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Home / Articles / News / Features /  Casanova’s Long Con
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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Casanova’s Long Con

How Michael Soutar turned a 34-year prison sentence into freedom

June 17, 2014, 12:00 am

Mere fugitive logistics could have motivated him to steal his father’s yacht from a marina in Surfside, Texas. But Michael Soutar spent his formative years on the ocean. Perhaps he knew how a receding shoreline tends to melt away the past and a saltwater breeze suggests the chance of a fresh future.

If there’s one thing Soutar never seemed to elude, it was his desire for money. Before he skipped town, he even sold some of his mother’s jewelry to local pawnshops, according to one statement to police.

In November 1992, Soutar docked the stolen yacht in a Florida marina. Rhonda Walker, whom he met weeks earlier, was at his side. Her family reported to police that the boat’s ultimate destination was perhaps Cozumel, Belize or the Virgin Islands.

Authorities noted in an FBI database that the yacht was made in 1984 and worth about $180,000. A blue streak of paint swished across the cabin cruiser, which had a white fiberglass hull. Escargot was her official name, and she could reach up to 20 knots.

James and Linda O’Hara say the Santa Fe Art Market scheme left their family short on cash when Michael Soutar failed to pay wages and taxes. James’ brother Dermot also lost tens of thousands to Michael Soutar.
Justin Horwath

Soutar took the 36-foot yacht late one night after learning police were looking for him at his parents’ home. The cops had an arrest warrant in his name for charges in New Mexico. Soutar’s father was the rightful owner of the vessel. He told police he wanted his son, then 34, charged with its theft. After the voyage ended, authorities extradited Soutar to the Land of Enchantment to face a felony aggravated assault charge.

This was one of Soutar’s early escapes from authorities. But it wasn’t his last.

Accounts detailing Soutar’s criminal record fill several boxes at Attorney General Gary King’s office. They trace the history of a confidence man twice showcased by America’s Most Wanted. He was dubbed the “Casanova Con Man” for his history of charming women into relationships to gain access to their money.

After spending nearly 30 years refining his con game, Soutar is a free man now, thanks partly to King, the state’s top law enforcement officer and the current Democratic nominee for governor.

"He is a predator without a conscience, roaming through our society, who sees people only as objects to be used to satisfy his immediate needs"

The attorney general’s office successfully prosecuted Soutar in 2007 on ten felony counts of securities fraud and racketeering stemming from an investment scheme he set up in Santa Fe.

But by 2012, Soutar stood before a judge in a highly unusual hearing that occurred five years after he first handed down a sentence of 34 years behind bars. King’s office did not take a position on whether Soutar should be released. One factor that helped set Soutar free decades before completing the prison sentence? Money.

EARLY CHARMS

Born in 1958, Soutar spent much of his early life in Texas, where his father owned a tool company and gave Soutar significant amounts of freedom and money, his attorneys say.

Around the age of 18, he enlisted in the Navy. He would later represent to a number of his victims that he had been a Vietnam War veteran. Yet Navy documents show that he was honorably discharged due to a preexisting medical condition. He’d never seen a day in any combat zone.

Soutar kept to the ocean. He was living on a boat in St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, in September of 1985 when he met Helen King, she would later tell police.

King (no known relation to the attorney general) and Soutar had a son and daughter together, yet after King divorced him in 1990, Soutar failed to support them financially. Her family hired a private investigator who learned that Helen was already Soutar’s fourth wife—he allegedly tied the knot with the third wife while still married to the second. Three years after the divorce with King, Soutar was nearly $20,000 in arrears in child support payments, King told police, an amount later disputed in court.

