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RELATIONSHIPS The Sweet-Talking Swindler

A drink here, a favor there, and soon he was my best friend. He played me like a violin-to a tune he had played many times before.
By LEIGH EVANS |

THIS PAST SPRING I WON THE TON Y AWARD. Not the one you may be accustomed to seeing on television. No, this Tony Award is one I’ve given myself and would be delighted to award anyone, anywhere, who has been stung by Tony.

Tony-Tony Alexander, to be specific- is a giant of a man. Six-foot-four and huge. Professes to be a 12-year veteran of professional football-four years with a Canadian team, then eight and a half years as a linebacker in the NFL. Most recently, he spent a great deal of time as another kind of pro-pulling major wool over the eyes of several people, some of my friends, some of my clients, some women 1 didn’t know about and any number of local car dealers. And me. Here are the details…



JANUARY 25, 1996

Tony and I meet at a little watering hole in Addison where the young, the trendy and the rich-plus a few middle-aged, middle-class types like me-gather to look each other over. I’m at the bar with a good friend I ’ II call Lisa. (Most names in this story have been changed.) Two men near the bar are interestingly dressed, with lots of flashy gold and diamonds. They start waving money in our faces to buy us drinks.

I laugh and say. “I can buy my own drinks.” Which I do. (Later I realized that was exactly what he hoped for-a woman who would buy her own drinks. ) One of the men sits down next to me. His name is Tony.

Perhaps it is appropriate now to tell you that I am not a tall, skinny blonde with fluffy hair. I am short, chubby, and I wear ordinary career-woman clothes except when I wear Southwestern casual. I have curly brown hair in a conservative cut. I do not cause tidal waves in bars. I am single, divorced since 1970.I have two grown children and two grandchildren.

Personable, talkative. Tony is black, and in spite of his jewelry and his money-waving, he is interesting. He talks about his football career, his friend at the bar (a retired Dallas Cowboys player) and other bar trivia. And soon it’s time to go home. Lisa leaves first, after making a small slink about me leaving my purse on the bar by Tony while I walk her out.

As it turned out, Lisa was right on target. However, Tony wasn’t interested in he money I had in my purse. He wanted he valuables I had in my bank account, my corporate account and my garage, and he wanted my “status” account. He want-id me to open doors for him.

I run a little company that markets, pro-notes and drives businesses to the forefront of their industries. Pictures of our mayor, other politicians, business leaders and celebrities clutter my home office. I worked for seven newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News twice, before going into marketing. I must have interviewed a thousand people, studied them, looked into their eyes and their souls, and always felt fairly able to determine their veracity, their authenticity, their finger-touch to reality. Maybe. Maybe not.



JANUARY 26, 1996

Tony calls to say ’”hi” and volunteers to help me find a new vehicle. It was the first of many things he wanted to “help” with- from finding a security system for my house to a mind-boggling variety of business opportunities. Within 24 hours, Tony becomes a whirlwind of seemingly altruistic activity on my behalf. I wonder how he could take so much time from his own hectic schedule. I find his selfless devotion to helping with my needs to be the most marvelous and unexpected of surprises.

During the next few weeks, we become fast friends. Tony says he lives in a condo in Valley Ranch supplied by Jerry Jones in return for his help in distributing Nike shoes to minority children. He is from Atlanta and grew up with his best friend, former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Drew Pearson. Tony is involved in real estate deals with another good friend, Tony Dorsett, and numerous other Cowboys. Tony has ambitious plans to start a Psychic Friends Network with Dionne Warwick headquartered in Dallas. He drives a red Ford Explorer and attends Friendship Baptist Church in The Colony, where he’s in the choir. A really nice guy.

Tony is scrupulous on some points regarding money. For example, within days of our first meeting, he insists on buying “his kind of vodka” to keep at my house. I, everthe quintessential hostess, volunteer to purchase it for him. But he buys not only his favorite (Skyy, which costs twice a; much as my standard bar vodka) but also my preferred liquor. When I offerto pay foi both or at least one, he refuses. “You keep your money. You work hard for it.”



