By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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.
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.
While Turner was accumulating widows and retirees, he was also looking for other sources of money--among the naive, the uninformed, the religious. When he met Abby Abernathy, a fifth-generation rancher from Archer City, Texas, he might have felt he found all three.
In 1986, Abernathy met Turner through a longtime friend who had become acquainted with Turner at church. "It lends some credibility to him immediately, because I was born and raised in church," says Abernathy, who is Baptist. "My parents have always tried to guide me toward doing business with Christian people...I initially gave him $5,000 of my own money to see what happened. And it did very well."
Turner would open up IRA and investment accounts for his clients with Hutton, splitting commissions with the brokerage house and gaining trust by investing in marketable registered securities. Safe, guaranteed returns garnered him more credibility, particularly when trying to impress someone with Abernathy's enormous investment potential: At 26, Abernathy, admittedly naive, was poised to take over the management of his grandmother's multimillion-dollar estate.
After four good years with Hutton, Turner was unexpectedly fired. Records on file with the National Association of Securities Dealers indicate the brokerage firm severed their relationship on September 26, 1987, following allegations that Turner pocketed a $1,218 commission from a competing firm in exchange for arranging the sale of a tax shelter not approved by Hutton. For this, Turner paid a $2,500 fine to the NASD and was officially reprimanded by the oversight agency.
Turner denies he did anything wrong, claiming instead that he did not fight the allegations because he didn't have the money to hire a lawyer. It was just cheaper to pay the fine and move on.
Turner then went to work for VCG Securities, a California-based brokerage firm; his investors soon followed. Hutton had no legal obligation to notify his clients that Turner had been terminated, and he certainly didn't tell them. His stay at VCG was a brief one--only four months--but Turner had little trouble landing a spot at the New York brokerage house of Integrated Resources Equity Corporation, which sold its assets in late '89 to Royal Alliance Associates, also based in New York. Turner, along with his fellow licensed brokers, came with the sale.
Turner's first few years with Integrated Resources were quite successful--his client list was growing, as were his personal business ventures. But in 1988, he began what court pleadings would later allege was a complex scheme that enabled him to own and operate a network of companies that were essentially funded by his clients--whether they knew it or not. These were side businesses for Turner, operated separately from Royal Alliance, according to allegations in court documents, but with "its blessing." Turner would tell some of his clients that he was investing their money in legitimate, fixed-income securities, but then he would divert these funds for his own purposes--buying companies, loaning money to them, even padding his own bank account.
In 1988, Turner purchased Carl A. Johnson & Sons, Inc., a farm implements manufacturing company near Austin that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Turner "repositioned" tens of thousands of dollars of his clients' retirement and pension money to help shore up the struggling company. Bonnie Bennet and Vivian Palfi say Turner never bothered to inform them that their money was being invested in this business--much less disclose that he had a conflict of interest by investing their money in a business of which he owned part.
In 1989, Turner formed an entity named Annable Turner & Company, which was registered with the SEC as a corporate investment advisor and offered fee-based investment advice on retirement strategies. The company enabled him to extend his grasp to major corporations such as General Dynamics, which hired him to teach a seminar called "Financial Strategies for Successful Retirement." This guaranteed Turner access to hundreds of employees whom he could target from the confidential financial statements he had them fill out. If he advised them to purchase registered securities, he would then make more money from commissions generated by placing stock buys through Royal Alliance.
In 1990, Turner formed Manufacturers Acceptance Corporation (MAC), a factoring company that bought and sold the account receivables of Carl A. Johnson & Sons, Inc. Factoring companies make their profits by taking advantage of the slow cash-flow periods that plague some manufacturing companies. Instead of having to wait the usual 30 or 60 days for payment, these manufacturers opt to take a loss by selling off their receivables immediately in order to pay their expenses. The purchaser of the product instead pays the factoring company, which is essentially doing little more than floating a high-interest loan.
Turner put many of his clients into MAC, leaving some with the impression that MAC meant Municipal Assistance Corporation, a highly regarded municipal bond issued by the city of New York and traded on Wall Street.