By then, Soutar’s criminal activity began to accelerate. Over a ten-year period starting in 1990, he earned 9 felony convictions, according to one account. And those are just the convictions that represent a mere snippet of Soutar’s crimes. Many charges were forgiven or forgotten. During that period he was charged with felony counts of forgery, fraud, theft, aggravated assault, embezzlement and writing worthless checks in jurisdictions spanning Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Moreover, the list of convictions also doesn’t account for various civil judgments filed against him for money owed to business associates, lawyers and lovers. “That is prolific,” one prosecuter later remarked to a jury in 2007 of Soutar’s rap sheet. “Absolutely prolific.”

In contrast to the faceless frauds of the Internet, Soutar’s hustle harkens to the days when a con man had to get more personal with his marks. Soutar courted female victims. There are too many of them to account for here.

“I met Michael Robert Soutar on Sunday, September 29, 1991, down at the Turtle Club at Clear Lake,” Lisa Falk reported to police. “He swept me off my feet.” She went with him from Texas to Albuquerque the next day.

Soon afterward she found herself describing to police an October night spent in a red BMW, witnessing Soutar pointing a gun at a man during a confrontation outside an ATM, threatening to kill him.

Police and prosecutors cite that incident as evidence that Soutar was not only a financial criminal—he could be a violent one too.

DRUGS, GUNS AND MONEY

To various judges, Soutar blamed his lawbreaking on a drug habit.

But those who follow his storied career argue that too much deceit belied his criminal activity to fit the profile of a regular junkie. They say Soutar was more cunning than an addict who might finance his next hit with a stolen television.

“He is a predator without a conscience, roaming through our society, who sees people only as objects to be used to satisfy his immediate needs, rather than as human beings,” concluded William Copeland, an investigator in the Second Judicial District Attorney’s Office, in an extensive report he based on interviews with Soutar’s early victims.

Connie Luttrell met Soutar in 1992. An Albuquerque schoolteacher, she told police that after she loaned him $8,000 under the pretense that he was in dire straits. Then, she found him with another woman. She marched into his apartment, where she spotted expensive men’s clothing and a “pile” of cocaine.

When he was dating Luttrell, he was terminated from his job as a car salesman after he got caught falsifying loan documents on a car he let Luttrell drive. He allegedly signed his father’s signature on the loans. Reliable Chevrolet owner John Grant recalls Soutar being “probably the best” salesperson he’d ever seen at the Albuquerque dealership.

“But he just couldn’t keep it straight,” he told Copeland.

Soutar invited Luttrell on what Copeland would later call a “voyage into blissful fugitive status” aboard the yacht that landed in Florida. But by then she was cooperating with police and declined the invitation.

The law was on his tail. A Bernalillo County grand jury indicted him on charges of aggravated assault for the ATM incident. He also faced other criminal charges and civil judgements.

Walker, who accompanied Soutar on the yacht to Florida, told investigators Soutar defrauded her of $25,000 and she became frightened because Soutar had access to guns.

Natalie Sellner married Soutar a month after meeting him in Albuquerque in the summer of 1993, according to records. She flew to Germany at his urging in September. Soutar told Sellner he would meet her there for the vacation but never showed up. When she returned her possessions and money were gone. She annulled the marriage, filed for bankruptcy and requested a court order him to pay her $75,000 in damages.

The law was slowly catching up with the elusive con man. He faced a 1992 grand jury indictment for assault along with a September 1994 grand jury indictment on 12 counts of fraud, forgery and embezzlement.

As the cases were moving through the court in New Mexico, prosecutor Margarita Haury would later tell a judge, Soutar ran off twice. Once he fled to Houston, where the FBI’s Violent Fugitive Task Force located him in a hotel room with a loaded handgun and knife. He was captured again after a 45-minute standoff with a SWAT team, she said.

He eventually entered a plea agreement on eight charges of assault, fraud and forgery that would send him to prison for up to 10 years, but Soutar convinced a judge to release him on medical furlough for a knee surgery. Then he disappeared again until September 1997, when authorities in Arizona received a tip from a private investigator who spotted Soutar barhopping in Scottsdale. He was at times driving a Mercedes and BMW, said the investigator. Authorities again surrounded his hotel room, where they again found the fugitive with a firearm, and eventually extradited him to New Mexico.

