The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound – Chapter 20

The Matter of the Vanishing Greyhound

Golden Gate Disappearing Greyhound Bus Caper

Steven Levi

Master of the Impossible Crime

Chapter 20

Jerome Rasperson, his real name and usually followed by a sic. in parenthesis even after 19 years with the San Francisco Business-Herald, was not at all interested in what the police had to say about the strange robbery involving ten million dollars, a missing Greyhound bus and ten hostages. Here was a story crying for investigative journalism at its very best. And on an accelerated schedule. Never one to let a great story slip through his fingers, he was on the unfolding saga of the Butterfield-Fargo First National Bank robbery and kidnapping and disappearance of a Greyhound bus-like chrome on a trailer hitch. But, because of his background and experience, he took a different tack on the robbery than any other reporter in San Francisco.

From a physical perspective, Jerome Rasperson was hardly an unimposing character. He stood well over six feet and weighed enough to frighten heavyweight boxers. Thick of frame, he looked more like a gorilla than a bear and had a stringy, brown, unkempt beard making his face appear to be peeking out of a cave. The hair on his pate was short but refused to be tamed thus adding to his image as a wild man. While the rest of his colleagues wore clothes that fit like gloves, though some of them were oversized, Rasperson’s hung loose but could not hide his massive body. He looked like a weight lifter even though he had not seen the inside of a gym since Spiro Agnew was Vice President.
As a Vietnam veteran, not of the press corps but the Army corps, he was not adverse to being under fire – political or sniper – and knew the best stories came not from press conferences but press confrontations. While the rest of the reporters were covering The Night of Vanishing Greyhound from the bars and briefing rooms of the San Francisco Police and Mayor’s office, Rasperson was on the streets. This was where his resources were the most remunerative.

This was hardly a run-of-the-mill enterprise. Following the time-honored tradition of snitches, Rasperson used every connection he had with the San Francisco over and underworld, which were considerable as he had been a crime reporter for nearly two decades. While his stature in the crime reporting business was roundly stated to be based on fluke, accident, coincidence and luck, those in the legal establishment knew Rasperson maintained ties with the underworld primarily because he was considered a two-way street of information. He was intimate with the workings of the San Francisco Police and as such could barter, bargain and exchange favors and tidbits with snitches.

Even before the rest of the San Francisco press establishment began parking their BMWs the day of the robbery, Rasperson was on the street. Something about the theft intrigued him. As soon as the police frequency began babbling of a hostage situation on Monday at 10:30 a.m., he knew this was a big story.


At 10 a.m.?

Usually hostages in a bank job came when the thieves were caught red-handed in the bank with the police on the outside.

Second, his anonymous tip came from an unknown source.

Rasperson didn’t have unknown sources.

On the street, no one knew anything. Nothing. Nada. Niento. Goose egg. Zip. It was as if Martians had landed to rob the bank.

By noon it was clear whoever was in the bank, Martians notwithstanding, was not local. They were also either very foolhardy or had planned meticulously. It also looked like an inside job. This particular branch of the Butterfield-Fargo was one of the newest offices yet it was in the worst possible location. It was situated in a neighborhood where the residents didn’t know the difference between a certificate of deposit and an elephant molar. It had the standard security equipment but was not hooked into any overall security network grid even though such a network had been in operation at the other Butterfield-Fargo banks for several years. It was tiny yet, at the same time, had extensive banks of security deposit boxes. Since locals, in that kind of neighborhood, usually retained security deposit boxes Rasperson had mused, who would be using the boxes?

Taking advantage of the new computer network, he was able to hook into the indexing for the San Francisco Business-Herald and search for anything on Butterfield-Fargo First. Nothing was out of line. They were in good shape fiscally and were not involved in any risky financial ventures. Their stock was considered a good investment and their board of directors included some of the most financially secure men and women in San Francisco.

Then he got a list of names of the hostages from a friend who worked at Butterfield-Fargo and ran them through the linkup he had with the police computer and the public domain file operated by the State of California. He got another goose egg. Other than a few traffic tickets and a civil suit here and there, not one of the hostages had any kind of a record which would have raised eyebrows anywhere. Most of the hostages were buying cars and most of those loans were through Butterfield-Fargo. Three of the ten were buying homes, also funded by Butterfield-Fargo. One had a fishing license, none had a hunting license, one was an authorized gun dealer and four were voter registrars.

