BULL STREET - The art of the Con

The Bank of Sark

We are not talking here about thugs that hit you over the head with a baseball bat and then take all the money you have, we are talking here of theft by deception which takes a lot of sophistication. Another critical element in deceiving people into believing you that you are offering them a legitimate business transaction when all you really are giving them is chance to be fleeced. This element necessitates providing the mark with legitimate authentic paper that attests to both your credibility and the transactions legitimacy. Timing too, is an import element in this game and if you plan the heist in such a way the victim is too embarrassed to call the cops, you are way ahead of the game. However, if there is a chance that you will be discovered and most are, it is best to have an office where there is no extradition treaty.

Phil Wilson was an expert in all of these and specialized in passing bad-paper. However, Phil always resented the fact that he had never made the really big score and was constantly brooding about this nagging problem. However, Wilson was no dummy and eventually he came up with the answer, he would open an off-shore bank in a place that sounded legitimate but really had no serious laws against anything. The place he picked was the Island of Guernsey, which was close to France while administered by Great Britain, one of the Channel Islands (Sark, Guernsey and Alderney) and a place where a corporation could be set up in hours without anyone checking to see who was involved. Regulations here were none-existent and it was historically home to people that were indulged in the grey business of tax-sheltering money for rich individuals and corporations. The area had also received some notoriety as a vacation spot.

He determined that his fictitious financial institution would indulge in fractional reserve banking which kind of had a ring to it. After serious month of planning, he was ready to go into business in 1968 and soon would set global banking on its ear. The institution’s name would be “The Bank of Sark” and he duly created bank stationery fit for a king under that name. Along with the stationery, he created letters of credit, cashier’s checks and stamping devices, which elegantly would inscribe endorsements or certifications on checks. Naturally, there had to be assets in the bank or at least people had to think that they were there.

He approached Dr. Samuel J. Wilkinson, Sr. a chubby good natured man that was thought to be a Certified Public Accountant in Nassau who was at the time working for the Bahamas Electricity Corporation. No one really knew whether he was a CPA or not but his letterhead showed that he was a PH.D., B.Com. (HONS.), C.P.A, A.M.B.I.M., F.C.B.I., F.F.C.S., A.A.I.A. The fact was that his any accounting knowledge he got came by direct mail from the London School of Accountancy, which after sending him the first lesson never heard from him, again. However, Wilkinson had done work for numerous big time swindlers and came highly recommended to Wilson. Sam and Phil discussed the matter and when they were finished,

The Bank of Sark had over $72 million in fictional assets along with an elegantly presented accounting certification and a crest bearing the inscription Nulli Secundus boldly engraved in gold within a glossy brochure. The brochure went into intimate detail about how well the bank was protected. It was completely covered by the imaginary Protection of Depositors Act of 1963. Furthermore, the ever generous Wilkinson wrote a masterful letter claiming that he had scrupulously examined the records of the bank and that everything was indeed in order. Moreover, the bank had actually been created in 1966, by a criminal associate of Wilson’s, Smith Brandom whose family was topped the hierarchy of Sarkian society. It was through that family that the charter of that bank that Wilson purchased. Moreover, Smith’s cousin maintained an elegant suite at the penthouse of most prestigious building on the island, the “Old Government House Hotel” and because he may have been a lawyer, was appointed house counsel. This location and the family’s tradition proved to be extremely valuable assets in executing the fraud.

Armed with this certification along with a fresh listing in Polk’s Bank Directory, a legitimate banking guide book that was widely used for authentication purposes among the financial fraternity, Wilson was now ready to do business. He had already rented an office, had an international telex installed and a prestigious sounding phone number along with a woman that answered the phone in polite and business like manner. You knew in an instant that this was the bank you wanted to do business with.

Armed with the necessities, Wilson now let it be known to all of his comrades in the phony paper business that he would be issuing them any type of official looking paper that they could use, for a price. Wilson’s paper was soon used throughout the world for the purposes of increasing assets in shady corporations, getting advanced funding on loans and as additional collateral for imaginary deals and assets. It wasn’t too long before officials In Guernsey had become suspicious about what was going on with the bank. After a short investigation in early 1970, they had the Bailwick of Guernsey strike the Bank of Sark from its registry, meaning that it had ceased to exist as far as these people were concerned. However, this hardly made a dent in Wilson’s operations and the bank continued to rob and pillage for several years thereafter.