FEBRUARY 3, 1996

Tony is not happy with the car I am driving. “It may not last through the next trip, honey,” he says. “You gotta get a new car. You ’II find yourself broken down on a highway in the middle of the night.” His easy familiarity and his predilection for rough talk shocked me at first, but it alternates with an often gentlemanly demeanor.

And, frankly, my 1989 Olds was beginning to show its age. It had 149,000 miles on it. dents on the fenders and a tendency to blow its electrical system at inconvenient times. I was already halfheartedly looking.

“I tell you if there is one thing I hate it is people who recognize a problem and don’t do nothin’ ’bout it,” Tony says, shaking his big bear head with a sad expression. “Just don’t make no sense to me.”

I don’t want to be one of those pitiful creatures who can’t see a problem and take action. So off we go in search of the perfect auto for me, my business, family and lifestyle.

Tony decides that we will drive to the airport to renta “nice car” for me to drive while we look. At the rental car office at D/FW Airport, they have none of the super-fine cars he demands, so we decide to try another location. However, in the parking lot, my Olds suddenly and mysteriously won’t even turn over. I nearly die of humiliation. We get a jump.

“Honey, that was flat embarrassing,” he says as we drive off in the Olds.

“No kidding,” I say between clenched teeth.

“Well, just proves the point. I was right. You gotta dump this thing.”

Next stop, a BMW dealer in Richardson. Do not pass go, do not check out the failed electrical system, just drive straight to Richardson to look for my dream car. At the dealership, someone Tony describes as a good friend is ready to advise. Tony says the man has helped him buy and sell a dozen cars for different members of the Dallas Cowboys. Tony has called ahead and scoped out certain cars that he says meet his criteria for my new car.

“He’s got a Lexus that might work, and he’s got a BMW that looks pretty good,” Tony says. I drive both. Either is a dream We pick up Tony’s 1996 Ford Explorer. take the Lex us back and leave the Olds there until the deal is done. We are now big time into Tony’s modus operandi-switching cars from place to place so quickly you need a game board to keep track. So many cars flow through my life so quickly, it seems I might wake up owning a used-car lot.



FEB. 11, 1996

On Sunday-coming from services at Friendship Baptist Church (he says)- We pick up Tony’s 1996 Ford Explorer. take the Lex us back and leave the Olds there until the deal is done. We are now big time into Tony’s modus operandi-switching cars from place to place so quickly you need a game board to keep track. So many cars flow through my life so quickly, it seems I might wake up owning a used-car lot.



FEB. 11, 1996

On Sunday-coming from services at Friendship Baptist Church (he says)- Tony shows up at my house looking and smelling like a million-dollar gangster, replete with silk shirt, taupe suit and Italian loafers. He loves to talk about how much he spends on clothes. He once arrived in a pair of $1,500 leather pants with a color-coordinated sweater.

By this time, I have introduced him to my good friend, Brady, who is working for me as a part-time consultant. She thinks Tony is interesting. “You need a good friend like that to help you and just be a support,” she said. Brady found his opposing polar personality-the graciousness and the roughness-appealing and different.

No doubt some readers are wondering about a sexual relationship, but it never was that kind of thing. Rather, it was “let me help you with things I’m good at and you can help me with things you’re good at.” Tony asked for help with decisions concerning real estate, electronic equipment and marketing.

FEB. 15, 1996

The Lexus deal is dragging. That day Tony and I eat lunch and then head out for yet another car experience. Tony says he has purchased a little Porsche the day before while searching for a car for me.

I eventually learned the Porsche tradeoff was typical of his car lot adventures. He retrieved my Olds from the Richardson BMW deafer, took it to a dealer on Garland Road, left it as collateral and then took a Porsche out for a trial run, For the weekend. (The dealer later told me he normally never allowed that, but Tony impressed him. “He had all that gold jewelry and he was a former NFL player,” the Garland salesman said. “I just automatically trusted him.”) After driving it a few days, Tony returned the Porsche, retrieved my Olds and drove it to yet another car lot where he finagled a brown Mercedes. Which he parked in my driveway. For a week.

