STALKING ROBERT VESCO Once America's most famous rascal, the fugitive embezzler now lives in Havana in modest seclusion, surrounded by armed guards. In a forthcoming book, journalist Arthur Herzog tracks him down and describes his lonely life behind the Sugar Cane Curtain.
By Arthur Herzog REPORTER ASSOCIATE Cynthia Hutton

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHATEVER HAPPENED to Robert Vesco? For years he was a fixture on evening news broadcasts: the fugitive financier, heavyweight champion of embezzlers. Back in 1970 he took over Investors Overseas Services, a struggling mutual fund empire founded by another high roller, Bernard Cornfeld. Vesco then skimmed a fortune from IOS and took it on the lam. His escapades in exile made headlines for a decade. In 1977 he tried to buy his way out of trouble by offering a $10-million bribe to officials of the newly elected Carter Administration. In 1981 he skipped out of the Bahamas just ahead of deportation -- and of a CIA plot to spirit him back to the U.S. for trial. In 1983 U.S. authorities seized shipments of American-made machinery Vesco was trying to smuggle into Cuba. Later he helped get permission for Colombian cocaine mogul Carlos Lehder Rivas, a onetime neighbor in the Bahamas, to use Cuban airspace on drug-smuggling flights to the U.S. The criminal dealings were simply a new chapter in a lifetime on the make. Born in 1935 to a working-class family in Detroit, Vesco aimed high from the beginning. In his early 30s, he turned a small New Jersey machine shop into International Controls Corp., a sprawling miniconglomerate whose subsidiaries included Fairfield Aviation and Moeller Tool Corp. Though ICC was deeply in debt, its young chairman lived well, jetting from deal to deal in a corporate 707 complete with disco. Vesco first gained international notoriety when he took over IOS. The Geneva-based empire had been in trouble for some time. While Cornfeld pursued personal interests -- mainly wine, women, and gossip-column coverage -- IOS had slipped into disarray. Its parent company was losing money; many of its mutual funds had suffered in a steep stock market decline. Vesco rode in, ostensibly to the rescue. But once in charge, he began moving IOS funds in mysterious ways. The Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of diverting more than $224 million to his own pockets. (Most of that money has since been recovered, and Vesco's actual take has never been pinned down.) In 1973 he was indicted for fraud and for making an illegal $200,000 contribution to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign. Vesco apparently had hoped that the contribution would help get the SEC off his back. He fled to Costa Rica and the protection of Jose Figueres, the country's former president and elder statesman. Vesco lived ostentatiously under Figueres's wing for six years. He had a palatial estate in San Jose, a vast ranch in the hinterlands, a fleet of vehicles, armed guards, even the old Boeing 707 for a time. He spread largess through the Costa Rican political system and contributed to local charities in an effort to win friends, but his controversial past and high profile made him a political issue. Eventually he became too great a liability for his hosts. He left in 1978. Next stop the Bahamas, where for a time Vesco occupied a private island estate. One dubious legend of the day had him heading a vast drug-smuggling operation. After his spectacular escape he dropped out of public view. In fact, his first port of call was probably Antigua, where he spent a few months before turning up in Nicaragua and, finally, Cuba. The old panache is gone. Years of political payoffs and legal expenses have used up most of Vesco's capital. Though far from poor, he lives modestly in Havana -- no yachts, no private planes, no swashbuckling skirmishes with the law. That is the portrait that emerges in a forthcoming book by journalist Arthur Herzog, to be published next summer by Doubleday. Author of more than a dozen novels and nonfiction works (The Swarm, McCarthy for President), Herzog advances the thesis that Vesco was less the supercriminal of legend than a prisoner of his own paranoia. Whatever crimes Vesco committed, Herzog suggests, his life as a high-profile fugitive was psychologically inevitable. Herzog traces Vesco's rise and fall mostly through documentary records and third-person interviews. The subject himself was not available. Then in the book's atmospheric denouement, the author finally finds his man. I HAD BEEN TRACKING Robert Vesco for more than a year and had all but abandoned hope, although he was tantalizingly close to the U.S. I had been in Havana in 1985, but Cuban officials, learning of my presence and purpose, had abruptly told me to leave. ''The time isn't right,'' they said, without explaining. ''Go out. Come back. Then we'll cooperate with your project.'' Subsequent visa requests were neither accepted nor rejected, simply ignored. Then, during a visit to Nicaragua in July 1986, I made one last stab at a visa. This time I