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Phony CIA 'operative' faces prison

Wild boasts at an Oxnard shooting range lead to even wilder con.

December 22, 2007|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

As Larry Lee Risser Jr. told the story, it was a desperate time, requiring desperate measures.

He and his fellow CIA operatives had been ambushed while on a clandestine mission in an undisclosed location.

Risser had taken a bullet in the stomach, and his team leader was dead.

To extricate themselves, they needed money, and fast. So Risser placed a call to George Rice, a friend whom Risser had told about his secret life as a "spook." He told Rice he needed $10,000 for a helicopter and a pilot.

As the two men spoke, Rice could hear what sounded like military radios in the background and Risser would periodically ask his friend to hold while he called out coordinates. Convinced his pal was in danger, Rice transferred the money to Risser's bank account. He got a call from his buddy a few days later saying he'd "made it out" and was recuperating in a hospital in Germany.

If Risser's harrowing account sounds like it came from a Hollywood script, well, it could have. Because it's pure fiction.

Risser pleaded guilty in federal court this week to impersonating a CIA officer and wire fraud for conning Rice and another Ventura County man out of $20,000. Risser, 34, was released on $20,000 bond and is scheduled to be sentenced March 10. He faces a maximum prison term of 23 years but will probably receive a significantly shorter sentence under a plea deal in which he has agreed to pay restitution.

Rice described Risser as of medium height with a stocky build and a crew cut. He typically dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt.

"He wasn't a Rambo type," Rice said in an interview Friday. "He was just an everyday guy -- except that he was a really, really good con man."

He added, "You can look back and go, 'Yeah, right.' But at the time, he played the role so well I just didn't question it."

Risser began crafting his identity as a CIA agent two years ago while hanging out at a shooting range in Oxnard called Shooter's Paradise, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

He first told people he was the son of a U.S. ambassador and a self-made millionaire. He said he made his money in the security business, where he got his start importing bulletproof cars to the Philippines.

He seemed to have the money to back up his boasts, the complaint alleges, frequently paying cash to buy guns from the adjacent B-and-G Guns shop. Over time, his stature grew, or so it seemed. He boasted to one person that he was a bodyguard to actress Angelina Jolie and told another he was on his way to Washington, D.C., to be awarded the Silver Star.

In October 2005, he began telling employees and others who frequent the gun shop -- some of them Oxnard police officers -- that he'd been hired by the CIA. He disappeared for about three weeks. When he came back he talked about having been at "The Farm," the CIA's training facility. He wore what looked like a federal agent's badge on his belt. He had CIA credentials as well, he said, but those were strictly confidential. Risser told one regular customer at the shooting range that he'd like to be more specific about what he did for the CIA, but "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."

So, it was not a total shock in January 2006 when Rice, the owner of the gun shop, picked up the phone and heard Risser's urgent plea for help. But when Rice got another call about a month later, in which Risser said he'd gone back to finish the mission and found himself in more hot water and needed another helicopter and another pilot -- and more money -- Rice became suspicious and alerted authorities.

According to court documents, Rice wasn't the only person Risser hit up for money. He also called John Barrison, the owner of Shooter's Paradise. He told Barrison he was on a mission in Iraq and that two of his guys were dead. He need $14,000 to get a chopper to get them out. Barrison wrote a check for $12,000, but quickly became suspicious and canceled it before it was cashed. He too went to authorities, and Risser's story began to unravel.

FBI agents interviewed the men and several other people whom Risser had told he was a CIA officer or whom he had asked for money. He told one man he needed money to go to a special training session before he could get a promotion. The man gave him $10,000, the complaint alleges. In another bizarre transaction, Risser paid a gun store employee $250 to allow him to shoot the man with a Taser, which he videotaped.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Y. Lee, the prosecutor on the case, said Risser got carried away with his fake personas.

"It's one thing to tell people a bunch of lies about yourself," Lee said. "It's another thing to then use that to con them out of tens of thousands of dollars."

scott.glover@latimes.com

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