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attorney Harvey Stein was about to have a very strange day. His first
clue was the unlikely assemblage of visitors packed into his office. One
was Jerald Luzar, commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League. Another
was Lynn Dodd, principal of McClymonds High School in West Oakland. The
last was a nattily dressed middle-aged man who introduced himself as Cornelius
Grant -- Motown legend, former Temptations musical director, coauthor
of hit songs like "(I Know) I'm Losing You," and now, philanthropist.
Grant explained on that late afternoon in December that he wanted to establish
two separate charitable funds for the school and the athletic league,
into each of which he would deposit $1.5 to $2 million over a period of
five years. But the papers authorizing the deal had to be drawn up in
a hurry, Stein recalls, because the private jet Grant had parked at the
Oakland Airport was supposed to whisk him off to Chicago the next morning.
Dodd and Luzar, both heads of organizations to which glamorous out-of-town
celebrities do not make spontaneous, extravagant donations, seemed somewhat
dazed, Luzar remembers. Perhaps they were still shaken by the whirlwind
way in which Cornelius Grant had blown into their lives.
Grant had visited Luzar at the athletic league's headquarters earlier
that morning, boldly demanding the commissioner convince him that the
organization needed his funding. He said the last Temptations album had
done so well that he needed to give away $9 million for tax reasons, Luzar
recalls. At Grant's suggestion, the two adjourned to a Mexican restaurant
near City Center. After Luzar explained the league's financing, and the
two reminisced about Oakland athletes, Grant began making phone calls
that he said were to his accountants, telling them to cut an initial $250,000
check. The money would be delivered that day to the league, which serves
Oakland's six high schools, Luzar recounts. Then Grant said he'd like
to be taken to McClymonds to see the facilities and meet some of the teachers.
Once they reached the school and met with Dodd, Grant turned on the charisma.
He talked about his memories of McClymonds, fondly mentioning a music
teacher the school had employed 25 years ago, then asking if he could
visit with a group of music students, Luzar remembers. After Grant entered
the classroom, he launched into an impromptu speech about writing hit
songs and playing keyboards onstage with the Temptations. He signed autographs
and urged the students to work hard, telling them they could find success
in life, no matter what their backgrounds.
So pleased was Grant with his reception at McClymonds that he announced
he would set up a charitable fund for the school. He soon got back on
the phone with his accountants. Hanging up, he invited Dodd and Luzar
to accompany him to Stein's City Center office, where they would draw
up the paperwork.
As he conferred with Stein, Grant explained why he was in the Bay Area.
He and his daughter were relocating from New York, he said, and he was
having a 15,000-square-foot house built in the Ruby Hills development
in Pleasanton. He told Stein, whom he'd just met that day, that his people
had thoroughly checked Stein out and offered to make an initial deposit
into his trust account to cover his fees for the next year. The group
got to work, discussing the limitations Young wanted to attach to the
money and how it would be transferred from one bank to another.
"It seemed that things were going fast," says Luzar, who points
out the league had never before been offered a $250,000 one-time donation.
"I'm kind of looking at Harvey thinking, 'Is this going to happen?'
" The same doubt kept surfacing in Stein's mind when he later accompanied
Grant on a wild celebrity-style night out that included a trip backstage
at Yoshi's jazz club and a tour of the private $30 million plane that
Grant claimed was his. By the end of the evening, Stein would have shelled
out about $600 to pay for Grant's meals, drinks, and hotel bills. By the
next morning, Stein realized that he, the league, and McClymonds High
had been conned. The scholarship money would never materialize.
And the mysterious philanthropist from out of town? Although the real
Cornelius Grant is alive and well, he was hundreds of miles away in Los
Angeles, where he runs a talent-booking agency. The man who had so expertly
sweet-talked the Yoshi's staff and the high school music department turned
out to be a former West Oakland sanitation worker named Alan Young, who
has made a stunning second career out of answering to names more famous
than his own.
