NEWPORT BEACH — Frankie Szabo cut an attractive figure, flashing his jewelry, zooming around in his sleek, black Mercedes convertible.
Several women thought so, too. Trouble was, his dad needed heart surgery, and all Szabo's money was tied up in investments, so could he just borrow a few thousand dollars? Of course, he'd pay it back--and with interest.
But the collateral he gave was forged, Szabo's dad was just fine and the women never saw their money again, Costa Mesa police said.
On Thursday, Szabo, 40, pleaded guilty to nine counts of grand theft and was sentenced to two years in prison for fleecing six Orange County women out of more than $50,000 over the past four years.
But the sentence wasn't nearly enough to satisfy the women he conned.
"He'll do it again," predicted Debra Rossi of Laguna Hills, who lost $7,000. "It took me years to get that money, and it only took him a month to get it from me."
Rossi said she also lost something even more valuable.
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to trust another man again," she said.
Szabo waddled into Municipal Court in Newport Beach in leg irons, handcuffed and wearing a baggy, mustard-colored, jail-issued jumpsuit.
It was far from the expensive suits detectives said completed his persona, along with the fancy car, the suave, polite banter, and the business cards he made at Kinko's that inflated his job title.
"A little bit of flash made him attractive, with the cars and the clothes," said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Ron Smith. The women he dated "just didn't see it for what it was."
He met one woman by flagging her down as they both drove along a South County freeway.
Another he spotted while she was gassing up at a Chevron station. He helped squeegee the windows on her BMW, and asked for a date, said Costa Mesa Police Det. Russ Rose.
"He'd be Mr. Nice Guy, real caring and concerned," Rose said. "Sometime down the road--one month, two months--he'd start whining and crying," saying he needed money for his sick mother, or for an operation for his dad, or to refinance the home of a relative in need, Rose said.
"According to some of these girls he could turn on the tears and get real emotional," Rose said. "Let's face it, we could all be a victim of that."
But even his mother said the former Aliso Viejo tow-truck driver was not what he seemed.
"I was in the hospital for about a month, and he didn't even know I was sick," said his mother, Faith Updegraff of Oceanside. "I don't have any sympathy for him."
Szabo's father, Frank Joseph Szabo, 73, appeared at the sentencing hearing and also tried to distance himself from his son's claims--but was himself arrested for allegedly helping his son swindle a Long Beach doctor out of her Mercedes.
"She gave him the car!" the elder Szabo said as he was led away in handcuffs by Costa Mesa police.
The younger Szabo used to be vice president of Simi Valley Bank. There, investigators said, he filled out fake loan applications, approved them himself and kept the money.
He pleaded guilty in 1991 to defrauding the bank of $40,000 and was placed on five year's probation and ordered to make restitution.
After that, he worked at various jobs, but police and at least one of his victims said he really made his living as a con man.
"The ones who do that over and over, you want them stopped," said Melissa Stoughton of Rancho Santa Margarita, one of four former girlfriends who attended Szabo's hearing Thursday. Stoughton told the judge Szabo made off with $18,000 from her retirement fund.
The victim who was flagged down on the freeway told police that she and Szabo had been dating about two months before he first asked her for money.
After spinning a tale about his father facing surgery, Szabo asked her for $4,000. In exchange, he gave her a promissory note and a ring with an appraisal claiming its worth was twice that amount, police said.
The following month he claimed he needed $2,450 for a business transaction that would eventually repay her. Over the next three months he borrowed an additional $4,300, police said.
Then in April 1996, the woman received a letter from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. "He filed for bankruptcy, and she was listed as a creditor," Smith said.
Still, she posted his $1,000 bail when he was arrested a month later on an unrelated embezzlement charge, police said.
When she pressed him about repaying her money, he accused her of harassment and threatened to go to police, according to police reports.
About a year later, the woman learned the appraisal Szabo gave her had been forged. That's when she turned to police.
Investigators found more victims by checking the list of creditors in Szabo's 1996 personal bankruptcy case. It was the second bankruptcy he filed in seven years, and in it he claimed assets of only $7,700 and $218,000 in bills, including $42,000 in credit-card debt accrued in 1994 alone.
"He spent quite a bit of it, just living a champagne lifestyle on somebody else's money," Rose said.
Deputies arrested Szabo on Aug. 4. After weeks of postponed hearings, Szabo was in court Thursday to change his plea.
His voice grew softer each of the nine times he said "Guilty." He then wiped his eyes and sniffled as Municipal Judge Christopher W. Stople sentenced him.
"He doesn't care," Rose said. "I'm sure he probably would look at it as, 'Hey, I didn't do anything wrong. I plan on paying these people back.' "
Szabo's attorney did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment. Though Rose said he also was disappointed by the sentence, he was glad the victims received some measure of justice.
"Hopefully, they'll get on with their lives, and get Frankie Jay Szabo out of their lives," he said.