Ex-S&L head flown back from Paris to face trial

December 15, 1993|By Gary Cohn and Marcia Myers | Gary Cohn and Marcia Myers,Staff Writers

Tom J. Billman, accused of looting his Maryland savings and loan of $28 million, was escorted here from a Paris jail yesterday, ending a lengthy international manhunt and extradition battle.

Mr. Billman disappeared in December 1988 and lived grandly overseas for a time before being captured at his Paris apartment in March while posing as a champagne entrepreneur named John Rink.

At 5:08 p.m. yesterday, Mr. Billman, in a dark suit, white shirt and handcuffs, set foot on Maryland soil for the first time in five years.

The 53-year-old fugitive, bearded and balding, was flown from Paris to New York and then to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where he was the last passenger off TWA commuter Flight 7731.

Mr. Billman walked slowly down a ramp at the back of the plane and was immediately picked up by authorities and taken to an undisclosed location.

His return is the latest chapter in Maryland's savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, in which his Community Savings & Loan Association of Bethesda played a major role.

The 1985 failure of the thrift, which Mr. Billman headed as chairman, contributed to the crisis and has cost the state $89 million.

Mr. Billman is under indictment on federal conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and racketeering charges. He is to appear at a 10 a.m. hearing tomorrow before Chief U.S. District Judge Walter E. Black in Baltimore.

Defense lawyers have asked the court to dismiss the charges on grounds that U.S. authorities improperly delayed his extradition.

At tomorrow's hearing, Mr. Billman's attorneys, John R. Fornaciari and Robert M. Disch, are also expected to argue that Mr. Billman should be tried by a judge and not a jury. Federal

prosecutors are seeking a jury trial.

"In a matter of such public interest, the public has a right to participate," Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara S. Sale said yesterday.

Two of Mr. Billman's co-defendants were acquitted by Judge Black in a bench trial last year.

Mr. Billman's trial is expected to take place in U.S. District Court in Baltimore early next year. It isn't clear whether, under the extradition order, he can be prosecuted on all or only some of the charges.

Mr. Billman's homecoming yesterday ended an international manhunt that lasted more than four years and an eight-month extradition process that began with his arrest in Paris at an ordinary one-bedroom apartment above an unemployment office.

The son of a well-driller from rural southern Ohio, Mr. Billman amassed enormous personal wealth during the 1980s real estate boom. At one point, he owned oil wells in two states, a 180-acre estate on the Eastern Shore, an airplane and several boats.

Prosecutors say that as his real estate ventures collapsed, Mr. Billman diverted millions of dollars in depositors' money from Community Savings and Loan Association while he was chairman.

Mr. Billman fled the United States in December 1988 after a Montgomery County Circuit Court jury returned a verdict in a civil case that ordered him and his partners to pay $112 million. He was indicted on federal charges in December 1989.

Authorities have said previously that they believe Mr. Billman stashed $22 million in a Swiss bank before fleeing to Europe. While staying one step ahead of authorities, he led a lavish life, cruising the Mediterranean on two yachts and introducing himself as George Lady, the name of a former roommate.

Federal investigators tracked him to Spain's Costa Del Sol in 1989, but he eluded capture. Finally, in February of this year, authorities received a telephone tip from a person who had recognized Mr. Billman's photograph in a wanted notice, one of many that officials had placed in yachting magazines and periodicals overseas.

Two co-defendants -- the thrift's former president, Clayton C. McCuistion; and a former director, Barbara A. McKinney, whom prosecutors have described as Mr. Billman's girlfriend -- were acquitted of federal conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud charges in April 1992 after a four-month trial.

Yesterday, Mr. Billman's attorneys pointed to that trial as one indication that he is innocent.

In court papers, Mr. Billman's attorneys have argued that U.S. prosecutors deliberately delayed his extradition. Mr. Billman, the attorneys contended, was forced to share a "cramped cell with three other inmates . . . in a 19th century prison in a foreign country, where he does not speak the language, thousands of miles from his family and friends."

Prosecutors countered in court papers that Mr. Billman, by his own choice, had been thousands of miles from family and friends for more than four years.

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