For nearly the last twenty
years, Young has wined and dined his way through the Bay Area by posing
as a variety of musical celebrities and convincing the starstruck to pick
up the tab for lavish meals, designer clothing, luxury cars, booze, limousine
rides, and stays in elite hotels. According to police and court records
stretching back eighteen years, before he engineered last winter's pass
through the Bay Area as Cornelius Grant, Young had also passed himself
off as one-time Temptations lead singer Ali "Ollie" Woodson,
jazz bassist Marcus Miller, and vocalist James Alexander of funk group
Even under his own name, Young has played the celebrity con game claiming
-- sometimes simultaneously -- to be the son of jazz drummer Lester Young,
a musical affiliate and close friend of R&B crooner Luther Vandross,
an arranger for jazz singer Nancy Wilson, an associate of Miles Davis,
and the head of a fictitious production company that always seemed to
be on the verge of cutting a deal with someone willing to give Young the
Young does not necessarily
look the part of a musical icon, being bespectacled, stout of waist, and
monkishly balding in a perfect circle at the back of his head. He doesn't
dress like an icon anymore, either: he has been obliged to wear the baggy,
bright orange sweatshirt and trousers of a San Francisco county jail inmate
ever since his mid-scam arrest at a San Francisco Holiday Inn last December.
This arrest occurred several weeks after his encounter with Stein, when
one of Young's marks, fed up with his failure to reimburse her for a hotel
bill, called the police. Young was arraigned in San Francisco in January
on eighteen counts of fraud -- ranging from grand theft to false impersonation
to forgery. No trial date has been set yet, nor has he had his preliminary
The charges represent only what police know about his activities in San
Francisco during late 2001. The Oakland Police Department is investigating
swindles Young allegedly pulled off on this side of the Bay last December.
Complaints have surfaced in Oakland and Hayward, and police expect more
victims to step forward. Additional charges could be filed with the Alameda
County district attorney's office if the investigation bears fruit. In
fact, the San Francisco police investigator assigned to Young's case,
Earl Wismer, has suggested that it be turned over to the California attorney
general's office, since Young's most recent scams allegedly span so many
Young did not respond to a letter or a personal visit requesting an interview
for this story. Ron Albers, his public defender, also declined in a phone
conversation to be interviewed.
Young's December arrest was by no means his first. Young, who was raised
in Oakland, has been in and out of Bay Area courtrooms on a variety of
theft and forgery charges since 1975, and appears to have been polishing
the musical celebrity scam since at least 1984. But the type of white-collar
fraud he so expertly practices is difficult to catch and often even more
difficult to prosecute. In the past, his jail time usually has been minimal,
and he has been repeatedly released on probation, only to turn up again
later using a more refined version of the same con. Police say that with
each pass Young makes through the Bay Area, he becomes more proficient
at easing into the social circles of the wealthy professionals he generally
targets. If the court doesn't throw the book at him this time, the only
thing that may stop him is his own growing celebrity as a con man.
While Young's scams certainly have gained finesse over the years, police
and court records show they almost always adhere to the same template.
Young blows into town posing as the musical celebrity du jour, impresses
his marks with name-dropping and insider knowledge, then wows them with
promises of hefty investments or donations. Young invariably discovers
that his briefcase, along with his wallet, credit cards, and identification,
is missing. He usually claims they have been accidentally shipped down
to Los Angeles with his band's equipment. Young then throws himself on
the good graces of his host, promising to reimburse him promptly. The
host generally pulls out all the stops to offer his newfound friend Hollywood-style
hospitality. Some of Young's marks have paid off hookers, monstrous bar
tabs, or bills for unauthorized limousine rides, according to police records.
As soon as the victim catches on, Young simply slips away. Within a few
days, Young has usually locked onto a new target, and the whole charade
Retired Oakland Police Department captain Tony Hare, who worked several
of Young's cases in the '80s, recalls his formula with a certain amount
of admiration. "Alan Young is doing the same thing that our best
spies do when they engage people," he says wryly. "There's a
little bit of alcohol to lower inhibitions, there were other people trusting
him, and there was a woman there -- not unlike Mom, only better looking
And in fact, police records show that Young rarely departs from this holy
trinity of trust-building. He generally approaches his marks in a bar,
or else drops in on them in the office and gets himself invited for drinks.
He's also often in the company of an attractive, although not flashy,
young woman. This woman is usually someone he'd recently picked up by
impressing her with his star status. She'd unknowingly act as Young's
foil, vouching for his identity and assuaging the victim's suspicions.
She would often become the victim herself, with Young hitting her up for
cash and hotel rooms, promising to reimburse her.
