By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
During the year Reynolds lived quietly in far North Dallas, his neighbors had little idea what he did for a living, whether he was married, who drove the various cars often parked in front of his house, or other traits that neighbors tend to notice.
Certainly, the neighbors had no notion that living among them was the former "Secretary of Commerce" for an entire nation--a tiny island in the South Pacific called the Dominion of Melchizedek. Or that the feds were after Reynolds for his part in a scheme to peddle $47 million in bogus insurance policies.
Free on bond for now, Reynolds is due back before the bench of U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders on June 6 to be sentenced for his part in the insurance fraud. Reynolds' take from the scam is estimated at a half-million dollars, and he faces up to 10 years in prison.
His is a fate that seems to befall many who have served the government of Melchizedek. The 6-year-old island dominion has spent most of its brief history submerged in allegations of fraud and chicanery, its reputation and character assailed around the world.
Primarily, that is because the Dominion of Melchizedek is an utter fake--fabricated for the use of con men like Reynolds.
The fictitious country was created from whole cloth by a convicted California swindler out on parole. It is a work of twisted inspiration, and has been used by scam artists around the world as a launching point for dubious schemes involving nonexistent banks, bogus securities, and phony insurance companies.
To keep up appearances, the Dominion of Melchizedek maintains a fake "embassy" in Washington, D.C., and has issued fake passports. The country tends to move around a bit, claiming as its territory obscure islands that no one would ever visit, or patches of Antarctica.
It could all be a wonderful and sophisticated joke--Melchizedek even went so far as to declare war on France last year--except that the fake country is spawning mischief and crime around the globe. The proportion of Melchizedekian businessmen engaged in fraud appears to run about 100 percent.
It seems improbable that anyone would be dense enough to swallow a contrivance of Melchizedek's proportions, and most of the various scams tied to the fake country seem to have made little progress. But some banks, insurance customers, and even a couple of legitimate governments have been taken in by Melchizedek-born farces.
"I've never seen anyone make up their own country before," says Assistant U.S. Attorney Floyd Clardy, who pursued the government's case against Reynolds in Dallas. "That takes a lot of brass."
Reynolds is merely the latest scam artist to be caught using the Melchizedek ruse, and it appears he may have been one of the more successful practitioners. Reynolds and his cohorts managed to sell millions in insurance policies issued by a bogus company supposedly domiciled in Melchizedek. With his guilty plea, Dallas joined the likes of Hong Kong, London, Washington D.C., Arizona, Utah, and California as scenes of Melchizedekian fraud.
Reynolds could not be located for an interview, and his court-appointed attorney wouldn't say where he is. Through a bizarre and circuitous route, Reynolds did send word to the Dallas Observer that, despite his guilty plea, he is actually innocent. The plea bargain, he says, "is nothing more than a tactical maneuver to avoid additional headaches and potential costs."
Con men never lack audacity, and the phony dominion rates as one of the most audacious swindles of the decade.
A convicted swindler started it all. Mark Logan Pedley, according to news reports, was found guilty of fraud in both California and Massachusetts in the early 1980s. The California charges involved Pedley's penchant for selling land he did not own. In Massachusetts, it was a peso-conversion scheme that bilked investors out of an estimated $6 million, according to a 1991 article in Forbes magazine.
In 1990, after getting out of prison on parole, Pedley launched his grandest scheme, founding the Dominion of Melchizedek. He named his new country after the biblical priest who blessed Abraham, and gave himself a new name as well--Branch Vinedresser. That name supposedly came from the Bible, too.
Vinedresser is an elusive man. One journalist who succeeded in finding him is William P. Barrett, a writer for Forbes, who began chronicling the Melchizedekian saga in 1991. After tracking Vinedresser down at his California home, Barrett wrote, "Vinedresser looks eerily like popular depictions of Jesus, but talks like a lawyer. He all but admits his moniker is made up, and inspired by the opening verses of John 15: 'My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away...'"
(In Vinedresser's case, the reference to "Father" may mean his real father, David Pedley, also a convicted swindler. The senior Pedley purportedly died in a Mexican prison in 1987, and a coffin containing what was said to be his body was shipped back to the United States. But no officials were allowed to verify the identity of the deceased. Speculation exists that the senior Pedley is still alive.)