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.
As the hours passed, Sir Peter captivated me, not only with stories of his unusual life but also with descriptions of wonderful opportunities he would provide for me: I could work for an airline magazine his brother was taking over. Or I could become an American correspondent for a London newspaper he and his brother owned.
Then he invited me on a day trip to Bimini. He planned to ferry some friends on his 57-foot Hatteras to see a new restaurant, Le Bistro, he had decorated. We would have lunch, pick up his $25,000 design fee, and return to Miami all in the same day. He set the journey for Thursday, January 7.
Then he said it was refreshing to meet me because, like his family and business associates, I had exemplary moral standards. It was rewarding for him to find a new friend when the pressures of a potentially messy divorce were wearing him thin.
One more thing: His wife had frozen their joint credit card and bank accounts, so maybe I could loan him a few hundred dollars. He said he could approach other friends (yes, I was considered a friend now), but he was too embarrassed. He gave me a $200 check and said I could deposit it in a few days.
So we walked out of the restaurant and drove together to a nearby ATM. I withdrew $200 in crisp twenties, handed it over, and we returned to Gusto's for another drink. After about twenty minutes, I left to pick up a friend at the airport. Sir Peter stayed at the bar with my money and the tab for our drinks.
During these first encounters, Sir Peter was all pleasantries. He appeared to be a well-off, eccentric old gentleman. I did think it strange that a person I'd only known for a few days would take such a keen interest in me. Yes, I gave him $200 -- because I believed him. Sir Peter claimed he knew two prominent acquaintances of mine: former Jamaican ambassador to England John Pringle and British interior designer Barbara Hulinicki. Although further investigation would reveal he was lying, at the time I had no reason to doubt him. I didn't think such a well-dressed and proper old fellow would take the trouble to fabricate stories and pass a bad check. Consider this: He had promised me a car and a couple of free trips. If his check bounced, I could cause problems for him. I also had his home and cell-phone numbers, so I could track him down. It seemed worth a $200 gamble.
Sir Peter had a smarmy charisma that drew me in. He didn't curse. He casually pointed out that his glasses cost $1500 and were made by a designer whose name I didn't recognize. The frames were gold, gaudy, and seemed like something an affluent person would wear. In a leather pouch he carried a portable phone, an expensive-looking pen, and scraps of paper.
In our meetings over the next few days, Sir Peter spoke passionately about business deals and current events all over South Florida. And he paid great attention to detail, which made his fabricated stories seem believable.
January 5 We briefly spoke on the phone, discussing idle matters, details of transferring the Lincoln from his sons' ownership to mine, the trip to Bimini, and our meeting. He said he would call again the next morning.
January 6 When the phone rang in the morning, my curiosity had begun to mount. What the hell was this old man about? Sir Peter's brother had sent a cashier's check from London. He wanted to sign it over to me. The purported rationale: His wife wouldn't be able to trace it that way. Why not open another account? I asked. He claimed she would track down the money.
A couple of hours later Sir Peter called again. The cashier's check was nontransferable, so he had deposited it in his own account. That meant I could cash the $200 check he had given me on Monday. But there was a catch: He said because the cashier's check was British, it would take a day to clear. And he was short a few dollars for living expenses. So maybe I could lend him a bit more cash and he would give me another check? I didn't rule anything out and we agreed to meet for lunch at Bennigan's, across the street from Gusto's in Hallandale.
Sir Peter was again waiting when I arrived at 1:00 p.m. His brother Jeffrey was supposed to call his cellular phone at 2:00 p.m., he said. Sir Peter requested that I speak with his brother. They definitely wanted to work with me. Then he added another piece of bait: Jeffrey wanted to fly me to London so we could meet in person, all expenses paid. He said working for the Zages wouldn't be easy; morality would be important and the bosses would be demanding. But the pay would be better than expected.
Then we discussed our friendship, his divorce, the Lincoln I would receive, and the next day's trip to Bimini.
Jeffrey never called. Sir Peter said he must have gotten tied up with negotiations over the airline publication.
He also said he would like to borrow a few hundred more dollars until he straightened out his banking and credit card situations. The money would be returned quickly after he picked up his $25,000 design fee and his American Express card. We drove to the ATM, I gave him another $300, and he handed me a check for $700. I could use the $400 remainder for spending money in England, he said.
He also asked whether I could keep his design fee temporarily. If I didn't his wife would track it down, he said. I said that I didn't want to deposit that much money into my account. "No, no, no," he said impatiently. "Don't put it in your account, just hang on to it."
I must have given him a skeptical look. "Oh, it's not drug money or anything like that," he said hastily. "I just don't want that woman near any more of my money."
Nevertheless I refused to hold his fee. Sir Peter shook his head and exited the car. We were parked in front of a barber shop. The proprietor, who was standing outside the entrance, greeted Sir Peter and the two went inside.
I paid the bill for lunch: about $20.
On my way home, I decided to cash his $700 check at the NationsBank on Hallandale Beach Boulevard. The teller looked it over carefully and entered the account number in the computer. Then she called a manager -- a grumpy, stocky, woman -- who told me the account was closed. But all was not lost. When I told the women the accountholder had deposited a British cashier's check, the manager replied the money might be available the next day.