Young would essentially play one victim off another, getting socially
prominent businesspeople to trust him simply because others were doing
likewise. He'd often target people who worked within the same industry
-- architects or accountants, for example -- and as he moved from one
mark to another, he'd amass insider terminology, a list of names to drop,
even business cards, which he would allegedly take from one person's office
to pass out at the next. Since part of the classic Alan Young scam often
included making hollow bids on million-dollar homes, luxury cars, and
boats, he'd also gain credibility because he'd constantly be getting the
five-star treatment from salespeople eager to make commission. His best
trick, says Hare, was getting all of these people to vie for his attention
by creating an "auction atmosphere." They'd set aside their
inhibitions in order to ensure that they got involved in Young's deal
before he left town. And Young's private plane was always about to spirit
Scams of this type generally work for two reasons: embarrassed victims
don't always report their losses, and police officers don't always identify
such complaints as crimes, because they usually appear to be a simple
business deals gone awry, according to Sgt. Peter Lau, an expert on identity
fraud for the Oakland Police Department.
To an officer unfamiliar with the scam's pattern, a con that hinges on
loans and failed business transactions might look like something that
should be resolved by lawyers and not the police. "It gets into a
gray area: Is it civil or criminal?" says Lau.
Since scams such as Young's are nonviolent and often involve moderate
losses, they are a low priority for busy police departments, according
to Lau. Even when officers recognize a reportable offense, the department
may not investigate further unless the case has a high likelihood of being
prosecuted by a district attorney. Police departments usually give top
priority to scams that target vulnerable populations, such as the elderly,
or those involving large financial losses or many people, such as credit-card
fraud, says Inspector Earl Wismer of the San Francisco Police Department's
"We're trying to get the biggest bang for our buck, and we don't
have many bucks," Wismer says. He says the SFPD probably wouldn't
have pursued the Young case last December except that the department has
been leery of showbiz cons ever since 1998, when it nabbed a man who'd
spent ten lucrative years passing himself off as former Eagles bassist
Randy Meisner. "That turned out to be a huge case," says Wismer.
"We wanted to stop this one before it got too far."
Alan Young is now cooling his heels in the same county jail facility where
the Meisner impersonator's criminal career was derailed.
The story of how Young swindled
Harvey Stein, and the police's reaction to it, is a prime example of how
difficult it is to catch a celebrity impersonation con.
Luzar, the athletic league commissioner, says he left Stein's office that
afternoon feeling as if he was in a "dream world." But Stein,
an amiable-looking real-estate and business attorney with wavy graying
hair and a knack for impeccable note-taking and fact-gathering, is used
to handling deals involving large sums of money. He had been reasonably
satisfied by Young's background story and was impressed that Young seemingly
knew respected community members like Luzar and Dodd. At the end of the
group's meeting, Stein agreed to accompany Young to Chevy's in Emeryville,
where accountants were supposed to deliver the checks for the charities.
According to Stein, once seated at the Chevy's bar, the two men ordered
bucket-sized margaritas and Stein tossed out some Motown trivia; Young
seemed to know all the answers. After 6 p.m., when no accountants had
shown up, Young borrowed Stein's cell phone and stepped outside. He returned
a few minutes later saying that the accountants would arrive in a half-hour.
But 6:30 came and still no accountants. Young borrowed the cell phone
again, and then announced that it was just too complicated for the accountants
to arrive that night; he'd rescheduled their meeting for ten o'clock the
At that point, Stein began to smell something faintly rat-like. Just to
make sure there was really a former Motown star named "Cornelius
Grant," he phoned his wife and asked her to do an Internet search.
Yes, she reported back, there was. Stein felt reassured, and when he returned
to the table to find Young chatting with an attractive young woman, who
addressed Young as "Cornelius" and seemed to have known him
for a while, Stein's anxiety was further assuaged. By 6:30 p.m., Young
had already played his three big cards: alcohol, a pretty lady, and the
involvement of respected peers. He'd also promptly discovered that he
was missing his briefcase, which he said was onboard his private plane.
By 8 p.m., the two men had downed $80 worth of margaritas, and Young suggested
that they head over to Yoshi's jazz club in Oakland, where he claimed
he had been invited to do a set. First, however, Young asked if they could
swing by the Oakland Airport's North Field so that he could pick up his
briefcase. Pulling up at the airport's security gate, Stein announced
"Cornelius Grant" into the intercom, and the gate rolled open.
Without passing through any security measures, the two men were escorted
out to a $42 million Gulfstream V airplane.
Although Stein was extremely impressed that his guide had managed to get
them onto such an expensive private plane, he remembers this as the point
he began to feel truly uneasy. "First," he says, "the crew
wasn't falling all over him. If he'd owned that plane, I think the crew
would have been more deferential to him than they were. For example, they
didn't even stand up. And secondly, he didn't have a briefcase."
