- 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 institutionâ€™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, cashierâ€™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 Wilsonâ€™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, Smithâ€™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 familyâ€™s tradition proved to
be extremely valuable assets in executing the fraud.
Armed with this certification along with a fresh listing in
Polkâ€™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. Wilsonâ€™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 wasnâ€™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 Wilsonâ€™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 Greenbergâ€™s work is as follows:
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
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
“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 Generalâ€™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.”
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”
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, didnâ€™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.
Wilsonâ€™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”.
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.