Given enough time he could have investigated the spouses and families of the hostages but a remote connection didn’t seem likely. On the surface the hostages appeared to be just what they were: pawns. But what about the money? Why would someone take hostages at a bank operating in a crack house district? Did the bank have any money? And what about those security deposit boxes? So he ran a title search on the bank building itself. The building had been bought through a foreclosure sale two years previously from an insurance company, Capital Assurance and Fidelity, Inc., which still owned the property and rented it out to Butterfield-Fargo. They also insured the bank’s deposits. When he called the insurance company, he was told the San Francisco representative, Douglas Hopkins, was at the bank. When asked for the number of the archives of Capital Assurance and Fidelity, he was told Hopkins handled all those matters. Rasperson thanked the man on the line and put in a call to the State of California Division of Insurance. They told him what he suspected, Capital Assurance and Fidelity, Inc. was a new, small company headquartered in San Francisco. They were a dwarf in the field, but there had been no complaints about their service.

A bell went off in Rasperson’s head and he went back to his newspaper network and the public domain file. This time he ran the name Douglas Hopkins and Capital Assurance and Fidelity, Inc. What he found was a bit more promising. Hopkins had appeared prominently in the social columns, but usually in the “also in attendance” sentences until about two years earlier when he had been credited with snagging a plum account with English Petroleum. Since then his fortunes had steadily been on the rise.

Rasperson ran Hopkins through the crime computer and came up with zip. The public access files gave him the license plate for Hopkins’ Mercedes as well as the bank which financed it and his condo: Butterfield-Fargo First.

Back in the public access file and checking by date, Rasperson found once Hopkins picked up English Petroleum as a client he was mentioned with even greater frequency in the business section. His firm, “self-funded and self-owned” as he was wont to say in all interviews, began picking up clients with ease. But the clientele list was a strange mix of enterprises: auto wreckers, coffee shops, bars, taxi cab fleets, painters and roofers, building contractors, carpeting companies, video production firms, and two breweries. Behind English Petroleum, the largest firm represented by Hopkins had 35 employees; English Petroleum had close to 50,000 depending on how the economist wanted to make the count – and just in the Bay Area.

Running the business names associated with Hopkins, he discovered most of the firms were marginal operations. They were all long-time San Francisco businesses but none of them seemed to be particularly profitable. He ran the names of the businesses through the public access civil files. He discovered a ream of court cases involving every aspect of business malfeasance from price gouging to failure to repair when paid. Almost all of the businesses had been defendants. Taking whatever names he could find from the defendants’ files, he ran these through the police computer. What he found was a rogues gallery of human cupidity. Fraud, price fixing, larceny, receiving stolen property, forgery, failure to pay court assessed fines and every aspect of collection violation were included along with a wide range of traffic violations.

Why was English Petroleum dealing with this kind of insurance company? Was there any connection between English Petroleum and the Butterfield-Fargo Bank being robbed? He answered the latter question with one phone call. Yes, English Petroleum had money in that particular branch of Butterfield-Fargo and it was cash: $10 million in cash, as a matter of fact. Was $10 million an unusual deposit? Well, his friend had replied, not really as English Petroleum had money in all the banks, often in large amounts and sometimes in cash.

But it was unusual because that particular bank was considered to be the Rikers Island of the chain.

If someone screwed up big time, they ended up there. How much cash was insured? The friend couldn’t say offhand and promised to call back in half an hour. She was back in ten minutes and said the paperwork said the $10 million in cash was insured. Further, and of interest, English Petroleum had run six shipments of the same size through the Mission District Branch in the past two years.

It was all Rasperson needed. Even before the rest of the press began to queue up at the Butterfield-Fargo First for the initial press conference of the day, he was on scent. What could English Petroleum be doing with all the cash? It was too much to be used as payoffs – besides the fact payoffs, rebates, kickbacks and every other kind of monetary exchange in return for favors was illegal. Further, if the bank knew of the cash then the IRS had to know of it too and therefore the IRS knew whatever English Petroleum was doing.

So he placed a call to a friend in the IRS. Two hours later he got a strange answer. The IRS was aware English Petroleum was dealing with large amounts of cash but other than the fact the serial numbers were being reported; no one had ever asked what the money was to be used for. This wasn’t unusual, he was told, because the IRS wasn’t interested in how the money was being spent, just that all income was accounted for in tax returns. Since the IRS had the serial numbers of the bills, there was no reason to worry about illegal activity since the serial numbers could be traced.