Young explained away the briefcase by saying that his daughter, who was
staying in San Francisco, must have picked it up earlier. And once they
got to Yoshi's, where Young was comped at the door after he introduced
himself as Cornelius Grant, Stein's faith was somewhat restored. Young
even managed to get them invited backstage by saxophonist David Sánchez,
that night's headliner.
But rather than performing, Grant insisted on leaving about twenty minutes
into the show, asking Stein to rent a limousine to take them to the Boom
Boom Room in San Francisco. Stein declined, reminded Young of their meeting
the next day, and drove Young back to his hotel. When they arrived at
the Oakland Hilton, Young surprised Stein by saying that because he was
missing his briefcase, he didn't have the money to rent a room for the
night. Stein insisted that Young call his daughter and let him speak to
her. Young reluctantly agreed, and Stein spoke with a woman who said yes,
she was Cornelius Grant's daughter, and if Stein put the hotel charges
on his bill, she would switch the charges to her credit card the following
morning. Stein agreed to the plan.
The attorney returned home, fully intending to do some Cornelius Grant
research on the Internet, but was so weary after his bizarre day that
he immediately fell asleep. At 1:15 a.m., the phone rang, waking him up.
It was Young. He said he wanted to watch pay-per-view movies on his room's
television, but the hotel wouldn't let him charge them to Stein's credit
card without authorization. Stein refused, his suspicions fully restored.
Stein woke up the next morning with a sting operation in mind. First,
he used the Internet to look up a few photos. "Unless the real Cornelius
Grant was standing on a stepstool when these pictures were taken, he's
about a foot taller than the guy I was dealing with," says Stein.
Cornelius Grant is also lithe where Alan Young is stocky, and he has a
smooth, angular face. Young's cheeks are covered by a perennial bumpy
rash that he explained away as the result of too many years spent sweating
beneath stage lighting, Stein says.
Stein spent the morning boning up on the details of the real Grant's history,
then ran a log of all the calls that Young had made on his cell phone.
None were to San Francisco, where both his accountants and daughter were
supposedly staying. Finally, Stein drove out to Oakland Airport, and when
he pulled up at the locked gate, he announced "Harvey Stein"
into the intercom. The gate rolled open. "Now Harvey Stein doesn't
have any airplanes parked there," he chuckles. "They'll obviously
open the door for anybody."
Armed with information, Stein returned to the Hilton and rousted Young
from bed, where he was keeping a young woman company. He demanded that
Young meet him downstairs in the coffee shop. As he waited, Stein learned
from the front desk that no daughter paid Young's hotel bill, and that
Young had in fact boosted his tab by watching $150 worth of movies and
consuming $200 worth of minibar products.
When Young finally stumbled into the coffee shop, he ordered a beer for
breakfast, and Stein pelted him with questions about his daughter's whereabouts
and Grant's history. Young became evasive, trying to keep up the charade
by asking Stein to order a conference room for the accountants. He also
asked for $80 to pay the young woman.
But the jig was up. Stein stopped the charges on his hotel bill and refused
to give Young any more money, but he did agree to drive the prostitute
home. He dropped both Young and the woman off at a residence in East Oakland,
then drove back to the hotel where he called the Oakland Police Department.
Young's con-man days could have ended there. But according to Stein, the
Oakland police officer who arrived wouldn't even get out of the car, much
less take a police report. According to Stein, the officer said it sounded
like a matter to be settled in civil court. "He told me that if he
had a dime for every 'Christmas scam' that was pulled off, he could have
retired years ago," says Stein. Crime rises during the holidays,
according to Lau, and people are more generous then -- thus the term "Christmas
Stein tried phoning the police department's fraud unit the following Monday,
and although no one would take his report over the phone, a representative
there did send him some forms to fill out. Stein was frustrated, but concluded
that his losses had been relatively small and, at the very least, his
experience with the fake Temptation made for one heck of a story.
Altogether, Stein lost about $400 after the hotel agreed to cover some
of the loss, Luzar was out for the burritos he bought Young at lunch,
and McClymonds High School lost nothing. By Alan Young standards, this
was small potatoes. By the time Young was busted two weeks later in San
Francisco, he would have hit several more victims, some for thousands
of dollars each. Only then did the Oakland police, who had been contacted
by their San Francisco peers, send someone out to take a report from Stein.
SFPD Inspector Wismer was the man who put the case together after realizing
that Young's most recent victims had all been pulled in by a "Temptations"
hook. According to Wismer, Young's latest pass through the Bay Area began
last July when, under the guise of Temptation Ali "Ollie" Woodson,
he convinced a San Francisco art dealer he planned to invest $160,000
in sculptures. By the time the dealer figured out something was amiss,
a week had gone by and he was out $4,000 in hotel bills and clothing.