Meanwhile. I am driving his Explorer until my purchase of the Lexus is final. Tony asks me to fill out a credit application for a bank, just in case the financing deal with the BMW place does not work out. Busy with clients, with complete trust in my Car Savior, I fill out the form, which he sends off on my fax machine. Soon utter, he thrusts another application for another dealership in my face.

“I’m jus’gonna finance this car myself,” Tony says. “Just have a few dollars transferred to Texas Commerce from my offshore account in the Cayman Islands. No sense in paying ridiculous interest rates to some stupid American bank. We’ll pay 6 percent and save you some serious money.”

Hmmmmm, I think. I’ve only known this guy for a couple of weeks and he’s going to finance a car for me. “No. Tony, I’d rather go the traditional route and finance it through the bank.”

“Now don’t go get on your damn high horse with me,” he fairly shouts. “I’m gonna do this for you and you’re gonna be better off. I can’t stand it when people won’t let me help them.”



FEB. 20, 1996

Tony constantly spouts business deals and financial strategy as well as money-making schemes. Almost all include me, my marketing expertise, my ability to open doors for him. Never one to turn down interesting new business, especially when it involves people with buckets of money available at 6 percent interest, I listen.

He asks for an introduction to a longtime client I had mentioned as a possible resource for Tony’s plan to start a Psychic Friends Network in Dallas. He wants my client to come on board as a technical advisor, and Tony quietly tells me I should make a contractual deal to get an override on the client’s fees since I had been the “finder.” I was pleased when the client volunteered to give me 10 percent of any business that came his way through my referral.

Tony’s pro forma predicts $3.5 million gross income a month, way too much for me to even imagine. I’m skeptical. “Do the figures, honey,” Tony said. “Psychics charge $3 a minute, that’s $ 180 an hour. We pay them $60 an hour to sit on the phones and give advice. It’s a huge profit. Listen to me; I got a M.B.A. from OU and I know ’bout these things.”



FEB. 22, 1996

Next, Tony wants me to borrow $30,000 from Texas Commerce Bank to “finance” my business. He intends to underwrite the loan, bring the money in from his offshore funds in the Cayman Islands and simply turn it over to me at 6 percent interest. Practically debt-free, I refuse. At the time it seems a sort of philanthropic effort on his part to help me ease my way financially. Later, the police told me Tony had talked one woman into selling her business and now she is flat broke.



FEB.26,1996

Tony calls this Monday morning, as he does every morning, about 8 a.m. The Lexus deal has fallen through. But he has another car for me-a 1994 Beemer. clean as a whistle, 17,000 miles.

“And get ready for this-$20,000.”

“Is that good?”

“Damn straight. I’ll be over in a little while. We got some paperwork to do.”

The car is in Houston on the car lot of a good friend who often supplies automobiles to Tony’s Cowboys friends. One of Tony’s “employees” from one of his obscure businesses will fly down and drive it back. So off I go to the money machine, where I get my daily limit of $400 for airfare, overnight expenses and “a little gettin’ around money” for the employee and his wife. It seems expensive, but I don’t quibble. Tony has spent hours tracking down the right car and is willing to send an employee to bring it back. Besides, I am dying to get my hands on my new car.

By the way, at this point. I have on two different occasions during car-search expeditions given Tony checks totaling $690 to pick up clothing at Big & Tall for Less because it won’t take h is “out-of-state check” (as in the Cayman Islands). For identification on the checks, he also has taken my driver’s license. Tony keeps the driver’s license for almost a week, causing me a great deal of trouble in my check-cashing activities. He keeps forgetting to repay me, although it doesn’t seem to bother him to remind me how much time and money he’s spending to find me a car,

And when Tony calls and says he needs $1,364 in cash for tax, title and license costs, like a dutiful slave, I go straight to the bank and retrieve the cash, never questioning why these transactions can’t be handled with a check.

Much later. I realized there were dozens of opportunities forme to put on the brakes, stop the operation, question the procedures and take a long hike away from this man.

Was I too trusting, too naive, too stupid? Or all of the above compounded 10 times? In a word, yes.