PROMISES

He did not remain behind bars for long. Christina Fourzan married Soutar shortly after his 2002 release and the two spent time in Las Cruces before moving to Santa Fe. Partly using money invested by one of Soutar’s former prison guards—who had won a settlement stemming from his son’s death—they cooked up a plan for a new project: the Santa Fe Art Market.

The former location of the failed Santa Fe Art Market on Alameda.
Anson Stevens-Bollen

One of his early hires was James O’Hara, who had moved to Santa Fe with his wife just a few years earlier.

Soutar, he says in an interview, was “difficult to get to engage with on anything, to get any definition. He was kind of shape-shifting, if you will.”

Artists who rented booths at the market and other investors gave up to $200,000 in exchange for securities in the company. He sent investors like Dermot O’Hara, James’ brother, projections that promised a 10 percent return. Dermot, a banker in New York City, would send Soutar $32,500.

Soutar later told a judge he worked around the clock to make the market succeed. But trouble arose almost immediately. Rent, sales and investment cash didn’t cover the costs of constructing a restaurant in the market, payroll and other overhead. Foot traffic remained sparse even as tourist season kicked up. James O’Hara recalls that he and other employees began complaining of bounced paychecks.

Nobody a decade later is confident about where all the cash went. What O’Hara recalls is that Soutar’s preferred drink was Grey Goose vodka, his preferred restaurant was the Rio Chama Steakhouse and that a rotating cast of Rolex watches always seemed to adorn his wrist.

James’ wife Linda O’Hara had her suspicions about Soutar.

She began going to the public library in the spring of 2004, looking for newspaper articles about a man she would later discover to be a career criminal.

Linda O’Hara notes that the names in the newspaper articles she found about a con man didn’t always directly match the Soutar they knew. The two were loath to make unfounded accusations that James’ boss was a criminal. And Linda O’Hara’s doubts were somewhat assuaged after obtaining incorporation papers of the market from the state’s Public Regulation Commission that seemed squeaky clean. “And I thought,” she says, “‘Well, surely our government tracks these kinds of things—if he’s a criminal.”

“He wasn’t called a con man for nothing,” James O’Hara adds.

He asserts that, in total, Soutar owes him roughly $5,400 in unpaid wages.

MARKET’S SWIFT DOWNFALL

Soutar later claimed he didn’t want to tell investors in Santa Fe about his criminal past because he wanted a clean start.

In mid-August, eight months after the opening of the market, he was again jailed on probation violations for both having alcohol at his home and for leaving the state without permission.

Patrick McNertney, a prosecutor for the state Regulation and Licensing Department’s Securities Division, was commissioned as a special prosecutor to go after Soutar jointly with the Attorney General’s Office.

A selection from Michael Soutar’s photo album of mug shots: top left, 1994; top right, 2005 and bottom, 2012.

At Soutar’s probation hearing, McNertney helped convince a judge to keep Soutar behind bars pending the investigation into the art market scheme. Given Soutar’s history of escape, the judge agreed. A grand jury in Santa Fe indicted Soutar in December 2004 on counts of fraud, forgery, issuing worthless checks, securities crimes and racketeering. The premise behind the securities charges was that Soutar broke the law by failing to properly record investments he sold in the market and for failing to tell investors about his criminal past.

At the Bernalillo County Detention Center, Soutar talked his way onto a cleanup crew. Following his indictment, the crew was taking a lunch break near the Albuquerque zoo. Soutar, stripping his detention uniform, jumped into a waiting car.

Months passed. McNertney worried Soutar was gone for good.

America’s Most Wanted aired an update on Soutar based partly on its original 1997 episode.

In August, authorities caught him on a yacht in Boston’s North End with his then-fiancé Mary Chase. (Fourzan was divorcing Soutar at that point).

