Some 20 years ago, while working as operations manager at the Lafarge office in Courtenay, Joe Chatlain started to piece together faxes coming in from the western U.S.
The messages had nothing to do with the business. They weren’t even for Lafarge but rather a man with no connection to the company, and they helped Chatlain catch a con artist.
Now, he’s captured his incredible story down on the page, publishing a book, The Illusive Highwayman, which recounts the case that he helped crack.
Jozsef Rezsofi, occasionally using an alias or two, spent the better part of 30 years as a grifter and a drifter who conned countless people in seven western U.S. states.
“He was a very intelligent person,” says Chatlain, who now lives in the Nanaimo area.
For years, Rezsofi would wander the highways and look for help, saying he’d been mugged and his identification had been stolen. People would give him money, typically small amounts like $50 – maybe a few hundred – or they’d pay for meals or hotels or buses, or take him in over night. He said he had a business in Prince Rupert and a home in Sidney.
He’d leave the same number for these Good Samaritans to get in touch later, once he was back safe and sound in Canada, or so they’d been led to believe. That number turned out to be that of the local Lafarge office, and Chatlain started collecting the faxes coming in. Often, they’d be wishing Rezsofi well, hoping he got back safely.
“Nobody but me knew that this was actually a fraud and a scam,” Chatlain says.
Rezsofi could spin a good story. He’d actually been in Canada, including B.C., after fleeing Hungary in 1957 following the revolution in the Soviet-run state. However, he was to be deported because of auto theft and skipped over the border to the U.S. There, he got married, had kids, got divorced, then started his life on the run probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
On the faxes, some people checked about getting their money back. One was a woman whose husband had cancer and was in bad need of funds, which was when Chatlain got serious about tracking down Rezsofi.
“That’s what sparked me at that point in time,” he says.
For a few years, he’d spent hours each week, going over correspondence, talking to victims, marking points on a map of the U.S. to estimate Rezsofi’s whereabouts based on where the faxes had been sent from and when they’d been sent.
Finally, in the spring of 2000, one of Rezsofi’s victims named Terry Churchill and local law enforcement in Montana managed to track the con-man using information provided by Chatlain. The con artist was arrested after a chase between Great Falls and Missoula, Mont. He did time behind bars in the U.S. and after his trial, for which Chatlain was subpoenaed as a witness, he was deported to Hungary. As a result, both Chatlain and Churchill received Vigilance Awards from Department of Justice officials in Montana.
Court records indicated Rezsofi had swindled a total of almost $5,000, but the authorities figured this was only a fraction. They don’t know how many people he bilked, Chatlain says, but they guess he could’ve brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, all tax free. The faxes sent to Chatlain’s office only covered a small portion.
“There would be hundreds more that wouldn’t have contacted me,” he says.
By conning people out of relatively small amounts, Rezsofi almost had the perfect crime, one for which many victims wouldn’t even bother coming forward.
“The reason he was never caught is because he did small amounts,” Chatlain says.
Rezsofi’s one mistake though was that fax machine in Courtenay. It not only helped Chatlain track him down, but it provided enough evidence of the scale of Rezsofi’s crimes for prosecutors to make a case.
For a couple of years there, Chatlain says his fax machine was the talk of the town in coffee shops around Courtenay. Chatlain spent a year after trying to sort out more information and decided to start working on a story. He wrote out a draft by hand and had an editor develop it.
“I decided I should write a book,” he says.
The project fell by the wayside for years, but he recently decided to revive it and get it to print.
“I’m getting to be the age I need to do something with that,” he says.
Now he’s published it in book form, which he has made available on Amazon.ca and Amazon.com, and also as an e-book, a republished version of which should be ready by November.
He’s also hoping to hold some book events and would like to see the story take on another life, perhaps as some kind of TV series or movie. He’s even hoping to draw some attention in the U.S., and maybe even get the word out to others there that had fallen prey to Rezsofi’s charms.
Through it all, Chatlain was motivated by a sense of doing right for the victims, all of whom opened their hearts and wallets to help out a man they believed to be in distress. Many thought Rezsofi would never be caught.
“I’d been told and told and told he’d never be captured,” Chatlain says.
Some even refused to believe this was all the work of a real person, but Chatlain held out hope all his work would pay off.
“I believed in what I was doing, and I just wouldn’t give up,” he says. “I knew he’d be caught.”