Justice catches up with 'Army' conman

Marc Debden-Moss told his victims he was a retired British Army general who had received honours from the Queen. The 73-year-old also claimed to be a friend of prominent Americans, Senators Bob Dole and Alfonse D'Amato. He drove a Lincoln limo to his office on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, shopped on Rodeo Drive, and lived across the street from Charlton Heston.

Last week, an American jury called an abrupt halt to the career and Beverly Hills lifestyle of a conman who had fled to the US one jump ahead of Scotland Yard in 1993.

Debden-Moss, who also called himself Colonel Jonathan Hancock and Marc Debenham, was convicted in a Los Angeles court of stealing more than pounds 600,000 in an elaborate commodities scam that spanned several continents.

It emerged in court that the highest rank he ever attained in the Army was sergeant. Even that had not lasted long. According to Julie Werner- Simon, the US attorney who prosecuted him, the "General" was promoted to sergeant but then demoted to private after being involved in a vehicle fraud in the 1940s.

According to court records, the deal that led to his arrest began in May 1996 when Leeds-based businessman Haluk Mehmet Bilek paid Debden-Moss $25,000 in advance for a delivery of sugar for a Turkish company.

When the cargo failed to turn up, Mr Bilek contacted Scotland Yard, which confirmed that the Fraud Squad had been investigating allegations of fraud against Debden-Moss in 1992 before he fled to the US.

Scotland Yard contacted the FBI and US Customs Service, and Mr Bilek travelled to Los Angeles to confront the fraudster. Accompanied by an undercover agent, Mr Bilek demanded - in secretly taped meetings - that Debden-Moss give proof he could deliver the product. Federal agents arrested him shortly after.

At the trial, the court heard that for four years Debden-Moss lured victims from as far as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Singapore.

He persuaded his victims to wire him "refundable" deposits of $20,000 or more to secure large quantities of sugar, cement, fertiliser and other commodities at below-market prices. Debden-Moss claimed the discounts were available because the cargoes were sailing the high seas and had to be sold immediately.

But he failed to deliver the commodities and rarely returned the deposits, prosecutors said. "We gained access to his bank accounts and they showed the deposits customers wired in to him but no amounts going out to pay for commodities," said Ms Werner-Simon.

Debden-Moss was convicted of eight counts of wire fraud, 11 counts of money laundering and two counts of income tax evasion. He faces up to 270 years in prison.

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