Sir Peter's story was starting to fall apart. He had never followed through on his promises for a trip to England. And his proposal that I hold the design fee alarmed me. It seemed far-fetched, to say the least.
So I considered the second transaction a gamble. If his check bounced, I could either shake down Sir Peter for the money or tell the police about his bum checks. If his offers were genuine, I would receive far more than $565 worth of returns. He played on my greed, always offering a carrot: a car, a paid trip, a job. He didn't ask for a lot, and the carrots always seemed within reach.
I couldn't believe that Sir Peter would risk jail for $500. After all it's a felony to write bad checks.
January 7 At 9:00 a.m. I went to the NationsBank in South Beach and again tried to cash the check. The teller repeated the Hallandale manager's response: The account was closed. Then a bank officer did some research and discovered it had been shut down for a very long time.
Bimini was out. And Sir Peter had some explaining to do.
I called him from my apartment and told him about the bank officer's discovery. He sounded very surprised and said he must have given me the wrong check. He apologized profusely and promised to deliver the cash that day. He also told me that his friends often repeated the following slogan: "A handshake from Sir Peter is better than most people's checks."
I told him I couldn't go to Bimini. I had spent all morning at the bank and still had a lot of work to do. That was my first lie to Sir Peter. It wouldn't be my last. "Fine," he said. "I can't go either." His brother Jeffrey had unexpectedly decided to fly in to meet me, Sir Peter said. Preparations were in order.
He never delivered the cash. I called him every hour until around 9:00 p.m., leaving messages on both his cell and home numbers. I was determined to provide him with more than $565 worth of bother.
January 8 About 9:00 a.m. I called Sir Peter's home and he answered. He apologized and said he would swing by with his brother in the afternoon to deliver the cash. But he didn't arrive. When I called at 2:00 p.m., he promised to show up in about twenty minutes. Still no dice. I called him hourly two more times after that, and each time he said he was about twenty minutes away. Finally he stopped answering his phone and didn't return my messages. I left more reminders until around 9:00 p.m.
Then I decided to go look for Sir Dead Beat Pete.
It wasn't the money as much as it was my own naivete that irked me. I had pulled over to help an old man, listened to his thanks, his promises, and his deceit. I'd never before met such a well-dressed loser. I wasn't sure what would follow, but I knew there were three options: cash, collateral, or cops. So I drove around Sir Peter's neighborhood in Hallandale feeling like a low-rent gangster in a bad Miami Vice episode. I stopped in about five high-rises to see whether they had a Zage living there, but found nothing. Then I cruised through a half-dozen smaller developments looking for the red Riviera. Still nothing. Next I went to the restaurants where we'd met. Zilch.
I knew it was a long shot. I didn't even have an address, but I did have a feeling that I would eventually find him.
January 9 First thing in the morning I drove to the downtown Fort Lauderdale library to look for a reverse telephone directory. I would trace Sir Peter's phone number to an address. It didn't work. The number was unlisted. So I called his home number and spoke to a woman who had answered Sir Peter's phone previously. After I calmly explained the situation, she advised me to wait until Monday when the banks were open. I also called Sir Peter's cell phone several times, leaving progressively more forceful messages.
Then I went to the Hallandale police. A tired-looking officer wearing a cast on his arm took my statement in the station lobby. The officer told me to cease my search. But if Sir Peter called me, I should play along. And oh yes, a detective would contact me early in the week.
I didn't follow the officer's order to stop looking for Sir Peter. I headed to the best place to find a con man (and possibly change one's luck): Gulfstream Park, which happens to be right across the street from the police station. I paid five dollars to enter the clubhouse. If Sir Peter were there, he would surely be blowing my cash first-class.
But the ponies proved to be as elusive as Sir Peter. I lost ten bucks.
January 10 Sir Peter called me in the evening and again apologized. He said he had the worst weekend of his life and pledged everything would be settled on Monday. He also informed me that his brother had returned to London after they had an argument.
I don't know why he called. Perhaps he wanted more money. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from him, because it meant I wouldn't have to look for him. Now that we were in contact, I was certain I could lure him into some type of trap. Somehow he would pay.
January 11 Exactly one week after our first lunch, Sir Peter called to suggest a meeting. He said he would have my $500 at 3:00 p.m. The place: Bennigan's.
Impossibly, unbelievably, he didn't bring the money. He asked to borrow $2500 so he could get $30,000 worth of jewelry out of hock. He again described his horrible weekend. He had pawned the stuff to pay a furniture manufacturer for an interior-design job. Tears welled up in his eyes as he described leaving behind his very expensive rings, chains, and bracelets. He had walked around all weekend counting his cigarettes. He had but three dollars in his pocket. His voice cracked as he told me that my angry messages had torn at his heart. He had no desire to hurt me. If I helped one last time, he would turn things around.
Again he attributed the problems to his wife Beverly. She had switched his checkbooks, then swiped his American Express card and the design fee. He couldn't ask his family for money. They had warned him not to return to Beverly after the first separation.
