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Mr. Big Shot

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In 1991, the same judge who had heard Hirschfeld's bank-demise case in 1976 fined him $460,000 and gave him six years in the federal prison at Petersburg, Virginia. His family and friends say the luxury-loving Hirschfeld hated it there and vowed to never see the inside of a cell again. After his release in 1995, it was revealed he'd obtained work furloughs -- and an early release -- by volunteering to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Following Hurricane Andrew's devastation in August of 1992, Hirschfeld's friend Joseph Seriani lobbied government officials on his behalf so Hirschfeld could travel to South Florida and help in reconstruction efforts in exchange for an early release. But Coral Springs-based Seriani turned out to be a convicted felon not authorized to use Habitat for Humanity stationery.

Additional charges were filed against Hirschfeld, and he was ordered to appear in front of the judge again on November 21, 1996. He'd been trying to clear his name, even seeking to have his conviction overturned -- saying that the charges were trumped-up and that the judge, a U.S. attorney general, and prosecutors had plotted his demise because of personal vendettas. In particular, Hirschfeld maintained that U.S. Attorney Henry Hudson turned against him after he reneged on a promise to support -- with help from Ali and Hatch -- Hudson's judgeship. In the press, Hudson has repeatedly denied those claims.

Hirschfeld didn't show up for the November 21 hearing. Two weeks later, he walked into the office of the Associated Press in Madrid with the announcement that he was seeking asylum from the Spanish Interior Ministry. He was frustrated, he said, at not being able to get a fair trial in Virginia. Seriani, charged in connection with the same scam, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. Hirschfeld was reportedly looking at as many as 35 years and more than a million dollars in fines. That, he made clear to his family, was never, ever going to happen. And he was right.

At 28 degrees latitude, Tenerife, the largest of the Spanish-owned Canary Islands, enjoys the same tropical climate year-round as South Florida. Twelve hundred miles southwest of Madrid and 100 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, the resort town of Playa de Las Americas offered Hirschfeld beachfront living and the illusion of escaping his tormentors. He cut a dashing figure in his new island sanctuary. He parked his white Rolls on the street in front of his apartment after he had it shipped from Virginia to Cadiz, Spain, and then to Tenerife. Loretta told the media that he'd even bought property on the island, where she visited him in December 1996.

That trans-Atlantic holiday celebration was tempered by the news that Hirschfeld had again been indicted back in Virginia in connection with the early-release case. Federal authorities couldn't enter Spain and grab him legally and didn't even know how the fugitive, whose passport had been confiscated, managed to travel.

With a U.S. warrant in hand, Spanish National Police officers arrested Hirschfeld at his apartment on January 29, 1997. He sat in jail until May, when he was freed on bail. Conspiracy to write fraudulent letters to get out of prison didn't constitute extraditable offenses under Spanish law. But in June, he was again indicted in Virginia on charges that, while in prison in 1993, he and a pair of inmates conspired to threaten U.S. District Judge Calvitt Clarke Jr. -- the same judge who originally sentenced Hirschfeld to prison and to whom the fake Habitat for Humanity letters had been sent. Convinced he'd be railroaded by Clarke, the inmates told authorities, Hirschfeld allegedly asked them to scare the judge by threatening to break his legs or douse him with acid. That case would hound Hirschfeld until his capture.

In the meantime, Spanish authorities had renewed their interest in his extradition, and Hirschfeld fled the Canaries. As nice as they were, the islands were just too remote, too far from family.

In late 1998, Hirschfeld made his way to Havana. Loretta says the family was never comfortable visiting him on the island, so they would meet in the Bahamas. Hirschfeld also got frequent visits from Dale Cooter, an old friend from Virginia, now a prominent attorney in Washington, D.C.

Cooter says that, during a visit to Cuba in 2000, he spent three days holed up with Hirschfeld at his condo in the resort town of Varadero, trying to strategize. "He was looking to me to point him in the right direction," says Cooter, who was getting cabin fever after so much plotting.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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