The Great Wells Fargo Bank Robbery
By Eric Armit
Fri, 10 Apr 2020
In January 1981 boxing looked to be on the cusp of an exciting era. Just two years ago a relatively new and vibrant promoter named Harold Smith had emerged and now he was promoting a show entitled “This Is It” at Madison Square Garden. Through this Garden event Smith was making a statement showing that he had risen to the very top of the boxing tree. He was putting on the biggest boxing show for years featuring some of the leading names in the sport on a card that would feature three world title fights. Not only that but on the same night he was staging a promotion in Philadelphia also involving a world title defence by Jeff Chandler against Jorge Lujan.
Since bursting onto the scene two years before Smith and his Mohammad Ali Professional Sports (MAPS) outfit had gone from strength to strength. Their largess was already becoming legendary. They were outbidding every other promoter, paying higher purses and doling out generous signing bonuses both over and under the table.
Where Smith had come from was a mystery but even more of a mystery was how he was still in business. He had been putting on fights and paying high purses mostly without TV coverage and in front of sparse attendances. Experienced promoters such as Bob Arum and Don King knew how to get the balance right between income and outgoings but with Smith it seemed the more he lost the more he spent.
How you viewed the emergence of Smith depended on where you viewed it from. For boxers it was a time of plenty. Smith was the fairy godmother-OK godfather- who was paying them more than they had ever been paid and with no strings attached. Managers were coming out of it well. There were rumours of unofficial payments to the manager for even just discussing a deal whether it went through or not. If you were a rival promoter –or a realist- you saw only questions about Smith’s ability to do business in a fashion that ignored all the guidelines of fiscal sense.
The attitude of the boxer and managers was that of “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and from the rival promoters of “if it looks too good to be true then it probably is too good to be true”. You could understand the boxer’s approach after all Smith was going to be laying out huge purses for his January show. He was paying both Ken Norton and Jerry Cooney $1 million each and Thomas Hearns, Wilfredo Benitez, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad $1 ½ million each. $8 million in purses on one show was unheard of and for those six fighters it was more than any of them had ever been paid for a fight.
For the doubters there were two questions-who is Harold Smith-and where is his money coming from? Smith had first come to prominence on the boxing scene when he set up an amateur boxing programme in California and lured many of the top US amateurs to join his Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports (MAAS) team. He was providing “jobs” and buying homes for their parents etc. He had built a powerful team but his interest in that enterprise had fizzled out when the USA boycotted the 1980 Olympics. That decision also scuppered his plans for his young sprinting protégé Houston McTear to win an Olympic gold medal but before his involvement with McTear, Smith’s background was at best hazy. As for the money initially Smith claimed his wife came from a rich family and he had other backers but never named any.
The two most quoted rumours as to the source of his riches were that he was laundering money for drug cartels-but there was no evidence of that. The other was that he was a front for a cable company looking go get some big boxing names under contract before it launched but Smith was not signing people to long term contracts so that did not explain his source.
MAPS was at the pinnacle and the Madison Square Garden show was the one that would confirm their place as the premier boxing promotion company in the world which had been Smith’s aim from when he first former MAPS. Then the multi-million dollar house of cards all fell apart due to one little piece of paper.
The story started when Smith walked into a branch of Wells Fargo bank in California. He did not have an account there but wanted to cash an out of State bank cheque for a relatively small amount. The bank officer he met was Sammie Marshall but Marshall could not process the cheque as he could not establish that Smith had the necessary funds at the out of State bank. Subsequently Smith presented a couple of cheques which were backed by funds. Smith and Marshall got on well and Smith explained to Marshall that he was sponsoring a young American sprinter named Houston McTear. As McTear came from a poor family he did not have the advantages of the access to track and field competitions that college and university athletes had. Despite this McTear had stunned the athletic world by recording a time of 9.00 seconds for the hundred yards and setting equally fast times for the 60 yard sprint. McTear had no sponsorship, still lived in the shack where he was born and had no access to top level equipment or competition. Smith appraised Muhammad Ali of McTear’s circumstances and Ali had provided funds for McTear to move to California and to be found a home.
It was through this effort to help McTear that Smith first met Ali. Smith realised the magic of the Ali name. When Smith decided to build on the aid to McTear by setting up an organisation to support McTear and other young black athletes he approached Ali for permission to use his name. Ali refused any position in the organisation which, Smith was proposing to name Muhammad Ali Amateur Sport (MAAS), but agreed to the use of his name and in return was to receive 25% of any nett profits from MAAS. The main aim was to get McTear to the Olympics where there was a chance he would win a gold medal making him a high value athlete. Unfortunately an injury ruled McTear out of the 1976 Olympics so the aim was for the 1980 Games.
