October 24, 2014

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Con man leaves trail of swindled friends


Srail

SAN ANTONIO — It’s not much to hold a suspect on — the alleged theft of $2,500 from a musician who thought an investment could bring him some extra cash for more studio time.

It’s a tiny amount, really, compared to the tens of thousands of dollars others say they’ve lost to the charming stranger who walked into their lives.

But the warrant is something, a first step toward stopping a guy who acquaintances say crisscrossed the country, making promises, accepting cash and vanishing — always with a seemingly heartfelt apology scrawled on yellow legal paper.

“The long con,” it’s called, and those who knew him say he got very good at it.

•••

David Scott Srail is a man of considerable gifts.

Blessed with a wide smile and a glowing tan, he has dark hair that looks like he just ran his fingers through it. He’s smart and funny and a good salesman.

People who befriended the 40-year-old as he moved from Cleveland to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and eventually to Texas and Arizona used the same word over and over again: charismatic.

He attended Kent State University and had good jobs in Ohio and Florida. He worked hard for his employer in San Antonio. But Srail also had invented family members, a tragic life story and, it seems, investment opportunities.

One thing, however, was very real throughout: his gambling habit.

The Ohio native was an experienced handicapper even in college, and he competed in the Penn National’s World Series of Handicapping in 1991. Working in the public relations department at the Cleveland area’s Thistledown race track, he hosted handicapping seminars until he quit in 1995.

AP
A room of a flophouse, the last known residence of con artist Dave Srail, in San Antonio.

Fellow horse bettor and college friend Greg Columbus gave him his $10,000 inheritance, all the money Columbus had, so Srail could supposedly invest it in a family real estate deal in 1992. Srail even signed a promissory note.

Then he stalled and made excuses. Columbus finally sued and Srail’s father paid off the debt, Columbus said.

In all, Srail’s family has bailed him out to the tune of $100,000, according to a handwritten letter he sent to a friend in Florida.

His family declined to discuss his history in detail. His older brother, Ken, called it “a source of pain and sadness” for them.

“It was a lesson learned,” said Columbus, now 39.

Others would learn lessons, too.

Christine Dinger met Srail in 1998, and mutual acquaintances warned her not to give him any money. For a couple of years, he didn’t ask. Then a trainer for an insurance company, he talked of owning a home in an upscale section of Cleveland and of taking in a widower brother with two young children.

“He knew how to make people feel like they were the only person in the room, and he was spectacular at it,” said Dinger, who worked on screenplays with Srail and occasionally traveled with him. He was a jokester, but one line she recalls has lost its humor: "If you can’t remember my name, just spell ‘liars’ backward.”

In time, she put up $2,000 to join with Srail in what he described as antique and real estate investments, she said.

It was only after Srail filed for bankruptcy and vanished in August 2001 that Dinger learned her friend had fabricated much of his life story.

Srail didn’t own a home; he had been living with his parents. His brother was no widower. The children were college-age, she said.

Shortly after he left, a letter handwritten on yellow legal paper addressed to Dinger arrived in the mail — a pattern that would become familiar to friends in Florida and Texas.

He was leaving, going to start a charter fishing business, he said.

•••

Why he chose Florida isn’t entirely clear. He liked to fish, but Dinger figured it might also have been his love of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in the Keys, that called him to the state.

He got a job at a mortgage company in Fort Lauderdale, leading a team that handled loan paperwork in the closing process.

He rented a beach house in Hollywood, Fla., and made friends. He paid big bar tabs and often grabbed the check for lunch or dinner.

Avelina Myers, a co-worker and neighbor, said Srail introduced her to the man who later became her husband. Srail spent Thanksgiving at her mother’s house; he did the dishes. He consoled her when a friend committed suicide.

And he told stories.

He wore a ring on a chain around his neck. He said it belonged to a fiancee who died of cancer in Ohio. (Dinger said Srail never had a fiancee or wife as far as she or his family knew.)

Srail knew something about stamps and discussed their investment potential, friends said. His brother, Ken, is a stamp dealer, and to some investors, he posed as Ken in e-mail to help win their trust, Srail later told Myers.

Srail talked of buying real estate, and Myers and her husband said he convinced them to invest.