He seemed to be taking his cues from Steve Hoffenberg, a flashy New York entrepreneur who was the darling of Wall Street in the '80s. Hoffenberg ran Towers Financial Corporation, a sophisticated bill-collection company that relied on brokers to introduce investors to the supposedly high-return venture. Towers Financial issued notes and bonds and used their proceeds to buy other companies' account receivables at a discount. The profit came when Towers collected the bills in full. It had the flavor of a factoring company, only on a grand scale.
In 1990, Turner brought Hoffenberg to Dallas to speak at a luncheon seminar for his clients. Abby Abernathy attended and liked what he heard from Hoffenberg. "He was going to do this big Texas hospital renovation program, and [Towers Financial] was buying hospital receivables," recalls Abernathy, who decided to invest money from his grandmother's estate into Towers Financial notes. That the SEC had already started investigating Hoffenberg for one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in the history of Wall Street would have come as news to Abernathy. According to court documents, Royal Alliance refused to approve the sale of Towers Financial notes, but that didn't stop Turner from representing to his clients that he was soliciting their money for those notes.
Abernathy and other Turner clients believed that they were investing in "Towers Financial Corporation Notes"--a registered security traded on the stock exchange. Instead, Turner used some investor funds to purchase something he called "Towers Notes," which became his funding source for MAC (not the New York municipal bond, but the Turner factoring company). With this infusion of cash, MAC could buy the accounts receivable of either Carl A. Johnson and Sons or Physicians Bookkeeping & Billing Inc., yet another Turner company, which he acquired in 1993 from a group of Fort Worth anesthesiologists and renamed HealthTeamm. At the time of purchase, it was a successful medical billing company that processed insurance claims for physicians.
Turner clients such as Palfi and Bennet would later claim they never gave him authorization to make investments in any of his businesses, including investments in Towers notes of any sort. This was easy enough to accomplish where Bonnie Bennet was concerned.
She had surrendered control of her personal finances to Turner, even handing over her checkbook. Often, she would pick up the telephone and call him, asking for spending money--"mad money," as she calls it. And he would oblige her--no problem--sometimes by moving money from another client's account to hers. Court records allege that Turner, after convincing Tommy Smith in 1993 to transfer more than $100,000 from his IRA account with Royal Alliance to Rochdale Investment Management, instead used the funds to pay his corporate and personal expenses, including issuing Bonnie Bennet a check for more than $10,000.
Bennet savored the attention Turner lavished upon her. In the spring of 1994, she was one of an exclusive list of clients invited to Turner's wedding reception in Dallas to celebrate his marriage to Laura. The couple had just returned from Paris, where they exchanged vows in the garden of the palace at Versailles and then spent two weeks honeymooning in Europe. Bennet says she danced with Roger at the reception and remembers how dashing he looked in his white tux and red bow tie; how much Laura seemed to enjoy showing off her 5-carat diamond ring to her guests.
Laura seemed to know how to play Bennet as well, inviting her to her husband's office for coffee and then surprising the octogenarian with a birthday cake. Small wonder Roger was able to move Bennet's money around so freely.
But 1994 was not without its problems for Turner. One of his companies, Carl A. Johnson & Sons, filed for bankruptcy, and HealthTeamm wasn't far behind. Turner had to juggle too many people and enterprises and either mismanaged or neglected his businesses. If the charges in the lawsuit that would later be filed by former client Frank Engle are to be believed, Turner habitually diverted investor funds to both companies in what appeared to be a fraudulent attempt to prop up his crumbling financial network.
Engle, an engineer with General Dynamics, alleges that he met Turner at one of his Financial Strategies for Successful Retirement seminars that was held at the company. On September 20, 1993, Engle gave Turner a check for $25,000 made payable to Annable Turner & Company to purchase Towers Financial, a security that Turner represented was a "corporate-quality bond fund accruing with interest at an annual rate of 10 percent." But Engle claims that Turner didn't purchase any registered securities. Instead he deposited the check to the Annable Turner account, then issued checks to R.E. Turner & Company, Roger Turner, and his lawyer in amounts totaling nearly $23,000. Even though he never purchased the securities, he sent out bogus quarterly reports to Engle showing his investment had not only accrued substantial interest, but had dramatically appreciated in value.
