The Grifter

Smooth-talking stockbroker Roger Turner came across as a good Christian man--one who made it his business to charm widows and retirees out of their life savings

Tommy Smith lay dying on his own bed, his body ravaged by the aggressive strain of cancer that first attacked his colon some 18 months earlier. He no longer had the use of his legs. Festering sores on his stomach refused to heal, and his wife, Margie, barely managed to keep them covered and cleaned before new ones burst open. Only by the grace of God and the tranquilizers that were fed to him did he manage to tolerate the pain.

It was a cruel irony for the 65-year-old Longview resident who had taken early retirement from Oryx Energy after 40 years of oil-field work, hoping that he and his wife could live out their years without having to worry about their finances.

Perhaps that's why he appeared pleased to see Roger Turner when the stockbroker arrived at his home in late November 1996, driving all the way from Dallas with his wife, Laura, just to see his friend and client. Smith had entrusted all his retirement savings to Turner--more than half a million dollars--and believed he would invest them wisely.

And why not? Turner had begun his career at E.F. Hutton and came "highly recommended" five years earlier by friends who claimed they were seeing remarkable returns on their investments. When the Smiths told him they "didn't know the first thing about investing," Turner agreed he wouldn't get them into anything too risky--a diversified portfolio is what they wanted. Nothing that might jeopardize their four-bedroom house and stables situated on 10 acres in the East Texas piney woods.

Tommy just flat-out trusted the man. He seemed "so pleasant and nice and handsome," recalls Margie. He had a "boy next door" charm--"could talk just about anything" and often did. His white dress shirts were always crisp, and his suits fit as though they were tailor-made. Others said he wore his Christianity on his sleeve, but only if it was the right attire for the occasion, but that would be no concern to the Smiths. To them, he seemed a God-fearing man. He prayed with them on his many trips to Longview; he seemed to have the same kind of family values that they did, often visiting with their oldest daughter and shooting baskets with her boys.

This particular visit was much like the others, with Turner assuring Margie that all was not lost. He told her he had gotten the members of his church to pray for Tommy to get better. Turner seemed anxious to talk to Tommy, said he had some papers for him to sign that would "reposition" some of the Smiths' money, moving it from one investment to another.

Margie escorted the 35-year-old Turner into the master bedroom, leaving his wife behind in the living room. Tommy smiled as he saw Roger, raising himself slightly from his bed to greet him. The two spoke about investments, and Tommy, not quite clear-headed, somehow managed to sign the papers that Turner placed in front of him. Margie couldn't bring herself to listen at first, finding it difficult to contemplate a future without her husband of 44 years.

She did, however, hear her husband plainly enough when he asked Turner for some assurance that Margie would be taken care of after he was gone. Was his retirement money earning a good income? Would Margie be able to keep the house? Would there be enough money for his grandkids?

Turner spoke softly, slowly, promising Tommy that there was nothing for him to worry about. His family would be well taken care of and would not want for money. He then took Tommy's hand and prayed. "It was the most beautiful prayer you'd ever want to hear," recalls Margie. The words seemed so genuine and heartfelt.

On December 10, 1996, barely two weeks later, Tommy Smith passed away. When Margie Smith phoned Turner, trying to obtain money from her investments to help get her through the crisis, she learned there weren't even enough funds to cover her husband's funeral expenses. Suddenly, she was broke, with no money left to make her next mortgage payment. She worried she might have to sell the house and the land--or risk foreclosure. Too often she recalls the prayers and promises of Roger Turner. "I think back now. How could he have done that, knowing he had cleaned us out of everything we had?"

Sadly, dozens of Turner's other clients soon began asking the same question. For more than a decade, he had parlayed his credentials as a stockbroker and enticed his clients--many of them widows, retirees, pensioners--to invest in a sophisticated web of worthless and faltering companies that he owned. With a con man's charm and a preacher's persuasiveness, he gained the confidence of his marks, using any method that worked--religion, friendship, deceit--to separate his clients from their money. Before he was done, at least 22 clients would claim that he bilked them out of nearly $2.3 million.

But the reason Roger Turner could thrive for so long had as much to do with his own cunning as the culture that allowed him to breed. The swindles perpetrated by Turner during the last 10 years are the underbelly of a booming industry maintained by stockbrokers and fed by a long-running bull market that began its rampage just as the country's aging work force was coming into its pension payouts and retirement money.

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