He was once the odometer rollback king of Baltimore, prosecutors say, a full-time scam artist who raked in millions with his doctored cars, phony auto titles and network of unscrupulous car dealers. He was also one of the FBI's wanted fugitives.
But yesterday, Theodore Schecter of Towson was back in Baltimore's federal courthouse - seven years after he skipped out on his sentencing hearing and began a life on the run.
He was back because he had finally been caught - his fugitive life unraveled by a bitter co-defendant and a chance meeting at an out-of-state Wawa convenience store.
Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, the same judge who had trusted him on home detention after he was convicted of masterminding a nationwide used-car scheme, sentenced Schecter to eight years in prison. Investigators in the courtroom exchanged glances; they had been pursuing Schecter for almost that long.
Schecter's story starts in the used-car lots of Baltimore County.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, prosecutors said, Schecter had learned how to "curbstone." That was the street term for buying cars at auctions and from wholesalers, rolling back the odometers and then placing ads in newspapers, pretending to be the original owner.
As he made money, he started selling to wholesalers, prosecutors said, and lending money to dealers. He drove around in a Rolls-Royce, one prosecutor recalled, with wads of cash and hundreds of car titles stuffed into a shopping bag.
He and cohorts used razor blades, gum, pens and pencils to make "new" titles they could exchange for out-of-state "clean" replacements, wiping away miles with a motor vehicle authority's stamp of approval.
"They would sit around in Teddy's kitchen and alter the titles," said Susan Strawn, a former prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. "Several of them were quite good. It was almost a competitive skill to see who could change the numbers the best."
The money and cars were hard to track, with a complex network of dealers, rollbackers and title workers. But investigators -particularly Charles Schaub of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration - kept getting complaints about cars with false mileage. And they kept hearing rumors about Schecter.
The break in the case came at an Indiana car auction, Strawn said, where officials looked at a title under black light and discovered it was fake. When they checked other cars from the same source, they found more bad titles.
Investigators tracked the cars to participants in Schecter's scheme, and it unraveled. Agents with the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and the MVA connected cars, money and bank accounts. In September 1996, a grand jury indicted 12 people. Five pleaded guilty and a jury convicted four - including Schecter and a co-conspirator, William Brouwer.
On Dec. 19, 1997, Schecter was supposed to show up for sentencing. Blake, the judge, had allowed him to stay with his elderly mother in his Towson apartment, and Schecter, wearing an electronic bracelet, regularly checked in with a monitoring company.
But that morning, as the hours ticked by in the federal courtroom, as the lawyers and investigators looked at their watches, it was clear that Schecter was on the run.
"I don't think any of the defendants were surprised," said William B. Purpura, a defense attorney who represented one of Schecter's co-defendants. "I think that if there was a betting pool, they would have bet that Schecter wasn't going to show. Schecter was your classic player. He was going to take any opportunity to keep his freedom."
Police got a tip that Schecter had paid cash for a mobile home in Baltimore. But by that time, Schecter, then 48, had vanished.
Or at least that's how it seemed. In fact, he was closer than anyone knew.
"I arrived back in Towson one day before my 49th birthday, on Jan. 26, 1998," Schecter later explained in court. "I spent the next two months there tending to what I needed to do."
He said he decided to run so he could care for his mother, who was 86 at the time and sick. After living in Towson, he went to New Jersey, he said - close enough for regular visits home.
Eventually, he said, after his mother's condition deteriorated, he moved her in with him in New Jersey.
They moved around Atlantic City, paying cash for rental homes. He stopped cashing her Social Security checks, so government authorities would assume that she had died. When she needed to go to the hospital, he changed her name to "Dorothy Schenker."
And to make money, he started selling cars.
Meanwhile, Schecter's co-defendants had been sentenced and were serving time in prison.
Investigators were getting tips that Schecter was in Cuba, Israel and Florida. There were sightings at car auctions.
"A lot of time and money was spent looking for Mr. Schecter, chasing down leads," said prosecutor Linda I. Marks at sentencing yesterday.