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The Double Life Of Stephen Van Cortland

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Stephen Van Cortland’s meteoric rise in the Dallas arts world came to a screeching halt on Wednesday. May 7, when he was pulled over in a gray 1985 Mercedes-Benz. The Mercedes had Massachusetts plates-and a trunk full of art belonging to KERA-TV Channel 13, the Dallas public television station where Van Cortland worked as an art chairman in charge of acquiring valuable paintings, prints, and sculptures for the annual Channel 13 Auction. A quick license check showed the car to be stolen; officers soon discovered that art connoisseur Stephen Van Cortland was in fact Stephen Timmons, twenty-three, a high school dropout and former health club bookkeeper. Timmons is wanted in Boston on felony charges of swindling $16,000 from the Bank of New England and stealing the Mercedes from a posh Boston foreign car dealership shortly after New Year’s Day.

Timmons’s double life in Dallas began in February, when he pretended to be a wealthy young art enthusiast who “had come to Dallas to make his fame and fortune,” according to KERA President Richard Meyer. KERA execs were thrilled to have such an intelligent, likable, and obviously well-bred sophisticate donate all of his time to making the rounds of local gallery owners, collectors, and artists, hitting them up for donations. “He got really terrific pieces of art,” Meyer said. “Very expensive stuff, the most prestigious art we’ve ever had.”

In March, after only a month as a volunteer, Stephen joined the paid KERA staff as a part-time art chairman. Within two months, the affable young Bostonian helped Channel 13 corral some $850,000 worth of art for the auction.

On May 7, Van Cortland says he decided to take the day off and drive south to Galveston for a day at the beach. He left Dallas in the Mercedes at about 12:30 p.m. As he neared Houston later that afternoon, he realized it was getting too late, so he turned around, heading back through Huntsville. There, a state trooper stopped him for speeding, then found he had no license or registration.

Timmons, the adopted son of a Boston-area corporation comptroller, had worked a series of temporary accounting jobs in small firms. In December of 1984, an employment agency sent Stephen to see Jeff Randall, owner of a large health spa near Boston University called The Squash Club. “He’s a con artist,” Randall said. “He duped me into believing he had a solid background in accounting and computers.11 Randall says Timmons often claimed to work all night on projects that really took five minutes. He would leave the office in his Honda company car as soon as the boss departed, falling further and further behind in his bookkeeping. Timmons says he began a series of ambitious schemes designed to create a niche where he ’”could be recognized as a real person.” So he published a treatise on health club finances in the International Racquet Sports Association trade magazine-passing off other writers’ research as his own. He tried to incorporate himself as Stephen Timmons & Associates, designing furniture, selling other artists’ etchings and reproductions, and creating his own line of greeting cards for sale around Boston. According to Randall, Timmons told acquaintances he was chief vicepresident of Financial Planning for The Squash Club and tried to use his accounting position to bilk people: “People would call here asking for information we normally give out free in this industry, and Stephen would try to set up an appointment and tell them he would only charge them a hundred an hour for his consulting fee.” By early 1986, after a year of frustrations. Randall was ready to let Stephen go.

He never got the chance. On January 7, Stephen failed to show up for work. The next day, Timmons allegedly walked into the Commonwealth Street showroom of Boston’s Foreign Motors dealership and said he wanted to lease a Mercedes, insisting that he needed the car immediately for a business meeting and did not have time to obtain a certified check. So his credit application was processed, his $10,000 check was approved by the Bay Bank of Boston, and the Mercedes was delivered a few days later. By the time the check hit the bank, Timmons apparently had cleaned out his account. The bank bounced the check for insufficient funds.

After Timmons vanished, Randall discovered that he had forged checks totaling $16,000. (The money was later reimbursed to Randall by the Bank of New England.) By mid-January, Stephen Timmons was wanted by Boston police on two felony warrants-one for stealing the Mercedes, another for swindling the bank. He also left behind a trail of thousands of dollars in debts, loans, and unpaid bills from Boston banks and finer department stores like Brooks Brothers and Jordan Marsh.

Over the past few months, Timmons says, he has “come to terms with God.” trading in his Catholicism for the intense religious experiences of local Baptist and Bible churches. Timmons insists his Van Cortland role with KERA and the Dallas arts community was not a setup for another con but a sincere attempt at “doing something worthwhile, something true to my heart.” He swears he had no plans to steal KERA’s forty-two prints, valued at $8,175. Both Channel 13 and the police appear to accept Timmons’s story. Sources at KERA say Timmons routinely handled paintings valued up to $14,000 each, and Timmons notes that he had easy access to several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of goods in the safes at Channel 13.

Timmons was released on bail from the Walker County Jail after being charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, a separate charge that carries a maximum five-year sentence in addition to the five years Timmons could face on the Massachusetts charges. The FBI then re-arrested Timmons at his Oak Lawn home on May 13 for the federal crime of transporting stolen property across state lines, which carries another five-year maximum sentence in federal prison. Timmons, released on personal recognizance, says he is considering pleading guilty to the federal charge so his case can stay in Dallas. He has no attorney.

The auction went on asplanned, although station officials acknowledge that therewill be some changes regardingthe hiring of part-time contractemployees like Stephen VanCortland. who was screenedwith only a personal interviewand the station’s cursory volunteer application listing. “Theonly thing we plan to change isthat all contract employees willhave to fill out a regular employ-ment application, and we’llcheck their references.” aspokesman said. “There will beno changes in our screening ofvolunteers.”

-Rob Allyn

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