The Murder Hustle
(Part One of a Three Part Series)
When businessman Gene Hanson died in a California doctor's office, his partner,
John Hawkins, a former Studio 54 bartender, got $1 million in insurance. Nine months later, Hanson was caught in Texas with a new face and a new name, Wolfgang Von Snowden. He and the doctor are awaiting trial for murder. Hawkins, a scam artist and sex addict, has disappeared with the money. ANN LOUISE BARDACH investigates three double lives in the business community of Columbus, Ohio, the Genet underground of West Hollywood, and the luxury condos of Miami's Biscayne Bay.
"I suppose you'll call this a confession when you hear it. Well, I don't like the word confession. I just want to set you right about something you couldn't see because it was smack up against your nose. You think you're such a hot potato as a claims manager. But let's take a look at the Dietrichson claim: accident and double indemnity . . . You were pretty good in there for awhile . . . You said it wasn't an accident. Check. You said it wasn't a suicide. Check . . . You want to know who killed Dietrichson? Hold tight to that cheap cigar of yours . . . I killed Dietrrichson . . . Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. And I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Funny, isn't it?"
--Double Indemnity, 1944
On April 16th, 1988, a Glendale, California doctor called 911 to report that a patient of his, Melvin Eugene Hanson, a forty-six-year-old businessman from Columbus, Ohio had had a heart attack in his office. The police and coroner arrived, collected the dead body, filed their reports and in due time closed the case. In July, Farmer's Insurance contacted the police with a routine question: Did they compare the deceased with his driver's-license photograph? In fact, they had not, and the body had been cremated the next day. By the time the police responded to the inquiry, Farmers had paid out Hanson's $1 million life insurance to his business partner, John Hawkins, a twenty-five-year-old former Studio 54 bartender. On September 29, investigators determined that the dead man in the doctor's office was not Melvin Hanson but Ellis Greene, a thirty-two-year-old bookkeeper from Ohio.
On January 29, 1989, a man wearing bright red shorts, a yellow shirt, and tennis shoes was stopped for questioning at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. He had just arrived from Acapulco. Custom agents found $14,000 in undeclared cash and several different IDs in his suitcase. The man was Melvin Hanson, although he now had a different name. He also had a different face, compliments of a Miami surgeon. He requested that he be placed in the homosexual section of the Tarrant County Jail in Fort Worth. Asked if he could make his $5 million bail, Hanson reportedly said, "If they let me die a few more times, I can."
Five days later, the Glendale doctor, Richard Pryde Boggs, fifty-five, was arrested and placed in Los Angeles County Jail with no bail. Boggs, Hanson, and Hawkins - an unlikely trio of a neurologist, a soft-spoken southern businessman, and a young Vegas hustler - have been charged with ten criminal counts, ranging from insurance fraud to murder for financial gain.
The latter, in California, is a capital crime, and Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Albert MacKenzie intends to seek the death penalty.
While Dr. Boggs languishes in the L.A. County Jail's "queen tank" and Gene Hanson fights extradition to California from Ohio, where he was moved from Texas, John Hawkins remains at large, allegedly with close to a million dollars in cash. He may well have accomplished the perfect crime.The lawyers in Ohio said there was no point going down to the prison, Gene Hanson would never talk to me. They said they doubted he could even acknowledge being Melvin Eugene Hanson since he was fighting extradition to Los Angeles on the ground that he wasn't Hanson but somebody else. Moreover, his zealous public defender had pretty well muzzled him. Still, I knew that on a humidity-soaked summer Saturday, the odds were nil that any lawyer would be visiting his client in the county jail.
Franklin County Correctional Center is a square box of a building in downtown Columbus. The guard laughed when I told him I wanted to see Melvin Hanson. "You're wasting your time," he said. "I know," I said. "Just tell him that I'm downstairs." Five minutes later, a female guard came back and whispered in his ear, and he leaned in and took a closer look at me. "Go on up," he said.
I watched through the glass partition as Hanson was led out to the booth to meet me. He paused to exchange greetings with two guards, one of whom handed him an ashtray.
He was tall but small-boned, and his blue prison garb bagged. His hair was mostly gone except for a circular fringe of long, wispy, yellow-brown strands. A pair of reading glasses stuck out of his pocket.
He said right away that his mother had talked about me and he had been vaguely expecting me to visit. He lit a cigarette and kept one lit for the next hour, as he would throughout the following day's interview. He said that he had asked for an isolation cell to protect himself from jailhouse snitches, but that he was quite content, because it was never hard for him to be alone. He liked to read biographies of self-made men, or "forceful men," as he called them, "who started from nowhere and ended up somewhere." He had recently read biographies of Aristolte Onassis and Tennessee Williams, and was just starting one on the Hunt family. I asked him if he considered himself a self-made man. He laughed deeply. "I guess you might say that."
He said that the small Band-Aid under his left eye was covering a cyst that had developed after his plastic surgery. He referred to his surgeon as "an egomaniac" but admitted that he was for the most part quite pleased with the outcome. Actually, his face looked remarkably natural, without the usual taut, "surprised" look of most face-lifts.
He spoke affectionately of John Hawkins, referring to him in the present tense, in spite of the fact that they had been without contact for almost a year. "John is my partner and close friend. Nothing has changed." When I told him that Hawkins had confided in one of his girlfriends about some of their scams, Hanson interrupted me, visibly agitated. "I can't believe that. That's absolutely fabrication," he said waving his hand dismisively and shaking his head.
Although he repeated that he had "no comment" about Richard Boggs, his tone conveyed more than a little distaste for the doctor. He said later that he wanted me to know that there was a "difference" between people like Hawkins and him and someone like Dr. Boggs. "No," he replied with a laugh to one question, he had never worked at Studio 54. "I'm not exactly Steve Rubell's type." Asked to talk about Hawkins' bisexuality, Hanson demurred. When I pushed on about Hawkins's living a double life, Hanson leaned into the glass and smiled. "We all have double lives."
Northern Florida, where Gene Hanson grew up, is not resort territory; it's the Deep, Deep South. Katherine Lawley, sitting in her tidy Jacksonville house, made me think of Dorothea Lange's haunting Appalachian portraits. A tall, wiry woman of sixty-five, the hardship of her life was palpable in her soft eyes and quiet southern tones as she spoke about her son Gene's arrest and another son's suicide two years ago. Though she comes from a long line of Baptist preachers, her renewed faith as a born-again Christian, she said, is what has been seen her through the hard spells.
She left her philandering first husband, Melvin Eugene Snowden, in 1943, with two toddlers in tow, two-year-old Melvin Eugene junior, who would always be called Gene, and his six-month-old brother, Donald. She moved back to Leesburg, Florida, and paid her mother for room, board, and child care by working two jobs. She got a divorce but never saw a penny in child support, and she never heard from Snowden again.
When Gene was five, Katharine married Cecil Hanson, a truck driver and a deacon in her Baptist Church, who agreed to adopt the two boys. The couple eventually settled in Jacksonsville and had two children of their own. Katharine describes Cecil as "a good Christian man but a strict disciplinarian" adding that he was never quite comfortable with his adopted sons. Still, Gene did well in high school and at Florida State for two years. Then he told Katharine he was enlisting in the army. That way, he said, he could go back to school on the G.I. Bill. He spent three years in the service, most of it in Germany, but never went back to college.
Instead he headed north in 1968 to Atlanta, Georgia where he began his career as a shoe buyer for Rich's department store and his lifelong friendship with Cecil Tanner, the store manager, who was thirteen years older than Hanson. Uncertain and troubled about his sexual identity, Hanson was struck by Tanner's candor about his homosexuality. Previously, Hanson had seen a psychiatrist in an attempt to restructure himself as a straight man.
Over the next fifteen years, Hanson achieved a sterling reputation and an annual salary exceeding $75,000. Ben Berkowitz, his boss for five years at Thalhimers in Richmond, Virginia, remembers him glowingly. "He was bright, with exceptional taste, very well thought of, and we were sorry to see him go." From 1979 to 1984, Hanson was the shoe buyer for Robinson's, a stylish Los Angeles department store. Although business associates spoke appreciably of his professional acumen, they could only speculate about his private life. There was a general sense that Hanson was a homosexual, but no one seemed to know what he did after work. They were certainly unaware that Hanson's life changed forever at a party in the summer of 1981, when Cecil Tanner introduced him to John Hawkins.
From the time Hanson accepted his gayness, he had been unable to face his family. For over a decade, he refused any contact with them. On the night of his arrest, in his first communication with his mother in thirteen years, he began his conversation, "You know, Mother, I'm gay."
Jackie Cirian is an attractive woman in her mid-forties who works in Las Vegas's Frontier Hotel as a pit boss. Her dance card has been quite full, including four marriages, but the main man in her life has always been her son, John Hawkins. It was more than just a mother's love, says Tim Green, twenty-four, who grew up with Hawkins. "I'd say it was somewhat zealous. John could never do any wrong in her eyes." Judy Blanton, Green's mother and Jackie's best friend, attributes Hawkins's charisma and confidence to "a whole lot of love from his mom."
Virtually everyone who has ever met Hawkins has been struck by his self-possession, drop dead good looks, and quick wits. "When John is talking with you," one friend told me, "you feel like you're the most important person in the world."
John Barrett Hawkins was born in St. Louis in 1963. His father, John Hawkins Sr., worked mostly as a welder. With a dash of bravado, Hawkins would tell friends that his paternal grandfather was a well-known organized-crime figure who had changed his Italian last name, and that his uncle was a thief and a drug smuggler. Hawkins said that once, when his grandfather cam home from work, his car was riddled with bullet holes.
Hawkins' parents divorced before he was two, and his father moved to Florida. Jackie eventually took her son to Las Vegas, where she gave up hairdressing and became a dealer in the casinos. John did what he had to do to get by in school, but he saved his energy for odd jobs. Green remembers him "soliciting door-to-door," selling anything from newspapers to cleaning fluid, because "he could bullshit so good." By the age of twelve, Hawkins had settled into three areas of interest, according to Green, "making money, meeting girls, and playing sports."
Hawkins bloomed into a strapping six-footer with a crown of dark curls and ocean-blue eyes. He got used to people talking about his good looks and even boasted about his seemingly irresistible appeal. Before fitness became a national obsession, Hawkins was a fanatic, working out daily in front of a mirror. His conquests of women were legion, and he relished his reputation as a womanizer. Though promiscuity was as natural to him as breathing, he gave each romantic candidate the feeling that she was the only one. He told his friends that he had learned from his mother how to make people feel special. He told one girlfriend that his mother had taught him everything he knew about sex.
Tim Green thinks that Hawkins might have gotten the idea of moving to Los Angeles after seeing the movie American Gigolo during the summer of his junior year. Earlier, Hawkins had taken off briefly to Florida, where his father arranged for him to learn welding. After returning to Nevada, he did a quick stint on a pipeline project, but clearly welding wasn't his calling. At seventeen he bought his mother's silver Ford Econoline van and headed for Hollywood, hoping to capitalize on his good looks as a model or actor, and if that didn't work out, to find some rich, beautiful women, like Richard Gere did in the movie.
Hawkins met plenty of women, but none of them was either willing or able to pick up his tab. None of his business schemes panned out either, and Hanson says Hawkins soon resigned himself to the fact that, without an education or any particular skill or talent, his primary resource was his raw good looks.
By the time he was eighteen he had made a name for himself in certain gay bars and clubs of West Hollywood, where many of the patrons were more than eager to spend money on him. Although he told his mother he had resorted to being a gigolo as a stepping-stone for awhile, he was actually a male hustler, a profession he would never fully abandon. From 1980 on, Hawkins lived an intensely secret double life. Just as most of his gay contacts would never know about his straight life, so his friends, business associates, family, and girlfriends would find it inconceivable that he was anything other than a voracious skirt chaser. He had become a sexual chameleon.
A Hollywood writer and actor whom I'll call Jeremy Allen remembers meeting Hawkins at The Rose Tattoo, a gay nightclub in West Hollywood, in the early eighties. He said he was struck by Hawkins's stunning looks, and the two of them exchanged phone numbers. A month later Hawkins called him, eager to get together. Allen, however, had other plans. "I was always puzzled why such an incredible-looking young man seemed so desperate for an evening that would have earned him no more than fifty or a hundred dollars." It occurred Allen that Hawkins didn't need the money as much as he needed to hustle.At eighteen, John Hawkins was hooked on hustling.
In 1981, Hawkins met Richard Boggs, a Glendale neurologist who functioned primarily as a general practitioner. Boggs had acquired considerable popularity in Los Angeles's gay community, where, investigators say, he was known for being "loose with scrips"-- prescriptions for hard-to-get drugs like methadone, Precisian, and tranquilizers. One of Boggs's sidelines, according to Hawkins' friends, was what he called "sleep clinics," for treating people with sleep disorders. Police believe this was a shelter to acquire and distribute large amounts of popular, but government-regulated, sedatives. Having learned of Hawkins's keen interest in bodybuilding, Boggs also provided the young Narcissus with steroids, as Hawkins told his friends.
Richard Boggs's life had turned inside out since 1961, when he graduated from Loma Linda Medical School. Raised a Baptist, he had converted to Seventh-Day Adventism and had taken to his rigorous new faith with great fervor. After graduating, he married an Adventist, and they brought up their four children (two of them adopted) in a large, sprawling house near the Pasadena Hills. For more than a decade Boggs, with his flourishing practice, his Rolls Royce, his picture-perfect family, and his religious piety, was the very model of a city elder.
It is unclear exactly when he slipped into his "other life," but in the late seventies he separated from his wife and soon they divorced. That freed him to pursue his two obsessions-- drugs and young men. As he descended full tilt into his addictions, he developed a keen interest in get-rich-quick schemes. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Boggs was hit with dozens of lawsuits, ranging from claims of fraudulent business deals to several charges of malpractice to defaulting on loans and car payments. In 1975, he was dropped from the L.A. County Medical Association for not paying his dues.
The receptionist for the doctor next to Boggs's office remembers a "peculiar chemical odor coming through the walls," which investigators later determined was the smell of methamphetamine, known as speed or crystal. They believe that Boggs was manufacturing it in his office. Speed had become his drug of choice, desensitizing him to unpleasant feelings at the same time it functioned as an aphrodisiac. Still, Boggs treated his family as if he had not changed at all. He arranged for his daughter to work part-time at the pharmacy downstairs and employed his son as his receptionist, working side by side with Boggs's lover, Hans Jonasson, a Swede in his mid-twenties.
Richard Daggett, twenty-three, who describes himself as a hustler, told investigators that he paid him $100 a trick and that Boggs would trade drugs, syringes, and prescriptions for sex. Daggett claims that Boggs enjoyed inflicting pain during rough sex.
By the time of his arrest, Boggs's life appeared to be peopled largely with Genet characters- hustlers, drug addicts, the occasional blackmailer- all of them young and pretty.
When Gene Hanson told me his old friend Cecil Tanner had introduced him to John Hawkins, I asked what the relationship between the then fifty-two-year-old, heavyset Tanner and the teenage Hawkins. Hanson laughed, then said with a coy smile, "No comment." Although Hanson did not say that Hawkins had been his lover, his feeling for the young man was apparent, even bars. "He was my friend then and he's my friend now," he told me quietly. "I'll always care for him."
According to friends, Hanson fell deeply in love with Hawkins, and was willing to endure a fair amount of heartache in order to maintain the relationship. Hawkins continued his pursuit of women, as well as "turning tricks." Still, the great passion of Hawkins's life was scamming.
The two men sparked to each other, despite their twenty-two-year age difference. Hanson was enchanted by Hawkins's sizzle, and Hawkins was impressed with Hanson's considerable success. They lived together on Hayworth in West Hollywood for a while, Hawkins, Hanson told me, "simply wanted to be rich." He wanted to be in the Fortune 500 by the time he was thirty." Hawkins didn't want to wait for success, he told Hanson, because he didn't think he would live long- certainly not beyond forty-five. "John was a smart boy, but he came from a family"- Hanson hesitated a moment- "with no polish, no education. But he learned very fast, very quickly. If he had had an education, he would have been a genius." Hanson smiled. "He just knew that he didn't want to be a welder with burns on his hands."
Several months after they met, Hawkins decided to move moved to New York City looking in search of bigger stakes. There he was put in touch with a wealthy woman in her forties who enjoyed cocaine, young men, and nights at Studio 54. She also enjoyed Hawkins's seemingly limitless stash of Quaaludes, supplied, he said, by his old friend Dr. Boggs.
One night the woman introduced Hawkins to the late Steve Rubell, a co-owner of Studio 54. Hawkins was hired on the spot as a bartender, and he immediately created a stir, particularly among the elite group of Hollywood high rollers known as the Velvet Mafia. "He was the most beautiful-looking man I had ever seen," said one film producer and club regular. Another entertainment-business executive remembers that "men were dying to get into bed with him, but the word was out that he was available only if you had a lot of money or power." He described Hawkins as a "dry hustler," who teased more men than he slept with, and said he was a "sort of groupie" to the more successful people who came to the club.
