Oakland 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. And he never did attend McClymonds High School. 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 the Bar-Kays. 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 star treatment.
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 hearing.
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 police jurisdictions.
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 repeats itself.
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 younger.”
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 him away.
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 fraud unit.
“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 following morning.
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 scam.”
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 tarnished.”
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 women.
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 in Pasadena.
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 small-time.
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 show.