Illustration by Hannah K. Lee
Sympathy is the first reaction of those who meet Nick Kasemehas. His brown eyes twinkle. He’s old, he’s polite, and he limps.”
He looks like someone’s grandfather,” says a Seattle hotel concierge, who regrets having met him.
Slightly built, with gray hair and olive skin, your new pal Nick sticks out his hand, explains the gimpy walk as the result of a war wound, and begins the elaborate charade of being someone else. It could go on for weeks or months, usually ending with an invitation to invest in discount gold or diamonds. Deal of a lifetime, Nick says—doesn’t want anything for himself. He’s just the helpful go-between. Once his trusting victims hand over their life’s savings, he sprints for the airport on his bad knee.
“Good con men are usually good con men most of their lives,” says San Francisco Police Inspector Greg Ovanessian, who has chased Kasemehas for 20 years. “It’s a lot easier than working for a living.”
Nick has been at the con nearly a half-century, living mostly out of a suitcase and operating from hotel rooms. He’s earned the collective loathing of perhaps hundreds of mortified investors coast to coast, many of them willing to line up just to “kick him in the balls,” as one female victim put it.
The cops call Kasemehas the Casanova Con because he typically woos and swindles older ladies. He’s taken each of them for thousands of dollars and disappeared in a cloud of aliases, with no apparent remorse. After getting one woman’s money, he twisted the knife a bit—promising to pick her up after work to have dinner with his mother (long dead) before getting out of Dodge.
But the dapper, bespectacled man with the charming manner and bad knee, developed playing high-school football in the farmlands of eastern Oregon (not in Vietnam, where he falsely claims to have served), also cons the men he befriends. Just ask that Seattle hotel concierge, who gave him $48,000 before Nick vanished, or the Idaho farmer who gave him $2 million which, like Nick, suddenly went missing.
“That case tells you about Nick,” says Ovanessian. “If he scammed the Idaho man out of two million, why take the time to then scam others out of thousands? Because it’s a game, it’s what he lives for.”
Of course, the farmer and others who got suckered didn’t know that Kasemehas had become one of America’s most prolific con men, one who scammed his relatives and some of his cellmates. He’s been convicted of at least a dozen felonies and two dozen misdemeanors, and collectively spent more than 15 years in U.S. jails and prisons. When freed, he “moves to a different state and commits yet another crime of dishonesty,” says King County Deputy Prosecutor Aleksandra Letts. His record could actually be more extensive, since officials think Kasemehas has been busted under some of his estimated 50 aliases as well.
Almost as elusive is his legend. Nickolas (if not Nicholas) John Kasemehas, 69, might as well be Nick Nobody. Much of his past seems untraceable. He has posed so long as someone else that it’s arguable whether Nick Kasemehas still exists.
“That guy in the movie Catch Me If You Can,” says a relative, “he’s a piker, compared to Nick.”
Inspector Ovanessian isn’t sure if Nick belongs in a class with the movie’s legendary impostor, Frank Abagnale Jr., or other memorable cons, such as pyramid schemer Charles Ponzi or George Parker, the guy who frequently sold the Brooklyn Bridge and other New York landmarks. But, the inspector says,”Nick is good, very good.” And by comparison, Abagnale was a one-decade flash-in-the-pan, while Nick’s got unflagging stamina—he once slid five stories down a Chicago elevator shaft to escape cops.
Another time he jumped from an airliner taxiing on the runway and ran off. The U.S. Marshal pursuing him also jumped—and broke his leg. Nick was building his legend even while in prison four decades back, bunking with a wealthy pornographer who claimed to have slipped money to Jimmy Carter’s election campaign in the hope of getting out of prison. Nick ultimately ratted out the pornographer, becoming part of a 1970s White House scandal.
Besides, Abagnale served his time and went straight. Nick’s m.o. is to get out of prison and go straight to the next pigeon. He’s incorrigible. As Portland Judge Cheryl Albrecht said to Kasemehas last year, after reading Nick’s record, “I was a little shocked to see you were committing crimes before I was born.”
Albrecht was born in 1965; Nick was busted for his first con three years earlier, at age 22. Two months ago, in King County Superior Court, he was charged with his latest—bilking the concierge—a few months short of his 70th birthday. He’s doing a little time in an Oregon pen at the moment. But nothing—not cops, courts, or that bad knee—is likely to retire him.
The name Kasemehas is Greek, and pronounced kassa-me-hus—or kissa-my-ass, which appears to be Nick’s motto. Ovanessian, a nationally recognized fraud expert, says most con men are sociopaths, a word also used to describe Nick by one of his relatives in Portland.
He is not happy to be related to Nick, however, and begged not to be named. “This would ruin us in the Greek community,” he explains. Another relative, across the bridge in Vancouver, refused more succinctly: “I do not know the man,” he said during a phone inquiry, “and I don’t want to know the man. Do not ever call here again.”
As Nick likely knows, that’s one of the advantages of his type of crime: Family and victims don’t want to talk about it. They’re humiliated by falling for what, always in retrospect, was an obvious shakedown. Some victims never call the cops, and aren’t eager to talk to reporters either.
The hotel concierge, the latest of a half-dozen Seattleites Nick swindled during come-and-go visits over the past 25 years, didn’t initially tell police after he was scammed of his $48,000 in 2007. Employed by one of downtown Seattle’s boutique hotels, he recently talked to Seattle Weekly only if he could remain anonymous.”
He was very embarrassed about the situation,” says Seattle Police Detective Stacy Litsjo, who belatedly investigated the concierge’s case, “so [he] did not report it.” His story is typical of the scams Nick has worked since the 1960s from New York to Seattle.
“He told me he owned 13 McDonald’s franchises and sold them off, but still owned the property beneath them,” says the concierge, who knew the scammer as a hotel guest named Nick Inglett, a trim, nattily dressed, gregarious 5’9” man who seemed still to be around his high-school playing weight of 170 pounds. “He passed himself off as a rich retired guy who wants to help people out. He would sit in front of the hotel smoking expensive cigars and saying hello—casing people, I realize now. He was an entertaining guy, a good storyteller who offers to throw you a bone. He says he wants to see people get ahead. It was a great act.”
Here’s the deal, Nick said one day to the concierge, having ingratiated himself with the hotel staff by liberally doling out $20 tips from a fat roll of cash: Nick had a connection through which he could buy gold at $450 an ounce. It was inevitably going to be worth $600. Want in?
“Nick said one of his friends had a bunch of gold he’d been hiding for years and wanted to get rid of it,” the concierge recalls. “He just wanted to cash out. I had done some research and had no reason to doubt him—and in fact, after I agreed to invest, gold shot up to $1,000 an ounce. Just dumb luck, as it turned out. But that convinced me even more it was a good deal.”
Tapping into his savings, cash, and credit cards, the concierge gave Nick an initial investment of $18,000 in August 2007. Over the next two months he gave him $30,000 more, either handing it to Nick when he visited the hotel or mailing it to an address Nick maintained in the San Francisco area when he wasn’t on the road for one of his shakedown cruises. Then he waited for Nick to arrive with the goods—and waited. He called Nick’s number and learned the phone was disconnected.
He never saw Nick again.
The hotelman ultimately learned Nick’s real name was Kasemehas, and that he especially liked to bilk vulnerable single ladies. Most memorable was May Ditano from San Francisco, who in 1990 lost $1,600 to Nick through a similar cash-and-dash gold offer. “If the police catch him,” Ditano, a North Beach chef, told a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, “they can keep the money. I just want to go down there and kick him in the balls.”
The concierge says he’d merely “like to break his legs.”
“I’m not a greedy person,” he adds. “It just seemed a good investment I shouldn’t pass up.” His $48,000 is gone forever, he figures. “If he has money, it’s well-hidden.”
That’s what Chris Drakos, a wealthy Idaho produce farmer and vendor, has also painfully discovered. His Boise attorney says Drakos doesn’t want to talk about how he met Nick or how he was sweet-talked into an investment. But in a federal lawsuit filed in January, Drakos, from Blackfoot, Idaho, says he gave Nick $2,350,000 in 2004 to invest. In 2004 and 2005, Nick paid him back a total of $100,000—then disappeared with the rest.
As of Jan. 1, 2010, Nick owed Drakos $3,884,500, counting the interest that continues to compound at a court-approved rate of $740 a day. At that pace, it will top $4 million by year’s end. “If [Drakos] secures a judgment,” says Ovanessian, “his problem then is to satisfy it. Does Nick really have any assets, or does he live for the moment? It’s hard to believe he went through all that money that fast, though. Maybe he’s squirreled some of it offshore, I don’t know.”