According to a friend of Hawkins's whom I'll call Brad, who was also a Studio 54 bartender, Rubell had a "big crush" on Hawkins. Brad said the two were known to have a close, often sexual relationship throughout the years Hawkins worked there. As a reward, Hawkins was soon given the "back bar" or "VIP bar," reserved for Studio celebrity regulars like Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Halston, Christie Brinkley, David Geffen, Roy Cohn, Bianca Jagger, Sandy Gallin, Cher, Barry Diller, Calvin Klein, and a myriad of other V.I.P.'s on any given night.
Some sources claim that Hawkins got the choice bartending assignment because of his coveted supply of drugs, provided by Richard Boggs. Brad recalls that Hawkins usually brought to work large glass bottles, each containing five hundred Quaaludes. Although he claimed he paid Boggs two dollars a pill, Studio habitues eagerly forked out twenty dollars apiece for them. Additionally, Hawkins said, Boggs stocked his pharmacy with uppers, downers, painkillers, and tranquilizers - enough to rocket Hawkins himself to Studio stardom.
According to Brad, Hawkins had another source of drugs, his father. Brad, who met Hawkins's father on several occasions, said that when Hawkins. Sr. visited New York for a weekend he would carry an ounce bag of uncut cocaine for his personal use. Hawkins told Brad that his father was a high-level drug dealer, working out of Florida for one of the Colombian drug lords. Hawkins Sr. has not responded to messages or repeated attempts to reach him, but a year ago he boasted to the lawyers for his son's company that he was the subject for a federal investigation and was under surveillance.
While he was at Studio 54, Hawkins met Ilanna "Missy" Hughes, a tall, blonde actress and model who was featured on the TV soap opera "Another World". Several of Hawkins's closest friends refer to Missy as his great love. Their relationship bobbed along for four years and almost solidified into marriage several times.
Studio 54 was the seminal experience of Hawkins's life, if only because he met people and made contacts there that would stand him in good stead long after he left. Greg Gunsch, another Studio bartender, says that Hawkins saw himself as "Steve Rubell's protege." From him he learned how to be the host for those with the most. Studio 54 became his finishing school, where he majored in people and learned how to hustle the pants off anyone.
Brad estimates that between Hawkins's bartending and drug dealing he was making an easy $3,000 a week. But, he was also forever plotting scams and cons. He told friends that during one stay in Los Angeles he arranged for a friend to "run him over." After renting a car and signing up for maximum insurance, the friend then drove to an appointed sot in West Hollywood. As Hawkins started to walk across the street, his friend rolled the car until he was touching Hawkins' body. Hawkins later described how he fell to the street, pretending to be writhing in pain until the police arrived. Hawkins said he had a doctor vouch for his physical distress, and bragged that the insurance company paid out a quick $25,000 to settle the claim. The doctor, he said, was Richard Boggs.
When Hawkins returned to new York, Brad said, he hooked up with a pimp who offered his talents to married couples. Additionally, through a chic gay escort service, Hawkins attended to a wealthy, older man, according to Brad, who told me that once a week Hawkins would take three young men to the man's East Side apartment. Hawkins insisted to Brad that he personally never had sex with the man, but only functioned as a host of sorts, for which he was paid more than the boys.
Chances are that Hawkins was lying as he struggled to keep his two sex lives separate and secret. Few of his friends ever learned that he had become a star hustler, able to demand up to $5,000 an evening from certain men. Among his clients were some Hollywood businessmen and a Middle Eastern potentate who on one occasion flew him and a fashion photographer to London for a hot date. Another photographer intimate with Hawkins, Bill King, died of AIDS, as did Cort Brown, another Studio 54 bartender, who was one of the young men who serviced the wealthy older man.
Money was no longer the motivating factor. Hawkins had become a sex addict, continuously cruising, always on the prowl, never satiated. Somehow he juggled a romance with llanna Hughes, a relationship with Hanson, and the conquest of numerous Studio 54 celebrities while hustling on the side. Wherever he went, he was on the make. As one awestruck investigator said, "This guy picks up stewardesses the way I pick up pennies."
By 1984, Studio 54 had pretty well fizzled, and Hawkins was out. He had talked Hanson into leaving Robinson's, moving to New York, and going into business with him. Hanson rented an attractive duplex apartment in a brownstone on Lexington Avenue near 26th Street, and they formed Hawkins-Hanson Enterprises Inc., their first fling at white-collar crime. The new company claimed to import Italian footwear, but in fact, Hawkins told a friend, the two entrepreneurs were simply stole samples from Italian factories, copied them, and sold their copies to Hanson's contacts in the shoe business. Hanson's once pristine reputation started showing wear and tear as his ties with Hawkins deepened. He had "mysteriously disappeared" from his last job, with Arpiedi footwear, after only two months, according to Norma Sztaimberg, who had hired him based on his impeccable credentials. She says Hanson took off with a considerable amount of cash as well as the entire season's samples, worth $10,000.
Despite the partners' ambitious thieving, however, Hawkins-Hanson Enterprises went belly-up, because they couldn't raise enough capital to finance their grandiose agenda. Hawkins told friends that at one point Hanson was stranded with his shoe samples in Europe, unable to pay his hotel bill or return plane ticket; to resolve Hanson's plight, Hawkins went out and bought a spiffy-looking Porsche in need of a new engine. He insured the car, which was barely drivable, and arranged to have it torched while he was out drinking. He told people later that he had picked a gay bar to emerge from so that he could "act more hysterical" when he called the cops to report the crime. He boasted that he was able to wire Hanson $4,000 of the $9,000 scam money in a week's time.
Notwithstanding the shoe fiasco, Hawkins was certain that he would be a great success in some kind of business, but he would need capital to get started. To the end, he became fixated on engineering a perfect scam. He said he had Hanson take out a homeowner's policy on the duplex and it top-drawer decorator contents, all of which had been rented. A few months later Hawkins hired professional movers to move them. When the moves had their Ryder truck three-quarters full, he took them to lunch, having already arranged for he truck to be stolen. Hawkins told friends that a police report was submitted to the insurance company, which paid out $109,000 to Hanson and him to cover the "stolen" furniture. The seed money for a "legitimate" business was now in place.
When Hawkins and Hanson formed Just Sweats store in 1985, it was an idea whose time had come. Actually, it was someone else's idea, which Hawkins saw himself improving upon. When living in L.A., he had been taken with the success of a store called Pure Sweat, which marketed a variety of sweat clothes for exercise-frenzied Americans. The first Just Sweats store was launched in Lexington, Kentucky, the hometown of Ilanna Hughes. Missy came in as an investor, while her brother signed on as manager. Another store, in Columbus, Ohio, became the business's headquarters. Within a year, Just Sweats exploded into twenty-two stores, half in Ohio, half in Kentucky, and was generating a staggering $8.5 million in sales. The company even made its way into Entrepreneur magazine as the "Opportunity of the Month." The low-key Southern shoe buyer and they hyperactive Vegas jock were a winning combination. While Hanson oversaw the day-to-day running of the business, Hawkins looked after merchandising and advertising, even casting himself in several of their television commercials.
Hanson had bought a $40,000 condo in one a posh Columbus neighborhood, while Hawkins declared the livelier North Side his stomping grounds. He found a roommate, Erik De Sando, who could keep up with him partying, and became a fixture in the North Side nightclubs. Like Greg Gunsch and most of Hawkins's other close friends, De Sando is an unusually good-looking young man in his mid-twenties, with a bushy thatch of sandy blond hair and clear blue eyes. His manner recalls a fifties varsity footballer more than an eighties yuppie. "We just wanted to have fun," he tells me with a wide grin, "and we did!"
Although Hawkins would be on-again, off-again with Missy Hughes until 1987, there were always other girls around. Austin Wildman, one of the attorneys for Just Sweats, says he has never saw anything like Hawkins's seductive powers. "John and I would be walking to the bank, and women would simply stop dead in their tracks and stare at him."
"His life-style was wake up, go to work, go home, go to the health club and work out, and then hit the bars. That was basically his life," says Tim Greene. "Even when Missy would come to see him, he would only take a couple of hours off to spend time with her."
Greene, like almost all of Hawkins' friends, didn't have a clue that John was anything other than a "wild and crazy horny guy." If anything, they saw him as an outright gay-basher. "There were a couple of incidents," remembers Greene, "where he would come up to me and say some fag touched him on the shoulder and asked him if he wanted to dance. John knocked his arm away and said, `Get away from me, you queer'.'"
