Days Of Luxury, Moments Of Fear

March 27, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

The street had seemed safe enough moments before. But now, as he stood near a newsstand in the South American town, Tom J. Billman noticed a man who appeared to be surreptitiously taking his picture.

The stranger held his camera inconspicuously at waist level, aimed at Mr. Billman and snapped the photo. A simple movement, but to Mr. Billman, a camera seemed as menacing as a loaded gun.

And he could not afford to gamble. Only recently, he knew, the International Herald Tribune had published his photo and noted the $200,000 reward on his head. He quickly packed his bags and disappeared -- again.

It was another day on the run for the fugitive, who since Feb. 7 has been standing trial in Baltimore on federal charges that he looted more than $100 million from a small Maryland savings and loan. Using aliases and fake passports, he skipped from country to country, continent to continent, for more than four years, adopting new identities and careers with aplomb -- one day a construction executive, the next a vineyard owner.

With millions allegedly stashed in Swiss bank accounts, he relaxed on Spain's Costa del Sol, partied in Tangier and outfitted himself in expensive clothes from Paris. In palm-studded Estepona, Spain, he was captain of a pair of yachts -- the 54-foot motor cruiser Gloriana Dee and the Altair, a 45-foot sailing vessel.

Yet the portly, bearded financier preserved his freedom with a ruthless will to drop everything and disappear at the first hint of danger -- eluding postal investigators, the U.S. Marshals Service, Scotland Yard and Interpol, as well as police in Switzerland, Spain and Belgium.

The chase was grueling, and in the end, his life less than glamorous. It wasn't until March 1993 that the former chairman of Bethesda-based Community Savings and Loan was captured outside his modest Paris apartment, to be brought to Baltimore for trial on the fraud charges.

Still, Mr. Billman has cause for hope. Two co-defendants were acquitted in 1992, and he is said to be confident that he will be found not guilty when U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz reaches a decision next week. At worst, the 53-year-old financier might spend 15 years in prison before easing into a comfortable retirement. Authorities say it may be tough to recover what remains of the multimillion-dollar horde believed to be squirreled away. The failure of Community has cost Maryland taxpayers $80 million.

Despite the pain and notoriety, Mr. Billman is still admired by friends, here and in Europe; his mistresses still warm to his memory; his long-abandoned wife remains in their $1.5 million McLean, Va., mansion.

"Most of [his friends] just hoped he'd got away," recalls Carole Christian, co-owner of the marina where Mr. Billman kept his yachts in Spain. "If he did, so be it. He was quite pleasant."

Disappeared in 1988

Mr. Billman disappeared from the United States in late 1988, after he and other executives were ordered to pay $112 million in a Montgomery County civil judgment. At the time, he was under federal investigation and would later be indicted on charges of diverting $106 million from Community Savings and Loan to prop up his failing real estate companies and $28 million for his own use.

He had long planned his departure. The passport he used bore the name of George M. Lady, a former college roommate, and had been obtained by Mr. Billman three years earlier as his bank was crumbling. About the same time, federal prosecutors say, ++ he began to wire millions to Swiss bank accounts.

Switzerland was his first stop overseas, followed by trips to London and Paris, authorities believe. Then, in spring 1989, he surfaced in the tiny coastal town of Estepona.

An obviously well-to-do gentleman, he introduced himself to the locals as George Lady. He set up a base, renting a small flat, buying the yachts and hiring a British husband-and-wife crew to maintain them.

In many ways, Estepona was the perfect hideout for an American on the run. In contrast to glitzier retreats along Costa del Sol, Estepona is used mostly by Spaniards. There were few American tourists likely to recognize Tom Billman, whose picture by now graced "wanted" posters.

His hopscotching about Europe on frequent business trips fit the patterns of many others there. And, by local standards, even his two yachts -- the $180,000 Gloriana Dee and the $60,000 Altair -- were run-of-the-mill.

Paul and Pat Manning, who tended the yachts, say their employer lived very well.

To the Gloriana Dee, which featured an oak-paneled master cabin with a seven-foot square bed, Mr. Billman added $60,000 in improvements. They included two top-notch stereo systems and teak cocktail cabinets containing a freezer and ice-maker on deck.

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