Prosecutors' years on paper trail pay off in stiff Billman sentence

June 23, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

Savings and loan swindler Tom J. Billman had been on the lam for nearly four years when the fax sent from Paris by FBI agents landed in Baltimore. Federal prosecutors Barbara S. Sale and Joyce McDonald took one look at the handwriting samples on the document and knew the chase would soon be over.

"He's our man," Ms. Sale said then, as authorities in France were keeping an eye on the man believed to be Billman. Ms. McDonald said: "Whoever wrote that, arrest him."

The prosecutors had grown to know the fugitive banker's handwriting well -- they'd combed through warehouses full of documents to piece together Billman's $25 million plundering of the Bethesda-based Community Savings and Loan. By the time Billman was sentenced to 40 years in prison Tuesday, the two federal prosecutors had been on the case for eight years.

Much of that time was spent wondering when Billman would be found and brought to trial.

"I used to joke that he would be tried by my son," said Ms. Sale, a 46-year-old mother of 9- and 11-year-old boys. Her sons "sort of grew up with Billman," she said; when the family went to the post office, the boys would search out Billman's wanted poster. It was a way to connect with their mother.

The two prosecutors yesterday recalled the 15-hour days and seven-day weeks that were their working lives for parts of the past several years. They described their meeting with Billman, who turned out to be every bit as charming as they'd heard he was.

They recalled their disappointment when his co-defendants were acquitted in a separate trial. And they remembered the days spent digging through records in windowless offices, including the postal service warehouse in Rockville.

That devotion to reviewing the paperwork allowed the prosecutors to understand the complicated financial maneuverings surrounding Community Savings and Loan and led to Billman's hefty sentence.

"This case was paper intensive," said Lynne A. Battaglia, U.S. attorney for Maryland and Ms. Sale's and Ms. McDonald's boss. "It was an outstanding prosecutorial job."

The Billman saga began in the mid-1980s, when Community Savings and Loan failed.

Ms. Sale had been a federal prosecutor about six years when she was assigned the Billman case in 1986. Ms. McDonald, now 41, had worked as Justice Department trial attorney for fraud cases for six years before moving to the U.S. attorney's office to work on the Billman case.

In December 1988, they were sitting in Ms. McDonald's office when they heard that Billman had not shown up for a hearing in a civil case in which he and other executives were sued by the Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund, which insured Community's depositors.

"We knew in our hearts that day he was gone," Ms. Sale said. "It took us a long time to realize he was going to be as hard to find as he was."

Billman used a phony passport to flee the country. He'd wired $22 million to Swiss bank accounts, and he lived lavishly on Spain's Costa del Sol for a time, buying two yachts and cruising the Mediterranean.

The prosecutors give great credit to postal inspector David P. Cyr, who pursued Billman's elusive trail through Europe, for the eventual capture in March 1993 -- a few days after the handwriting sample was sent by fax to Baltimore.

A tipster had recognized a photo of the wanted man printed in the International Herald Tribune, and informed the authorities.

He was extradited to Baltimore in December and in January provided handwriting exemplars at the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, entertaining the prosecutors with stories of jail-house food in France and in Baltimore. "He was really quite the raconteur," Ms. Sale said.

After a two-month trial, Billman was convicted in April on 11 counts of mail and wire fraud. In celebration, Ms. Sale popped the cork on a bottle of champagne -- Lembrey Brut, 1985 -- that had been left for such an occasion eight years earlier by outgoing U.S. Attorney Breckinridge L. Willcox. Ms. McDonald, expecting her third child, settled for Alpenglow sparkling apple cider, vintage unknown.

Before the sentencing, authorities uncovered evidence that Billman had, from his Baltimore jail cell, tried to maneuver $6 million still in Europe and lied about his assets. In a letter recovered by investigators, Billman predicted he would be sentenced to no more than two years.

Prosecutors said Billman's conniving inspired them to work harder.

"We used to think he was the smartest person we'd ever prosecuted, but he did some really stupid things. He lost some stature in my mind," Ms. Sale said yesterday.

"When you can see the man in such clear focus, it creates some righteous indignation."

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