Officers picked up Young on a parole violation the following week, and
he went to San Quentin for that offense. But by November he was out again,
and he managed to squeeze $1,300 in hotel bills out of an attorney by
pretending he had $15 million to invest in real estate.
Wismer believes that Young's December scam, during which he switched over
to the pseudonym Cornelius Grant, actually started in Hayward, where he
pledged a $2.5 million donation to the choir at the Glad Tidings Church
and convinced a choir member to foot his hotel bill. Then he apparently
moved on to Stein. According to an incident report filed with the San
Francisco police, within a few days of the Stein swindle Young had convinced
a San Francisco accountant to put him up at the Argent Hotel, where he
ran up an extraordinary $13,000 bill. He later got an Oakland woman to
foot a $1,200 bill at the Holiday Inn on Van Ness. She called the police
when he refused to reimburse her as promised. A prostitute police found
in Young's room -- along with Young himself -- admitted that not only
had she agreed to pretend to be Cornelius Grant's daughter in exchange
for a promised Cadillac SUV, but that Young had finagled $80 out of her.
The officers sent to investigate had the foresight to check with headquarters
to see if anyone might be looking for an Alan Young, Wismer explains.
They got word that Young was under investigation for a string of offenses
and brought him in, putting an end to his latest batch of cons. Meanwhile,
the real Cornelius Grant was none too happy to learn that his name had
been appropriated by an impostor. "The best Christmas present for
me in 2001 was knowing the person who had stolen my identity was behind
bars," he said. "Since he has a long history of getting away
with this, I'm afraid he will ultimately be free to rob someone else of
their most treasured possession ... their good name. I spent a lifetime
earning my place in music history and I'm angry that my name has been
The story of Alan Young's adult
life, as patched together from Alameda County courthouse records, does
not seem to be particularly happy or stable. It alternates between brief
periods of superstar living and much longer ones of incarceration. Although
there is no record that Young ever worked as a professional performer,
he had taken classes in art and theater at the College of Alameda and
seems to have some native musical talent -- his victims have noted that
one of the reasons he was so believable as a recording artist was that
he had convincingly sung or played the piano for them. A West Oakland
resident, Young worked on and off as a city employee and had just quit
a job at the Sanitation Department at the time of his first conviction
in 1975, for stealing jade jewelry from a downtown Oakland salon.
Young's entry into criminal activity appears to have come at a stormy
period in his life. While incarcerated, Young wrote a letter to the judge,
blaming his crimes on his disintegrating marriage. He also informed the
judge that during his incarceration he had authored three plays for inmates
to perform and had written for the Santa Rita newspaper. He promised if
he were released he would stay out of trouble "for as long as water
is wet." He was psychiatrically evaluated for depression several
times; one of his doctors wrote to the judge on Young's behalf seconding
his plea for probation.
Young's letter worked, and he was granted a three-year probation. It was
the last time leniency would be recommended for him. The other legal memoranda
in Young's copious files refer to him as a career criminal known for violating
the terms of his probation, and indeed, within six months of his first
release Young, was busted for another series of storefront burglaries.
He was convicted in 1976 and again in 1979 for second-degree burglary.
It is not clear from his records at what point Young developed a drug
habit, although in the 1979 case the judge agreed to give him three years
of probation instead of almost six years in prison if he agreed to enter
a live-in rehab program in Berkeley. Young consented, but according to
a letter sent by the program's coordinator, Young's behavior was so disruptive
and manipulative that he was booted from the group after only two weeks.
By 1982, Young was picked up for another burglary and was sent to San
Quentin later that year.
Young's shift from burglar to con man seems to have begun in 1984. At
least, that was the first time he was convicted in Alameda County for
posing as a musical celebrity. According to police records, Young made
the acquaintance of two Oakland women by claiming to be singer James Alexander
of the Bar-Kays. He presented one of the women with a $10,000 check to
help her start a new business and the other one with a total of $2,250
in checks to pay for voice lessons and an agent.
Unbeknownst to both women, the checks had been stolen from Young's former
girlfriend, and he had forged her signature on each of them.
After the first woman tried, and failed, to cash the check for ten grand,
Young's ex-girlfriend closed her bank account. Knowing that the remaining
checks would bounce, Young made sure that the second woman deposited them
by ATM, rather than with a bank teller. He then demanded she withdraw
some of the money and spend it on him, including a night at the Hyatt
and a clothing shopping spree at Eastmont Mall. As Young became grabbier
about the money, the woman became suspicious. She eventually called the
bank and learned the checks were no good. Not a woman to be trifled with,
she seems to have set an ambush for Young; according to an Oakland police
incident report, officers arrived at her apartment to find Young stripped
to his underwear and held down by two of her relatives.