In all, the couple said they gave Srail $35,000, scraped together from relatives and from the savings that Myers’ husband had been putting aside by working a second job. Srail signed promissory notes, guaranteeing repayment.

All the while, a dozen co-workers were also giving Srail money, Myers said — including one who put up $50,000. Myers estimated he received as much as $200,000 from her and her colleagues in Florida.

Srail disappeared in September 2005.

None of the investors got anything back — or found any evidence that antiques or real estate were purchased as promised, Myers said.

But they got handwritten letters on yellow legal paper.

He wrote to Myers: “How does one explain that this person they’ve come to know and love has essentially been a fraud? I am.”

She was perplexed until she went across the street to his beach cottage. There, she found betting slips scattered everywhere. “It looked like confetti,” she said.

Police told them they had no criminal case. They could sue, try to enforce the promissory notes, but no one had any money left, she said.

“We all know we’re not getting our money back, but we’d like justice,” Myers said.

Her mother set up a Web site, registered under Srail’s name, a desperate attempt to at least warn others.

The Web site would eventually help draw a Texas detective into Srail’s case.

•••

In one letter, Srail said he was going to New York. But a few months later, he was living in Scottsdale, Ariz., and using the name “David Scott,” his first and middle names.

The suit-and-tie jobs dried up, and within months he was looking for work at a day labor center — in San Antonio. That’s where Eddie Ortiz, the owner of a local landscaping company, met him in September 2006.

Srail worked hard, Ortiz said. He shoveled rock and planted flowers — all the while telling jokes and talking about the importance of trust.

Ortiz, a 27-year-old who grew up in a gritty Phoenix neighborhood, built his business from scratch and has seen liars and addicts aplenty. But he had no idea that Srail, who sat side-by-side with him in his work truck for months, could be taking him for a ride.

“He’s very good at what he does,” said Ortiz, who said he gave Srail about $6,500 to invest in antiques and real estate. Ortiz also lent him a car so he could regularly drive to Austin for a paid medical study he was participating in.

There the pattern continued: A couple of fellow study participants got to know Srail while waiting in line. They shot hoops or went for drinks in their off-time. Srail often picked up the check. The man who folks in Austin knew as “David Scott” claimed to be writing a book and said he had a wife and son who died in a car accident. He often talked of loyalty and friendship.

Study participant Juan Gonzalez, a 30-year-old musician, invested $2,500 in a purported real estate deal that was supposed to quickly give him $6,200 back.

When Srail took off in May, Gonzalez didn’t think much of it — until he and another study participant who said he had given Srail about $9,000 realized they couldn’t find him.

Repeated phone calls brought only voicemail.

Gonzalez remembered having seen “David Scott” use the name “Srail” on a sign-in sheet for the medical study. He punched the name into Google and instantly found the Web site.

His heart sank. The site outlined a pattern of promissory notes, unfulfilled promises and even handwritten letters that Gonzalez immediately recognized.

Gonzalez, who knew about Srail’s landscaping job, contacted Ortiz in San Antonio. When Ortiz went to the ratty room Srail had been renting, there were betting slips everywhere.

“I never really think that someone can lie right to your face and pretend to be your friend,” Gonzalez said.

He called Austin police.

Often, authorities treat such cases as a civil matter. They are difficult to prove. The line between a scam and a bad investment can be blurry. When money is voluntarily handed over, it can be hard to make a case that the money was swindled, not merely a loan or gift, said FBI spokesman Eric Vasys.

People who knew Srail in Ohio, Florida and Texas said during interviews with The Associated Press that they had at least $105,000 in personal losses to him, and Myers said her co-workers lost tens of thousands of dollars more.

“Law enforcement has never touched it because it kind of borders on a civil matter,” said Austin Detective Roger Bailey, who got Gonzalez’s call.

But Srail’s consistent pattern — similar stories, similar investment plans, those letters — were what most convinced the detective that this is a prosecutable case. An arrest warrant, based on Gonzalez’ complaint, was issued in July.

It’s unclear where Srail is now. Police can’t say. An extensive public records search by the AP turned up no current listings for him.

“I don’t know where he is,” Bailey said, “but I guarantee you that he is greasing someone up.” And he hopes Srail’s consistency will be his undoing.