If any assets are found, Drakos will have to stand in line to get his money back. Nick owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution for grand theft in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, among other places where he scammed locals with his gold scheme in recent decades. Typically posing as a McDonald’s landowner (but sometimes as a relative of Greek tycoon Alex Spanos, who owns the San Diego Chargers), Nick most recently took a Portland tobacco-store owner for $1,800 (he was impressed by the hustler’s $5 cigars), and made off with another San Francisco woman’s $10,000 after he told her he loved her.
Furthermore, he scammed a Seattle psychologist for $2,800 (“I have a master’s degree,” she told a Seattle Times reporter in 1997). He’s called himself Angelo Banos, Joe Ghilotti, Gus Santos, Jake Petrini, Alex Pappas, Nick Dalitz, and dozens of other imagined names.
At Kells Irish Restaurant & Pub in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, he was John Petrini when he took owner Joe McAleese for $10,000 in the late 1990s.
McAleese recalls his new friend wore a white trench coat, dark sunglasses, and a dazzling smile. He flashed a roll and bought drinks for strangers. Over time, he became a well-liked regular. With a tear in his eye, he told McAleese he’d lost his wife in a tragic car crash (Nick’s long-ago ex is still alive). He thanked McAleese for listening and told him he’d like to do something for him: sell him gold coins at a discount.
McAleese met Nick at the Rainier Club, gave him $10,000 cash, and drove him to the bank to get the gold coins. Nick went in and never came out. McAleese still regrets he fell for it. “I’d just like to forget it,” he says. But at least Nick was later busted and paid back the money, McAleese adds.
Others weren’t so lucky. King County Superior Court records show, for example, that Nick has made zero restitution in a 1990 case in which he scammed two Seattleites for $30,000. He met one of his victims through her son while the son and Nick were bunking at the Reynolds Work Release facility in Seattle. Nick had just completed a prison stint for an earlier con. An arrest report on the 1990 case states: “Kasemehas had been serving time in the Washington State Prison System for a theft with the same m.o. in which he victimized several people in Seattle. Prior to that crime, he was serving time in San Quentin for the same thing. This subject is a habitual criminal and will continue to prey on victims.”
He was sent back to prison for 22 months, but was released within a year. He went on to prey on others, departing Seattle with his restitution tab unpaid. The last court paper in that case, filed in 2005, indicated the amount he owed had grown, with interest, to $61,900.
According to state and FBI documents, Nick began to compile these and other court and criminal records a few years out of high school, beginning with a 1962 larceny charge. What sent him wobbling down that bad road? Maybe it was the knee, says his relative.
Illustration by Hannah K. Lee
The second to last time he saw Nick, this relative recalls, was at the state prison in Salem, Ore., where Nick was doing a few years for one of his first cons.
“That was 1968. I remember the year because an hour after I left, they had a huge riot,” says the relative.
The last time he saw his kin was in a Portland courtroom last year, after Kasemehas was arrested for theft and attempting to elude the cops. “I talked to one woman in court who said Nick took her for $50,000,” says the relative. “I felt terrible. He had just wreaked havoc on so many people’s lives. He has no moral compunction. He even tried to screw over family members, nieces and nephews and cousins, offering them the gold deal. I don’t know if he took any of us. Most of the family was aware of the situation, and they just said, ‘We’ll pass.’ He’s supposedly this nice old guy and he’s a total sociopath.”
The family saw Nick turning to the hustle as a teen in Ontario, Ore. “He got into a crowd, gambling and all that, back when he was young,” recalls the relative. “[The family] would get phone calls from people saying they’re going to come and break his legs.”
He’d already busted his knee, says the relative. “The turning point in his life: He was a senior in high school, ‘57–’58, not really a big guy, but tenacious, and he had a scholarship to Pacific University in Forest Grove. Then, in a game at Ontario High, he hurt his knee bad, leaving him with a permanent limp. The scholarship went away and things went south in his life. He later worked at a hotel in Ontario, starting out as a dishwasher. He worked up, and with his gift of gab began to worm his way into a lot of people’s lives.”
Nick’s dad was a poor immigrant from Greece who had worked around the Ontario region as a day laborer, sugar-factory hand, and sheepherder, says the relative. “Nick was in debt all the time, and his dad finally couldn’t cover for him anymore. His dad said ‘I just can’t do this, you have to go’ to Nick,” who had three brothers and a sister. Nick moved on, married, and had a daughter, but ultimately abandoned them.
After the 1962 larceny bust, he did time for obtaining money by false pretense in 1966 and 1967 and for grand theft and forgery in 1969, all in Oregon. By 1970, the 30-year-old Kasemehas had begun his cross-country trek to con America, starting with a scam in Los Angeles, then an arrest in Utah where he was indicted for transporting stolen stock certificates. He’d allegedly obtained them from a mark in Beverly Hills; they were found in his possession in Ogden.