As prosecutors worked the case, they offered Soutar a plea deal that would allow him to serve probation in exchange for repaying art market investors. But when they appeared before Judge Michael Vigil to seal the deal, Soutar’s lawyer and Vigil got in a dispute about the amount of restitution. Angered at what he considered a misrepresentation, Vigil ordered a jury trial.

McNertney took the lead prosecution role that resulted in Soutar’s conviction on ten counts of securities crimes and racketeering. Given his prior convictions and the nature of his crimes, Vigil sentenced him to 34 years in prison—more jail time than some murderers, rapists and child abusers receive.

“I think you’re a very dangerous person to other people,” the judge said.

When it was Soutar’s turn to talk at the hearing, he blamed investors, the press, the jury and McNertney for unfairly persecuting him. Vigil cut him off. “One of the things that I have found being on this bench for thirteen years,” Vigil said, “is that one of the highest recidivism rates that we have are exactly this kind of crime.”

The judge also said “we can forget about restitution,” but he ordered Soutar to pay back an amount to be determined by probation officials upon his release.

UNDOING HISTORY

The Casanova Con Man always found money.

This time he retained a high-powered defense team that included Albuquerque lawyers William “Dooley” Gilchrist, Robert Desiderio, former dean of the University of New Mexico Law School, and Raymond Sanchez, former speaker of the New Mexico House.

Soutar won an undisclosed settlement—various accounts and court documents pegged it at $500,000—after suing the law firm that helped him incorporate and set up the market for legal malpractice. He argued the lawyers failed to properly register the market and advise Soutar on the requirements of selling securities. An expert witness testified Soutar would not have been charged with the crimes had his lawyer properly advised him.

"Leaving aside the distinct impression that he is buying his way out of prison, here
are a few thoughts"

In 2008, some of the original investors in Soutar’s market filed a civil lawsuit against him for a judgment. At the same time, Soutar asked the state’s Court of Appeals to overturn his criminal convictions. He was represented by a public defender for that case.

With the pending Appeals Court case, Soutar’s private lawyers and public defender began inquiring to officials at Attorney General Gary King’s office about pursuing “mediation.” They proffered that Soutar now had a pot of money to be able to compensate the victims in the art market scheme.

Soutar’s lawyers proposed that he would pay just over $154,000 to some of his investors and would enter a new plea agreement with the state, pointing out Soutar’s windfall in the legal malpractice settlement.

“Working out a plea arrangement to put some money back in the hands of the investors/alleged victims, particularly in the context of the long sentence Mr. Soutar has already served, would constitute justice in this matter,” Gilchrist wrote in early 2011 to Mary Helen Baber, division director of prosecutions for King.

Soutar also had prostate cancer, his lawyers argued, and his release would let state taxpayers out of the cost of treatment. (Soutar’s plan was to get treatment at a Veterans Affairs facility, putting federal taxpayers on the hook).

The lawyers even suggested the original conviction that the Attorney General’s Office helped secure might be overturned by the Court of Appeals, a potential embarrassment for King. Robert Rambo, a mediator in the state Appellate Court’s Mediation Office, was in on early discussions.

Typically mediations only occur in civil cases. Rambo says in an interview that he’s never been called to officially mediate a criminal case. That’s a process that can only happen if both the state and defense agree, he wrote in an email to officials in King’s office.

Internally, they had doubts about the mediation. By April 2011, Assistant Attorney General Chris Lackmann expressed that in an email to his colleague, Baber. “Off the top of my head,” he wrote, “and leaving aside the distinct impression that he is buying his way out of prison, here are a few thoughts.

“Soutar was convicted by a jury and sentenced,” he wrote. “He cannot simply trade a jury verdict and a 34-year sentence for a new plea agreement and sentence. In order to accomplish this, there needs to be a mechanism of some sort to undo history…to set aside the original sentence.”

Lackmann also wrote that Soutar, then 53, was “an unrepentant and un-rehabilitated con man” who would likely commit more crimes.