Because of these perceived gains, Engle was only too willing to entrust another $100,000 of his retirement funds to Turner. Although the proceeds were initially invested in high-quality mutual funds, Engle alleges that $45,000 of this money was transferred to what Turner represented was a marketable registered security called MAC Preferred. Engle believed he had purchased the city of New York's municipal bonds (Municipal Assistance Corporation). Instead, the $45,000 was deposited into an account under the name of Manufacturers Acceptance Corporation--an account owned and controlled by Roger and Laura Turner. According to the pleadings, the funds were allegedly then used to pay checks issued to Physicians Billing and Bookkeeping (HealthTeamm) and another "Turner account."
With money in short supply, Turner was having trouble keeping even his most loyal clients happy. Some had already left the fold, fed up with his blue-sky promises and the nonstop excuses for interest checks that bounced or just never seemed to arrive. When others insisted he return their money, Turner graciously acceded to their demands, thanks to those clients who remained unsuspecting.
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."
On January 21, 1997, Crandall again confronted Turner, this time by taking his deposition. Under oath, Turner swore that he gave Bennet and Palfi personal promissory notes for their funds, always intending to pay them back in full. Of course, he was uncertain whether he had the original or could even find a copy. "I've done a terrible job of keeping track of lots of documents," he said.
Palfi adamantly denies Turner's claims: "I'm not stupid. I would have never taken a promissory note for every cent I had in the world."
None of this litigation, however, was enough to prevent Turner from snagging new business. That same January, he held an annual stockholders meeting for HealthTeamm, where he tapped his group of loyal investors to ante up more funds for the company. Of course, they had no clue that the company had filed for bankruptcy on November 28, 1996--and Turner didn't offer any. In April 1997 Turner and his wife sent out baby-shower invitations to some of the same clients who had sued him. At an emergency stockholders meeting in May, Turner told the assembled that there was a "woman lawyer in Dallas" bad-mouthing him and trying to destroy HealthTeamm.
Crandall realized that nothing short of arrest was going to prevent Turner from plying his trade. He was too good a salesman, too convincing a con man. Even at this late date, many still thought he would make them wealthy beyond their dreams.
On December 18, 1996, Crandall tried to bring the case to the attention of U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins by sending him a copy of the letter she wrote to the Texas Securities Board detailing Turner's activities. She says she never heard back from him. Only after she informed the HealthTeamm bankruptcy trustee that Turner was still raising money for the bankrupt corporation did the trustee contact the U.S. Attorney's Office. By the summer of 1997, the case had been assigned to assistant U.S. Attorney Len Senerote, who heads the special securities task force.
Yet Crandall reserves harsh criticism for the manner in which the U.S. Attorney's Office handled the Turner investigation. She claims her clients were made to feel as if they had done something wrong; that the task force barely lifted a finger to investigate Turner's wrongdoing thoroughly, much less check to see if he had hidden offshore accounts. And she struggles to understand why.
"The U.S. attorney and the others are not on the cutting edge of consumer protection," says Dallas attorney Mike O'Neill, whose client base consists of those who claim they were bilked by stockbrokers and brokerage houses. The feds, he says, "are heavily loaded and understaffed and somewhat cynical about whether the customer really got hurt."
O'Neill, who represents several of Turner's former clients against Royal Alliance, says that "the regulators aren't what protect the public. What protects the public is that it becomes unprofitable for the bad guy to continue."
There's also some saber rattling that goes on to get the feds' attention, says Todd Moore, the Dallas attorney who represented Abby Abernathy. "The garden-variety securities-fraud deal starts out with a handful of individuals who get bilked," explains Moore. But the dollar amounts, he says, aren't large enough to warrant the attention of regulators, whose limited resources are earmarked for the bigger players.
Moreover, the securities industry has trouble policing their own. A Republican Congress has slashed the SEC enforcement budget, and NASD--which acts as the watchdog over half a million stockbrokers--is funded by member brokerage firms and regulated by the SEC. An NASD spokesperson says only 10 percent of registered brokers even have a disciplinary history.