This “association” with Ali was used by Smith to obtain loans for MAAS through Marshall under much looser terms than Marshall would normally apply. Marshall also used the Ali name to convince his boss to allow Smith more leeway. Smith then started to invite Marshall to his events and provided other benefits. Marshall brought along a friend, Ben Lewis, also a Wells Fargo employee, to one of these events and introduced him to Ali. Smith kept coming to Marshall for more loans always promising that the next event would be the one where he would make enough money to repay the loans. Despite the promises from Smith Marshall found himself covering for the outstanding loans and getting deeper and deeper in trouble. He was convincing himself that Smith was on his way to some big money projects which would wipe out the overdrafts he had been concealing. Eventually Marshall left the Bank and shortly after was appointed chairman of MAAS and then MAPS. Marshall had enlisted Lewis in his efforts to make money available to Smith and handed Smith’s accounts over to Lewis and Lewis had no choice but to also give unsecured loans to Smith. Lewis was deeply disappointed in how his career was going within Wells Fargo so was a very disenchanted employee. He also loved the celebrity life style that Smith introduced him to and adored Ali. When Marshall had been handing out loans and successfully concealing them the amounts were within a range where repayment eventually was possible but now with Lewis handling the business Smith was telling Lewis he needed much more substantial funds to stay afloat and move into the big time so that he could pay off the loans. Now Lewis was being asked for much larger sums as much as $250,000 at a time. Very quickly it was obvious to Lewis that Smith could never and would never repay these amounts but he had been ensnared in the Smith web so whatever money Smith wanted Lewis provided and hid the transactions.
Whilst working at the Miracle Mile branch in 1978 Marshall had introduced Smith to his manager Gene Kawakami who saw a positive in having accounts with Ali’s name at his branch and also saw a chance for making some personal profit through Smith’s events. He too was soon hiding unsecured loans that were being made to Smith and in typical Smith tactics in September 1978 he took Marshall, Lewis and Kawakami and a host of others as his guests to attend the return match between Ali and Leon Spinks in New Orleans binding them even closer to him.
With the money tap running at full flow Smith found more and more ways to spend it. He bought a home in BelAir, bought a couple of condominiums, was part owner of a string of horse, and bought a power boat. He leased a private jet bought expensive cars for himself and his wife and even staged a Shirley Bassey concert. He was throwing wild parties with plenty of drugs and women available and often carried a pillowcase around with wrapped bundles of $100 bills which he would hand out with abandon. No shrinking violet in Mr Smith’s make up.
In early 1979 Smith arranged an Australian tour for Ali and some of his amateur boxers. The centre piece was going to be a sparring match between Ali and Joe Bugner and Smith had assured Lewis, who accompanied Smith on the trip, and Kawakami that the trip would recoup much of the losses he had incurred. The trip was a flop. The sparring match with Bugner was held in an outdoor stadium and it rained heavily that night. In the end because of the slippery canvas Ali and Bugner sparred cautiously for three rounds and that was it and the trip lost yet more money.
Although Smith’s MAAS team of amateur boxers was also losing money in larger and larger amounts inside the ring it was very successful and he even envisaged the whole USA boxing team for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow would be made up of his boxers. When the US boycott of the 1980 Olympics ended his plans for McTear and his amateur boxers Smith had already dipped his toe into professional boxing. His first show was staged in May 1979 when Andy Price stopped Vincente Hernandez in four rounds. That wetted his appetite and he resolved to become the major player in boxing by buying up the top fighters. In August 1979 he put on a fight between Ken Norton and Scott Ledoux. It lost money, as did subsequent shows featuring LeDoux. Targeting the heavyweight title Smith now had Norton and LeDoux and he also signed Earnie Shavers and Tony Tubbs. The fighter he really wanted was Larry Holmes but even though he offered Holmes $2 million Holmes would not leave Don King.
MAPS first world champion was Olympic gold medallist Leo Randolph who won the WBA super bantam title by stopping Ricardo Cardona in May 1980 on a show that as usual lost a huge pile of dough. To make matters worse Randolph lost the title just three months later.