That October, Young was convicted on two counts of forgery, for which
he received probation. His next arrest for identity fraud didn't come
until 1988. Perhaps having learned his lesson with the forgery charges,
Young no longer used phony-looking documentation; he instead pulled off
his cons without presenting any identification at all, by referencing
that perpetually missing briefcase. Although the public court record is
incomplete -- apparently some victims did not file police reports and
not all reported incidents went to trial -- this 1988 string of fraud
seems to have lasted the entire summer and stretched over two counties.
During this time, Young adopted the persona of jazz bassist Marcus Miller
and, using a formula similar to the one that duped Stein, swindled at
least a half-dozen victims in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
Young's 1988 spree came to an end when he convinced an Oakland woman named
Katri Jones to spend $2,500 to put him up at a series of hotels and rent
a Lincoln Continental for him. He took her shopping for a yacht and on
a tour of a house he said he was planning to buy in the ritzy Contra Costa
neighborhood of Blackhawk. He started the paperwork at a dealership to
buy her a Rolls Royce and went to a San Francisco CPA to open up a trust
account for her.
Despite Young's highbrow taste, the Jones case had a decidedly classless
finale. The rented Lincoln Continental went missing, along with the cellular
car phone -- then valued at $3,300 -- Jones had rented with it, according
to Oakland police's reports. One of Young's friends told Jones that Young
was a con man, and that he'd seen him exchange the car and phone for either
drugs or money. Jones called the Oakland Police Department and, despite
Young's persistent phone calls from the jailhouse promising marriage and
begging her not to prosecute, Young was convicted of grand theft the following
year and given a prison sentence.
Tony Hare, then a sergeant with Oakland's felony theft unit, remembers
tangling with Young in the late '80s and recalls his scam as simple yet
endlessly adaptable. He notes that Young usually started out each con
penniless and threadbare, but within a few days was wearing designer suits,
mingling with wealthy businesspeople, and staying at the best hotels in
town. "I frequently marveled and told him he was so good at what
he was doing that if he was doing it legally, he could live the lifestyle
he aspired to," remembers Hare.
Throughout the early '90s, Young was in and out of jail again on charges
relating to a car theft in Hercules and his repeated burglarizing of a
Berkeley real estate agency. He chronically broke probation agreements,
and a series of aggravated-sounding memos from his probation officer to
the judge claim that he continued to pull off con jobs by posing as a
celebrity, although none of these cases seem to have gone to court. In
a 1993 letter written to the Alameda County district attorney requesting
that he be allowed to take vocational education courses, Young wrote "I
believe I keep going to prison because I have no skills other than being
a con man."
Whether or not he truly intended
to go straight, by 1995 he was at it again. Young's approach included
many of the elements of his 1988 scams, but this time his targets were
mostly well-heeled male professionals, instead of working-class West Oakland
This time, Young presented himself differently to his two main marks.
To a real-estate agent named James Johnson, Young claimed that he was
in town to arrange an appearance for singer Nancy Wilson on Fox television.
To a lawyer named Thomas Hanavan, Young claimed to be owner of a $34 million
business, the recipient of eight Grammys, and the son of drummer Lester
Young. He gave both of them a dummy Pasadena office address and phone
number that had by now become a standard part of his story.
By the time police caught up with what was going on, both men had been
taken for quite a ride. Johnson had led Young on a real-estate tour including
his own home, which Young readily agreed to buy for the asking price of
more than $1 million. Because Young's briefcase was regrettably discovered
to be missing, Johnson was persuaded to loan his new client money for
a change of clothes, a rental car, two nights' stays at posh Oakland hotels,
and a $660 cash advance. But two days later, when Young's daughter failed
to arrive from Los Angeles to deliver her father's briefcase as promised,
Johnson informed the police. When officers raided the hotel room, the
only occupant they found was a prostitute who also was wondering where
Young had gone.
Two days later he surfaced in Hanavan's office, claiming that he needed
the law firm's help in managing his assets. Young convinced the firm to
put him up in another Oakland hotel, and although they had only paid for
one night's occupancy, Young managed to stay for three, running up an
$1,800 bill by ordering room service and alcohol and making long-distance
phone calls. When Young made no effort to settle his account, the hotel's
manager complained to the police. Despite the efforts of a bell captain
who was posted in the hall to make sure Young didn't leave without paying,
he fled once again.