While on bail, he fled Utah for Chicago, where he was captured again. His re-arrest didn’t make the papers, but his re-re-arrest did. He was put on an airplane with two U.S. Marshals bound for Salt Lake City, and as the jet taxied for takeoff at O’Hare International Airport, Kasemehas faked an illness and was allowed to go to the restroom. En route, he unlatched an exit door and jumped from the moving plane.
Even with his bad knee, he was able to hit the runway 15 feet below and take off running. Federal marshal Willard McArcle leaped after him, but hit the ground hard and broke a leg. The other marshal called for help, and Nick was recaptured by two United Airlines employees. Prosecutors added an escape charge to his record, and Chicago federal judge Julius Hoffman, who months earlier had presided over the circus-like trial of the Chicago Seven antiwar protesters, gave Nick two years. A federal judge in Ogden later added five more for the securities violation.
In the mid-’70s at the federal pen in Terre Haute, Ind., Nick bunked with convicted Georgia pornographer Michael Thevis, who’d lived in a multimillion-dollar mansion and operated a $100 million porn empire until he was convicted of transporting obscene material across state lines in 1974. During their time together, Thevis confided to Kasemehas that he was planning on an early release from the pen if Jimmy Carter was elected president. According to federal investigators, Thevis claimed to have funneled $400,000 in illegal donations to the Georgia governor’s 1976 campaign, steering the money through ambassador-to-be Andrew Young and Carter adviser Bert Lance.
Kasemehas, paroled in late 1976 after having made pals with his wealthy cellmate, got a gig working in the Chicago office of attorney Peter Pappas (a name Nick would later appropriate as one of his aliases), who was trying to spring Thevis. Pappas, himself facing a five-year prison term for distributing bribes to state legislators, was hired by relatives of Thevis to represent the pornographer before the federal parole board, according to the New York Daily News.
In this smoke-and-mirror atmosphere, it wasn’t long before Nick was being sought for a parole violation (of a nature unknown, due to incomplete records). When federal marshals came for him at the posh Hampshire House hotel in Chicago, he escaped into the elevator shaft and slid down five floors on the greased cables, then dashed out through a hotel exit.In his hotel room, investigators found a recent prison message from Thevis, according to a 1977 report in Newsweek. “Things are not so terribly bad,” the note said. “I’m expecting some help from the Administration after this month.” And indeed, Thevis was later transferred from Indiana to a federal prison hospital in Kentucky.
Marshals later tracked down Nick hiding out in Los Angeles, and, in a plea-bargain attempt, he provided more details: Thevis said he’d given the Carter campaign money under an assumed name, sending $150,000 through Young and $250,000 through Lance (both denied Nick’s claim). An FBI investigation unfolded, and the budding scandal was leaked to the media. Though Young had written two letters on Thevis’ behalf that led to his hospital transfer, the White House brushed it off as a routine humanitarian gesture. The Justice Department dropped its probe, although Lance later resigned his position as Carter’s budget director in a scandal over corruption at a Georgia bank he’d once headed (in a subsequent trial, he was acquitted of all charges).
A free man by 1980, Nick, then 40, began running his gold scam up and down the West Coast, alternating it with a diamond scam. His victims included a Seattle woman he met on an airplane, then wooed and wined and gave her what he said was a 3.5-karat diamond. In return she gave him $10,000 to invest. He disappeared, and the rock turned out to be a fake.
The law caught up with him again for that and other flim-flams in California, Nevada, and Colorado. He did time in California’s Tehachapi and Folsom prisons for grand theft. In 1984, he was out for only a few months before he was caught and convicted of embezzlement. Released in 1985, he was free two years before he was arrested for bilking two Seattleites out of $11,500. Another couple years in prison, and he was back with a more-polished gold con, blazing a trail of new victims and arrest warrants.
He continued to be an elusive suspect even when surrounded by cops. Ovanessian recalls how a San Francisco hotel desk clerk called police one day in the early 1990s when by chance he walked past Nick, who’d bilked him of $2,500 with the gold-coin scam.
“When the cops show, Nick tries to run,” says Ovanessian. “They catch him and cuff him. All of a sudden he’s grabbing his chest, gasping for air, says he’s having a heart attack. They call an ambulance and off he goes to San Francisco General. The cops decide they’ll just forward the case to investigators and let them follow up. Turned out Nick never got treated. He went in one door and out another.”
