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we last checked in with Alan Young, perhaps
the smoothest celebrity-impersonating criminal ever to work Alameda County,
he was firmly behind bars on eighteen counts of fraud, impersonation,
and forgery, looking at the possibility of spending the next two decades
Now, only a year later, he appears to be back on the streets, shopping
for expensive paintings in San Francisco and real estate in the swank
For those readers unfamiliar with the legend that is Young, the former
sanitation worker from West Oakland has spent more than twenty years in
the East Bay squeezing expensive treats and luxury hotel stays out of
local businesspeople by pretending to be musical celebrities including
jazz bassist Marcus Miller, members of the Temptations, the Bar-Kays,
and Luther Vandross' backing band.
Young typically approached architects, real estate agents, gallery owners,
or other upscale professionals, offering them too-good-to-be-true business
deals and playing on their urge to make a big sale to a superstar. He
would sweet-talk them into putting him up in fancy hotels and plying him
with pricey clothing, drinks, limo rides, meals, and club-hopping excursions.
In some cases, Young even got his marks to give him cash or open joint
bank accounts from which he could withdraw their money.
In return, he promised to cut them in on his business ventures, lulled
them with promises of gifts like luxury cars or voice lessons, and dazzled
them with his uncanny ability to pop into local nightspots and be treated
like a legendary performer. He could sing, play piano, and talk Motown
trivia like a pro; his personal charm guaranteed that he would soon have
acquired a comet tail of salespeople and hangers-on, all eager to please
him.Then, as soon as people wised up to the con, Young would vanish.
Of course, every now and then, he got caught. Over the years, Young racked
up several stints in Alameda County and Los Angeles County jails on a
variety of fraud and theft charges, but nothing seemed likely to keep
him behind bars for very long until December 2001. Portraying himself
as former Temptations musical director Cornelius Grant, he approached,
with varying degrees of success, a number of East Bay institutions including
the Oakland Athletic League, McClymonds High School, and Glad Tidings
Church of God in Hayward.
Young was finally nabbed in San Francisco after conning someone out of
$13,000 in hotel bills. He was charged with eighteen counts of fraud,
impersonation, and forgery; the San Francisco County district attorney's
office estimated that he could do twenty years if convicted on all counts.
Although he was arrested and jailed in San Francisco, because Young's
criminal activities that winter had allegedly spanned so many counties
there was talk of taking the case to the state attorney general, and of
flying the real Cornelius Grant in to testify. It seemed like the end
of Alan Young's career as flimflam artist.
But Berkeley real-estate agents George and Mary Oram say Young has wriggled
through the system once again. Two weeks ago, a man identifying himself
as Alan Young and claiming to be a five-time Grammy winner, bassist for
Luther Vandross, and the owner of a fleet of touring buses, turned up
in their office saying he was arranging to buy a $4.25 million home in
the Berkeley hills through another Berkeley agency, and that he wanted
them to help him with the purchase, then rehab and manage the property.
This in itself didn't seem too unusual; the Orams are used to handling
large transactions with professional investors. But they did raise an
amused eyebrow when the man mentioned that he also wanted to buy a warehouse
large enough for his 27 cars, plus a grand piano, so he could play and
sing to them. The man delighted the Orams and their employees at ERI Real
Estate Services with his geniality and apparent generosity, offering the
couple an extra 10 percent interest on any real estate deals they might
make while managing $20 million worth of investments for him. Over drinks
at Garibaldi's with agents from ERI and the Grubb Company, he and a local
attorney wrote an offer on the $4.25 million house. Then he announced
it was his birthday, a limo was procured, and he departed for a night
on the town with two ERI agents.
But the Orams smelled a rat. They couldn't find a reference to Alan Young
on the Grammys Web site, nor a listing for him at the Claremont Hotel,
where he claimed he was staying. One of their employees noticed that the
man had dirty fingernails, assuming that a professional musician would
have immaculate hands. The next morning, when they called a phone number
their new client gave as his lawyer's, the man who answered the phone
greeted them with an unlawyerly "Hey, bro." By then, a Web search
had turned up the Express article detailing Young's past scams,
which matched the Orams' experiences note for note.