In roughly the week that it had taken for him to sting Johnson and Hanavan,
Young had woven a complicated web of new relationships. He had approached
at least four San Francisco businessmen -- an attorney, an investment
manager, an accountant, and the head of a securities firm -- using the
same story about being a Pasadena businessman. He managed to get each
of the men to spend time talking to him, and some of them spent more than
that. One took him out for drinks and advanced him $120. Another one put
him up for an additional night's stay at San Francisco's Mandarin-Oriental
Hotel, where Young was finally apprehended due to a sneaky police maneuver
involving dry cleaning. Having learned from a hotel staffer that Young
was having his suit cleaned, the police simply made sure that the suit's
return was delayed long enough for them to show up at his room and snap
the cuffs on.
Young was again written up on grand theft charges, and this time investigators
managed to unravel one of the more enduring mysteries of the Alan Young
set-up by calling the Pasadena phone number he claimed was his office
line. It turned out to belong to one Brenda Ross, the sister of a man
who once had been incarcerated with Young. Ross had met Young while teaching
Bible classes to inmates. Now she was annoyed by the parade of strangers
who kept calling her home, and by the mysterious messages that Young would
leave on her answering machine acting like he was talking to a real person
while ordering some kind of money transfer. By the time Young had been
convicted for this particular round of swindles, had been in and out of
prison and had moved on to yet another con, he would still be passing
out the same dummy address and phone number. By then, however, the line
would have been disconnected.
The last time Young was convicted was for a con that took place in August
1999. By then, Young had updated his star status. In addition to claiming
to be Lester Young's son, he now presented himself as an associate of
Luther Vandross who was planning to finance a $38 million music studio
in Hayward. To prep for the scam, Young first toured a Hayward building
with a real-estate broker, gathering business cards and learning the property's
specifics. Then he hit up at least three Bay Area architects in rapid
succession with nearly identical stories. He offered each man a hefty
retainer fee in order to get the studio construction project moving quickly,
saying that he was looking for people he could trust because previous
consultants had stolen from him.
Then, if the architect agreed, they'd head to a bank and open a joint
account seeded with the architect's money. Young would make cell phone
calls loudly ordering the transfer of several million dollars to the fund
by the following day. He'd then tell the architect that he could withdraw
his fees from the bank account. As evening fell, Young would inevitably
bemoan his missing briefcase, and he would ask his hosts to fund that
night's entertainment, either promising to pay them back with interest
and lavish gifts, or telling them that they could simply withdraw their
money from the funds he'd wired to the bank.
According to the Emeryville Police Department's records, at least two
of the three people he approached fell for it. Igino Pellizzari, a Berkeley
architect, popped for nearly $2,500 worth of entertainment. The tab included
$600 worth of clothes at the Men's Wearhouse, a hefty bar tab at Kincaid's
in Oakland, a limousine with a full bar to take Young and some of his
recently acquired lady friends clubbing, two separate cash advances, and
money to pay off two of the three hookers who turned up in his hotel room
the next morning. A few days later, an Emeryville architect, Richard Swain,
ended up funding another shopping spree that included a $1,500 cash advance
plus $2,186 worth of clothing at the Men's Wearhouse. (Store receipts
show that Young's tastes skewed towards the expensively gaudy; he selected
snakeskin shoes, silk ties, and Giorgio fragrances.) It was not until
after Swain had checked Young into a $660-a-night room at Berkeley's Claremont
Hotel that he began to have some regrets and conferred with his attorney,
who had spent a good deal of the day trying to call the disconnected number
Meanwhile, Young had procured a white stretch limousine for himself and
somehow ended up in the parking lot of Wholesale Foods in Oakland, where
he hired a young man to work as his security guard. The next morning,
Young and his new employee were nabbed by the Emeryville police when they
pulled up in front of Swain's office in the limo. Although the Emeryville
police charged him with eight counts of grand theft, less than two years
later he was a free man again -- with a new identity as a Temptation.
If the mechanics of how Young's
con works can be elucidated through his police records, it's harder to
explain why it works. People who have not been subject to Young's charms
often wonder why anyone falls for his extravagant claims. There are probably
as many answers as there are victims, but perhaps part of the answer is
that he has expertly played on the spend-money-to-make-money business
culture, whose members consider buying big lunches and drinks part of
the cost of doing business.