applied as a tourist, not a Vesco watcher, and for $10 the elusive slip of paper was mine. I had been warned in the U.S. that visiting Vesco might be risky, and I felt somewhat apprehensive. So did my traveling companion, Enrique (Kiki) Carreras, who knew his way around Havana -- and also knew Vesco. Carreras was right-hand man to three-time Costa Rican President Jose (Don Pepe) Figueres, who had sheltered Vesco for nearly six years. Figueres had given Carreras a note for Vesco, urging the fugitive to talk to me. Our worry wasn't Vesco but the Cubans. We planned to approach Vesco without official permission, and I stood a good chance of being arrested. ''You might spend a few days in jail,'' Kiki Carreras told me, ''but only a few.'' I wasn't reassured. On Wednesday, July 30, Carreras and I flew from Managua to Havana on Cubana airlines, sitting in different rows in case a Cuban should recognize the Costa Rican and wonder who I was. We arrived without incident, rented a car, and drove to the Siboney district, where the Vesco family had last lived as far as Kiki knew. He found the house -- a white two-story dwelling with a fence and a hedge -- by an oddly shaped TV antenna that Vesco himself had fashioned. Outside stood a man who might have been with Cuban security. On Kiki's advice, I parked around the corner, and he approached the house on foot. He could learn only that whoever lived in the house had left the month before. As I drove away the man's eyes followed us suspiciously. Stymied, we checked into the Hotel Riviera and tried another tack. Several weeks earlier Vesco had called Jose Figueres in Costa Rica and given him an emergency phone number in Havana. Kiki was reluctant to use it because he was sure Vesco's phone was tapped, and he didn't want to scare him off with an ill-advised phone call. Now we had no choice. He dialed the number and asked for Tom. ''Who's Tom?'' I asked after he hung up. ''Tom is the name Bob uses,'' Kiki replied. ''Any last name?'' ''Just Tom, but there isn't any Tom there.'' WE HAD NO OTHER leads, so Kiki decided to call back and mention the note from Figueres. This time the response was equivocal: Carreras should call back at 10 A.M. Hope flickered, though I remained dubious. At 4 A.M. I was awakened by loud knocking at my door and half expected to find the Cuban police. Instead it was Carreras, who took the car keys and vanished. He phoned at six with a second number for Vesco. Unable to sleep, Kiki had gone in search of another night owl of his acquaintance, a prominent Cuban official. Kiki found his man at a boisterous outdoor party, took him aside, and mentioned the note from Figueres. The official called his office and returned with another number for ''Tom.'' Now we were sure that Cuban security kept track of Vesco. At 8 A.M. Kiki, who still couldn't sleep, called phone No. 2 and got Dawn Vesco, Bob's daughter. Carreras knew her, and they exchanged salutations. Dawn said she had come to live in Cuba with her young son. Her mother, Patricia, was on ''vacation,'' an illuminating term that probably meant the U.S. Her father, she said, would be back in a few minutes. Kiki woke me with the good news. At 11 he called phone No. 1 and learned that Tom was expected in a few hours. He called Dawn again and was told the same. The day before, I was almost convinced I would not find Vesco. Now I was sure I would, but the afternoon passed without word. Just before six Carreras burst into my room, ran to the window, and pointed down. ''See the lamppost by the pool? No, that one, with a little table beneath it. That's the spot Vesco wants. He'll be here in ten minutes.'' On Carreras's instructions I placed myself near, but not too near, the appointed table. An hour passed, dusk fell, and Kiki, a large forceful man in his mid-40s, grew even more anxious, rising, pacing, peering, sitting, rising, pacing. His prestige as a Vesco finder was on the line. At last he signaled thumbs up, and a bearded figure, a little over 6 feet tall, in a sheer cotton shirt, shorts, sandals, and a white sun hat, appeared from nowhere. Vesco! He took a chair with his back to me. At the same moment three Cuban men in street clothes slid into the table between Vesco and me like a wall. They ordered beer and chatted, but they sat forward alertly. I had to conclude they were bodyguards, which surprised me. I had assumed that in Communist Cuba Vesco would feel safe from U.S. authorities. Unable to resist, I went quickly to Carreras's side. Vesco's face swiveled toward me with a startled expression. ''Leave!'' Kiki said brusquely. I returned to my table. Kiki clearly hadn't broken the news and didn't want to spook our nervous prey. More endless minutes passed, and it was I who became nervous. I feared Carreras would overdo the preliminaries and ''Tom'' would escape. I marched over, sat at Vesco's side, put out my hand, and said, ''Hello, Bob. It's time we met.'' ''I just heard you were here,'' he replied. The smile displayed small teeth. The nose between dark eyeglasses was & slightly pocked. The face behind the