Sally Summers (not her real name) was Hawkins' main squeeze in Columbus for the last year and half before he disappeared. Though initially, she served as Hawkins's apologist after his flight, she has recently discovered the full extent of his duplicity. Several months ago, she burned dozens of his letters and destroyed thousands of dollars worth of clothes and jewelry that he had lavished on her.
I visited her at her new North Side apartment and wasn't surprised that she is rail-thin with long, pale hair and large doe eyes. Hawkins was very faithful to his "type." She was twenty-three when he introduced himself to her in a Columbus nightclub in the summer of 1986. Summers, who has lived in Ohio all her life, said she insisted that John get an AIDS test to allay her fears about his having lived in New York. Hawkins complied and brought her a doctor's note of the negative result. Although Erik De Sando says Hawkins bragged to him that he had had "every sexual disease in the book, from herpes to V.D.," he was in dread of contracting AIDS. According to De Sando, "John got an AIDS test around every three months."
Summers fell head over heels for Hawkins, despite her misgivings about his "odd" relationship with his mother. She recalled that John had two statues of nude women in his living room. He told Summers that his mother had sent them to him, and that they reminded him of her. Once when Summers was wearing a bathing suit, she caught him staring at her. When their eyes met, he said, "That's why I like you. You remind me of my mother."
Hawkins paid for Summers to get breast implants, an operation performed by a St. Louis surgeon who was introduced to her as "an old boyfriend" of Hawkins's mother. Summers always found Jackie Cirian strangely solicitous of her. On one occasion, Summers says, Jackie gave her tips on safe sex, saying she was concerned for her. Summers says Jackie told her, "There isn't a man in the world who isn't going to cheat on you. You should expect it from my son."
Jackie Cirian described her adored son in a different way to Erik De Sando: "When John walks into a room, he's so electric that when he leaves you know something is missing."
Despite the wildfire success of Just Sweats, Hawkins soon grew bored and restless. He and Hanson, who both loved travel, beaches, and sunny climates, started talking about a life where they would never have to work again. To realize that dream, they began to plot the perfect crime.
In September 1986, Hanson took out a $450,000 life-insurance policy, naming John Hawkins as his beneficiary and Cecil Tanner as his alternate beneficiary. The following year he purchased an additional $1 million in life insurance from Farmers, and in December 1987 he bought a $70,000 Porsche along with a $50,000 insurance policy to cover the payments in the event of his death. By then he had redrafted his will, naming Hawkins his sole beneficiary and executor. On December 17, Hanson signed an affidavit directing that, in the event of his death, his body be cremated and that none of his blood relatives be notified of his death.
Hanson also began informing friends and employees that he had a serious heart condition. "It wasn't hard to believe," recalls Sally Summers. "He looked terrible, and was always coughing." He chain-smoked three to four packs of cigarettes a day, and gulped coffee from morning to night. He worked out regularly at the gym, but he never seemed as trim as the Armani suits he wore. With his face heavily lined and drawn, he looked older than forty-six. Employees, who enjoyed his quiet, cool-headed manner and wry humor, were saddened to learn the gloomy news. After all, Hanson was well liked by virtually everyone who dealt with him. Erik De Sando, who sometimes drove Just Sweats merchandise to the Kentucky stores, had an accident in late 1987, which nearly totaled the company's leased truck. Nervous about telling his hot temperamental roommate what had happened, he admitted it instead to Hanson. "Gene looked at me and smiled," De Sando recalled. "'Don't worry,' he said. 'That's what insurance is for'.'"
In mid-December, Hanson told De Sando that he didn't think he would live long, and that he had decided to move to Los Angeles for medical care. When De Sando asked Hawkins if Hanson might have AIDS, Hawkins was unnerved that he could even suggest that Gene was gay. A few days later, Hanson invited De Sando to his apartment and gave him some Armani suits, a television and VCR, and other valuables as a farewell gift.
Meanwhile, Hawkins and Hanson had taken check-signing privileges away from Paul Colgan, the company's accountant. Fearing for his job, Colgan went to Hawkins, who reassured him that Hanson simply wanted a more hands-on role. Colgan was then rewarded for his past efforts with a European junket. Hawkins treated himself to Christmas in Hawaii, says Erik De Sando, whom he invited to accompany him, along with Hawkins's mother, his half-sister, and two other friends, Ken Powers, an engineer, and Jim Connors, a Columbus attorney.
Gene Hanson, left alone at Just Sweats, organized a day-after-Xmas half-price sale. He then stunned employees by extending the sale for three weeks, insisting that the company needed quick cash. Hanson also stopped reordering merchandise and allowed the inventory to run down. Employees began to speculate about his mental health. In early January, with Hawkins and the accountant still away, Hanson emptied the company accounts of $1.8 million and disappeared.
When Paul Colgan returned from his European holiday, he found not only that the bank accounts had been emptied but that none of the company's bills or taxes had been paid. Hawkins, upon discovering Hanson's deception, "went into a wild rage," according to attorney Austin Wildman, and declared his intention of tracking Gene down. Dick Curtin, another company lawyer, thinks that Hawkins was more motivated than ever to find Hanson once Curtin told him that if the money was not recovered he would have to notify the F.B.I.
Within days, Hawkins had sleuthed down Hanson in Los Angeles and returned to Columbus with all but a fraction of the missing money in bearer bonds.
Once back, he told colleagues and friends that Hanson was gravely ill and wanted out of the company. He said that Hanson had signed his shares over to him, and that he had paid Gene $243,000 for them. If investigators' theories are correct, the embezzlement scam was probably meant to dovetail with the "dying" scam, which would have enabled Hanson and Hawkins to walk away with close to $3 million. Investigators speculate that Boggs had failed to "line up a body" in early January, and that that, coupled with Curtin's intention to bring in the Feds, drove the two men to abort the embezzlement scam, at least for the time being.
Over the next three months, Hawkins devoted himself to appearing to restore normalcy to the business and encouraging everyone to forget "Gene's crazy episode."
On April 16th, all was forgiven, as the news spread that Gene had died.
The Glendale emergency operator received the call at 7:04 A.M. It was from a doctor over on Central Avenue, reporting that a patient complaining of chest pains had collapsed in his office. When the paramedics arrived and found the patient dead, they called the police. Two patrol cops, Timothy Spruill and Jim Lowrey, were dispatched to the scene.
Boggs told them that Hanson had been his patient for seven years, until his business took him to Columbus, Ohio, a few years back, but that he still visited Los Angeles regularly on buying tips. He said Hanson had left a message on his home answering machine around 3:30 A.M. saying that he had been drinking and had shortness of breath and chest pains, and that he wanted to see him as soon as possible. Boggs said that since Hanson had a history of heart disease he met him at his office about five a.m. and immediately gave him an EKG. Then, as he sat in his office writing down his notes, he heard a thud. He rushed back to the examining room and found Hanson face up on the floor. After failing to revive him with CPR, he said, he called 911 at six a.m., but the line was busy. He said he continued with CPR for another forty-five minutes, then called again and finally got through.
If it had been any other two cops who arrived at Dr. Boggs's office on April 16, it's unlikely that anyone would ever have realized that it was not Gene Hanson who had died. Glendale is a sleepy, upscale suburb of 163,000 people; unlike neighboring Los Angeles, which averages more than eight hundred murders annually, it has never seen more than ten homicides in a year. Furthermore, as one cop pointed out, "getting a call from a doctor reporting a death is about as sure a thing as having a mother identify her child."
Regrettably for Dr. Boggs, Lowrey's father was a cardiologist and Spruill is married to a nurse. Neither of the cops believed that the body sprawled across the floor had been dead for only two hours. They also thought Boggs was lying about calling 911, because the emergency line was virtually never busy at that hour. And then there was the matter of the electrocardiogram. Boggs said he had run an EKG on Hanson shortly after 5:00 a.m., yet the EKG tape revealed that it had been taken at 12:02 a.m.
Still, on the fully clothed body was a wallet containing a couple of Melvin Eugene Hanson's credit cards, as well as a photocopy of his birth certificate. Moreover, the corpse matched up with the Melvin Eugene Hanson in Boggs's medical records: blue eyes, brown hair, maybe a bit on the heavy side for 155 pounds, but then, weight always fluctuates. Nevertheless, the two cops took the unusual step of calling for a lab technician to photograph the body.
They also conveyed their suspicions about Boggs to their superior, Detective Jim Peterson. Peterson said he had some misgivings about the doctor, but once he had requested that the coroner do a sexual-assault exam and make a final determination as to the cause of death, he closed the case. This seems fairly remarkable in light of the fact that a complaint had been filed against Boggs just one week earlier.
