FBI traces fugitive $1bn fraud suspect to Europe

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THE HUNT for Martin Frankel, the money manager from Connecticut wanted in connection with a suspected insurance fraud that could run into hundreds of millions of dollars, has led United States investigators to Europe.

Mr Frankel, who has been missing for eight weeks since vanishing from his Greenwich mansion on 5 May, has for the first time made contact with a lawyer in the US, asking for legal representation. The law-yer, Hugh Keefe, has, however, denied suggestions that Mr Frankel is almost ready to surrender.

The international police association Interpol this week issued a "red notice" - its highest alert - to its member nations, exhorting them to find Mr Frankel and apprehend him. Sources at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have confirmed that the search has now led them to Europe - but not where in Europe.

Mr Frankel is wanted in the US on charges of alleged wire fraud and money laundering in connection with funds that have gone missing from seven insurance companies in five states. The money, which could amount to almost $1bn (pounds 637m), was entrusted to an investment firm allegedly run by Mr Frankel from his home by those insurance companies, which were themselves controlled by Mr Frankel.

"Mr Frankel has contacted me and asked me to represent him," Mr Keefe confirmed. "I have been in touch with the US attorney's office, but there is no talk of surrender". The warrant for arrest was filed with a Connecticut court on 25 May.

Authorities in the US fear that the mystery may turn out to extend far beyond Mr Frankel and the many girlfriends he had allegedly collected from the personal ads of New York newspapers. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, authorities in Mississippi moved to liquidate 11 insurance companies involved in the affair. They warned that the assets of the companies may never be recovered.

That Mr Frankel, 44, is far away from Connecticut appears evident from one of the myriad clues found by investigators in his $3m mansion - a credit card bill that included a half-a-million-dollar charge for jet fuel. He kept a private aircraft at Westchester Airport just across the New York- Connecticut border.

And then there were women. Mr Frankel owned a second house across the road from his home that reportedly served as a hostel for women he met through the personal ads. Two years ago, when police were investigating a suicide at the house by a woman, Mr Frankel told them: "I date a lot of women, and these girls are special to me." Police are seeking to interview as many of the house's former residents as possible.

Investigators are also trying to establish the whereabouts of about $1.9bn believed to have been channelled into a Catholic foundation set up by Mr Frankel last year in the British Virgin Islands. He is believed to have sought help in establishing the foundation from two priests with links to the Vatican.

Called the St Francis of Assisi Foundation, it is thought to be have been created by Mr Frankel as a money-laundering operation. The Vatican yesterday issued a statement insisting that the foundation had neither legal standing with the Vatican nor an account at the Vatican bank.

There was speculation yesterday that Mr Frankel, who has Jewish roots, may be headed for Israel. If Mr Frankel, who was raised in Toledo, Ohio, could successfully claim Israeli citizenship, he could evade extradition to the US. He might still face charges in Israel, however.