Then Rasperson punched up English Petroleum in the Wall Street Journal on the Internet and spent the next three hours reading everything he could find. By midnight, long after the television reporters had gone to bed, he found a line in a short paragraph on the possibility English Petroleum was interested in building a hydrocarbon cracker in Corrialus del Santiago in Colombia. On a hunch he pulled out a world atlas and looked up Corrialus del Santiago and was not surprised to find it was not on the map; one didn’t normally build hydrocarbon crackers in the center of populated areas. What was unusual was no one else in the oil industry was looking at doing anything in Colombia. Besides the obvious problem with the cocaine cartel there was ongoing violence in the streets and a general breakdown of law and order. After what had happened to Anaconda in Chile with Salvatore Allende, it should have been driven home to the multinationals it did not make good business sense to construct anything in areas that were politically unstable and the state of affairs in Colombia seemed to epitomize the term.

Could English Petroleum be buying political stability? Hardly likely. Not with $10 million here and there. The Sandanistas had drained the United States treasury to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars and still lost. Could English Petroleum be using the cash to prop up the drug lords? This didn’t seem likely either. He didn’t know what the cocaine traffic amounted to but even $100 million seemed to be a drop in the bucket. Besides, wouldn’t the IRS be watching the serial numbers if they came in from overseas? The first time the money showed up in an illegal shipment, English Petroleum would be on the hook.

But even if English Petroleum was using the money in the United States, what was it using the money for? With a simple bit of calculation work he figured even if there had been six shipments of $10 million apiece and the company had been slipping it out into circulation at the rate of $10,000 a month, it would take 6,000 months or 500 years to slip it into the market unseen. To launder so much money, it would take almost $250,000 a day in cash to get rid of the money within a year.

Since this made no sense, he attacked the problem backwards. Since the IRS didn’t get snippy when he asked about English Petroleum he had to assume there was no ongoing investigation. This meant none of the bills associated with English Petroleum had ended up in an illegal transaction. Therefore either English Petroleum was legally using the money – a possibility which Jerome Rasperson, ace crime reporter, rejected out of hand – or they were illegally using the money overseas. But they could not be using the money illegally overseas if the IRS was involved. Which made no sense because if even one bill showed up in a drug money shipment, English Petroleum would have IRS agents going over their books line by line.

The only logical explanation was English Petroleum was using untraceable cash overseas, which meant they were laundering their money in the United States first. This clearly solved the problem of leaching the bills out one at a time into the market. Now it was just a matter of exchanging one bill for another one of an equal amount. Thirty businesses laundering $25,000 a month each would just about cover the $10 million. They could probably do more. As the bills showed up in the banks they would be checked for their serial numbers. But since the bills were not on any kind of a “watch for” list, they would be accepted as legal tender, which they were. But why launder the bills?

Just before he went to bed, Rasperson picked up the chase of the Greyhound bus onto the Golden Gate Bridge. He had snorted with amusement as he went to sleep. You couldn’t lose a Greyhound bus on the Golden Gate Bridge – even in the fog. It was a trick of illusion. The real story wasn’t the Greyhound bus, the hostages or the safety deposit boxes. It was the $10 million. He knew he would have a clear field the next day because every other reporter in town would be following the Greyhound angle.

He was correct.

No one was following the critical lead. The next morning he took his 7 a.m. coffee in front of English Petroleum. It didn’t surprise him there weren’t any other reporters. After all, the reason his stories were unique was because he had such a different perspective on matters and it gave him an edge. He didn’t think like other reporters.

He figured there were two angles to work, one was Douglas Hopkins and the other was English Petroleum. Douglas Hopkins was a story he could work at his leisure; English Petroleum was a here-and-now story. The core of the story was the money: English Petroleum’s money. The answer, as far as Jerome Rasperson was concerned, was here. But there were 123 floors of “here” at English Petroleum.

Not sure of exactly what he was looking for, he decided to take a stab at the direct approach. He didn’t know anyone who worked at English Petroleum so he didn’t have an inside line. But he did know where their building was located and he did know what the regional vice president of English Petroleum looked like. He had seen his photograph in several of the news stories he had read the previous evening – not to mention on the billboards around the city. With a little bit of luck he could snag the man in the parking lot for a quick interview.