One Dallas stockbroker who declined to be identified says it is not uncommon for securities firms--even the ones with high-profile, "reputable" names--to "look the other way" when a hot-shot, high-revenue-producing broker pushes the envelope. "What do you hold out to the public except your knowledge that this is a good investment?" the broker asks rhetorically. "If not, then it's absolutely misrepresentation...Full disclosure is the core of securities regulation."
The SEC's regional director, Harold Degenhardt, says the answer is certainly not "tougher" regulations. For him, "fraud is fraud," and what is needed is a system that is better able to "handle the high volume of fraud that we are seeing."
Degenhardt believes that criminal penalties should be increased. "This white-collar, nonviolent crime" is perpetrated by criminals, he says. "They didn't use a gun, but sometimes their means are just as effective. You're still left with nothing afterward."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Senerote agrees that those who steal by deceit are not treated harshly by the justice system. "Look at the [sentencing] guidelines with respect to white-collar criminals--if they tell you nothing else, it's 'If you are going to steal anything, steal a lot,' because there's not a whole lot of difference in the punishment."
Jeanne Crandall says it's amazing that Turner was prosecuted at all. An incident in September '97 has her wondering just how seriously the government took the case.
The HealthTeamm bankruptcy trustee scheduled an auction at Turner's offices to sell whatever assets might be found there. Crandall decided to go, and when she arrived, she was stunned. Boxes of documents lay spilled across the floor; file cabinets were made ready for sale by emptying their contents into large trash bags. It was clear that these papers needed to be in an evidence room, not some garbage dump. Crandall saved what she could, but believes valuable evidence that could better establish Turner's paper trail had been lost. At the time, she cursed Senerote's name, wondering whether his task force really cared about all the damage Roger Turner had caused.
Senerote says he regrets what happened; he claims it's "highly unusual" for a bankruptcy trustee to leave the task force in the dark about its auctions. Nevertheless, his case against Turner was proceeding apace.
Turner must have felt trapped between the civil cases filed by Crandall, the bankruptcies of his businesses, the anger of his clients, and the broadening criminal investigation spearheaded by Senerote. He left his job with Royal Alliance--an amicable parting, it claimed--and had no brokerage firm to sponsor him. Apparently out of money and out of luck, with the Thanksgiving holiday behind him, Roger Turner decided to give up.
It was standing-room-only on May 12, 1998, when Federal Judge Joe Fish convened court in Dallas to set punishment in the case of the United States vs. Roger Turner. Filling the gallery and lining the aisles were the many victims of the miscreant broker. Many came to get closure, hoping he would confess, come right out and say he had stolen their money like a thief in the night.
Bonnie Bennet and Vivian Palfi were there. And like the others, they couldn't help but notice how Roger had "dressed down" for the occasion--his hair looked disheveled, his clothes "off the rack," a reversal of fortune from his dapper days of tailor-made suits. Casting himself as a penniless bankrupt was just a play for leniency, they thought; they wouldn't put it past him to have decided to become a father just so he could arouse even more sympathy from the court.
They figured he had used the same type of ploy before, telling prosecutors, his public defender, anyone who would listen that the reason he wanted to get his case over so quickly, the reason he had pleaded guilty on December 17, 1997, to one count of securities fraud was so he could return to his family as soon as possible. He wanted to be there for his daughter before she started school. He just couldn't risk being gone.
But the harder Turner fought the charges, the deeper the U.S. Attorney's Office would dig. Part of his plea bargain was that the government would bring no further charges arising out of his business dealings--not only against him, but also against his wife. Laura Turner had been named as a defendant in at least one of Crandall's civil cases, but with this deal, she could not be prosecuted criminally, at least in federal court.
Laura Turner, who now lives in Houston, is moved to tears by the suggestion that either she or her husband actually stole money from clients. "His goal was to make everyone rich," she says. The 32-year-old admits she managed her husband's office, including reconciling his bank statements, but claims she is not really a "numbers person."