long, black, probably dyed beard was hard to fathom. He bore no resemblance to the overweight man I'd seen in photos. He was thin but not gaunt, and handsomer than I expected. He looked to be in good health. He spoke well and carefully. He exuded a sense of self-possession bordering on arrogance. ON MY 1985 TRIP to Cuba I had brought Vesco a little CARE package -- pepperoni sausage, Kool cigarettes, and fine chocolate for Pat -- on the mistaken assumption that such items wouldn't be available in Havana. Before my ouster I'd requested a Cuban official to deliver them. Had he? Yes, Vesco had received the presents, he said without interest or thanks. I mentioned some of his old associates, but he put me off with an extended palm. He was interested only in how I got a Cuban visa. Carreras had already told him, but Vesco apparently wanted to ensure that I wasn't with the CIA. ''Me? CIA?'' I declared. ''The notion is preposterous.'' ''Well, you had trouble with your visa, didn't you? Don't you think if I'd wanted to see you, you would have gotten a visa a lot quicker?'' ''I thought you wanted to see me,'' I said, irritated. ''You told Don Pepe Figueres so.'' ''Well,'' Tom said, ''words are words. Maybe I didn't really want to.'' But I knew that despite the CIA suspicion, which was already dwindling, and despite the verbal fencing, Vesco wished to talk with me. The question was how much and on what terms: He had begun to bargain. Did I, as Carreras had hinted, have the manuscript of my book on him with me? I nodded. He insisted on reading it before we proceeded. I said I'd be happy to comply, but wanted to speak with him first, if only to explain the tentative nature of some of what I'd written. I wanted as much contact with him as possible. We rapidly reached an impasse. The world's most famous fugitive said he had an ''engagement'' and would like to confer with Carreras alone before he departed. We shook hands, and I left. ''What did you think of him?'' Carreras asked later. ''He's sort of impressive,'' I replied. ''I liked him.'' ''People do. He liked you too.'' ''He's a paranoid first-class of course,'' I went on. ''Gets up in the morning, puts on his paranoia suit and doesn't take it off until bedtime.'' ''He's not that bad.'' ''Oh, yes, he is. You'll see.'' The deadlock continued until Saturday. Vesco would meet with me only after he read my manuscript; I would give it to him only after we spoke, even if briefly. Finally, I capitulated. It seemed the only way, though I feared that Vesco might de stroy the manuscript. I had another copy in New York, but I had made extensive pencil changes on the one I had with me. During a long and fruitless search for a copying machine, Vesco sent a messenger for the manuscript. He departed, leaving a note with still a third phone number. Carreras called it. Vesco was at another house, an hour's drive from Havana, which he apparently rented for weekends. We decided that Kiki would drive out with the manuscript, catch up on badly needed sleep, and bring it back. He departed after another conversation with Vesco, who warned him about being followed. ''By whom?'' I asked contemptuously. ''By you.'' KIKI RETURNED late that evening. He had slept and watched Vesco peruse. ''He got a kick out of reading about his old days. He's really flattered that you should have researched his life so carefully.'' ''How far did he get?'' ''About a quarter of the way. He's a slow reader.'' ''I told you he would be. Quick with figures, yes, but words, no. Words aren't his element. Where's the manuscript?'' ''He's still reading. He'll have it back in 24 hours.'' The package for Bob contained a letter from FORTUNE assigning me to write a piece on Vesco in Cuba. I wondered if I'd thrown too much at the man. How would he react? Would he indeed tear up the manuscript? Sunday passed without word, and I discussed Vesco's exile with Carreras. ''What's Vesco up to here?'' I asked at one point. ''You've spent time with him.'' ''He says he's sort of retired. He has a small office in a suburb -- don't ask me where -- works part time. He does deals . . .'' ''According to him.'' ''Small ones, two or three a year. He tries to triangularize merchandise -- barter deals, trading chemicals, fertilizers, oil; he still has other contacts. But he couldn't be very successful since he can't travel or operate normally, and he hasn't been able to do a deal for the Cubans. He's having to cut back, and he sold his boat or boats,'' said Kiki in his excellent English. ''He can't be happy, can he?'' ''The Cuban people and he have something in common, he says, though he's not a believer in ideologies. They have to survive as best they can, as does he. He stays out of trouble. He's not watched by the Cuban government, but he is escorted. He pretends he's happy to Pat, and she pretends to believe him, but he'd like to live in Costa Rica or Panama, if they would have him.'' ''Any chance of that?'' ''I doubt it. But he'd also like to set up a meeting with you after tomorrow night in a different country, if he can arrange it.''

