By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
But no deals ever seemed to materialize. One convoluted scheme to arrange letters of credit totaling $2 billion fell through when John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. allegedly failed to live up to its end of the bargain. Johnson and Ranly sued for $50 million in lost commissions and damages; the lawsuit still languishes in federal court.
The distinctly unprofessional look of the proposals may have had something to do with their lack of success. Johnson's letter to the Argentine consulate offering to build a wind turbine, for example, included a warning: "This facility would require government or other arranged security of the site, as it might be a target for terrorist activity." A draft joint venture agreement for a manufacturing plant lists the product as "monofuament basalt fibre."
More alarming to potential investors might have been the grandiose status Johnson assigned his companies. A "general information" sheet about Condor Texas Ltd. references its "many syndicates of investors throughout the world," and notes that "The combined financial worth of our investors exceeds $500 million in Financial Instruments, and $100 million in real estate investments."
Johnson insists that his representations were, in fact, accurate. But he offers no names of investors, no evidence of any company assets, no contracts, no nothing. All stolen, he says. But even the records in the possession of his adversaries offer no indication that negotiations for any deals went past the preliminary stage.
After about a year of futility, Miller finally gave up and went back to Phoenix. All he had to show for his efforts was a couple of thousand bucks' commission for arranging a sale of used copiers to Poland. "I wasted a year of my life," he says.
Ranly, on the other hand, had squandered several hundred thousand dollars flying Johnson around the globe, footing his bills and personal expenses and paying the freight for the many companies. It took almost three years before she finally cut him off. "I never understood [why she waited so long]," says Miller. "I believe she bought into the fact that he was gonna make her millions."
Bob Ellis fondles his Mac-11, a weighty slab of steel with final authority. He snaps into place a 30-round clip that would be illegal if it hadn't been grandfathered in when the weapons law changed. In his collection of about two dozen guns, the Mac-11 is one of his favorites. Though he could convert the weapon to be fully automatic, he sees no need for bells and whistles. "One shot, one kill," he says. "That's all that's necessary. I don't need all that other stuff."
Ellis hardly looks the part. A wiry man with gray hair floating generously over his shoulders and a perpetual cup of coffee in tow, he fits well against the backdrop of sand and surf at his South Padre Island home. But then he shows off the bullet holes in his beat-up Land Rover or discusses the joys of hanging out in the woods with a gun whether he fires it or not. "Hell," he says, "I've always just enjoyed my guns."
Ellis says he can clear up some of the confusion about names, dates and places that keeps the truth about Al Johnson at arm's length. He'll have two suitcases of documents overnighted from Guatemala. He'll ship the contents of a computer that Johnson used as soon as he gets someone to download them. None of it ever arrives.
A few specifics in the many narratives do match up to give a clue about the events that would shape Johnson's future. While negotiating contracts to import coffee and other commodities from Central America in the early 1990s, Ellis spent a fair amount of time with Johnson. He describes a kind of mercenary salesman, sample case in hand, schmoozing shadowy characters in cantinas. "He could sit down at a bar and capture the attention of the entire bar," Ellis says. "He was real good at setting things up so people thought he was right on the verge of a closing."
That's often as far as it went, Ellis says, because he could pique the interest of his contacts, but he couldn't deliver the goods. He periodically managed to get himself in trouble: On one occasion in mid-1992, Ellis and Ranly had to bail him out of a tight spot after he ran up a $5,000 tab at a Peruvian hotel and was unable to pay the bill (Johnson says Ranly gave him a credit card that wouldn't work). "It's a wonder he didn't get killed down there," Ellis says.
Though he challenges much of Ellis's account, Johnson agrees with him on that point. The Shining Path guerrillas did try to kill him, he says, but only managed to off one of his associates.
After Peru, Johnson set up shop in a Guatemalan hotel. His new plan, he says, involved setting up a couple of banks to manage government pension funds and help the military build low-income housing for indigents. In addition, Ellis says, "He was going to sponsor or establish a whole new orphanage system" to fix the problem of black market adoptions there. With the help of attorney Charles Hancock (who also served as Johnson's lawyer in his ongoing divorce battle), Johnson apparently tried to use the GNMA securities as collateral for the venture.
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