Longform

Friends with Benefits

Page 3 of 6

One day he was walking back to his car at the Rice Epicurean on Weslayan when Dinesh Shah struck up a conversation with him. Like Kenneth Jackson, Martin had a love of vintage cars, and that furnished Shah with his opening. (At the time Martin was driving a 1976 Ford Elite.) "I didn't realize then that a car like that just sets you up to be a target," Martin says, over coffee at a Montrose cafe where his art hangs on the walls.

Shah told him it was a sweet ride and the two men started talking. Martin says Shah dropped a bunch of "old Houston" stories and some interesting names. Martin would later find out that Shah had been watching him for years. Martin suspects that Shah somehow knew he was minor oil royalty — Martin's grandfather had been a comptroller at Humble Oil. "He never was rich, but he managed his money well," says Martin. "I'm gonna inherit something, but it's not gonna be millions."

But right then Martin was hard-up for cash, and as he got to know Shah a little better, Martin started to think his new buddy might just be the guy to turn his fortunes around. After all, Shah told him he was a hot-shot commodities trader.

"Dinesh said he could get me back on top by trading commodities, so I gave him $9,300," Martin says. "I am not a financial guy, but I know you can make money on commodities if you know how to do it, and he came across as very smooth. He was also very aggressive and forceful." Martin says he would see Shah trading commodities on the phone, but now speculates that it was always with other people's money and that the rewards, if any, went only to Shah.

"Nobody around this guy ever profited, and a lot of people's lives got way worse, mine included."

Martin and Shah became friends, often dining together at places like Pappas Seafood, the Barbecue Inn on Crosstimbers at Yale, Mark's and Rudi Lechner's. Over dinner and drinks, Shah would regale Martin with more of his bullshit — how he'd been in Ronald Reagan's security detail, how he'd gone undercover as a mullah in his top-secret CIA missions in Iran. He also shared his retro tastes in music and film.

"He was always listening to old boring Sinatra songs in his car," Martin wrote in an e-mail. "He also was obsessed with Rock Hudson, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant...What a boring person. Amazing how being sober changes perspective."

Martin was also starting to see that his new friend and financial adviser had a dark side. He seemed to have a Nazi fetish. Shah would often tell Martin that he loved to study up on Gestapo and SS tactics in history books, and claimed to have worked alongside veterans of the Axis forces on secret missions in the 1980s. (Martin noted to himself that former Gestapo and SS troopers would have been pretty old by then — it was just one of Shah's lamer whoppers.) He drove hyper-aggressively and told Martin that he liked to run motorcycle riders off the road for fun.

"I was pretty unguarded and not using very good judgment and he gained my confidence, and it got to the point where I would get home and within two minutes he would call," Martin remembers. "That's why I think he either had bugged my place or had a camera in there. It was making me really paranoid."

Martin thinks it was all part of Shah's meticulous procedure. While investigating the Jackson case, police found boxes and boxes of notes, including to-do lists on Shah's presumed targets. (A to-do list was also found regarding Joan Johnson's eldest son Wirt Johnson.) "One of them was bug the place, find out their friends, find out where they hang out," Martin says. "Then he proceeds to isolate them from their friends and the places they hang out."

"He was really methodical in putting his victims together and working on them over time," says Anderson of HPD's Major Offenders Squad. Anderson would eventually lead a search of Shah's home and work on the Jackson case. "He waited very patiently." Anderson says that Shah is also leery of computers. "So he keeps documents instead, and it's the same difference, but just less sophisticated. I was like, 'Wow, this is a treasure trove of information.'"

(In a side note, among Shah's files, Anderson found information about an eccentric Montrose codger by the name of Ray Rush Brown, who dressed like a street person but was in fact the recipient of a chunk of the royalties for a popular song he'd ghostwritten years before. In Anderson's recollection, the income was $10,000 to $15,000 monthly, but the cop says Brown received very little of it once Shah entered his life. "Shah separated him from all that money," the sergeant says. "I found it all in documents and personal checks." Anderson believes Shah forged power of attorney over Brown, and says he also found a will purportedly from Brown in Shah's possession — a will lacking only Brown's signature and notarization. The will left everything to Shah, including Brown's share of the song royalties.)

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax