Vogel the 'shark' swims into turbulent sea

September 23, 1990|By Michael Olloveand Timothy J. Mullaney Ann LoLordo and John W. Frece of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

In good times, they called him Maryland's Donald Trump. I bad times, the comparison seems even more apt.

Like Mr. Trump, Mark R. Vogel made millions of dollars swiftly and audaciously. Like Mr. Trump, he parlayed his fortune from real estate speculation into flashier pursuits, picking up Maryland's only two harness racetracks to make himself a monopoly owner.

But also like Mr. Trump, Mr. Vogel, whose land holdings are concentrated in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington, may

have become a victim of the very aggressiveness that made him an overnight sensation.

"Mark the Shark," a moniker Mr. Vogel once encouraged, seems in danger of becoming Meteorite Mark, his personal reputation tattered in the face of a criminal drug charge and his celebrated financial empire tottering under the weight of massive debts, foreclosures and tax liens.

Mr. Vogel's private misfortune has a decidedly public aspect. Federal law enforcement sources say the investigation of Mr. Vogel has generated inquiries about possible political corruption involving development in Prince George's County. They come on the heels ofcriticism by a local grand jury and citizen activists of the relationship between developers and politicians in Prince George's County.

Adding to Mr. Vogel's difficulties last week, the Maryland Racing Commission -- nervous about the economic well-being of harness-racing -- compelled the track owner to suspend his involvement in Rosecroft Raceway and specifically to stop using track proceeds to cover unrelated debts.

At the center of these developments is an affable but hyperactive figure, who abruptly burst on the scene six years ago and, with verve and boldness, changed the face of the Washington suburbs.

came out of nowhere," said one Prince George's County developer.

"Mark was always a hustler," said one of the many Prince George's County state legislators in Mr. Vogel's orbit. "He was like a lot of guys who hit the track fast but were grabbed by a bad economy."

There comes a point fairly quickly with Mr. Vogel, however, when comparisons with others begin to unravel.

In many ways, he fits the conspicuous consumer stereotype of the hustler-tycoon. He owns homes in Potomac, Wintergreen in central Virginia and, according to a published report, in Acapulco, Mexico. His fleet of cars has included two Mercedes and a Jaguar as well as the Corvette he was driving 10 days ago when he was stopped by a federal drug agent and charged with possession of cocaine. He also owns a 37-foot yacht and has flown from business deal to business deal in his own helicopter.

His personal life diverged from the staid. Married three times, the 42-year-old Mr. Vogel was often seen in the company of young women, "knockouts," in the words of one Maryland legislator. "Mark," said a former friend, "liked to party a lot."

Still, in ways both trivial and significant, Mr. Vogel departed from the conventional image of the high roller. His body was in a continuous state of war with his clothes, which were always ill-fitting and sometimes torn. He would routinely appear at important meetings, his rubbery face unshaven, his mop of hair a mess and his tie askew.

"A fashion plate he's not," said G. Frederick Robinson, Bowie's ,, deputy mayor. "If you ask him about Hart, Schaffner & Marx, he'd probably think it's a law firm."

He is renowned for his philanthropy. He was the chief fund-raiser for Africare, an organization he helped to found with the goal of building public works in Africa. He also has contributed to many civic causes in Bowie, including Bowie High School, for which he hosted a fund-raiser at his Rosecroft Raceway in 1989 to raise $20,000 toward the construction of a state-of-the-art television and radio studio.

"He has been a friend to the high school, very much so," said

John M. Hagen, the principal.

Such contributions, especially in Bowie, site of the 375-acre Bowie New Town Center, one of Mr. Vogel's biggest residential, commercial and office developments, have undoubtedly been good for business.

"He would go in and woo the community by giving money to local boys' and girls' clubs and high schools and then tried to parlay that into favorable consideration for his projects," said one Prince George's County politician.

Most observers, however, said the contributions also reflected a genuinely generous spirit.

"He's just a generous person," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. "He'd be a soft touch for anyone with a sob story. He really wanted to give back to the community from which he came."

When Carl, his younger brother, was dying of AIDS several years ago, Mr. Vogel took him into his home to care for him. Friends say he was also especially kind to the widow of another close friend who died around the same time.

To journalists and others who knew him casually, Mr. Vogel seemed a man without pretensions.

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