Taken for a Ride

How an impressionable young fellow got himself scammed by a British con man. And how he got revenge.

It was about 1:00 p.m. on December 31 and Peter Zage was standing next to a new red Buick Riviera on one side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Out of gas. Zage was sun-drenched, his gray hair a bit matted with perspiration. But he appeared Old World suave in his sport coat, tie, matching pocket square, and cuff links.

I pulled over, thinking I'd close the year with a good deed. A half-hour later I found myself pouring a can of gas into the Riviera.

"You, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar," Zage proclaimed in an upper-crust British accent. He said he was England's former ambassador to the United States and complimented my kindness many times. Then, after some small talk, he dropped a bombshell: "I want you to be my guest in London for two weeks. I'll pay your airfare and all your expenses. How would you like that?"

Hmmm, I thought. Who is this guy and why is he offering me something for nothing? I told him I was interested.

After a few more minutes of chitchat, he told me his name: Sir Peter Zage. Then his thanks turned into a proposal to donate money to New Times, where I work. I declined. Despite his generous offers, he never paid me for the gasoline. I didn't think too much about it. Hell, this old guy was sending me to London.

Over the next two weeks, Sir Peter Zage would scam $500 from me. He would also provide me with a valuable lesson about the power of illusion: Although Sir Peter appeared every bit the English gentleman -- proper, polite, even a bit stiff -- he was wanted by the police.

What follows is the chronology of a con. I hope it will prove useful to any reader who thinks a person of advanced age, fine social graces, and dressed in good clothes is above a minor hustle. I also hope Sir Peter reads it -- from a jail cell.

January 1 Following up on our conversation, I telephoned Sir Peter. He once again expressed his thanks, then suggested we lunch together. He instructed me to call him at 9:00 a.m. on Monday to set a time and place to meet. It was a brief phone call; he was somewhat curt. I got the sense that I irked him a bit, and he'd reluctantly accommodate me because of the hasty promise he made to send me to London.

January 4 During our morning phone call, Sir Peter was very personable. He told me he was leaving his wife Beverly for the second and final time. They had been together twenty years; a decade had passed since their last breakup. As our acquaintance developed, Sir Peter would blame this soon-to-be ex-wife for many of his problems. That morning he needed to go to the bank to straighten out their joint accounts. He suggested we eat at 1:00 p.m. at Gusto's, Hallandale Beach Boulevard and South Federal Highway.

I was a couple of minutes late. Sir Peter was waiting at the doorway, dressed in his signature ensemble: jacket, tie, pocket handkerchief, and pressed trousers. After we greeted one another, he insinuated I should have called him to say I'd be tardy. Then he politely asked me to pay for lunch. "I just spent all morning at the bank and had a horrible time. You won't believe what this woman is doing to me," he said with exasperation, referring to his spouse.

I told him I would pick up the tab. We proceeded to have lunch and drinks, which cost me about $45. He began the conversation by relating his motto in life, which he said was written in Latin on the breast pocket of his Oxford school blazer. I don't remember the words verbatim, but the gist was something like "Life is what you give back to it." After everything he had accomplished, returning a favor was the most rewarding of deeds, he said.

During our three-hour conversation, Sir Peter described his children. A daughter was a lawyer who worked with conservative pundit William F. Buckley. Two sons owned a New York brokerage house. Sir Peter claimed he had helped his sons make the purchase and he was very proud of them. The story of their hard work brought a tear to his eye.

Sir Peter did most of the talking. He described moving to the States in the Fifties and opening a Rolls-Royce dealership. He said he had lived a storied life as England's ambassador to the United States for about five years in the Seventies, and then the queen had knighted him. After his tour of duty ended, he took a few courses in design, then became an interior designer specializing in antiques. In detailed fashion he described the homes he had decorated and the antique market. His favorite place to shop for treasures was Atlanta. He had retired in the early Nineties but continued working with a few choice clients, the wealthiest of the wealthy. He lived not far from the restaurant, on Three Islands Boulevard in Hallandale.

Then we discussed cars, from early Rollses to current models. He described giving a Mercedes 350SL to an employee of the assisted-living center where his mother-in-law resided. Then he told me that his sons kept a Lincoln Town Car in Miami for vacation use. They wanted to buy a new model. Perhaps he would arrange for them to give me the Lincoln, no charge.

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