On March 26, Barry Pomeroy, was picked up by a man calling himself Peter Richards at the Spike, Pomeroy's favorite West Hollywood bar. The two men left together in the wee hours and headed over to an all-night place for breakfast. They were talking about architecture, and Richards asked Pomeroy if he'd like to see some of the new buildings in Glendale. Pomeroy said yes, and during their tour Richards said he had to make a call at his office. While Richards phoned, Pomeroy noticed that it was a doctor's office and that all the diplomas bore the name Richard Pryde Boggs. He asked Richards about the diplomas, and Richards explained that they belonged to his partner.
Then he drove Pomeroy home. A few days later Pomeroy got a call from Richards asking for a date on Friday, April 1 and he accepted.
Once again, after picking up Pomeroy, Richards said he had drop in at his office. Pomeroy, unfazed, waited in one of the examining rooms. Richards then asked Pomeroy if he would like to have an EKG, and Pomeroy saw no harm in it. Richards left to make another phone call, and when he returned, he approached Pomeroy with his arms open as if to embrace him. Pomeroy thought he glimpsed something in Richards's hand, and a moment later, when Richards' wrapped his arms around him, he was zapped by a stun gun pressed to his neck. "It dawned on me that this man was trying to kill me," says Pomeroy, who fought for his life. "He just kept poking me and poking me and wrestling," he told The News, a West Hollywood gay paper. "And then, after I slammed his arm against the examination table, [the stun gun] fell to the floor."
Once Richards realized that he had failed, he immediately backed off and began to apologize profusely. According to Pomeroy, Richards then said that "he gets some spells and that he was going to get professional help." Pomeroy, who was bleeding from several cuts, allowed Richards to drive him home, but after thinking about the situation for a week, he came to believe that Peter Richards was in fact Richard Boggs, and he decided to notify the Glendale police. On April 9 he files assault charges, and three days later he received a phone call from Detective Peterson, who, Pomeroy alleges, "totally discouraged me from doing anything." He claims that Peterson went on at some length, saying, "I've known Richard Boggs for twenty years; outstanding citizen of the community." Peterson refuses to comment, although one can speculate that he was referring to Boggs's brother William, a D.E.A. chief who was a sergeant with the Glendale police for many years.
Amazingly, Peterson's reluctance to pursue the case was shared by Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Phil Heeger, who declined to file charges against Boggs. Another investigator currently involved with the cases says Pomeroy's allegations were dismissed as being "a fag-versus-fag case." Subsequently, investigators would discover that Boggs made several phone calls to Hanson in Miami and Hawkins in Columbus before and after his assault on Pomeroy.
What Peterson seems to have deduced from Pomeroy's story was that Boggs' might possibly be involved in some form of aberrent sexual behavior. Consequently, he examined Hanson's chart, looking for next of kin, and found the name of John Hawkins. He phoned Hawkins from Boggs's office. "I told him I was aware of the fact that Dr. Boggs had a tendency towards being a homosexual and asked him if he knew if there was anything going on between Hanson and Boggs," said Peterson in his deposition to Farmers Insurance lawyer Melvin Weinstein. "(Hawkins) indicated to me that he was also a patient of Dr. Boggs and that Boggs and Hanson were not into the same thing and they didn't really do anything for each other, and he didn't feel that there was any relationship between the two of them." Peterson also stated in his deposition that he told the coroner about the Pomeroy incident and "further explained that the use of the stun gun was due to a possible homosexual-type activity between the doctor and patient."
That afternoon John Hawkins flew to Los Angeles and checked into the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Blvd. The following day he claimed the body of his "friend and business partner" in the coroner's office, took it to Mountain View Mortuary in Altadena, and had it cremated. Eight days later, Hawkins notified Farmers Insurance that Melvin Gene Hanson had died, and filed a claim as his beneficiary for $1 million. He also filed claims with several other insurance companies, totaling $500,000. In the crime game, it is regarded as next to impossible to prove that a murder has been committed if there is no corpse.
Ellis Henry Greene, who grew up in Ohio as one of seven children, was never sure what he wanted to do, where he wanted to be, or who he was. He had been married for several years before deciding that he was gay. In 1985, he left Ohio and moved in with his aunt in North Hollywood. In January 1988, he told his father that he was living at the Burbank office where he was employed "selling porno material" and doing some tax work. Every evening, he went to one of several gay bars, and according to one police investigator he was known for heavy drinking and exaggerated promiscuity, including sadomasochist sex.
In early April 1988, Greene phoned his twin brother, Basil, in Ohio, with the exciting news that he had met two men who were interested in investing in his pet project, a cheesecake company that would market his special recipe. About 11:30 p.m. on April 15, Ellis Greene staggered out of the Bullet Club, a North Hollywood gay bar. That was the last time he was seen alive. A week later, Greene's aunt filed a missing-persons report with the police.
On June 24th, the Los Angeles coroner's office released its finding that Melvin Eugene Hanson had died of heart failure, just as Dr. Boggs had said. He also had an astonishingly high blood-alcohol level of 0.29, but then, Dr. Boggs had mentioned that his patient had been drinking.
On June 9th, Shelley Navarre, a claims supervisor with Farmers Insurance in Seattle, Washington, had phoned Detective Peterson to ask "whether or not there was a possibility that the body in the office was not that of Melvin Eugene Hanson," according to Peterson's deposition. "She was curious as to whether or not we had a photograph of Hanson prior to [April] 16th." As a result, Peterson requested Hanson's California driver's license.
In the meantime, Hawkins and his lawyers Austin Wildman and Dick Curtin were hammering away at Farmers to release the million-dollar check, which the two attorneys believed would be poured into the dwindling Just Sweats bank account. Hawkins also called Peterson, wanting to know if everything was in order. On July 7, Farmers sent the check by overnight mail at Curtin's request.
On July 13, Peterson finally received a Soundex copy of Hanson's 1985 California driver's license from the state. Neither the license photograph nor the thumbprint he obtained matched those taken off the body in Boggs's office.
For Gene Hanson, the idea of "dying" and resuming life as another may have had considerable appeal. To some extent, he had already gone through the process when he severed his familial ties and metamorphosed from the dutiful Baptist son into an urbane, gay businessman. Now his "official death" offered him the opportunity to reincarnate into a jet-set, sun-worshipping hedonist. Once again, John Hawkins's dream-machine scams had delivered Hanson beyond his wildest musings.
Still, almost from the beginning, Hanson's choices in his "born-again life" betrayed an inescapable ambivalence that in the end would betrayed him.
In the first place, the new name he picked, Wolfgang Eugene Von Snowden, was hardly likely to ensure the anonymity desirable for someone who was faking his death in order to bilk insurance companies $1.5 million. Secondly, the choice of Snowden, the name of the father who had abandoned him, tosses a potpourri of psychological theories into the air and suggests at the very least that Hanson yearned to move backward in time rather than forward. Lastly, Hanson left a trail of clues wherever he went, frequently misspelling his flamboyant new name on hotel receipts and other business papers.
Although Hawkins spread the misinformation that Hanson had fled and settled in Los Angeles, Hanson had in fact returned to his Floridian roots and was sunbathing in Palm Beach. On January 29, he phoned Malcolm Briggs, a Miami realtor, and introduced himself as Wolfgang Von Snowden, a businessman from Hamburg, Germany, interested in leasing a luxury condo in Miami.
While shopping for real estate, "Wolfgang" installed himself in Miami's Mutiny Hotel, a bizarre, funky place dressed up as a ship with mock portholes and mirrored ceilings over the beds. According to the hotel manager, he frequented a safe-deposit box he kept in the hotel's office, where he stashed at least some part of the $243,000 buy out from Just Sweats.
After several phone chats, I met Malcolm Briggs over lunch in the historic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. He's a dapper, droll man of fifty who clearly relishes the odd piece of gossip. He told me how he had decided to wine and dine his new client at a local German restaurant owned by a friend. He quickly learned that Wolfgang didn't speak a word of German. "This man's not from Germany," the restaurateur whispered to Briggs, "he's from the Deep South." Briggs rolled his eyes expressively to make sure I understood that there's a lot of funny money in Miami and that he didn't doubt that his new pal Wolfgang had some of it.
Despite Briggs' misgivings about Wolfgang's origins and his disgust with his continuous "smoking, coughing and hacking," he enjoyed the man's company. Moreover, Wolfgang forked out $7,200 in cash for the first six months of a lease on a posh penthouse on Bay Shore drive overlooking the Biscayne Bay.
