Billman lived quiet life on the lam in Paris Tip led to S&L fugitive's arrest

March 04, 1993|By Alix Christie | Alix Christie,Contributing Writer Staff writers Scott Shane and Michael Ollove contributed to this article.

PARIS -- Tom J. Billman, accused of looting his Maryland savings and loan and taking off for a four-year international spending spree, spent his last months of freedom posing as a champagne entrepreneur in an ordinary, one-bedroom apartment above an unemployment office.

"For a man with that much money, he didn't dress fancy," said Angele Lechopied, concierge of the building in a middle-class neighborhood in the southeastern corner of Paris. "His hat and his coat were old -- I would never have imagined he had any money. He just came and went with his groceries like everyone else."

A police search of Mr. Billman's sublet apartment turned up $36,300 in cash in a mixture of dollars, British pounds, Swiss francs and Italian lira, according to Agence France-Presse. The only thing neighbors found remarkable about him was the voluminous mail he received.

A tip phoned to the U.S. Embassy in Paris last month brought to an end the international manhunt for the former chairman of Bethesda's now-defunct Community Savings and Loan, according to investigators of the U.S. Marshals Service. The search for Mr. Billman, who was accused of stealing $28 million from depositors, had occupied several U.S. investigators full-time for years and involved police agencies in a dozen countries.

The caller had seen Mr. Billman's bald, bearded face in a "wanted" notice, one of many placed over the last two years in yachting magazines, gem-trade periodicals and the International Herald Tribune. Mr. Billman narrowly escaped capture in Spain in 1989, leaving behind two yachts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

There had been many similar tips since the first ads were placed in early 1991, offering a $200,000 reward. "Sightings of Billman were a lot like Elvis sightings," said J. Douglas Wiggs, head of special services for the Marshals Service, "and we've had something like 500 leads."

But this tip, as French police pursued it, proved different. "The information became stronger and stronger and stronger," Mr. Wiggs said.

By Monday, police were persuaded the clean-shaven man they had under observation was Mr. Billman. At 2:30 p.m., as he left his apartment, they pounced.

At first, Mr. Billman insisted that he was John Rink, the identity on his false British passport. But when police confronted him with photographs of the robust, confident man who ruled a real estate empire in the early 1980s, Mr. Billman acknowledged that the photos were of him.

Mr. Billman was arraigned Tuesday on French charges of carrying false documents and is being held pending extradition proceedings. The U.S. Department of Justice has begun extradition proceedings, which could take as long as three or four months to complete.

The French passport fraud charges, however, could "complicate matters" in extraditing Mr. Billman to the U.S. to face charges, said Alan Ringgold of the Paris FBI office.

If convicted of the U.S. charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, racketeering and passport fraud, Mr. Billman faces a possible 115 years in prison and $4.75 million in fines.

U.S. Attorney Richard Bennett said Tuesday that he believed most of the $22 million Mr. Billman once had deposited in a Swiss bank account probably has not been spent. He said prosecutors hoped to retrieve the money to repay Community depositors and the state of Maryland, which covered part of the lost deposits.

The son of a well-driller from a depressed Ohio hamlet, Tommy Joe Billman rode the 1980's real estate boom to enormous personal wealth, including oil wells in two states, a 180-acre estate on the Eastern Shore, an airplane and several boats.

But as his real estate ventures collapsed, prosecutors say, Mr. Billman diverted more than $100 million of depositors' money.

Even before Mr. Billman fell under suspicion, prosecutors say, he began plotting his getaway. In 1985, they say, he obtained a false passport under the name of a college roommate, named George M. Lady.

In December 1988, a $112 million civil judgment was entered against Mr. Billman and other partners. That same month, a warrant was issued for his arrest. But, investigators say, by then he was already gone, fleeing on the false passport.

In 1989, prosecutors say, Mr. Billman lived lavishly in Europe, cruising the Mediterranean aboard two of his yachts, entertaining his new friends at sumptuous parties. To them, George Lady was a congenial if somewhat mysterious retired businessman with more than one mistress.

Investigators from the U.S. Postal Service, later aided by the U.S. Marshals Service, the State Department and the FBI, tracked him to Spain's Costa Del Sol in 1989, only to find that he had eluded them.

Then the trail grew cold. Beginning in 1991, the main efforts of the investigation involved publicizing the manhunt on television's "America's Most Wanted" and in the international publications. The publicity generated hundreds of tips, which investigators laboriously sifted through for the next two years.

Finally, last month, one of those tips paid off.

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