Independent filmmakers Doug Valente and his wife, Kimber O'Neill, were excited last month at the prospect of a financial angel entering their lives. The couple own Bad Kitty Films, a San Francisco company with several feature-length projects in preproduction.
One film project is titled Cat and Mouse, a psychological thriller. Funding, however, has been scarce. That's where the angel was supposed to come in.
This angel calls himself "Big Eagle," for purposes of e-mail and other temporal necessities. But he doesn't claim to have wings or a halo, just access to extraordinarily large sums of money that he's willing to share -- for a price.
His name is Stephen Charles Peterson.
Documents indicate the 59-year-old Ohio native is the chairman of Camero Worldwide Limited, the parent company of Paracrete International, Eagle Pacific Investments, Big Eagle Entertainment and Austin Stevens Incorporated.
But as court documents, police reports and an earlier New Times story show, Steve Peterson also is an exceptionally resilient con artist, and a twice-convicted felon whose modus operandi has served him well for decades. He's a master at defrauding people of their money and property, often in exchange for worthless assets and tempting promises of untold riches.
Peterson's also got a knack for conning law enforcers. He's currently on "intensive probation" -- and was barred from handling other people's money, until his probation officer last May inexplicably gave him permission to do so.
Camero's Web site and letterhead cite a Wall Street address in New York City, though its "corporate history" says the firm moved to Arizona in October 1999. The move was necessary "in order to have the investments properly administered on the West Coast," the Internet site claims.
Camero's president and chief executive officer is listed as Ken MacRae, an Australian native about whom little is known.
Last month, the screenwriter of Cat and Mouse visited a "venture capital" Web site on the Internet. Umbrella sites such as these tout themselves as "information exchanges," where allegedly legitimate investors review pitches of budding entrepreneurs and then contact those who interest them -- and vice-versa.
The writer found a reference to Camero Worldwide and phoned for more information. She got a return call within a day from a woman who said she worked for a Mr. Peterson. We're interested, the Camero employee said, and want to hear about all of Bad Kitty's proposed films.
Valente and O'Neill faxed summaries of the six films in preproduction to Scottsdale. Through his employee, Peterson soon expressed more interest in one of O'Neill's own screenplays, a drama called Once the Fog Rolls In, than in Cat and Mouse. It revolves around a teenager's suicide and its aftermath.
On August 16, Peterson sent the couple a letter of intent that signaled his firm's wish to fund Bad Kitty for the production of Fog. The letter indicated that he was Camero's "chairman."
Peterson promised to advance $1.2 million to the filmmakers. In return, he demanded only to review Bad Kitty's bank statements, accounting ledgers and other financials. Camero Worldwide also would get 50 percent ownership in the "limited partnership" formed to get Fog made.
"We were excited," recalls Valente, "but we decided to check the guy because of some past experiences we've had with rip-offs. . . . We probably would have signed with him if we hadn't found the [New Times] article about the guy."
While surfing the Net later that day, Valente came upon a March 1996 New Times story,"The Pro Con Man," about an Arizonan named Stephen C. Peterson. He immediately e-mailed New Times for more information.
"I hope you can help us," Valente wrote. "Yesterday, we were contacted by a gentleman named Stephen C. Peterson from Camero Worldwide Limited, the address given is 6991 E. Camelback Road, Suite B-310, Scottsdale AZ 85251. . . . A search for the company reveals nothing, however, a search for Stephen C. Peterson returned a [New Times] article. We are really hoping it isn't the same person, but suspect it is."
The couple suspected correctly.
Kimber O'Neill phoned the Camero employee and told her Bad Kitty Films wouldn't be doing business with Peterson. By way of explanation, they faxed her a copy of the article.
The following day, August 17, the employee e-mailed Kimber O'Neill in San Francisco:
"Although I am in tears, I want to thank you for the information you sent me. I am eight months pregnant and have a 6-year-old daughter. We moved out here from Texas for this job five months ago. Steve led me to believe that this job would make me a millionaire by the end of the year. Sadly, by the end of the year, I will be broke. He also promised me that I would have full medical coverage . . . that was five months ago! I am now on welfare for that because my pay here is so low. I apologize because I was not aware of Steve and Mary's part. He has ruined my life!"