Or perhaps he owes part of his success, particularly in more recent years,
to the gullibility of upper-class whites embarrassed by the idea that
they haven't recognized a African-American musical legend. The East Bay
is in fact a touring destination for many of the celebrities Young impersonated
-- the Temptations, Nancy Wilson, and Marcus Miller have all performed
here within the last four months.
Hare is quick to point out that most con victims are not motivated by
greed and indeed, some of Young's victims, such as the Oakland Athletic
League and the Hayward church choir, became involved for charitable reasons.
More often, Young simply played off a professional's desire to provide
services to a demanding client.
Simply put, people want to go along with the crowd, especially one following
a charismatic superstar with money to burn. "When people start to
get suspicious, some of their suspicions are allayed by his obvious success
with astute businessmen, luxury car dealerships, yacht dealerships, real-estate
people," says Tony Hare. "They see him being wined and dined
by players at least as big or bigger than they are, with all of the trappings
of wealth. That's tough to argue with. They see that A) they're not alone
and B) they don't want to embarrass themselves by being the cheap, penurious
little fish who's swimming with the sharks."
And when logical questions arise, people who want to play enough will
invent their own answers. "He gives you enough information to allow
you to fill in the gaps," says Oakland attorney Harvey Stein. "It
doesn't all add up, but enough of it adds up that you're ready to say,
'Okay, how did he get on the plane?' Or you go to Yoshi's and he gets
comped and everybody falls all over him, you say 'Okay, how do I know
they don't know who he is?' And of course when he shows up at the restaurant
with a beautiful woman who's a foot taller than he is and gorgeous and
fifteen years younger, you think, how does an ugly short guy like this
have a beautiful woman like that? So you fill in that kind of stuff."
Since Young isn't talking, it's hard to know just why he plays his game.
Does his ability to convince people that he is someone else stem from
an identity disorder? His investigators emphatically say no. "I don't
think he believed he was Marcus Miller, but I think he believed that he
was a dominant personality, which is not a person that lives on his block
in West Oakland," Hare says. "I think he saw himself as a more
powerful, more effective big shot and he only supported that fantasy and
persona when he was playing that role, enjoying the drinks, the clothes,
the fast cars, the attractive women, and the adulation of people all around
him. I guess he figured 'Marcus Miller' and everything else in this world
are stage names, and he got to pick the stage and the play."
The Emeryville Police Department's Sgt. Frank Sierras, who worked the
Young case in 1999, puts it more bluntly: "This man is as sane as
you and I, although a hundred times more stealthy and bold."
While some con men have amassed fortunes, Young's endgame appears to have
been much simpler: to have a good time for as long as it lasted. Even
though Young knew he would never move into the Blackhawk mansion or sail
the yacht, the real point of the scam was to enjoy the attention, free
meals, and other perks that come with being a high-budget shopper. He'd
simply get what he could from each victim, then move on to the next warm
handshake. "Any cash this guy might have obtained from any of his
victims I know about he used to schmooze and buy food and drink,"
says Wismer. "He was living the high life." Despite his amazing
run of luck in San Francisco last winter, when arrested, Young had only
$3.04 left in his pocket.
What next for Young? In the
past, he has blown through the judicial and corrections system as easily
as he's disappeared from hotel rooms. After all, it's hard for police
to nail him unless victims come forward and can prove that their losses
to Young were more than business deals gone bad. Shame prevents many of
them from doing so. The Oakland Police Department's Lau suggests that
fraud is an attractive crime to older career criminals with lengthy prior
conviction records because it's less physically demanding and usually
results in less jail time. That means there are plenty of guys like Young
-- although perhaps less skilled -- out there demanding police attention,
and the justice system may never catch up with them all. Plus, compared
with other paper crimes like embezzlement, a celebrity impersonation con,
no matter how elegantly crafted or deftly repeated, is still relatively
Thanks to a parole hold and $75,000 bail, Young currently resides at a
glassy, modern jail facility just a few steps away from the San Francisco
Hall of Justice, where he is waiting for the court to set a date for his
preliminary hearing. The San Francisco county district attorney's office
estimates that if found guilty on all current counts, Young could face
up to twenty years in jail. There has been some talk of flying the real
Cornelius Grant and Ali Woodson up to San Francisco to testify if the
case goes to trial. The Oakland police department is still investigating
the case, and charges have not yet been filed in Alameda County.
Whatever happens next in the life of Alan Young, it should be quite a
stories about Alan Young:
The Talented Mr. Young
The Return of the Fifth Top
Tell Me, Have You Seen Him?
Earth, Wind & Alan