But while the couple now knows they were had, they're not upset. After
all, they and their employees lost nothing more than seven hours' worth
of limousine bills and the time they spent wooing a client who, although
bogus, had given them an enjoyable evening. "It felt like a visit
from Santa," George Oram says. "He wanted to give us all his
albums, and give me a car and give my daughter a photo session with a
professional photographer. The man is sheer magic." His wife agrees,
adding: "I can't stop smiling."
But if it's really Alan Young, why is he again at large? You'd think his
high recidivism rate and eighteen prior fraud charges would have kept
him locked up for a long time. But San Francisco Police Inspector Earl
Wismer, the detective who followed Young on that side of the bay, says
Young's case never went to trial in San Francisco because the prosecution's
key witness was reluctant to testify. After waiting in jail for more than
a year, Young was cut a deal for time served. "He'd been in jail
for longer than we'd get anyway," says Wismer.
In fact, the SFPD didn't have much to work with. The bulk of the complaints
generated against Young in 2001 came from Alameda County, particularly
Oakland. But the Oakland Police Department apparently never filed charges
with the Alameda County district attorney's office. In fact, Oakland attorney
Harvey Stein, one of Young's victims in 2001, found that it took repeated
complaints to even get the OPD to take a report. The OPD did not return
calls for this story, but many police forces are reluctant to investigate
identity fraud cases unless the victim's losses are heavy. Such scams
often look less like crimes for the police to solve than rotten business
deals that should be hashed out in civil court.
"There is a little bit of a cloudy in-between area about whether
or not victims are making willing choices to provide gratuities or pay
for things because of their enamorment with whoever the person is,"
notes Mary Kusmiss, spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department, where
records show that Young was arrested four times between 1989 and 1994,
and listed in four more cases as a suspect. "Is that civil or is
that criminal? If he charms them to wine and dine him, that doesn't necessarily
fit the framework of a crime, but if he goes out and says, 'Hey, this
week I'm low on cash from the record company, can you front me $500?,'
there's a crime happening."
While the story of how Young avoided prosecution this time is murky, it's
clear that he is indeed a free man. On March 27, exactly a year after
our story ran, Young was released by the San Francisco jail to another
facility in Solano County, where he served an additional month on property
theft and probation violation charges. He was released again on April
28. Kurt Hawkins, Young's Alameda County parole agent, says Young never
checked in with him upon release, and that there's currently a warrant
out for his arrest.
Young was apparently back to his old tricks even before the Orams received
their surprise visit on May 5. On April 30, someone claiming to be a member
of the Four Tops approached a San Francisco art gallery, offered to buy
a painting valued at $19,500, volunteered to have the money wired in from
elsewhere, then hit the gallery's director up for drinks, dinner, and
a limo, Wismer says. Eventually, the director realized he was being conned
and contacted the police. Although the mysterious Four Tops member was
later identified as Young, the investigation has been pushed to the bottom
of the fraud department's priority list since the painting never changed
hands and no losses were filed in the complaint.
Young is on parole in San Francisco until 2005, and Wismer plans to report
his reemergence as the Fifth Top as a parole violation.
Meanwhile, the Orams have spoken with the Berkeley Police Department,
but the investigating detective decided the situation didn't merit a crime
report -- not surprising in a case where the financial losses were minimal,
people willingly parted with their money, and Young operated under his
own name. "We have to wait for some further instance of the crime
where he's able to garner money somehow, obtain money by false pretenses,"
says Berkeley's Kusmiss. To make it worth their while, overworked law
enforcement agencies will need very clear proof of wrongdoing, complete
with willing witnesses and paper trails, so convincing a district attorney
it's worth crafting a case against Young may not be easy.
Until then, Wismer believes Young will keep operating as he always has.
"This guy is going to do it until Hell freezes over," he says,
"because this is what he does."
More stories about Alan Young:
The Talented Mr. Young
The Return of the Fifth Top
Tell Me, Have You Seen Him?
Earth, Wind & Alan