Early, King wasn’t on board with releasing Soutar either.

The office of Attorney General Gary King agreed to a plea deal that freed Soutar from a 34-year sentence.

In May 2011, he wrote that he wanted the office to “do everything we can to make sure he serves his full term in prison.”

“I am sensitive to the plight of the victims,” he added, “but believe they can pursue civil actions if Mr. Soutar has assets.”

But by 2012, King’s mind had apparently changed after numerous email exchanges and a private meeting with Sanchez—King’s former Democratic colleague in the Legislature.

“I agreed with Raymond Sanchez that we would attempt mediation in the Soutar appeal,” King wrote to Baber and another official in February 2012. “I hope this is not an unsound decision, but I also hope we can use it as a vehicle to try to resolve the victim’s remaining issues.”

“I anticipate I will participate directly in the mediation,” he added.

RESTITUTION

The Court of Appeals upheld all of the District Court convictions in February 2012, which King noted in another message meant that “Soutar loses his negotiating position.”

Yet King was still open to a new deal.

“There is still the issue of how the victims can get restitution,” he wrote. McNertney now says that since restitution was ordered in the original sentence, Soutar could have been compelled to give up his settlement funds to repay victims and remain behind bars.

“As Soutar was ordered to pay restitution pursuant to the Court’s Order of 2007,” he says, “why did the Attorney General’s office agree to accept unquestioningly Soutar’s demand that he be released from prison prior to paying any restitution without succumbing to blackmail?”

The O’Hara brothers remained in regular contact with the attorney general’s victim advocate in the case, Annie Henz, who had been sending lists of Soutar’s victims to various officials within the office. In 2011, she solicited victims, including the O’Haras, for input on the potential deal. They both gave Henz information. But James O’Hara learned about Soutar’s potential freedom in a newspaper headline.

“Can you share with me what is the status now vis-à-vis my claim and my brother Dermot’s also,” O’Hara asked Henz days before the 2012 hearing, “and the time frame for this matter?”

Henz forwarded the email to Special Counsel of the Attorney General’s Office David Pederson. “Annie, do not respond,” he replied. “Who is this person and how does he fit into the Soutar case?” He added the case would be “finalized tomorrow in Santa Fe.”

Judge Vigil presided over the March 2012, resentencing hearing. Pederson, representing the Attorney General’s Office, said the hearing was a “highly unusual posture,” given it was occurring five years after Soutar’s original sentence. But the very office that prosecuted Soutar did not say at the hearing whether it thought Soutar should remained imprisoned.

Daniel Tanaka, the director of the Securities Division, which jointly prosecuted Soutar, said he should remain behind bars. Soutar’s son added his own letter skewering his father. McNertney wrote to Vigil opposing any change to the sentence.

“As a prosecutor forsworn to uphold the integrity of the system, should every criminal, especially of the white collar ilk, be entitled to a reconsideration if Soutar were to receive one?”

After the hearing, King released a statement placing responsibility on Judge Vigil for releasing Soutar.

“We argued that the judge should not reduce the amount of prison time that he had given to [Soutar] in the original sentencing,” King said in a video posted on his website. “But the judge, in considering everything, made a determination to allow Mr. Soutar to—to instead of serving the rest of his sentence in prison—to be on probation.”

Pederson tells SFR in a recent interview that King misspoke. At no point in the hearing did Pederson, representing the Attorney General’s Office, argue “that the judge should not reduce the amount of prison time that he had given” to Soutar.

“All that we said was Mr. Soutar has got the right, like any other criminal defendant, to ask the judge for reconsideration,” of his prison sentence, Pederson says. “And we did not say that that means we agree with the reconsideration. It just means that we conceded, because it’s the law, that he had a right to ask for this.”

King, through his office, declined a request for a personal interview about the case.