Wolfgang was "obsessed with escorts," or tricks, according to Briggs, who recommended some gay newspapers with escort listings to him. Briggs said that Wolfgang was particularly keen on "muscle boys" and showed him a photograph of "his type," Paul, whom Wolfgang described as his "Dallas girlfriend." Soon after Wolfgang moving into his condo, Briggs told me with a laugh, "there were muscle boys running up to his penthouse almost every night." Wolfgang's enthusiasm for young, bronzed bodies was such that he asked Briggs to make serious inquiries into buying a muscle-boy strip joint. On more than one occasion, Wolfgang told Briggs that he was off for a few days to the West Coast to see his doctor. He would always return with a new prescription for the painkiller Percodan, which he said he used as an aphrodisiac.
He introduced Briggs to his old friend Cecil Tanner, whom Briggs described agreeably to me as "an old queen." Briggs also met Wolfgang's newfound "friend," Dell Bergen, a twenty-six-year-old "pretty boy" who worked as a masseur out of one of the cheaper hotels in Miami Beach. Wolfgang said he had known Bergen for years, since Bergen waited tables waited tables at Au Petit Joint, a West Hollywood restaurant, in the early eighties. Investigators believe that "Dell Bergen was going to be the next Ellis Greene." This conspiracy theory has it that Hanson and Hawkins were preparing to knock off Bergen, who was physically very similar to Hawkins, in order for Hawkins also to "die" and get rich. Hawkins had taken out two $500,000 insurance policies at the same time Hanson had, naming Hanson as his beneficiary. Moreover, Hanson had named Tanner as alternative beneficiary in his pre-probated will, leaving Cecil Tanner sole beneficiary if both men died. Although Hanson obviously could not collect if he was "dead," police believe that Tanner, as alternative beneficiary, would have been able to siphon the money back to the two "deceased" entrepreneurs.
Gene Hanson told me he had indeed "heard the tale." He leaned close to the glass partition, his face pinched with anger. "I dismiss it totally as the ravings of an idiot," he said, referring to Glendale police officer Jon Perkins, who developed the theory and who has been the relentless motor behind the prosecution of Hanson, Hawkins, and Boggs.
Jon Perkins is proud and pleased to be Gene Hanson's nemesis. He's a small bullet of a man who does his detective chores with the vengeance of a warrior and who announced at our first meeting, "All I ever wanted to be was a homicide detective." When Perkins arrived at Cecil Tanner's house in Atlanta with a search warrant, he was barred at the door by Tanner's feisty, octogenarian mother. Perkins had her removed so that he could proceed with his search-and-collect mission. While he was upstairs rummaging through Tanner's bedroom, the distraught woman had a stroke from which she has yet to recover. Perkins relays the incident like a Mack Sennett comedy. Hanson, on the other hand, is livid about it, as well as fiercely protective of Tanner and his proclaimed innocence and ignorance of the scam. Perkins maintains that it is not possible that Tanner, who visited Hanson after his "death," was unaware of the crime. Hanson says he told Tanner that he had sold his share of the business in January and retired. "I always took Cecil on trips with me," he explained. Still, one wonders what Tanner made of Gene Hanson's changing his name to Wolfgang Von Snowden. Tanner has refused to answer any questions.
Briggs introduced Wolfgang and Tanner to Miami's Club Milord, an infamous nightspot featuring nude muscle-boy dancers. Wolfgang, who thought the club was the greatest thing since Johnny Mathis, became a club denizen and even looked into buying it, according to Briggs.
Wolfgang, who would get nostalgic on just a few glasses of wine, confided to Briggs that Hawkins had been the great love of his life. Sadly, Wolfgang told him, Hawkins was basically straight, always picking up girls, but he said they were still lovers and friends. Hawkins had taught him how to make so much money that he was able to retire, he told Briggs. On one occasion, Briggs says, Wolfgang slipped while leaving a message on his answering machine and said, "Hi, it's Gene Hanson..."
On February 5, Wolfgang asked Briggs to recommend a doctor for his bronchitis, and Briggs drove him to the office of Dr. Jeffrey Tardiff in Coconut Grove. Tardiff's office is part of his attractive home on the Atlantic Ocean. A visitor is immediately struck by a tall statue of a nude man overlooking the tennis court. A dragon's tail loops between the man's legs, covering his genitals. When Wolfgang emerged from the office, he excitedly reported that Tardiff also performed cosmetic surgery and had agreed to work on him provided he cut back severely on his smoking.
In the first two weeks of April 1988, according to the criminal complaint, Hanson had half a dozen phone conversations with both Dr. Boggs and Hawkins. On April 15, he flew to Los Angeles from Miami. Policy say he was picked up at LAX by Richard Boggs and the two men had dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. Later that evening, Boggs was seen down the block at the Spike, where Perkins believes he went "looking for a fish." At six a.m., according to the police, Hanson registered as Wolfgang Von Snowden at the Glendale Holiday Inn, three blocks from Boggs' office. One hour later, Boggs reported Hanson's death to the police. Investigators believe that in the early hours of April 16th, Boggs and Hanson lured Ellis Greene to Boggs' office and murdered him, either by electrocuting him with an ungrounded wire from the EKG machine or by injecting him with an undetectable drug. Later in the day, Hanson flew back to Miami under the name of Von Snowden.
Soon after his return to Miami, Hanson saw Tardiff, who scheduled his surgery for early May. Tardiff remembers Hanson as a "very unhealthy, haggard-looking man wearing a toupee," who came to subsequent visits with Dell Bergen. "I don't want to look sixty-five anymore," Hanson said to Tardiff. "Can you make me look as nice as my boyfriend?" According to the doctor, Hanson was very concerned that the surgery leave no scars. He told Tardiff that he couldn't have anything on his face that would identify him. He paid the doctor several thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills prior to the two operations.
Tardiff claims that he "took thirty years off Hanson's face," by removing fleshy areas from the cheeks and doing blepharoplasties on the upper and lower eyelids. He also says that he took before and after photos but that Hanson insisted on having them. Tardiff gave them to him, but he secretly put three aside in the file for his own purposes. Sometime later, he found that these photographs were missing. Hanson was nowhere near as circumspect in filling out the doctor's forms; on one occasion he signed himself Von Snowden, on another Von Schnowden. He made the identical mistake on receipts at the Mutiny Hotel.
While the surgery healed, Hanson shuttered himself inside his penthouse for two weeks, attended by Dell Bergen. Hanson says he lent Bergen the money to buy a new station wagon with the license plate BODY RUB. In July, Hanson headed south for Key West. Shortly after he left, Briggs had a phone call from him saying he had found a gay guesthouse that he was thinking of buying. On July 28, 1988, according to the criminal complaint, Hanson took the irrevocable misstep that would link him forever with Ellis Greene's murder: he rented a cottage in the name of Ellis Henry Greene. Later the same day, he opened a bank account in Ellis Greene's name. This was no longer a matter of carelessness. Hanson had clearly decided to throw himself into his new life with complete abandon and step into the dead man's role.
Around Labor Day, Hanson drove up to St. Petersburg and checked into Island's End Resort, a hotel owned by Millard and Joan Gamble, as Wolfgang E. von Schnowden. He stayed there for eight weeks while he looked with realtor Mike Seimetz for a house to buy. Seimetz, like the Gambles, found him "a delightful guy," intelligent, with a sense of humor. He was very candid about being gay, so Seimetz found him a house in the Pass-a-Grille district, a neighborhood free of discrimination. Hanson plunked down $25,000 in fifty-dollar bills for his first payment.
On August 18, the L.A. coroner's office, confronted with irrefutable evidence that the dead man was not Hanson, finally revised it finding concerning the corpse from "natural causes" to "undetermined." Interestingly, a test of the body fluids taken from Ellis Greene's body indicated that he had had AIDS. Boggs's medical records revealed that Gene Hanson had consistently tested negative in AIDS tests.
On September 6, 1988, Farmers Insurance, frustrated over the authorities lack of interest and progress in the case, hired Vincent Volpi, a private investigator. One of the new breed of private eye, Volpi is a clean-cut college grad, not a Raymond Chandler dick. Though his assignment for Farmers had ended by the time we met, his obsession with the case had not.
Three days after he was retained, Volpi uncovered Hanson's trail to Miami by rummaging through the garbage outside Hawkins and De Sando's apartment. On the old phone bills was a Miami number which he traced to 1440 Bay Shore, listed under Wolfgang Von Snowden. Hanson, however, was then busy house shopping in St. Petersburg.
On October 10, Volpi acquired a copy of Wolfgang's lease application on the Miami condo, accompanied by a glowing reference from Dr. Richard Boggs.