It was easy to fall into his trap and start scheduling meetings for him with clients. Looking back, I realize my intense effort not to show any discrimination toward Tony-because of his race, his background, his rough athletic orientation-all made me a prime candidate to forgive him practically anything because I believed at heart he was a good man, truly interested in assisting a busy, professional woman who was single and in need of help.

We expect the BMW to arrive in Dallas Sunday evening. At this point, I am still driving the Ford Explorer and growing quite attached to it, as a matter of fact. The Beemer doesn’t arrive on Sunday, or on Monday. The title is lost. The employee and his wife must fly back to Dallas with-out the car. Tony will have to go down there “his own damn self and straighten this mess out and bring the car back.1’ He flies to Houston. Or at least he says he does.

The BMW’s lost title remains lost all week. I am impatient. I am receiving calls and taking messages daily from car dealers around town, my office having become Tony’s extra office.



MARCH 1, 1996

Returning on a Southwest Airlines flight from Galveston, I run into a friend named Pete. I ask him if he’s heard of Tony Alexander, formerly with the Detroit Lions.

“Oh yeah,” Pete answers. Later, I find out that Pete is wrong. No Tony Alexander ever played for the Detroit Lions. At the moment, however, Pete’s apparent recognition of Tony is gratifying and I feel a small seed of triumph that he is a real person and not a figment of my overworked imagination.

Back at home, the phone rings within hours of my arrival: It’s Tony. The BMW has finally arrived in Dallas, the title has been located, and he is having a bit of final work done for me. I don’t ask him how the car got from Houston to Dallas. It no longer seems important.

“You want a CD in this thing?”Tony asks.

“Sure.”

“Well, they’re puttin’ it in now.’’

I can hear men at work in the background. I have begun to wonder if indeed I have invested several thousands of dollars in a scam of some sort. J do not want to believe I could be so foolish.



MARCH 2, 1996

Tony never shows up. The next morning, I am a raging, screaming shrew bitch. He calls, as always, around 8 a.m., and, of course, he has a story. After the crew finished work on my car, Tony took them out for a drink. They started doing ouzo shots. One led to another…

“Honey, I’m really sorry. I’ll never do thai stuff again. I hale that ouzo.”

“Forget the damned ouzo. I want you over here right now with that damned car.”

No answer.

“DO YOU HEAR ME?”

“I gotta get a shower and get dressed. I ’II call you back.” The receiver slams down in my ear. I take a deep breath and try to get my equilibrium back. I am ready to call the police that moment.

But then I think, after all. Tony is a character. A true eccentric. A charming, beautifully dressed, moneyed man of the world. He is one of those rare athletes who made a fortune with the NFL, actually managed to invest it profitably and returned to OU for a MBA in order to wisely manage his investments. He is a winner. How can I question his veracity, his good intentions?



MARCH 4, 1996

I still have some faith left, so I take a giant leap and invite Tony to escort me to the annual Tops Awards on Saturday night. This event is the annual awards recognition for the Dallas Advertising League. With some old friends in town for the event, we plan to make a wild and crazy night of it, ending up at Sipango’s for dancing and celebration.

At the last minute, Tony calls and says he is just getting out of the hair salon and I should meet him at the Apparel Mart, where the event is being held.

“Don’t stand me up on this deal, Tony. If you can’t go or don’t want to, just say so. I’ll ask someone else.”

“No, baby, I’ll be there. I’m lookin’ forward to it.”

Naturally, he never shows.

And I never see him again.



MARCH 15, 1996

I find myself typing a note to a close friend. Here are parts of it: “If anything should happen to me, anything mysterious or sinister, Tony’s pager number is 249-0581…His fingerprints are all over my house, mainly in the offices, kitchen, living room and dining room…”



MARCH 24, 1996

I am asleep around 12:45 a.m. when a strange woman calls, angry and intense. A friend of Tony’s, she is in the midst of a situation identical to mine. Car, money, big story about funding a business, more half-truths than a carnival huckster…A psychic herself, which makes me wonder why she didn’t know better, she has been working with Tony to start a Psychic Friends Network. The Explorer I’ve been driving is rented in her name and her credit card payment now is past due because she does not have the $2,000Tony took from her (at her insistence) to buy her new car. He had promised to replace it with the proceeds of her old car’s sale.

