There are a lot of reasons why a man from Dallas might hate Duluth, Minnesota, but foremost among them must be the weather. Mark Geis certainly has found the chill tough to get accustomed to. Last spring, using an old IBM Wheel Writer with a sticky “e,” he wrote a letter home saying, “Bob Hope once said, ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth.’ So here we are, the middle of May, and snow is falling. Ode to the day I could spend on the patio at Primo’s drinking a cold margarita on a warm spring day.”
This is where Mark Geis, approaching his 40th birthday, finds himself: living on a complex of some 62 dormitories and service buildings sprawling over what was once an Air Force base nested on an elevated plateau above the southwestern tip of Lake Superior. Once a tech millionaire who lived in an Arlington McMansion and flew on private jets to Aspen and the Bahamas, Geis now is known simply as prisoner No. 34731-077 at Federal Prison Camp Duluth. A string of bad decisions led him here, but the biggest crime he’ll admit to was exploiting a weakness in Microsoft’s ordering system to cheat the company out of $60 million worth of software (depending on how you do the math).
On a blindingly clear Wednesday in July, with the air barely clawing up to 60 degrees, you can catch glimpses of the deep cobalt blue waters of Superior Bay on the approach to the prison camp. Geis, in dull greenish blue inmate garb, his name and number stamped on the left breast pocket, slumps on a plastic seat in the sparse prison visiting room where the monotony is weirdly splintered by a shock of bright purple petunias.
Geis says he was astounded at what he was able to get away with. “It was too easy,” he says. “I was dumbfounded. I had my jaw on the ground, living the good life.”
I first met Geis four years earlier, in April 2005, after a year of intermittently swapping letters while he was an inmate at the federal prison in Texarkana. After he was released, we talked over a cluttered desk in a tiny office in what were the Coit Road headquarters of E-Centric, a computer networking company founded by his friend and onetime neighbor Tobe Thompson. Deeply distracted, Geis thumbed through invoices and tracked transactions on a computer as he recited his contrition narrative in staccato verse. He had changed his ways, he said. He was thrilled to be a working stiff eking out a subsistence living in a legitimate enterprise. He talked of starting a family.
I wanted to tell the story about how he’d scammed Microsoft, but at the time Geis was reluctant. Living at a halfway house in Wilmer-Hutchins, he feared a tell-all would jeopardize his three-year term of supervised release.
Then, on his birthday in June 2006, he got arrested for a second time—for a crime he says he didn’t commit—and wound up in Duluth. When his letters resumed in January 2008, he was gearing up to fight the “tyranny” of the feds and the dogged FBI agent who put him away. Twice. “I have been hesitant to tell you this,” he wrote, “but what the f---? It’s the truth—strange as it is.” Geis was finally ready to tell his story, revealing the details about perhaps the most audacious scam ever pulled on Microsoft.
===“Once you make that first step into darkness, you just keep trudging along, and it gets easier and easier to make the next one,” Geis says. “At first I’d say it was 70 percent vengeance and 30 percent greed. Then it went to 90 percent greed and 10 percent vengeance.”!==
Born on June 15, 1970, in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb north of Chicago, Mark Geis spent his early childhood in Brookfield, Wisconsin, outside Milwaukee. He calls Brookfield a morally centered islet of the city of beer and cheese. His says his childhood was “pretty messed up.” His parents were alcoholics, and his father, who died from complications of emphysema in 1997, was both physically and emotionally abusive toward his mother.
The youngest of four children, Geis has two brothers and a sister who describe him as a well-adjusted boy. “He was a fun-loving kid, exceptionally bright,” says his brother John, a colonel at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. “The biggest challenge he had was school because he was constantly bored.”
But things changed after his father, a manager with Honeywell, was transferred to North Texas. Geis describes the move as an unceremonious plop into the “vapid and shallow” city of Plano. “It sucked, especially because we didn’t have much money growing up, and I never felt like I belonged,” he writes in a March 2009 letter. “I suspect this is where my unquenchable greed planted its ugly seed. I was always looking for ways to make a buck and find the easy way out of everything. And almost always, I found it.”
Geis began his entrepreneurial career as a grade-school loan shark, lending his sixth-grade classmates lunch money at an interest rate of 100 percent per day. He supplemented this with a thriving business doing other kids’ homework. Then he moved into paper routes, juggling three at once after investing in a moped.
He launched Arbuckle Computer Supply (named for his Plano street address) in 1983 at the age of 13 after stumbling across a wholesaler’s ad in a computer magazine hawking Apple components. The scrappy kid called the distributor, set up an account using his paper route tax ID, and began selling 10-megabyte hard drives for various versions of the Apple IIe through his own bulletin board system.
A precursor to the World Wide Web, bulletin board systems (BBS) were crude networks of computer users that flourished from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. They allowed users to connect by logging onto a BBS via modem and phone line to exchange data and upload and download software. “Downloading games would take hours,” Geis remembers.
His business exploded after he splurged on ad space in inCider, a short-lived national magazine specializing in the Apple II. “My phone rang off the hook,” he says. And the money really began rolling in. For every $600 drive Geis sold, he made a $200 profit.
Despite his success, though, Geis kept his business a secret from everyone but his family. “The last thing I wanted to be known as was a computer geek,” he says. But running his business left him little time for hanging out with friends. In the family’s solarium, he tinkered with his Apple IIe, maintaining his BBS, procuring hard drives from distributors, and filling orders and shipping them via UPS.
In senior high, Geis supplemented his booming computer business with radar detectors. “He took out an ad in a Plano school newspaper, where he made some pretty good money reselling radar detectors to kids going down to Padre for spring break,” says his brother Bill, a network technician.
He got his first bona fide job at 16, working as a financial analyst at Northern Telecom through a school co-op program. Yet despite his work ethic and aptitude for business, Geis was a lousy student. He barely left Plano Senior High School with a diploma. He decided only at the close of summer 1988 to enter Texas Tech University—and he didn’t fare any better there. Geis nearly flunked out his first semester, so he left school to regroup. He returned the following fall not so much to focus on studies as to launch Limelight Productions, a concert promotion and talent-booking operation focused on shows in Texas college towns. Limelight proved more boom than bust for the 19-year-old Geis. That is, until he moved into cities like Houston and started encroaching on big promoter turf.
In 1990, after successfully bidding on the Houston stop of the MTV Spring Break concert tour, Geis says he got a call from someone at Pace Concerts. Geis remembers the call: “And he says, ‘We really wanted that show. We’re going to get that show. You may just want to keep your drapes closed at night because we’re going to get that show one way or another.’” An hour later, Geis says he got a call from the tour’s talent agent telling him the show was being pulled out from under him. “He says, ‘I got a wife and kids,’” Geis says. Two weeks later, while in the midst of bidding on a concert in Dallas, Geis got kicked out of Deep Ellum Live while attending a show put on by Dallas-based concert promoter 462. “I’m told if I ever come to another 462 concert again, I’ll never leave alive,” Geis says. “Within a week, all my bands left my roster, and I couldn’t get anything. I was systematically destroyed.”
Geis says the experience left him rattled, and he sought a safer way to make a living in the corporate ranks. His three disastrous semesters in college proved no obstacle, and he scored a job as a network engineer for an environmental consulting firm. Eighteen months later, though, he was laid off. “It was then I decided I must find a way to have fun, get rich, and do the right thing,” he says.