My reply: I couldn't help him, and I didn't know anyone who could.
He requested that I think about it and told me not to worry. A friend who owned a yacht dealership would lend him some cash. Then he would pay me back.
I asked him about the Lincoln his sons were to have given me. He nearly sobbed as he grabbed my arm and said, "Larry, Larry, look me in the eye. That car is yours."
I didn't mention that I had contacted the police, but I did pick up the bill. Ten dollars.
Although I knew he was lying, it choked me up to see an old man holding back tears. I almost felt sorry for him. I thought perhaps he even had some mental problems. I also considered the possibility that I wasn't the only one he'd swindled. So I dug into the records of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Sir Peter, who is 63 years old, has a criminal past in Miami-Dade County that dates back to 1980. He's been charged with 23 crimes and convicted eleven times. Six of those charges are still pending from an August 1998 DUI, his fourth. He allegedly drove the wrong way in a parking lot, hit two vehicles, and kept going until a patrol car pulled him over. The police report states that Sir Peter fell down twice during his roadside examination and could not walk without assistance. To make matters worse, his license had been revoked for ten years in 1991. He shouldn't even have been behind the wheel. A hearing on these charges is scheduled for May 3 in Miami.
This past November police again pulled over Sir Peter and arrested him for DUI. Sir Peter drove through a red light in Hallandale. A cop was behind him. After he was thrown in the clink, he posted the $11,000 bond that gave him the freedom to meet me on the side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway on New Year's Eve. He is scheduled to appear in a Broward Court on April 5 for a hearing on these charges.
When Sir Peter wasn't causing problems behind the wheel, he managed to remain busy. He has five convictions in Miami-Dade for second-degree grand theft and four convictions for uttering a forged instrument (writing bad checks). One of his second-degree grand-theft convictions came when he lifted a ring from a jewelry store in 1981. He was sentenced to three years.
Police nabbed him for petty theft and uttering a forged instrument in 1989 when he stole a checkbook from an elderly interior-design client and then signed her name on a check. Court records indicate Sir Peter was supposed to decorate the client's condo with antiques but instead used cheap imitations. He was convicted of several other crimes in 1989.
One of his greatest hustles occurred in 1991 and involved an 83-year-old widow. Posing as a stockbroker, Sir Peter wined and dined the North Miami woman and professed his love for her during 4:00 a.m. phone calls. He convinced her to give him $20,000 to invest, then left to buy groceries. He never returned. A judge found him guilty of organized fraud and after considering the 1989 cases, gave him eight years.
January 12 A Hallandale detective called me at 8:15 a.m. and said police were looking for Peter Zage. The gentle Brit had passed a couple of bad checks at a check-cashing store in Hallandale, he said, so I would probably not get my money back. I described Sir Peter's request for $2500 and the detective suggested a ploy: I should say a friend had the cash, arrange a meeting, and we would nab him.
So I called Sir Peter and told him I had a friend who could lend him $2500. But I told him that I wouldn't consider asking him for the money unless I saw some good faith. He would have to pay me $500. Sir Peter said I would have my money the next afternoon.
I can't say I expected to get my money back. But I was hopeful nonetheless. And though I didn't like dealing with either cops or crooks, I was now involved with both. Of course the cops didn't know I would try to swindle Sir Peter, and Sir Peter didn't know I was working with the cops.
January 13 Sir Peter and I spoke by telephone several times. He promised to pay me. Pretending to believe him was growing tedious. A week had passed since he had given me the second of his bad checks at Bennigan's. I decided to forget my money. I wanted to see him in jail.
So I told him I'd call my friend with the money. Sir Peter jumped on it.
January 14 I called back the police and we set up the sting. At noon I gave a statement to a Hallandale detective. Naturally I was a little nervous. Sir Peter was a pro. What if he carried a gun? Perhaps he had a very mean streak I hadn't seen yet.
We met at Bennigan's at 2:00 p.m. Once again he was dressed very nicely, as if he had just come from the country club. I shook his hand, looked him in the eye, and asked how he was, and thought: This must be how he feels, putting people on all the time.
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He seemed anxious, but all business. When he described his many woes, I chuckled to myself, realizing he had no idea of the misery ahead. As we sat at the bar talking, two detectives walked in. Sir Peter spotted them immediately and fell silent. He watched them as they walked over. I kept my eyes on Sir Peter.
"Peter Zage?" one of the detectives asked.
"Yes," Sir Peter responded.
"You're under arrest."
"What for?" Sir Peter demanded with outrage.
"Writing bad checks."
Then Sir Peter looked at me.
"Did you do this?" he asked angrily.
"Yep, you horrible old man."
He lowered his head and the detectives took him outside.
These days Sir Peter is locked up in the Broward County stockade, unable to make the $10,000 bond. His public defender, Tracey Redd, will not comment on his case.
Though my good deed resulted in a rocky start to the new year, seeing Zage in cuffs made it all worthwhile. I had triumphed. Sure he got $500, but he lost his freedom. That's not a very good trade.