After a friend swindles Leo Koretz out of money in a Panama timberland investment scheme, he learns two things:
1) The closer friends they are, the harder the suckers fall;
2) He could create a bigger and better fraudulent Panama investment scheme and swindle his own family and close friends.
The book opens in the 1920s at a party thrown by investor friends for Leo Koretz at Chicago’s Drake Hotel where the invitations call him “Our Ponzi”. Seriously. This made me wonder if some of his friends were in on the swindle from the beginning. Would anyone throw a party for their investment manager today and call him “Our Madoff”?
You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat animals. When a wealthy client of Leo names him as her Trustee, with the instruction to take care of her dog, Leo takes her dog home after she dies. Then, the dog suddenly dies and Leo gets all the money. There’s an immediate sinister inference. Even when reading anecdotes of Leo’s charm, I still had the lingering feeling that he was a vile and repulsive character.
His scheme began with offering fake shares in vast Panama landholdings abundant with timber. Copying his friend, he said that the railroads guaranteed they would buy the timber for railroad ties. Then he started the rumor that he’d found oil and turned down a multi-million dollar investment offer by Standard Oil. On his desk, he kept little bottles of whiskey he labeled oil.
If you’re hoping the book will transport you to a great 1920s party, you could be disappointed. The book moves from Leo’s story to chapters about Leopold and Loeb’s criminal trial, Chicago politics, and Al Capone. My Kindle was at only 38% when the scam had been discovered and Leo was on the lam. It is well written but I would have preferred different editing and structure and more focus on the time the scam was ongoing.
Leo, living under a pseudonym, settles briefly in New York and then moves on to Nova Scotia where he refurbishes an abandoned lodge and throws extravagent parties. His identity is uncovered when a tailor notices his real name on a label on the lining he brought to the tailor for repair. Leo returns to Chicago accompanied by law enforcement.
After Leo is sentenced, he arranges for chocolate to be smuggled to him in prison. Imbibing pounds of chocolate purportedly leaves him in a diabetic coma and he dies. After his alleged burial, reports surface that he didn’t die and a prisoner with TB was buried in his grave. This may have been his final con. With Leo Koretz’s bent for scheming, he undoubtedly could have concocted a plan to surreptitiously leave prison while someone else was buried in his place. The body was never exhumed.
You can see Empire of Deception by clicking on the image above or the link below:
Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
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