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

There were those who wanted their chance at playing the stock market like the big boys, hoping to land mind-numbing returns on investments to further shore up their safety nets. Many, though, unknowingly got hooked up with hucksters only to have their life savings sucked dry when too-good-to-be-true deals turned out to be just that.

"With the markets doing as well as they are," cautions Harold Degenhardt, who heads the North Texas division of the Securities and Exchange Commission, "people are seeing tremendous returns and trying to take shortcuts to these returns, and they're allowing themselves to be beguiled." These are the times, he says, when the "cockroaches of fraudsters are coming out of the woodwork."

Besides problems created by the economic boom, some prosecutors complicate the situation by being timid, or themselves hoodwinked when it comes to those who ply their trade with charm, a calculator, and avarice in their hearts. Resources to fight white-collar crime are scarce, diverted instead to drug wars and street crime--the kinds of cases that strike fear and grab headlines. This focus on violent crime has forced the system to rely heavily on victims and their lawyers to go after white-collar criminals.

That's why Roger Turner's downfall had less to do with law enforcement than with the efforts of Dallas civil attorney Jeanne Crandall, who doggedly pursued Turner for her clients--among them, Margie Smith--and refused to go away no matter how uninterested the government at times seemed in bringing Turner to justice.

Roger Turner grew up a military brat, living in Germany as a teenager while his father was stationed at an Air Force base outside Frankfurt. It was there in the late '70s, Turner says, that he developed his love for stocks and bonds when a teacher had his class learn about the market by investing in it. The class bought stock in McDonald's, which at that time had become the rage in Europe. "I guess from there, I just had a fascination of how businesses work and how people can own businesses," says Turner.

Apparently, Turner was a quick study. He would later brag to at least one client that while he was cutting his teeth on McDonald's offerings, he was also investing in the bulk purchase of blue jeans--and turning a nice profit on the black market.

The young capitalist left Germany toward the end of his senior year and graduated from Fort Worth's Arlington Heights High School in June 1979. Turner never went to college, instead spending the next four years in a series of sales positions. Then, at age 22, he began to do the work he really loved. He went to work at the Fort Worth offices of E.F. Hutton.

In 1983, the stock market was just gearing up for a big run. As the changing demographics of the nation revealed an aging population, more firms were eager to stake claim to the growing pool of retirement money and pension-plan payouts. They began to target those funds, hiring hungry young brokers who could coax money from the tight fists of those who had historically been conservative about their investments. These times came to be known as the "go-go years."

"There was an anything-goes attitude," says Marvin Rass, regional director for Financial Network Investment Corporation. "The brokers who were hired were aggressive and entrepreneurial, the same as today, but the times then were more heady, more flamboyant."

Turner fit the bill: He had good contacts and was a master salesman, and Hutton saw his potential. He took the stockbrokers exam, passed with no problem, and began to meet and greet prospective clients. Using his father's network of friends, he solicited clients among an Arlington senior citizens' group for singles. Here, he met Bonnie Bennet, a retired schoolteacher who had moved to Arlington from Miami after the death of her husband. She had accumulated a sizable estate when she sold her house in Miami and some land in the Rio Grande Valley after her mother's death. Now 85, Bennet recalls Turner as a "handsome fellow with a golden tongue." Although she thought Turner was too young to handle her money, she put aside her fears because of his association with E.F. Hutton. "I thought, well, if he's passed the test with E.F. Hutton, surely he's all right, because that's a well-represented company."

She quickly developed complete trust in Turner, growing quite enamored of him, and ultimately she surrendered $340,000 of her estate for him to invest with little or no oversight from her. "He was a beautiful personality," she recalls. "He had everything going for him."

The same friend of Turner's father who introduced Turner to Bennet also arranged a meeting with Vivian Palfi in 1984. She, too, was an Arlington widow, but was not as well-off as Bennet. Palfi, now 73, says she was fearful that she had not set aside enough money for her retirement, so she kept working as an office manager for an Arlington psychiatrist. "I wanted to be independent when I retired--didn't want to be dependent on my daughter. And so every cent I could manage, I gave to him." Palfi invested more than $100,000 with Turner, and initially was quite pleased with the respectable return she believed she was getting.

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