If you don’t know what to do, the old adage went, beat the bushes and see if any snakes crawl out – and the biggest bush to beat in this particular case was English Petroleum. Maybe, with a few well-placed, leading questions, he could get a rise out of someone. Maybe the someone could be the regional vice president of English Petroleum himself. Who knew? Besides, he didn’t have a better idea.

It was a good plan.

At least on paper it was a good plan.

But his logic was flawed.

He had intended to stand at the front entrance to ENPET, the English Petroleum monolith, and stop Harrah when he came through the front door with a leading question but it quickly became evident this plan would not work. Even arriving at ENPET early it looked as though there was a flood of personnel entering the building. There was no way he could spot Harrah in the crowd. Even if he could, there was no way he could snag the man for a quick question. So he moved into the building and stood by the elevators like he was waiting for someone, which he was.

But all he caught was a glimpse of Harrah as the Regional Vice President walked across the lobby. By the time Rasperson broke out of the crowd around the main elevator, Harrah was inside another elevator on the far side of the lobby.

But he went into the elevator alone.

For the next few minutes, no one else used the elevator. Clearly this was a private entrance and for Harrah alone.

Rasperson was about to leave in frustration when two men approached the private elevator. They stopped and conversed for a moment and then one of them pulled a phone out of a wall panel next to the elevator. A handful of seconds later the elevator door opened. The two men stepped inside and the elevator door shut.

What struck Rasperson as odd was the physical appearance of the two men. While Harrah looked every inch an executive, or a Lord as the newspapers insinuated was in his future, these two visitors were a Mutt and Jeff show. One was tall and lanky; the other was built like a bowling ball with legs.

Rasperson was still standing in the lobby, the last of the flood of workers ebbing around him, when a young man approached the private elevator. He too stood by the elevator door and used the telephone in the panel. Rasperson walked across the room as if it he were heading for the men’s room to get a better look at the man.

This man was in his late 20s or early 30s, dressed like a yuppie right down to his polished deck shoes. He looked vaguely familiar and it was only after the elevator had swallowed the man did Rasperson realize who it was: Douglas Hopkins. He had also seen his photograph reproduced in an issue of the San Francisco Business Herald. Though the reproduction qualities were poor, Rasperson was pretty sure the man was Hopkins.

There was one way to find out. Rasperson went back to his car and hooked his laptop computer to his cellular phone. Then he punched up the State of California computer and slipped in using a code provided for him by an informant. Then he fed in Hopkins’ name. The computer burped for 30 seconds and then spit out what he was looking for: Douglas Hopkins drove a black and silver Mercedes 210 – (“Of course!” Rasperson snickered to himself) – and gave its license plate. Then Rasperson put his Cherokee in motion and began searching the English Petroleum parking garage, floor-by-floor until he spotted the vehicle – just as Douglas Hopkins made a bee line for his car.

“Talk about luck!” Rasperson said to him as he followed the Mercedes out of the parking garage and on what could only be described as a wild trip across San Francisco, which made Mr. Toad’s journey a leisurely jaunt. Hopkins went to a police storage yard in Hunter’s Point and then, with three men following in a green Chevrolet, drove back uptown to a coffee shop on Market Street. When all four men went into the coffee shop, Rasperson parked his car a block away and dug a telephoto lens out of his trunk.

But his luck didn’t hold.

Just as he was putting the bayonet onto the camera, Hopkins and the three other men came out onto the sidewalk. Rasperson only got one shot over the top of his trunk and only because Hopkins was facing the lens. The second shot wasn’t any better but by then the man in the police uniform was walking away, his back to the camera. Rasperson had waited, hopeful at least one of the men would turn around but when it happened, they were moving too fast for him to get a good shot. One man dashed across the street and jumped into the green Chevrolet where the man in the police uniform was sitting. Before Rasperson could get a shot, the Chevrolet was gone. When he churned his camera back to the sidewalk, he got a shot of the back of Hopkins getting into his Mercedes and disappearing around the corner.

The only shot left was of the man who was standing alone on the sidewalk. So Rasperson took it.

Then he did the only thing he could. He followed the man who had been left on the sidewalk.

Steven C. Levi is a sixty-something freelance historian and commercial writer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, his home for past 40 years. He has a BA in European History and MA in American history from the University of California Davis and San Jose State. He has more than 80 books in print or on Kindle.