That evening brought a violent electrical storm. Scissors of lightning cut the sky. The winds rose. I was sitting by the pool with an American woman when an agitated Kiki Carreras appeared in the gloom and said in a hoarse whisper, ''Either you go or he goes.'' ''He?'' ''Vesco. He's over there.'' It turned out that Vesco's CIA suspicions had shifted from me to my companion. He had already agreed to meet me the following day, and his obsession with security seemed silly. As we left I nodded sardonically at him, but his face was expressionless. He was, it seemed, alone with his paranoia. ''You see that guy in the car?'' he said to Carreras during the storm. ''If he's hit by lightning, they'll claim I blew him away with a flame thrower.'' In the morning, Carreras presented me with a letter, written by Vesco, that I was to rewrite in my own hand and sign: August 4, 1986 Mr. Robert Vesco Havana, Cuba Dear Bob, I wish to express my thanks and gratitude for the interview you gave me last Friday, August the 1, here in Havana. By having sent the manuscript on the book I've written on you through Enrique Carreras, I hope you appreciate the trust I have in you. Please return the manuscript today, Monday, to me personally when we meet again this evening. Sincerely, Arthur Herzog KIKI had turned up the radio in case the room was bugged by Cuban security. ''What's the purpose of the letter?'' I asked. ''P.R. with the Cubans. He says three journalists a month, in a slow one, try to see him. He's afraid of putting too much pressure on his hosts.'' I rewrote and signed the letter. ''When is this famous meeting to take place?'' ''Between six and six-thirty.'' Six, six-thirty, eight, eight-thirty came and went. I was more and more convinced Vesco wouldn't show and decided to end the book with ''Robert Vesco also stole my manuscript.'' I went down to Carreras's room. Beads of sweat on his upper lip, he tried to call phone No. 2, the one Dawn had answered, but the line was dead, and No. 1 didn't answer. I returned to my room in desperation. Finally at 10 P.M. the phone sounded. ''Contact,'' Carreras cried. ''He wants me to come downstairs.'' ''You! What about me?'' ''He wants to talk to me first.'' ''Again! He's talked to you I don't know how many times.'' ''That's the way he wishes it.'' I had utterly given up. ''Tell him if I don't get that manuscript back, I'll kill him.'' ''You sound like him,'' Kiki said blandly. A few whiskeys later, at midnight, I raised the ringing phone and heard Carreras say, ''The lobby.'' We walked outside and down the street and around the corner. A little farther on, standing before me in the dark, was a man in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. ''Here's your manuscript,'' Vesco said, handing me the same shopping bag in which it had departed. ''Let's talk over there.'' We entered a small, dimly lit park before what seemed to be a housing project. I could almost smell the security guards, but Carreras had vanished. The fugitive and I sat on a bench. He sounded clear and rational. He wasn't wearing sunglasses, and the eyes, as best I could make them out, looked alert and focused. I asked a question or two. ''What do you live on?'' ''I work like everyone else.'' ''Why do you need guards?'' ''I've always had guards.'' I said I'd like to meet Pat and the kids. ''You won't,'' he said with a hint of ''until we come to terms.'' His only apparent objection to my book involved a scene with his second-eldest son, Tony, brandishing a gun by a Managua swimming pool. ''Not true. Never happened,'' he said. ''Wasn't Tony in a Cuban mental hospital?'' ''Can you prove it?'' he said defiantly. ''No, but I'm sure he was and sure about the gun too.'' Odd that Vesco felt compelled to protect Tony but not himself. VESCO rose and sat impatiently like a busy corporate executive, though all he had was time. We talked idly some more. ''I'd like to see you in daylight,'' I said. ''You will, if . . .'' ''What about the assignment from FORTUNE?'' (I almost added, ''You always wanted to be on the cover of FORTUNE and here's your chance, although under extraordinary circumstances.'') ''Oh, plenty of people have come down with FORTUNE assignments.'' I doubted that. ''I don't think I'll oblige, at least not yet.'' His need to be the boss was nearly touchable. It was almost as if our ! positions were reversed, with me as supplicant and he as ruler who dispensed his favors, instead of the truth: I could leave Cuba at will and he could not. His fear of capture tethered him with bonds of psychological steel. He came to the point: ''Your book is incomplete.'' ''What about my accounts of your breathtaking departures from all those places?'' The faint smile told me what I suspected -- he has enjoyed his escapades, even though they confirmed the fears that gripped him. But they weren't games. They were his reality at the deepest level. ''You have most but not all of it,'' he said. That, I thought, was undoubtedly true, especially the shadowy part of his existence over the past 13 years. ''What about the rest?'' ''I have it. Talk to my lawyer . . . The kids have trusts that include literary rights . . .'' The interview had become a negotiation. ''We'll see,'' I said, feeling almost sympathetic. He rose and said he would make arrangements for our next meeting. As he walked away I called, ''Bob, was it all worth it?'' Vesco didn't reply -- perhaps he hadn't heard. He climbed into one of the two East European cars, his security men around him like a flock of birds.