Smith was not too disheartened. Before Randolph lost his title Smith had done a deal with Thomas Hearns and Manny Steward for Hearns to challenge Pipino Cuevas for the WBA welterweight title. The purse he offered to Hearns was $500,000 five times higher than Hearns had ever been paid before and on top of that he paid both Hearns and Steward a signing bonus then flew down to Mexico City and agreed a contract with Cuevas. The payment to Steward was not by any means unique. When Smith met with Mickey Duff to discuss a couple of fights for Jim Watt including a defence against Alexis Arguello it was said that although Duff made no commitment he walked out of Smith’s hotel room with $250,000 in a suitcase.
Pipino Cuevas (L) and Thomas Hearns.
In a unique move on 2 August 1980 Smith had Cuevas vs. Hearns fighting a world title fight in Detroit and on the same night Antonio Cervantes defending the WBA super light title against one of Smith’s fighters Aaron Pryor in Cincinnati. On the undercard of the Cuevas vs. Hearns show Smith also had Earnie Shavers fighting Randy Cobb. For once a Smith show actually showed a healthy profit but Kawakami had lost patience with Smith and when the money from the Cuevas vs. Hearns fight dropped into one of Smith’s Wells Fargo accounts Kawakami promptly siphoned off $375,000 to clear all of the outstanding hidden loans. Smith threatened to go to Wells Fargo over Kawakami’s action but could not do so without incriminating himself.
In Smith’s mind 1981 was to be the year he eclipsed King and Arum and ruled the boxing world and he may well have done so but for that little piece of paper.
In early January 1981 Lewis was asked by his boss at the Beverly Hills branch to clear up what appeared to be an oversight on a transaction. The bank raised what it termed “tracers” when there was an anomaly on a transaction and this transaction was one that Lewis had handled. When a customer went to Wells Fargo branch A to withdraw money or get a loan from an account they had at Wells Fargo branch B then branch A would check the funds in branch B were adequate and would give the customer the money or transfer it into his account. Branch A would then fill out a duplicate form sending the debit copy to the central computer records office to show money had been drawn out or transferred and the credit copy to branch B advising them of the transaction. Branch B, who held the customer’s account, would charge his account then send the credit copy to the computer centre closing the loop showing that money had been paid out/transferred at branch A and deducted from the customer’s account at branch B. Each branch had a unique code for their form which should not be known to anyone except the people at that branch and provided the credit form was input into the computer within ten days of the transaction there would be no query. Lewis at Beverly Hills branch had obtained the code for the Miracle Mile branch and was himself sending both the debit and credit forms for inputting into the computer.
In a pre-Christmas rush Lewis had entered the debit form in the system but not done so for the credit form so the system showed that there was an anomaly on a $250,000 transaction. With the tracer in the system coming from Miracle Mile Lewis felt it would too risky for him to now raise a credit using Miracle Mile code number himself. Fighting down his panic Lewis telephoned an employee at Miracle Mile explaining his “clerical oversight” and asking her to complete and enter a credit note in the system and send the debit note to him and he would complete and send in the debit note. If she did this then Lewis could destroy the replacement debit note and the credit note issued by the other employee would match with the debit Lewis had issued before Christmas. He picked the wrong person to try to convince. She knew what she was being asked to do was wrong and detected the nervousness in his tone so instead of doing what Lewis asked she contacted Lewis’ boss. Things snowballed from there with an arrangement being made for an auditor to meet with Lewis to discuss the tracer. At this point there was some concern but it seemed a relatively minor matter but one that needed to be investigated. Just before Lewis was to meet with the auditor he left the bank to get some fresh air-and did not return.
A New York Times article on Harold Smith on Feb. 8, 1981.
Apart from his job at the bank Lewis rushed to Smith’s office to warn him of the problem at the bank but Smith was at home so Lewis met him there. Smith urged Lewis to contact his boss at Wells Fargo and explain that he had made the error but that it was the only one and could be corrected. When Lewis spoke to his boss the auditor had uncovered a second discrepancy for another $250,000 and from the handwriting on the forms it was clear that Lewis had completed and submitted both the debit and credit form which constituted fraud. A distressed Lewis hung up and told Smith what had happened. Incredibly Smith said he needed $10 million so that the Madison Square Garden show could go on and he would talk to the top man at Wells Fargo to arrange for a line of credit for that amount. Smith advised Lewis to head for Mexico and took steps to get hold through his personal assistant Teri Key of all of the books for his enterprises.