Wilson was not caught for a substantial period of time and by then he had cut a swath through financial circles in the United States. He was able to keep his operation in gear for so long because he had an agent on Guernsey, his high school chum, Bernie Greenberg, who had created form-letter replies that were sensational from the point of view of stalling collections. The banks when the asked for repayment of his guarantee, would be sent reams of materials asking for copious details of what they wanted. An example of some of Greenberg’s work is as follows:

“At this time our attorneys are reviewing your letter regarding Mercantile National Bank at Dallas and the retuned drafts. The drafts in question are signed by a depositor, not an officer of the bank, and we feel we definitely do not have liability in this matter. Looking forward to hearing from you again if there is anything we may do to be of service, please do not hesitate to contact us immediately.”

When the answer to the first form letter was received in Guernsey, a second would automatically go out, going into another set of details and asking for answers that are even more detailed. This process would go on seemingly forever and considering that there were no process servers or police on Guernsey, Wilson managed to stay of the hands of the law almost endlessly.

Many of the banks eventually became frustrated by the process and realizing that they had been taken did not want the bad publicity and wrote their transactions off rather than pursue them further. It was later written that:

“Perhaps no other crime in history came to the attention of so many police departments. Local and state authorities all across America puzzled over the worthless documents the bank issued. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Post Office, and the Comptroller General’s office assigned agents to the case. All levels of law enforcement in England and Continental Europe, and even agencies as far away as Central and South America and Asia, wrestled with the mystery. Yet at the end of 1972, four years after the frauds began, the U.S. Justice Department still had not begun a comprehensive prosecution of the Bank of Sark case.”[168]

Part of the problem with bringing Wilson to justice was that no one knew who he was, know one knew that the bank was a fraud and every trail led to a blind alley. Most investigators had long ago given up. At first, they did not even think that bank was a criminal operation. They had concluded that the people that were using the collateral and other documentation supplied by the bank had either stolen or had made copied of it. Thus, it was a long while before they even realized where to look. The key to this misdirection was the pains that Wilson and his cohorts had taken to make their documents look authentic. It was not until some time later that it was discovered by the Justice Department that the people had all gone to high school together, University City High School, literally a school for the rich in a wealth suburb of St. Louis. The players beside Wilson were Jack Martin Axelrod, Bernard Greenberg and Charles Earl “Carl” Brown.

The Justice Department finally realized when they fingered Wilson they were dealing with a career criminal that had already set up over thirty phony insurance companies that all were able to swindle money from people by using only one post office box. Wilson had always said, “only spend money on the important things, why get 30 boxes when you only need one”? Some of the companies that Wilson was able to take for a ride were, Mountain States Telephone Southwestern Bell Telephone and Braniff Airlines.

Although diminutive, as Wilson improved his financial position it did not change his life style in the least. He had literally no culture, didn’t drink and had no interest in women. He lived modestly and drove an old model dented automobile. He called Ft. Lauderdale his home and within his apartment, he installed ever single accoutrement needed by a swindler in his line. He was on his second marriage and his current wife was a squat blond that in keeping with his lifestyle had served substantial prison time for selling phony draft-deferments during the war.

Wilson’s only cultural possession was an immense collection of guns. These ranged from antiques to the modern, all with working firing pins. One of his most valued possessions was his Thompson Sub-Machine Gun collection, a weapon that had been made illegal by the United States Government. When the day was over, Wilson made a strange deal with the authorities, he would serve the rest of his life in jail but the money that he and his associates had amassed would be investigated. Furthermore, Wilson went became employed with the IRS and was sent out to give speeches on what he had done and how he did it, to audiences of advanced agents who usually sat there listening in disbelief as he recounted his exploits.

When the episode ended the players scattered, “Greenberg eventually grew scared and fled to Israel, which then sheltered him from American criminal proceedings. Just before Greenberg left Guernsey, he hired a replacement: a seventeen -year-old barmaid from the Cellar Club in St. Peter Port. She was promised a salary of $24 a week, which soon fell into arrears, and her orders were (1) to collect the mail and forward it “for attention of Mr. Wilson,” and (2) to tell callers that Mr. Green, as Greenberg called himself, was out of town on business”.[169]

However, this is only one chapter in the life of Phil Wilson who easily would be our nomination for the master criminal of the year award. Wilson showed guts, brains and panache in pulling off his heists. However, if it was not for the fact that he was able to create reams of credibility for his phony bank paper, it would not have happened. His story is almost endless and it is really worth the time to read the rest of his criminal involvements.

 

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