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

Vivian Palfi and Bonnie Bennet had both suffered through a myriad of bounced checks and excuses. When they asked him to return some of their retirement money, Turner stalled and asked them to be patient.

The two women had known each other for several years through a seniors' social group sponsored by the First United Methodist Church in Arlington. But only recently, over coffee, did they come to share their frustrations about Roger Turner.

By December '95, Bennet and Palfi were both fed up, and each, independently of the other, scheduled an appointment to discuss the Turner situation with brokers at the same Merrill Lynch office in Arlington. The brokerage house tried to intercede on their behalf, but couldn't get anywhere with Turner. Several months later, a Merrill Lynch stockbroker put the women in touch with Dallas lawyer Jeanne Crandall. It was through Crandall that the first pieces of the Roger Turner puzzle finally began to fall into place.

By the time Jeanne Crandall got wind of Roger Turner, she knew about fraud inside out. Her first job as a lawyer was with a large firm in Washington, D.C., where she spent two years on a defense team representing Mayor Marion Berry's wife, Mary Treadwell, who was accused of conspiracy to defraud money earmarked for a public-housing project.

In 1985, she was recruited by the Dallas law firm of Moore & Peterson, a firm actively involved in representing clients within the turbulent savings and loan industry. The firm defended Ed McBirney, the CEO of Sunbelt Savings who was convicted of some of the most egregious acts of bank fraud during this era. In 1987, Crandall went to Bickel & Brewer, the Dallas Rambo lawyers known for their aggressive, take-no-prisoners litigation style. Here she was lead counsel representing Motorola in its bitter trade-secret dispute with Hitachi.

Now Crandall practices law with her husband at their Renaissance Tower office, and the firm's resume makes claim to the successful representation of various multimillion-dollar cases involving fraud, misappropriation of trade secrets, and antitrust violations.

But when Bennet and Palfi walked into her office in early spring of 1996, Crandall had no idea that she would be spending much of the next two years trying to unravel nearly a decade's worth of deception perpetrated by Roger Turner. Her first move was to sue Turner in state court in June 1996, alleging he had defrauded the two widows. Crandall says she then subpoenaed Turner's bank records and identified a cluster of people who were writing checks to Turner for the same investments as her clients. When first contacted by Crandall, they told her that Turner was a financial wizard who was making them wealthy. She asked whether they had any documentation of their investments, and in every case they had only the quarterly statements--printed not on Royal Alliance stationery, but on Turner's own.

"I've always been told I have good instincts," says the 41-year-old attorney, whom some within the legal profession call a zealot. "I see something, and I know it's not right, so I dig and dig and dig."

After months of being hounded by Crandall, Turner wrote a mea culpa letter to Palfi dated October 7, 1996. "[I am] truly embarrassed and ashamed about the situation I have put you in...I have disappointed a lot of people that I love, and most of all, they trusted me. I'm very, very sorry."

He writes that he will find a way to pay her back, even though "you may choose to just send me to jail--I understand and know that this is your prerogative."

Turner signs the letter with sincerest regrets.
According to Crandall, Turner's regrets didn't stop him in November from driving to Longview to visit Tommy Smith on his deathbed and to convince him to sign over even more of his retirement money. It didn't stop him from soliciting more investor funds for HealthTeamm, even after the company had IRS liens levied against its assets--a fact unknown to these investors.

That same November, Crandall, armed with a court order to retrieve some of Turner's files, confronted him in his Grand Prairie office. Noticing verses of Scripture on the walls, she drilled him with questions that he mostly evaded, she says. Before she left, he started to cry, tears streaming down his face. "He said, 'I've taken money from my brother and my mother and my wife,'" recalls Crandall, "'I know I owe people a lot of money, but I'm doing the best I can.'"

Crandall was unmoved. She proposed a payout, a plan using some of his existing assets. Crandall says the tears suddenly stopped, and he said, "'I can't do that. I've got 30 more years of living to do.'"

She asked him, "What about Bonnie Bennet?"
"'Well, she has her Social Security.'"
Crandall was stunned. The whole episode bolstered her resolve to put Turner out of business. Her efforts eventually drew new clients who claimed they, too, had been conned by Turner--Margie Smith and Frank Engle among them.

In August 1996, Crandall also sued Royal Alliance, which she claimed was responsible for Turner's fraudulent behavior, since it happened while he worked there. In her pleadings, she alleged that "Royal Alliance had an affirmative duty to supervise the outside business activities it permitted its broker to participate in...[The firm] chose to look the other way and ignore a series of red flags and complaints it received over the years about Turner."

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