ACTS OF DESPAIR

There was a time when people believed that Conley Wolfswinkel was the richest, and therefore one of the most interesting and talented men in Arizona.

Phoenix magazine reported that he would soon appear on Forbes' list of wealthiest men.

"Some of my closest friends are the Charlie Keatings, the Gary Driggses, the bankers we work with," Wolfswinkel announced grandly.

His is a strange and oddly fathomless story.
"You have to treat people right to go back over and over again to get water out of the water spigot," he said.

No matter who his friends were, the ultimate source of Wolfswinkel's wealth was his insatiable greed.

In his quieter moments, he was capable of saying, "Money brings a hell of a lot more unhappiness than it brings happiness." Like a lot of people to whom money means everything, he kept insisting it meant nothing to him.

Why, he had actually given away more than $750,000 to charity during 1985, Wolfswinkel boasted time and again.

Wolfswinkel was indicted by a federal grand jury for bank fraud last week. He wrote bad checks. He also made illegal campaign contributions to Congressman John Rhodes. Who knows what Wolfswinkel expected to get from that.

And the timing of the indictment has a delightful irony. At just about the time Wolfswinkel was telling Phoenix magazine how rich he was, he was engaged in a massive bad-check-writing spree.

He was keeping himself afloat by a desperate campaign of bad-check writing. This scheme made it possible for Wolfswinkel to move his money around from bank to bank, making it appear he had millions of dollars.

Actually, he was close to being overdrawn.
Here's a brief example of how he did it, as explained in the indictment.
On August 6, 1986, Wolfswinkel wrote a check for $1,761,000 on his account in the Valley National Bank and deposited it into his account in the United Bank of Mesa.

On August 7, 1986, he wrote a check for $1,760,546 on his account at the United Bank of Mesa and deposited it back into Valley National Bank.

Ultimately, what made the scheme work was that Wolfswinkel had the foresight to pay off a vice president of the bank to the tune of 30 grand.

From March through August of 1986, Wolfswinkel wrote checks totaling $197 million. Of these, the indictment charges, $149 million were bad checks.

The federal indictment doesn't help us understand what was actually happening, however.

They tell us that John J. O'Neil, the bank vice president, was an accomplice. O'Neil, who was given $30,000 by Wolfswinkel to hold his checks, was also indicted.

What we don't understand from the indictment is why it took almost five years for action to be taken.

We also don't know if Wolfswinkel stopped kiting checks in August 1986, or whether he found other ways to raise money.

How much money did Wolfswinkel ever really have? How much of his lifestyle was a facade he has used to mask his activities for a decade?

Wolfswinkel's almost juvenile check- writing scheme wasn't clever. It was merely the arrogant, stupid act of a man who thought he was above the law.

It was his Peter Sellers-like response to the boasting and posturing of the Ronald Reagan years that preached a man should be able to overcome financial hardship through hard work.

Wolfswinkel was broke. The real estate bust had taken him down. His hard-work answer was to sit down and write checks, write checks, write checks.

A devotee of Reagan and sound Republican philosophy, he took heed of their advice as to how a man should conduct his life. He was both a product and then a victim of the selfish decade of the 1980s.

The indictment seems almost perversely designed to conceal his lifestyle from the general public.

We will learn what was behind the Wolfswinkel facade only when he goes to trial.

But will he ever go to trial on these charges?
There are reasons to believe this indictment is a hammer to get Wolfswinkel to turn government witness against his old business buddy, Charlie Keating.

Both Wolfswinkel and Keating were named in a $1.3 billion civil- racketeering suit. He has also been sued for $200 million by the government for money it says he owes to the now-defunct Western Savings and to Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan of Irvine, California.

The 1980s are over for Wolfswinkel. They took him to the sky and crashed him back to earth.

He became a world-class developer who built a $56 million office tower in Mesa and a house with 10,000 square feet of room. He handed out $100 bills to destitute people in grocery stores.

Charlie Keating once described Wolfswinkel's greatest attribute.
"When he sees something that can teach him, he learns it," Keating said. "He is wise beyond his years." This is as nonsensical as Richard Nixon's observation that the United States hasn't stood still because it has just succeeded in building the world's largest shopping center.

For Wolfswinkel, there were emotional problems that left scars.
On February 1, 1988, his older brother, Clifford, also a hard-charging real estate man, dropped dead of a heart attack at 57.

On the same day, Conley's 19-year-old son Dustin was stopped in a sports car for speeding. As the highway patrolman wrote out a ticket for drunk driving, the young man sped away from the scene at speeds exceeding 100 miles per hour.

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