Soutar paid $179,452 to various victims connected to charges in the art market scheme—along with $48,000 to three other people to whom Soutar owned money. Even Natalie Sellner, whose attorney passionately lobbied King’s office once he got wind of the deal, got $26,300 from Soutar. Soutar pled guilty for his charge for escaping prison in 2004 and pled no contest to nine charges dropped from his initial indictment.

The O’Hara brothers missed out on restitution. Pederson told O’Hara in a letter that restitution would not be available since neither he nor his brother were listed as a named victim in the original indictment or conviction. McNertney—whose prosecutions have led to the convictions of some of the most infamous con men in New Mexico—cites other cases where victims not named in charges received restitution. He says Dermot’s testimony in the case was important to Soutar’s original conviction.

The family did not hire an attorney or file suit against Soutar like the other investors because they never thought they’d get their money back—as Vigil originally said. James O’Hara now says he thought the victim’s advocate, Henz, would be representing his interests.

James and Linda O’Hara are in a financially tight spot, but the $5,400 in unpaid wages they allege are owed to James wouldn’t help them much. Dermot, whom the state paid to fly in from New York to testify, is still out $32,500.

The couple says they want to expose King’s actions in this case and gave the emails detailed in this account to SFR. They obtained them in public records request made in 2012 and have been searching for an attorney to bring a civil lawsuit against King and his office.

FREEDOM

Former prosecutors involved in the case say they think Soutar will con again.

“In my professional opinion, I don’t think it’s a possibility he will do this again,” Lackmann now says. “I think he will do this again—absolutely, positively guarantee.”

(King recently fired Lackmann and he is now working in the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office.)

McNertney, now in private practice, agrees. He says the resentencing hearing and email traffic that led up to it shows an “erosion of prosecutorial ethics” that sends a message to financial criminals that New Mexico is a state where they can buy their way out of prison.

McNertney and the O’Haras say they are Democrats who will not vote for King in the upcoming gubernatorial election.

Before leaving Santa Fe in the spring of 2012, Soutar flashed a final smile for a camera. It offered a stark contrast to the white, ghostly look McNertney recalls that engulfed Soutar’s face following Judge Vigil’s damning pronouncement that he’d rot in prison for 34 years.

But the most serious pitfalls in Soutar’s life never seemed to limit him to any pit. One investigator remarked to SFR in wonderment at the team of attorneys and advisors Soutar could summon from the confinement of a jail cell.

In a photo he posted on Facebook, Soutar stood in the snow-covered Santa Fe National Forest, newly free and married to Chase. After marrying, the two rode off to the shores of Norwalk, Connecticut.

Probation authorities there say Soutar is prohibited from engaging in any employment where he would be in custody of money belonging to another individual or business. Yet, in various online postings, Soutar appears to have been active in his wife’s Connecticut-based company, Turquoise Mountain Jewelry, whose website says it sells wares crafted by popular New Mexican artisans. On Facebook, his posts detail vacations at Chase’s beach house.

Soutar’s probation is set to end March 18, 2017. Officials say he hasn’t violated any terms of his probation. He’s an offender in a “non-reporting” capacity, they say, meaning he doesn’t have to physically check in with his probation officer. Soutar’s name does not make an appearance in various federal and state court databases. But if Soutar violates any terms of his probation, he could face years in prison, part of what Vigil called the “long probationary tail” he put on the con man whom he’d previously described as a “very, very sick man.”

When Soutar learned of his freedom in 2012, shedding tears, he apologized to his victims.

But Soutar doesn’t strike the same remorseful tone now, after being asked if he’ll ever pay back the O’Haras.

“I went to prison for—for a wrong deal,” he tells SFR during a brief phone interview. “I’m done. I told you. I paid my dues. I paid everybody back. I want to go on with my life. Why don’t ya’ll just get out of my hair?”

In his photo with Chase, there’s one thing that flashes with the same intensity as their smiles—a garish watch clasped securely to the Casanova Con Man’s wrist.

Got a tip? Email Justin Horwath at justin@sfreporter.com

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