Judge Fish sentenced Roger Turner to 34 months in prison. Showing some compassion, the judge granted Turner's request that he be allowed to wait until after his daughter's first birthday before surrendering himself to the Federal Corrections Center in Beaumont on July 14. Once released, he will have to make restitution to the 22 victims who had leveled charges against him. Turner is required to make a minimum payment of $200 a month to be split among all 22 victims until he pays a total of $892,000. After that, Royal Alliance will receive installment payments for more than $2 million in restitution, approximately the same amount that sources close to Turner claim the brokerage firm has already paid in out-of-court settlements to Turner's victims. "Once we learned what Roger Turner's actions were, Royal Alliance stepped to the plate," says Dallas attorney Karl Dial, who represented the brokerage firm. "We settled quickly with all people who submitted valid claims."
Jeanne Crandall is outraged by Turner's sentence, believing the prosecution barely skimmed the surface of his criminal behavior. She and lawyers for several victims believe Turner was engaged not only in fraud but outright theft. Perhaps he had money hidden in offshore accounts somewhere--he had told clients he wanted to live on the French Riviera. And for Crandall, the numbers just don't add up. She believes that Turner had more bank accounts than even she could find and is convinced that more bilked investors will come forward in the future. "The IRS and the FBI have wonderful international computers where this information might be obtained, yet no one has made any effort to trace the many cash transactions that occurred here."
Senerote explains that he can't comment on the methods used to look for offshore accounts, but says that his investigation concluded that Turner was drawing out cash only to use as "operating money" for his companies. Crandall counters that her investigation shows a large number of cash transactions that remain unaccounted for.
Roger Turner bristles when he hears that Crandall is still accusing him of actually stealing money from his clients. In an interview with the Dallas Observer before he went to prison, Turner says Crandall just doesn't know how to read a simple bank statement. "What they're saying I did is different than what I pleaded guilty to. People are saying that I took their money. That I used their money...Of course, everybody focuses on my Jaguar. That was probably my vice in life. Yes, I love the 4-door Jaguar. And you know what? I leased that for $485 a month."
He acts stung by claims that he somehow curried favor with widows--escorting Bennet to the symphony, sending long-stemmed roses to Palfi--in order to separate them from their money. "I love these people, and whatever their claims are, I'm adding insult to injury whenever I bring up the other side of the story. And I don't want to do that."
Yet he can't seem to help himself.
"One of my most favorite people is Bonnie Bennet," he continues. "She didn't want to know anything about what was being done. I don't care what it was. Her basic responses were 'I'm just trusting you to do the right thing.' And I erred in that."
Turner says that his acts of kindness are now returning to haunt him and that the truth has been "twisted."
Crandall suggests that Turner is delusional. "Lying comes very easy to him, and I'm not even sure he knows the difference between a lie and the truth," she says. It shows a "very depraved person who would behave the way he did when Tommy Smith was dying."
"That's another one that was an outright lie," says Turner, who claims he never stole money from Smith while the elderly man was on his deathbed. "Those transactions we happened to do were already pre-documented in a plan that we had laid out [years] earlier."
Turner claims that if only he would have had another 45 to 60 days, he could have come up with the money and made his clients rich--and they would be calling him a genius. Then he's quick to confess he violated their trust, maybe pushed the envelope and did some things he shouldn't have. "When you are on a limited budget and every dollar counts," he tries to explain, "you can't afford to give $50,000 to an attorney to draft up all the proper documents...
"My zeal for what I was trying to accomplish overran some more prudent things that I wish I would have done." He says that during the times when he was moving investments around and putting money directly into operations instead of seeking occasional legal counsel, he never believed he was committing fraud.
If Roger Turner did manage to siphon off his clients' money, hiding millions in some offshore accounts, fooling the federal government while he serves his 34 months and makes plans with his wife to live out his days on some Mediterranean island, then he just may be smarter than the rest of us--the master criminal Jeanne Crandall claims he is.
But if he actually believes that his problems were due simply to his being undercapitalized or not receiving high-priced legal advice, or that if he could only have bought more time, he would have been hailed as a hero and made fortunes for his investors--then this con man has--for all these years--also been conning himself.
Kay Vinson is a former investigative news producer with KDFW-Channel 4. She is presently a freelance writer based in Albuquerque.