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THE NATION : The Real Financial Dream: Take the Money and Run : A fugitive financier is an almost mythical figure. Forget that young Barings trader, think Robert Vesco.

March 05, 1995|Bryan Burrough | Bryan Burrough, co-author of "Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco" (HarperCollins), is a special correspondent at Vanity Fair

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — For several days last week, the world's most exclusive club accepted a new member, Nicholas W. Leeson, a balding, 28-year-old bond trader in Singapore. Not Harry's or any of the other tony drinking establishments of that steamy Asian metropolis, but the club of fugitive financiers. Leeson is the chap who sank $29 billion into an ill-advised derivatives bet, bankrupting Baring Brothers & Co., the 233-year-old London investment bank, and then had the nerve to do what most in his situation contemplate, but few try. He ran.

Ten days ago, Leeson and his 23-year-old-wife, Lisa Simms, left their fifth-floor apartment, the day's laundry still hanging on the balcony, piled their belongings into a white Mercedes and slipped across the causeway into neighboring Malaysia. They sped through the night to Kuala Lumpur, where they checked into the luxurious Regent Hotel. Early the next morning they left, vanishing into the jungles of Southeast Asia. Singapore police alerted countries as far afield as the Philippines to keep a lookout.

By midweek, the Leesons were still eluding capture, rumored to be somewhere in the South China Sea aboard Nick's yacht--perhaps lurking off the Thai resort island of Phuket. Other reports had them in Bangkok or on a flight to Europe. That last one turned out to be true. Thursday afternoon, border guards at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, grabbed the Leesons off a flight from the island of Borneo, where they had been holed up at the plush Kota Kinabalu resort. They were heading home to London, having hatched the brilliant getaway scheme of purchasing airline tickets in their own name.

Something told you they weren't going to last long. Nick wasn't the type to head for some jungle hideaway--his idea of outdoor activities, friends suggest, is the pool bar at the Singapore Hilton. Nor could they melt into the throngs of Hong Kong. As U.S. POWs in Vietnam discovered, it's nearly impossible for Western faces to disappear into an Asian crowd. The yacht would never work. Good for crossing borders, but too easily identified. So they got caught. Dammit.

This is infuriating. The sudden end to Leeson's stunningly inept week on the lam robs us all of something special. Few stories, after all, appeal to the imagination more than that of the fugitive financier. It's not just the moral outrage we share at the despicable felon, how we can all cluck at the millions he bilked from widows and orphans. It's the sheer fantasy of escape, the dream of overworked Western suburbanites and city dwellers alike--be it the harried checkout clerk at Home Depot or the ambitious Bank of America v.p. who wants to see his 9-month-old more than three hours a week.

Think about it. The fugitive financier is the only person in society who gets to do what every one of us at some point longs to do: Escape with the money.

Forget the rhetoric. This is the real American Dream, the very essence of the happy ending. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least four movies--"Body Heat," "True Romance," "The Firm," "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Great McGinty"--that end with fugitives of one stripe or another escaping to the tropics. "Take the Money and Run" isn't just a Woody Allen movie. It's a national mythology.

Which is why it puzzles me that Americans--Brits, too, it now seems--make such lousy fugitives. Several years ago, a book called "Exit the Rainmaker" chronicled the curious case of a Maryland college president who simply vanished one day, presumably sick of his administrative and familial responsibilities. Some time later, he was found tending bar in El Paso. This alone suggests Americans need to work on their escape fantasies.

But with few exceptions, U.S. financiers haven't gotten as far as El Paso. Consider all the wealthy Wall Streeters ensnared in the insider-trading scandals of the 1980s. Most were greedy Yuppies intellectually willing to go on the lam--but not if it meant losing security deposits. Despite their sizable fortunes, such men as Dennis Levine and Martin A. Siegel meekly accepted their fates. Michael Milken never gave escape a thought. Among other complicating factors, Milken has children, who don't tote well.

The closest Americans came to a fugitive financier in recent years was Ivan F. Boesky, who became a de facto fugitive from the press after his release from the Club Fed in Lompoc. Several years ago, I spent some time looking into Boesky's new life. Turns out he was living in a plush hacienda in La Jolla, chasing young blondes, jetting around the world and generally living it up. He has since been seen on the French Riviera, and may be eyeing a permanent haven in Italy. "In Italy," a friend explains, "everyone's done what Ivan's done."

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