Scam Without A Country

For con men the world over, there is no place like the Dominion of Melchizedek because it is no place

Throughout its brief and checkered history, Vinedresser's creation has been cloaked in religious and spiritual trappings. He calls it an "ecclesiastical and constitutional sovereignty based upon the principles of the Melchizedek Bible."

The Observer tried to reach Vinedresser through the Melchizedekian Embassy in Washington. The embassy lists an address at 601 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., but all the country apparently does is rent a mail drop there. (Ironically, Clardy, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Reynolds, used to work in that very building. He says he knows there is no Melchizedekian Embassy there.)

The embassy's listed phone number--which Barrett says, from his experience, automatically forwards to Vinedresser's home in California--turned out to be hooked up to a fax machine.

In a brief exchange of faxes, someone named Leah Gholand, the dominion's minister of public relations, provided broad information about the supposed country.

Melchizedek is an artful creation--claiming deep biblical and historic roots, a population of repressed Ruthenians, and land in Polynesia.

"The Dominion's activities are governmental, spiritual, political, educational, humanitarian and commercial," writes Gholand. "References are made to Melchizedek's eternal sovereignty throughout Hebrew and Christian Holy Writ."

The country claims to have three branches of government, an office in Jerusalem, and an Internet site.

What about people? The Dominion of Melchizedek claims to be "spiritually united" with the Ruthenian people, which it says are as many as one million Eastern Europeans "living in the Carpatho and Transcarpathian region bordered by the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland." After centuries spent under the rule of others, the Ruthenians are poised for independence, or so says Gholand. Presumably, the freed Ruthenians will then be allies of the Melchizedekians, and maybe a few will even settle in the dominion.

As for land, Melchizedek has bounced around, looking for a spot that doesn't already belong to someone else.

It is now claiming Karitane, an island southwest of Tahiti. "Karitane is reported to include some 14 square miles of paradise with sandy beaches, fresh water, and three hilltops of low elevation," the minister of public relations says, although his phrasing indicates that he himself has not seen the island.

That may be because Karitane is a relatively new home for the country. Melchizedek used to claim as its territory the island of Malpelo, 300 miles west of Colombia. Melchizedek apparently vacated after Colombia insisted that Malpelo really belongs to it.

Just to be safe, Melchizedek also claims as territory the land "90 degrees to 150 degrees west Antarctica," which it says is "the only territory of the dominion that is not claimed by other sovereign states." No other country is yet fighting Melchizedek for its Antarctic claim.

But though Melchizedek lacks land and population, the fledgling country certainly has no shortage of pomp and circumstance. Vinedresser, in correspondence with real countries, styles himself the "minister plenipotentiary" of the movable nation.

The nation claims a lengthy list of officials, including a president, a House of Elders, a prime minister, several ambassadors, and even an organizer of the country's Olympic team. The names of the supposed officials read like a Mad magazine parody--Tzemach Ben David Netzer Korem is the vice president, and G.M.R. Wijbers is the honorary ambassador to the European Union.

The Great Seal of the Dominion of Melchizedek sports a cross and a crown with seven Stars of David on its points. The country claims to have a constitution, and its official languages are English, Hebrew, and Ruthenian.

Vinedresser has corresponded with the United Nations, seeking "observer" status for his nation. He sought, and actually received, diplomatic recognition from the president of the Central African Republic. And in a show of international bravado, the country declared war on France in 1995, taking issue with that country's nuclear-testing program. In the indirect fashion typical of the country, its war declaration was sent to reporters by fax.

Vinedresser has printed up all the frilly paperwork that no country should be without, such as passports, securities, and bank charters--even money. And therein lies the true substance of Melchizedek.

For scam artists around the world, credentials from the bogus country have become like fool's gold. Obtain the credentials, find a fool, and the swindle is on.

The primary undertaking of Melchizedek--and Vinedresser--has apparently been to churn out fake companies and paperwork, obscuring frauds behind layers of overlapping fiction. Bogus auditing companies set up by Vinedresser vouch for equally bogus banks and insurance companies supposedly chartered in the Dominion.

Vinedresser sells the country's fake documents to other con men. He is, Clardy says, something like a wholesaler of fancy paperwork that other swindlers then can use to ply their schemes. "Think of Vinedresser as the hub, and they're [other con artists] the spokes in the wheel," Clardy says. "Vinedresser's like giving franchises for the dominion, and then each of them becomes an independent operator."

Melchizedekian credentials have been popping up around the globe ever since Vinedresser founded his nation. Various schemes share a simple underpinning: If someone is gullible enough to believe that Melchizedek exists, they'll also swallow the fake companies, stocks, and bank accounts supposedly blessed by the tiny dominion.

"It is very devious," says Nancy Ayoob, a senior staff counsel for the California Department of Insurance who has had run-ins with the fictional country. "There have been certain Caribbean islands and other small countries that have become safe havens for [shady] companies...but when you go another step and create a country--that's another hurdle for us."

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