He did not contact Wells Fargo but attempted to renew his passport and get some flights arranged. Smith had managed to get a temporary renewal previously without having to present a birth certificate but this time the officer would not process the renewal without a birth certificate and application was refused and Smith went into hiding with his wife and son.
When the news broke of the investigation into MAPS the Madison Square Garden show collapsed with no other promoter willing to try to pick up the pieces but the Jeff Chandler title fight was saved as Marshall in his MAPS role contacted a promoter in Philadelphia who agreed to take on the show and promote it. That title fight went ahead but other scheduled MAPS showed were cancelled.
The FBI and the Los Angeles District attorney were now in the picture having been advised by Wells Fargo that a major fraud had been committed and Smith and Lewis were now fugitives. Wells Fargo had put the amount lost at just over $21 million but whilst still in hiding Smith phoned a journalist and claimed the fraud was perpetrated by various Wells Fargo employees and the sum was more like $200 million. That was just one of many calls from Smith with the story constantly changing. He claimed he had been chased by gunman and that his son had been kidnapped that he had flown to Geneva to sort things out and even that Muslims associated with Ali were after him- and of course that he was innocent.
As the FBI investigated details of Smith’s “hazy” background began to emerge. His real name was Ross Fields and he had been born in Alabama in 1943. He had been a good level sprinter, which explained his interest in McTear, but had been thrown out of his university. He had dabbled in many things and for a short while had a nightclub in Washington he named The Sammy Davis Jnr. club even though Davis had no connection with the club. Fields had also claimed to have been active in civil rights demonstration. His wife’s real name was Alice Darrow but it appeared she had used twenty different aliases and she and Fields/Smith had a history of issuing bad cheques in a number of States going back to 1972 in which year Fields had been given a suspended sentence for fraud. They had left a path of bad cheques strewn across the country before landing up in California where Fields reinvented himself as Smith.
Lewis, Marshall, Kawakami and Smith’s Personal Assistant Teri Key all separately arranged to meet with the FBI to tell what they knew and they each brought along their own lawyer looking for a deal. Lewis was the most valuable witness and alone he might have been enough to bring Smith down but it was not certain. It was made clear to Lewis that no matter what he said or did to help the investigation some jail time was inevitable. Kawakami, like Lewis, did not try to pretend innocence but he had committed fraud and although he agreed to help with the investigation he too would have some incarceration awaiting him. Marshall refused to accept any guilt and was not forthcoming enough to convince the DA. Key was important as she was the one Smith had told to collect all of the records and get them too him before anyone else could see them so she had knowledge and background information that was useful.
Smith was finally arrested after he arranged to meet with attorneys from Wells Fargo in a trailer in a car park and give them a statement. When he had given his statement the FBI surrounded the trailer and arrested him. Initially, whilst the full extent of the fraud at Wells Fargo was investigated, he was held on a warrant for passing bad cheques in North Carolina and for making a false application for a passport. After the DA had collected more information and had Lewis, Kawakami and Key ready to appear as witnesses then put the Smith case before a Grand Jury on the embezzlement and fraud charges arising from the Wells Fargo $21 million. Smith’s main line of defence was that he had been told he had a line of credit for $6 million approved by management at Wells Fargo which could be topped up and he was innocently drawing down on the line of credit. His defence relied heavily on this. Teri Key agreed to wear a wire for a meeting with Smith’s legal team and they were taped urging Key to lie about the line of credit and the whereabouts of the missing ledgers which Key had seen in the possession of one of Smith’s legal team. Despite these efforts the Grand Jury handed down indictments on Smith, Marshall, Lewis and Kawakami. They all went to trial with Smith being found guilty on 31 of the 32 charges of fraud and embezzlement and being sentenced to nine years in jail, Marshall on 3 of 4 charges of conspiracy and falsifying bank documents and given three years, Lewis under his plea bargaining deal was sentenced to five years and Kawakami to six months in a half way house.
There is no doubt that having Ali’s name in his enterprises helped open doors, and bank vaults, for Smith but it was established that other than agreeing to the use of his name for, which he was paid, Ali had no direct involvement in Smith’s business.
Whilst inside it was rumoured that Fields/Smith continued to act as undercover manager for Tony Tubbs. Unbelievably when after six years he was released Fields/Smith was given a promoters licence by the Los Angeles office of the Californian Commission but he never again filled any significant role in boxing.
In the end Smith got the fame he craved but just not as the leading boxing promoter in the world but for masterminding what was then the biggest computer fraud in US banking history.
Click here to view a list of other articles written by Eric Armit.
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