Allegations stun acquaintances and neighbors

Trader described as well-respected and `trustworthy'

`A very good guy'

February 07, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Until he was accused yesterday of defrauding a major European banking company of $750 million, John Rusnak's most memorable qualities were as a husband, a father and a Catholic, acquaintances say.

He made $85,000 a year, according to his employer, and lived a middle-class life in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Baltimore. Married with two children, he bought a stylish house for $217,500 in 1994, after haggling like a carpet trader.

"They certainly aren't flashy people - they didn't have any expensive or extravagant things, or live any kind of expensive lifestyle," said Carol Brody, an acquaintance who visited the Rusnak home recently for an artist's lecture the family held.

Now, to the amazement of those who know him, Rusnak, 37, is at the center of the biggest case of alleged financial fraud in years.

His house is staked out by police cars and reporters from British tabloids, though it is unclear whether Rusnak is there. He negotiates through an attorney, who insists that bank officials' allegations of fraud are unfounded.

Rusnak has not been charged with any crime. Four colleagues at Allfirst Financial Inc. in Baltimore have been suspended, all currency trading there halted. Stock in parent company Allied Irish Banks plunged nearly 17 percent yesterday on the Irish exchange - enough that some financiers think it is vulnerable to a takeover.

Neighbors and community members in North Baltimore, meanwhile, can hardly believe that bank officials and the media are talking about the man they know.

"They are like really nice, upstanding people," Eva Glasgow, a Mount Washington resident, said of the Rusnaks.

"He's lovely - nice, fun, pleasant, involved with his church," said Margery Pozefsky, who serves with Rusnak on the board of Baltimore Clayworks, a nonprofit ceramics, cultural and educational center.

"I would never have thought that he would be the kind of guy to do this," she said.

Interviews with neighbors and acquaintances in Baltimore and Rusnak's childhood home in Pennsylvania, and searches of public documents, reveal a man who seems out of place amid talk of international swindling and multibillion-dollar deals.

Rusnak, by several accounts, is an active parishioner at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. His children attend school there.

`Always distracted'

He was asked to serve on the Baltimore Clayworks board during a push several years ago to get more serious-minded money managers among the collection of pottery buffs and artists. But he often skips meetings and rarely makes financial contributions. Other members figured the family didn't have the money.

"He seemed like a nice guy, but he was always distracted by work. At least I assumed it was work," Pozefsky said. "He kept volunteering to solicit contributions from people in the banking industry, but he never really came through. I always got the feeling that he didn't really have the connections to people that high up."

Rusnak and his wife, Linda, moved to Mount Washington in April 1994 and bought a 119-year-old Victorian house on Smith Avenue. Samuel Dell, the previous owner, said Rusnak struck him as a "bargainer" when they ironed out the deal.

The couple took out a $135,000 mortgage from Harbor Federal Savings to help pay for the house, which has been well-maintained, has a carriage house on the property and would likely sell for well over $300,000 today.

`Regular people'

Christopher O'Neill, who lives next door, described the Rusnaks as "regular people." He sees Linda Rusnak when she lets her dog out in the morning. The two families have exchanged baby clothes, he said, and his stepdaughter has baby-sat the Rusnaks' two children. Linda Rusnak brought cookies over for Christmas, he said.

Things are different today. O'Neill was interviewed Monday night by an FBI agent, who told him John Rusnak had been located out of state. Reporters for BBC, however, told O'Neill they had footage of Rusnak leaving his house early yesterday morning.

Michael O'Connell, another neighbor, said Rusnak once told him that he does a lot of work from home on his computer. O'Connell has a casual relationship with the family, but he said he sees the children playing in the yard and John Rusnak mowing the lawn. Because their houses are mirror images of one another, Linda Rusnak had visited once to look at the Victorian detail work on their front porch. O'Connell said she was renovating her porch.

John Rusnak was raised in working-class Bristol Township, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. His one-story family home is in a modest, neat neighborhood where American flags are displayed prominently on front doors and on trucks in the driveways.

Neighbors said they remember him living there with his parents during the 1970s, until he went off to college.

`Their pride and joy'

"Johnny was their pride and joy. They were very proud of him," said Marie Braun, who lives next door and has known the Rusnaks for more than 25 years - well enough to know the kids' names and some of the grandchildren.

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