Nick was one of the first cases in Ovanessian’s two-decade career as a fraud investigator.
“He’s charismatic and consistent. He develops a line and sticks with it,” says the cop. “Image is everything to a con. He went places always well-dressed and well-rehearsed. He drew people in. He was at one San Francisco bar where a fund-raiser was going on and he throws in $10,000 cash. That got everybody’s attention. He put on a good show and then worked the crowd for targets.”
Those are the traits of great con men, Ovanessian adds, along with that required lack of conscience. American’s most famous identity thief, Abagnale, seemed to epitomize that, although it’s a trait he regrets today. As a private businessman, Abagnale now bills himself as “one of the world’s most respected authorities on the subjects of forgery, embezzlement, and secure documents,” and consults with the government on those topics.
After Steven Spielberg completed the movie about him—staring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as his befuddled FBI pursuer—Abagnale, who turned 62 last week, issued a statement saying that, while the film is based on his book, “it is just a movie...not a biographical documentary.”
Abagnale described himself as happily married, with three sons. “When I was 28 years old, I thought it would be great to have a movie about my life, but when I was 28, like when I was 16, I was egotistical and self-centered. We all grow up. Hopefully we get wiser. Age brings wisdom and fatherhood changes one’s life completely. I consider my past immoral, unethical, and illegal. It is something I am not proud of.”
But is that a con too? He regrets the exploits that, through his book, movie, and career, led to a comfortable civilian life? Is he looking for our soft spot, as the young Abagnale did?
Paul Zak, a California professor of neurology, writes in Psychology Today that “the key to a con is not that you trust the con man, but that he shows he trusts you. Con men ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable,” whether they come to your door selling magazine subscriptions or to your e-mail inbox with an offer to invest in Nigerian securities. By nature, says Zak, “These people are deceptive, don’t stay in relationships long, and enjoy taking advantage of others. Psychologically, they resemble sociopaths [who] have learned how to simulate trustworthiness.”
Ovanessian remembers that about Nick, whom he met in 1990. “I was a new detective and he was one of the first people I was sent to interview, up in the jail. He wouldn’t talk about the arrest, but he made small talk, and you could see then he had the gift of gab. You liked him.
“Part of the thrill” of the con, Ovanessian adds, “is putting something over on someone. Cons do this better than anyone else. They get a rush. It’s a performance.”
For what might seem his final act, Nick took his show on the road to Portland from 2006 through 2008. He conned seven Portlanders, including a shoe salesman, a schoolteacher, and a retiree. He made off with tens of thousands of dollars working his oldie-but-goodie cash-for-gold con on each of them, going back and forth to keep all the pots boiling as the shakedown progressed.
The older, wiser Kasemehas was apparently so confident, even after he’d disappeared with his marks’ investments, that he hung around town, sometimes staying in hotels, other times at the home of a distant relative. In 2008, a friend of one of the Portland victims, who’d also met Nick, saw him riding the elevator at Macy’s in Portland’s Lloyd Center. Police were called and trailed him to a nearby restaurant, where he tried to slip out the door, then saw he was surrounded. Nick went quietly.
Two of his victims were so embarrassed by their loss that they refused to show up and testify in court last year, Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Dennis Shen told The Oregonian. Nick pleaded guilty in an attempt to get his sentence cut, and went quietly to prison for almost five years. Contacted recently by Seattle Weekly at his current residence, the Columbia River Correctional Institution near Portland, he refused an interview.
Kasemehas is set for release in October 2012, says prison spokesperson Susan Erickson. It could be earlier, but he is scheduled to then be transported in custody to Seattle, where he will face charges for bilking the hotel concierge.
Portland officials learned during their investigation that the concierge had been victimized in 2007 but hadn’t reported it to Seattle police. The Portland DA’s office contacted him, and he recently agreed finally to tell his story to a Seattle detective. “I’ll be there” if Nick shows up for court in 2012, says the concierge. “I have a few things to say.”
In Portland, the relative has nothing to say to Nick. “The irony is that the facility where he’s being held is about 15 minutes from my house.” Morally, he says, that’s a road too far.
But Ovanessian thinks he might see Nick again. When he gets out of prison, Nick could be in his mid-70s. “I don’t see him selling gyros sandwiches at a Greek deli,” says Ovanessian. Besides, “his ‘old man’ routine will be even better!”
He should hope so: His tab to the Idaho farmer will have topped $5 million by then. That’s a lot of little old ladies.