When 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 in prison (The Talented Mr. Young," March 27, 2002"). 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 Berkeley hills.
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."
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