On October 14, Vince Volpi, on behalf of Farmers Insurance, filed charges against Hawkins and Hanson for "theft by deception," after disseminating an all-points bulletin through the U.S. Customs Service. It was a highly unusual maneuver, which betrayed the company's desperation over the near inertia of authorities in both Ohio and California.
Farmers and Volpi weren't the only ones feeling desperate about the case. Jon Perkins was virtually gnawing at the bit, badgering Deputy District Attorney Albert MacKenzie to file charges and bugging his superiors to supply him with an adequate budget to hit the trail before it was completely cold.
Jon Perkins has never won any popularity contests, and a sign of his falling star had been his recent transfer to a windowless office to work in race relations. But in October 1988 the case was a humiliating black eye for the Glendale Police who had failed to realize that the dead man wasn't Hanson; for the Los Angeles D.A.'s office, which was getting heat for doing nothing about the Pomeroy case, and for the coroner's office, whose trusting conclusions only proved that the legacy of the infamous Thomas Noguchi, the controversial coroner who ruled the office for over fifteen years and was demoted for mismanagement and lax control of evidence, lives on. Things were so bleak that the powers that be decided to bring in Jon Perkins, even if they didn't like him.
One October evening, Millard Gamble mentioned to Hanson that he was a group- health-insurance consultant. According to Joan Gamble, "Wolfgang instantly perked up," He asked Millard, "Did you hear the story about the guy in Ohio who owned a bunch of stores and faked his own death?" Gamble answered that he hadn't. Hanson was curious to know if Gamble had ever heard about anyone faking his death and getting away with it. Gamble told Hanson about Gene Holloway, a wealthy Florida entrepreneur who tried to fake his own death by "drowning" off the side of his boat. Holloway had insured himself for $16 million, but got caught after he "died." Wolfgang got "a big kick out of the story," said Gamble.
Shortly before Christmas, Hanson told Mike Seimetz that he had AIDS and would be going to a treatment center in San Francisco. He said that he would be unreachable, but that he would stay in touch by phone to arrange for the sale of his house.
Hanson in fact ran down to Mexico, eventually settling in Acapulco. He had already made a trip to the Caribbean, where he opened a bank account in the Cayman Islands. In Acapulco, he looked into gay bathhouses and nightclubs for sale and found a house which he agreed to lease for the next year. After several weeks of silence, he phoned Seimetz and said he would appear in person for the closing on the following Monday.
On January 29, 1989, two customs agents at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport asked to speak with a man they considered to be "too nervous to be a tourist just back from a vacation in Acapulco." According to the agents account, the man wore a blond hairpiece and he was chain-smoking as he waited by the baggage carousel. When customs agent Dave Berry asked him what he did in Acapulco, Hanson, who carried a Massachusetts driver's license that identified him as George Herman Soulge, hesitated, then said he was on vacation, then fumbled with a nervous explanation about how he was going to Florida to close a real-estate deal.
The agents found $14,000 in undeclared cash wrapped in cellophane in Hanson's knapsack. Later, in his baggage, they found a library book entitled How to Create a New Identity, along with ID papers under several names, including a Florida driver's license for Wolfgang Eugene Vonschnowde (sic). He also had Ellis Henry Greene's driver's license, as well as a checkbook and assorted bills made out to Greene. Although Hanson denies ever meeting or seeing Ellis Greene, he refuses to explain how he came to have Greene's personal papers. The agents were curious at finding two eight-by-ten photographs of a handsome young man, later identified as John Hawkins.
When Jon Perkins arrived at the Tarrant County Jail, he went nuts to discover that Hanson was being interviewed by Volpi, who had come down with Columbus prosecutor Dan Abraham. Cops, as a rule, hate dicks, and the fact that Hanson would be extradited to Columbus, Ohio, because of Volpi's charges only exacerbated this ritualistic antipathy. Moreover, if Volpi hadn't filed charges, Hanson would have gone free and danced out of Texas.
When I asked Hanson how he made such an awesome blunder with the money and the IDs, he said simply, "They were in my briefcase. I forgot about it. Needless to say, it was a very dumb move. I've thought it over in my mind umpteen million times since I've been in here, and I've talked to the psychiatrist here. I just wanted it over with. It was a relief, actually."
on April 16, 1988, the night Ellis Green expired in Richard Boggs's office, John Hawkins slept at the apartment he shared with Erik De Sando in Columbus. The next afternoon, he phoned De Sando and said "Gene is dead," and that he was "feeling real torn up about it." After a brief mourning phase, Hawkins made no bones about his eagerness to get his hands on the insurance money. De Sando, who had recently joined an insurance firm and was hopeful that he would acquire Hawkins' many lucrative business policies, became his friends insurance counselor and confidante.
For the next three months, Hawkins' was obsessed with collecting his money. He was waiting for $1,000,000 from Farmers New World Life, $450,000 from Golden Rule Insurance, $50,000 from Hanson's car-payment insurance policy, and another $10,000 from a policy covering Hanson as a Just Sweats employee. Although Cecil Tanner was Hanson's beneficiary on this last policy, Hawkins had the gall to file a claim, saying he was entitled to the money as Hanson's executor.
Hawkins's mood hung on every turn, delay, and movement of the insurance companies' progress in releasing the checks. He frequently waltzed into De Sando's office with a "what-if" scenario that had been clearly been rumbling through his hyperactive mind. "What if a man fell off a boat and the body was never found?" he asked him. "Could the beneficiary collect his life insurance?" Another time, he was troubled that Hanson's alcohol content had been so high. What if the coroner found drugs in his body as well? "Would that make it a suicide?" he asked De Sando, his voice full of gloom.
Hawkins continued to see Sally Summers, whom he loved to regale with tales of his con- man exploits, telling her that "the guy I pulled them off with is dead now, so they can't catch me." He bragged about the New York City apartment scam, the shoe scams, and the car scams.
Then there was the alias scam. Hawkins thought it would be good to have an extra identity for a rainy day. He told Summers he had acquired a whole slew of aliases by putting an ad in the newspaper soliciting people with the headline, "CALL IF YOU HAVE BAD CREDIT! WE'LL STRAIGHTEN THINGS OUT." After people phoned in and provided him with personal credit information, Hawkins was able to send away for their birth certificates. Hawkins also told Summers he had created an alter ego, Jerry Anthony Green, for himself even before Hanson's "demise."
Hawkins devoted much of May and June to studying the status of his claims. He dignified his money grubbing by telling friends and employees that the money was desperately needed to save Just Sweats from the mess Hanson had made before he died. He and the company's lawyers applied steady pressure to the insurance companies and even phoned the coroner and the police for updates.
On July 8, Hawkins let loose an ungodly scream, "I got my money," as he seized his million-dollar Farmers Insurance check and went out to celebrate.
His exhilaration, however, was short lived. Within days he learned that the Glendale police had finally deduced that the body in Boggs's office was not Gene Hanson. Suddenly, Hawkins plummeted into his worst-case scenario. It would be only a matter of time before the insurance company wanted its money back. (Already a bizarre twist had deprived him of $450,000 when Golden Rule Insurance mistakenly mailed its check to him at his old address. Jon Perkins quips that the clerk who go the address wrong "should get the secretary-of-the-year-award." Instantly, Farmers notified Golden Rule of its suspicions, and Golden Rule put a stop on the check; so did Globe Life, which had Hanson's Porsche policy.)Hawkins was now certain that the whole scam would eventually unravel.
Over the next three day, he embarked on a "mad cash dash," in the words of attorney Austin Wildman in which he withdrew $240,000 from Just Sweats accounts. On the night of July 15, he rented a limousine and hit the nightspots of Columbus' North Side with his roommate Erik De Sando, drinking heavily and cruising girls.
By one in the morning, when they arrived at Hawkins's favorite haunt, The R 'n' R, Hawkins seemed really looped and overwrought. He took De Sando aside, and dropped a bombshell. "I'm leaving tomorrow and I'm never coming back. You're never gonna see me again." Then, De Sando remembers, he said, "Gene's alive."He added that he had seen Gene in Miami when he was in Florida visiting his dad two weeks earlier. He reported that Gene had had his face redone and looked great.
When De Sando asked who had died in Boggs's office, Hawkins said, "They got a body from the morgue, where Boggs has a guy on the take." He said Boggs and Hanson had brought the body to Boggs's office to make it seem as though he had died there. De Sando couldn't understand why Hawkins hadn't got out of the deal earlier. Hawkins explained to De Sando that he couldn't because "Boggs had been taping his phone calls," with the implicit threat that he would use them against him if he tried to back out.
