Call us crazy, but nothing brightened our holiday season like getting an e-mail from a banker at a San Francisco Wells Fargo telling us that he'd spotted The Talented Mr. Young -- perhaps better known to our long-time readers as the Imitation Temptation, the Fifth Top, and one of the best con men to ever work the Bay Area. His real name is Alan Young, and he's a former West Oakland garbageman who over the last several decades has made a stunning career of passing himself off as various Motown legends and other music industry professionals in order to get people to invest in his business scams and butter him up with treats like fancy dinners and stays in top-notch hotels. He's been busted numerous times, but he's never in jail for long, and for a reporter who loves nothing more than a good tale of chicanery, hearing that Young is back on the prowl is like getting a visit from Santa -- although this Santa's bag of tricks ain't all that nice, and he's the one who ends up with all the presents. The alarming thing is, this time around, law enforcement says that he'll be extra hard to catch.
Young's criminal career began in the mid-'70s, and he's been working the music industry angle since at least 1984. At various points in his illustrious career, Young has passed himself off as different members of the Temptations, the Four Tops, and the Bar-Kays, as well as claiming to be jazz bassist Marcus Miller, the bassist for Luther Vandross' backing band, an arranger for jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, an associate of Miles Davis, and the son of jazz drummer Lester Young. He often approaches his victims -- usually well-heeled professionals such as architects or art dealers -- in their offices or at bars and restaurants, charms them with his loquaciousness, his ability to sing and play the piano, his facility with Motown trivia, and his uncanny ability to get comped at Yoshi's and get admitted to private aircraft at the Oakland Airport, despite the fact that he neither owns an airplane nor has any real musical credentials. Then he makes his victims an offer they can't refuse. Sometimes Young says it's an investment opportunity -- say for a new music studio, or real estate, or artwork. Sometimes it's a charity gig. No matter what the deal, Young invariably "discovers" that his briefcase and wallet are mysteriously missing, and throws himself upon the good graces of his new partner to cover entertainment expenses for him until his credit cards can be retrieved. Eager to please someone they think is a celebrity, Young's victims have shelled out thousands to put him up at the best hotels in town and buy him clothes, meals, expensive nights on the town, and even drugs and hookers.
While in most cases the point of Young's con was to have a few wild nights at the expense of another, in a few cases, the endgame went much further. He would convince his victim to open up a "joint" bank account with him for their business venture. The victim would deposit his money and Young would promise to have his own funds wired into the account, but instead, he'd actually drain it.
Many of Young's victims are too embarrassed to report the scam, which has enabled him to engineer "passes" through entire business communities during which he amasses an impressive amount of insider terminology as well as the right names and business cards to drop -- all of which helps him continue the con with his next victim. Even those who file police reports may be reluctant to testify, which has made it hard to put Young away for a significant amount of time, says now-retired San Francisco police Inspector Earl Wismer, who worked his case on that side of the bay. "The embarrassment and negative publicity would be detrimental, and they say, 'I don't want to deal with that,'" Wismer says.
When the Express first encountered Young in early 2002, it looked like he had reached his own endgame. He'd spent the previous winter passing himself off as former Temptations member Cornelius Grant, trying to con folks at the Oakland Athletic League, McClymonds High School, and the Glad Tidings Church of God in Hayward. Young was arrested in San Francisco after running up $13,000 in hotel bills at someone else's expense, and at the time, we thought the courts would throw the book at him: he'd been charged with eighteen counts of fraud, impersonation, and forgery, and could have been facing two decades in prison.
But a year later, Berkeley real-estate agents George and Mary Oram phoned us with a surprising claim: Young had been in their office trying to make a deal. (Among other things, he claimed he was in the market for a warehouse large enough for his 27 cars, plus a grand piano, so he could play and sing to them.) The Orams Googled Alan Young, found our article, and gave us a call. All of us wondered, why was Young a free man? Turns out, the Oakland Police Department never filed charges with the Alameda County District Attorney, and the case never went to trial in San Francisco because the key witness was loathe to testify.
Shortly after Young's run-in with the Orams in 2003, and once he had lightened the wallet of a San Francisco gallery owner from whom he'd pretended to buy a painting, he was again busted in a San Francisco hotel. According to Wismer, he was in county jail until this spring. Once again, says Wismer, it was difficult to prosecute Young because there were problems getting witnesses to talk -- either because they were prominent businesspeople reluctant to garner bad publicity for themselves, or because the process of going to court was just too onerous. Ultimately, Wismer says, Young was released for time served without ever having to go to state prison.
Now there are signs that Young is back to his old tricks. Last week he reportedly turned up at a San Francisco Wells Fargo inquiring about opening a $30,000 business account with some "associates" whom he promised to bring in for an appointment later that afternoon. One of the bank's patrons recognized him and warned a staffer to do a Google search, which turned up the Express articles. The bank contacted the police, but since Young hadn't done anything illegal, there wasn't much law enforcement could do. When Young returned later that afternoon, he allegedly heightened bank staffers' suspicions by asking questions about how quickly he could withdraw a lump sum of money from the account, but his "associates" never showed up, money never changed hands, and ultimately, staffers think they scared him off with tough questioning.
Bank staffers noted that Young was using his own name instead of a Motown celebrity's, and investigators say that his most recent passes through the Bay Area show that he's adapting his game -- instead of borrowing a name, he uses his own, but totally invents a wealthy, well-connected persona to inhabit. That's probably a smart move, because this kind of fraud is a much lower priority for law enforcement than a celebrity impersonator. "He knows he'll go to jail if he impersonates someone," Wismer says. "Identity theft is a huge, huge issue, and judges are more likely to put someone in jail for it now than if they dupe somebody."
Worse, the recent rise in violent crime has shuffled law enforcement personnel away from working property crimes. Local police fraud units are already understaffed -- San Francisco has five investigators, Oakland has only two. By necessity, these officers must focus on big-ticket crimes they know will be a slam-dunk for the district attorney: ones that cause huge losses, or target the elderly, or have a particularly high-profile victim. Young's scams are nonviolent, usually cost his victims a few thousand bucks, target the affluent and the middle-aged, and may look, at first blush, like business deals gone sideways. He'll never be public enemy #1.
He is, however, amazingly persistent. He's "as good as it gets," in the con artist game, says Wismer. "He is a social engineer. He will take his con wherever he can. His forte of course is getting people to do what he wants them to do when he wants them to do it, but his game will work just about anywhere and it just depends on who he gets ahold of."
In the past, that's always meant coming home to the East Bay. The Express is currently requesting a more recent booking photo of Young than the one displayed above, because those who've seen him recently says his look changed in jail -- his hair has gone white, for one thing. But if you spot him, give us a ring.
And if a smooth-talking, musically-inclined stranger approaches you this winter and makes you an amazing investment offer, says Lt. Ken Lee, the head of the San Francisco PD's Fraud Department, "It's the old adage: Buyer beware. People can package themselves very well, and it could be an empty package."
Besides, he says, "In this day of the Internet, how hard is it to Google somebody?"
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