Same song. Second verse.

The police have been here twice-polite and incredulous that I could have been victimized by such a line of bull. I can’t believe it either. It’s absolutely freaking hilarious.

I turn the Explorer over to the police, who surrender it to (he psychic. In my circular driveway, the morning .sun gleams on two black oil spots from the brown Mercedes, which has resided there for the past week. For some reason they remind me of Tony’s dark eyes as he pronounced me “a hell of a woman,” “a business strategist” and “someone who could open doors for him.”



THE FINALE

There’s much more of the story, but it’s mostly the knitting together of loose ends-locating my Oldsmobile, hassling with dealers as I try to make them see that Tony is the cause of their problem, not me. Tony calls one more time, saying he has been sick for several days.

“I know you’re waitin’ on your money and everything,” He pauses here. I am frantically motioning to my friends, mouthing “call the police.”

“That damn car…” Tony moans.

“There is no car,” I snap. “There is no money. There is nothing, as far as I’m concerned.”

“What the hell you talkin’ about, woman?”

“I’m talking about the fact that there is no new car, not even my old car for me to drive.” I am now screaming. “You took my Olds, my $1,000 down payment and my S 1,300 for the tax, title and license, plus you owe me for other things you asked me to pay for and I want either the BMW or the Olds and the money! You big idiot!”

“Ohhh.” The word comes quietly, contemplatively, as if he finally understands the whole thing.

A few days later, a Dallas police detective calls. I tell him everything I know about the man. I also tell him that the psychic’s “Caller ID” system tracked a call from Tony to a motel in Carrollton. The detective promises to call me the next day with an update.

The detective calls back two hours later. Tony was at the motel when police showed up. He’s in jail on a $25,000 bond. It’s over.

The detective tells me police have been tracking Tony Alexander, alias Timmy Bell, alias Ralph Leon Hennessey, for two years. I feel a lump form in my stomach and swell to the size of a baseball. “I got several women here in town involved in this,” the detective says. The lump becomes a tangible pain.

“What if he gets out?” I hear myself asking. “Do you think he might come after me?”

“Ms. Evans, he’s done all he can do to you,” the detective says. “He has taken all the money you had, all the car you had. He is through with you.” I am delighted to be labeled useless to this crook. The detective gives me some advice about untangling Tony’s web and regaining my car, and we hang up.

On July 30, Tony Alexander, 43, (actually 53-year-old Ralph Leon Hennessey) pleaded guilty to theft charges. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and ordered to make $19,000 in restitution. The DA’s office says there are more victims but some are too embarrassed to admit they’ve been swindled.

An interesting observation by the prosecutor hits a nerve: “This man used people like you as collateral to introduce him to your clients and friends. The fact that you introduced him gave him credibility that he never would have had otherwise.”

My total financial loss was about $7,000. I ended up with a disappointing $2,000 for my car, paid with great reluctance by the Garland dealer when I returned the Mercedes Tony had “borrowed.”

I also racked up dozens and dozens of wasted hours trying to solve the financial and legal problems incurred by this monstrous jerk who preys on trusting, albeit naive, women.

I’m no longer nearly as accepting of strangers as I used to be. Every time a stranger acts friendly I become skeptical and suspicious, trying to determine if there is some kind of hoax involved.

Hopefully I’ll recover from most of this paranoia.

In the meantime, I occasionally remember this: In the middle of all this, I presented Tony with a kind of combination Valentine’s Duy/thank-you gift-an exquisitely wrapped box of silk handkerchiefs, a blue glass heart paperweight and a card depicting a child with outstretched arms on a beach, in which I had written, “Thanks for your great-big. generous, wide-open heart and all your help.”

Tony opened it, made no comment whatsoever and left it at my house. I reminded him time after time, “Don’t you want your Valentine’s g ift?” He never commented. I ’d like to think Tony knew at the time he was stealing from me and had just a sliver of conscience that made it impossible for him to accept my gift.