De Sando told me he erupted in fury at his friend, called him stupid and selfish. Hawkins, he said, sheepishly agreed with everything he said, admitting that he had made a catastrophic blunder. Hawkins left the club early and alone. When De Sando arrived home at 2:30 a.m., he found Hawkins face down on the living-room floor sobbing convulsively.
Still furious, De Sando stepped over his roommate's body and went to bed. In the morning he awoke to find "the old John" restored to his trademark optimism, assuring him that, "everything's gonna work out. I know it will."
Hawkins left and returned with a handsome young man who helped him pack his things. A few hours later, Hawkins came back to the apartment alone. Throughout the day, he muttered to De Sando, "You know, I never should have told you what I did last night. You can't tell anyone, especially my mother." Late in the afternoon, Hawkins drove his blue Mercedes convertible to the airport and left it there with the top down and the keys in the ignition.
Over the next four months, Hawkins flitted around the country like a moth, landing briefly for emotional reunions, then moving on. In St. Louis, he told Tim Greene that he was selling Just Sweats for $1 million or more. Later he phoned Green from his mother's place in Las Vegas and asked him for his driver's license and Social Security number so that he could open a safe-deposit box at a bank. Hawkins told Green that "he might be in a lot of trouble," but he refused to say why. Sensing that Hawkins "had finally done it this time," Green refused to help him.
Hawkins told some people that he was selling the business and others that he was on vacation for stress. Throughout July, he kept in touch with Melissa Mantz at Just Sweats, assuring her of his imminent return. Mantz was stunned when she received a letter on July 30 in which Hawkins said he was leaving the business because "the only way I can get my sanity back is to walk away from all the pressures for a while." He directed Mantz to look after some of his investments and to keep her eye peeled for an expected check of $450,000 from Golden Rule Insurance. He then apologized abjectly, and said he was going to London for the six months for a much-needed rest. Within the month, Just Sweats filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Hawkins showed up at Greg Gunsch's parents' house in Phoenix in early August. Gunsch was with him when he rented a car under an alias. Hawkins told Gunsch that he "had hit some trouble," but said "it is better that you don't know." He warned Gunsch that the F.B.I. would be visiting him soon, but he refused to talk about Gene's death or why he was out of the business. He said his troubles stemmed from laundering his relative's drug money though Just Sweats.
Despite his troubles, his enthusiasm for scamming was unabated. Like every gambler, Hawkins had come to believe that the next play would be his big score, the one that would fix everything. He nagged Gunsch to work with him on one of his favorite credit- card scams. The idea was to set up a business (in name only of course) and then apply for a dozen credit cards. Hawkins would then "shop the cards to the max," buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, mostly electronic goods and luxury items, which he would sell for cash either on the black market or in pawn shops. Hawkins who didn't like to scam alone, sulked at Gunsch's refusal to partner him.
Eventually, Hawkins mastered his apprehension and flew off to Vegas for five difficult days with his adoring mother. Sources say that he made previously attempted to make several wire transfers of large sums to his mother. Hawkins the returned to Gunsch's apartment in Phoenix for a couple of days. When he left, he told Gunsch, "It's gonna be a long time before you ever hear from me again."
He told his mother he was going to check into a stress clinic. Instead, he called his girlfriend Sally Summers and, crying, implored her to meet him. He mailed her a ticket to Los Angeles and picked her up at LAX on August 23. They stayed the night at a motel on the beach in Santa Monica, where Hawkins registered as Jerry Green.
Hawkins told Summers that he was on the run because he had been laundering his father's drug money through Just Sweats, to the tune of $200,000 each year. He said that the Feds were after him because they wanted him to testify against his father and his uncle. He said that his father was also on the run, and that he had sent his father $200,000. F.B.I. and D.E.A. reports confirm the existence of "the Hawkins crime family," and rap sheets on half a dozen members of the family list multiple arrests, including charges of sale and manufacturing of drugs and burglary.
Hawkins and Summers rented a car under his Jerry Greene alias and toured around Los Angeles, hanging out at Hawkins' old haunts in Hollywood, Santa Monica, and Venice. At one point, a public bus sideswiped them on Hollywood Boulevard. Summers jumped out to get help, and when she returned, Hawkins had vanished. He caught up with her later and admonished her. "Leave the police out of this," he said. "And if anyone asks my name, I'm Jerry Greene." They traveled up the coast to San Francisco, stopping in Big Sur, sleeping once on the beach, once in the car, living their own remake of Breathless. Summers said that Hawkins claimed he was low on funds, and that she picked up a lot of tabs, since Hawkins said that he didn't have any credit cards.
As they approached San Francisco, Hawkins said he wanted to visit Alcatraz. He asked another visitor at the fortresslike prison to take a photograph of the two of them. Staring at the bleak edifice, Hawkins said, "I'd kill myself before I ever had to go to prison."
A few days after his roommate vanished from Columbus, Erik De Sando discovered that his birth certificate was missing. He also found a yellow piece of paper in the apartment which read in part, "Get the money. Get a birth certificate. Distance myself from Wolfgang." A week later, Hawkins Sr. arrived in Columbus to try to piece things together and collect some of his son's belongings. He stayed the night at the apartment, and before he left he had a "serious" talk with De Sando. "You realize there's a dead body and there's probably a murder involved." When a stunned De Sando said he "had no idea," Hawkins Sr. quickly dropped the subject. "Be careful what you say to people about John," he advised. "In fact, don't talk to anyone." As he solicited De Sando's loyalty he inadvertently revealed his son's secret. "Although John has problems with his sexuality," he told an unsuspecting De Sando, "he's still your best friend and you shouldn't care whether he likes women or men."
In Hawkin's desk at Just Sweats, employees found another note with the figure $1,450,000 written at the top. Underneath, in a neat column were the notations 30 F, 50 ME, 500 JS, 100 M, 85 B, which investigators interpreted to mean $30,000 for father, $50,000 for Melvin Eugene Hanson, $500,000 for Just Sweats, $100,000 for mother, and $85,000 for Richard Boggs.
In October, Hawkins called Summers direct from Camden, New Jersey, in the middle of the night. Having recently heard rumors that Hawkins was gay, she lashed out at him,"You're a faggot!" Hawkins said he wasn't even bisexual. "If you're worried about AIDS," he told her he had had another AIDS test, " which came out negative."
On October 14th, when charges for theft were filed against Hawkins and Hanson in Ohio, Hawkins became a fugitive, living on the lam. He found shelter in Boston with a Northwest Airlines stewardess, and the two of them flew to Seattle in November. When the stewardess left, Hawkins found another girlfriend in Seattle. He called Summers, who was out of town, and told her roommate in a chilling, quiet voice, "I really need to talk to her. . . I really need to talk to her."
In January, Hawkins backtracked to Los Angeles, where he resumed a ten-year alliance with a Hollywood film producer. The producer claims that he knew nothing of Hawkins's troubles. They had a good time, he said, just like they always did. Hawkins told him that he was off to Australia.
On February 3, ten months after the death of Ellis Greene, the Los Angeles District Attorney charged Boggs, Hanson, and Hawkins with ten criminal counts, including insurance fraud, grand theft, and murder. The same day, Boggs was arrested and thrown into the L.A. County Jail. To the very end, he self-righteously proclaimed his innocence. "I demand to know," he challenged reporters, "why Ellis Greene posed as Melvin Hanson for the last seven years?"
Investigators believe that Hawkins is either travelling in his father's network of associates or being protected by one of the well-connected jet-setters he met during his Studio 54 days. Jon Perkins is confident that he'll be caught. "He'll need some money and he'll do a scam," says Perkins matter-of-factly. According to one source, Hawkins was said to have been in Los Angeles in May. He was visiting one of his Hollywood friends, who told the source that Hawkins had been in town "for a minute," and that he had had facial surgery and was unrecognizable.
Greg Gunsch doesn't believe it. "John would never do that. He's too vain to mess with his face."
In August, Gene Hanson called me from prison. "I'm more concerned about John than I am about myself," he said. He wanted to remind me "what it took to start Just Sweats. No one really understands how instrumental John was. What worries me is that this article is going to portray John in a bad light, that he's going to look like the bad guy." I asked whether he was talking about John Hawkins's experiences as a hustler. Hanson seemed to bridle at the other end before answering. "I don't like that word," he said quietly. I asked him how he would explain what Hawkins did. He said, "A lot of young people are pushed into situations where they use what they have in order to survive." He paused a moment, then added, "Believe me, it's alluring. I don't know how many names you have named, but there are a lot more. And a lot of people are very nervous."