfer was forthcoming.

At the time, Wolfer had on him an empty wallet, a used plastic disposable Bic razor, and a purchase order for a $13.2 million yacht. The address he gave police upon his arrest was for a Mail Boxes Etc. on SE 17th Street where a clerk says he used to have a box.

Taback, who had filed a report that morning, said he "almost had an orgasm" when police recovered the Camry he had rented for Wolfer. The back seat was crawling with Wolfer's résumés. There were also books on wine and cars, merchants' business cards, and invoices from car and watch dealers. The man who offered to fly Taback to New Zealand in a private jet had, it appeared, been living out of the car.

Wolfer's attorney, Bill Gelin, an assistant public defender, said the case could well be a misunderstanding blown out of proportion because the police had wanted to tag Wolfer for months.

Wolfer himself alleges his arrest was "sensationalized" in two short articles that were printed on October 10 in the Sun-Sentinel ("Homeless man posed as millionaire to cheat victims") and the Miami Herald ("High-roller lands in gated home"). He did nothing wrong. A teller simply miscopied the damning Social Security number, he says.

More sensation may be forthcoming, if the CBS newsweekly 48 Hours, which has contacted Taback, the Footliks, the FLPD, and Gelin, follows through with a program on Wolfer.

At the time of his arrest, with his bond set at $2,100, Wolfer called Lawrence to ask for bail. The wine salesman declined. "If somebody ran an ad for a con man -- 'We need a con man' -- the guy interviewing [Wolfer] would say, 'You're the total picture,'" Lawrence comments.

The most curious aspect of Wolfer's exploits, to many of those who came in contact with him, is why he would run such time-consuming ruses for such comparatively small payoffs. A couple of hundred dollars here, a fancy dinner there. Pelham wonders whether, deep down, Wolfer was sincere. Phyllis Footlik applies the word pathological to him. To Argenbright, he seemed like a guy down on his luck. When Nobler heard Wolfer is facing serious time, he said: "Good. He needs a home."

Through it all, Wolfer has maintained that he is a software mogul waiting for an insurance check. From jail, he asked that a message be delivered to Lawrence: "Tell him, whatever's left out of the stuff that we picked, when I get the check, I'll be by to see him."

Responds Lawrence: "I don't want to say that he's a nice guy and that I like him because the son of a bitch is liable to come back here."

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