The Watchdog: The terrible life and death of a Dallas-Fort Worth con man

I always think it’s easier in today’s digitized, easy-to-hide society for a confidence man — or con man — to make more money as a crook than as an honest man. Victims are easy to find. The chance of getting caught and punished is slim.

But now the lonely death of North Texas con man Brian Littlefield causes me to rethink my disturbing theory of evil and the often lack of accompanying justice. His final days show why the desperado life may not be worth living.

Littlefield was one of the most hated men in North Texas. He owed money to dozens, no hundreds, of companies and individuals. His goal in life seems to have been never pay for anything. His debts, shown in nine bankruptcy filings (nine!), reveal that with certainty.

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Few know he died sometime in late August. A notice of his death never appeared.

“Some people get obituaries, and some people don’t,” explains Don Willis, who followed the ugly arc of Littlefield’s life.

Littlefield owned a business, Discount Appliance Service Co., for which he placed ads offering to fix refrigerators, washers and the like. He’d show up at someone’s house, take a deposit and sometimes attempt a repair. But when the fix went bad, the chance of getting him to return was null and void.

“My refrigerator wasn’t cooling,” said a woman from Fort Worth, where Littlefield set up shop. “He said it needed Freon. He added something, but it became warmer. I called several times. No response. I called to stop payment on the check, but he already cashed it.

“He goes directly to the check writer’s bank and cashes the check. We ended up getting rid of the refrigerator as he completely ruined it.”

Typically, he’d install a used part and tell the customer it was new. Or he wouldn’t finish the job. Then he’d disappear.

Stories about his act are as easy to find as dead leaves in the fall. One man paid a service fee and money for a part that didn’t work. “I left a message, and he never called back.” A few years later, the man’s father fell for the same thing. The father paid $50 upfront, then Littlefield actually returned, but he wanted another $50.

The father gave it to him. “He never saw him again and would not return calls,” the son remembered. “Dad said he felt like a chump.” Like father, like son.

Another man named Brian Littlefield often paid the price. “I used to get phone calls for this guy,” the other Littlefield remembered. “I had people who would call my answering machine and cuss me, saying ‘You took my washer/dryer.’ But it’s not me. I’m a financial adviser.”

Once, they even talked by phone. “Hey, I’ve got a lot of people calling for you,” the good Littlefield told the bad one.

The bad one didn’t care. “There are some that I will not call back because they are yelling and screaming and being hostile on an answering machine,” he told me in 2007 when I found him in East Texas. “I have a policy: If someone is hostile, I will not call them at all.”

“Why do they get hostile?” I asked.

“I’m not sure why.”

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Aside from his appliance scams, Littlefield manipulated the court system, too. Forget that many thought the court system should be going after him. That didn’t happen. “No one with any power is stopping him from preying on the people,” one victim said. He was adept at legal maneuvers, serving as his own lawyer. He lost small claims court cases the way marathoners lose pounds. When he lost, he didn’t pay.

His nine bankruptcies, about one a year during the last decade, were designed to stave off housing evictions. (Lists of his creditors show he owed every business imaginable from bail bondsmen to electricity companies, banks, the government and video rental stores.)

Every time a landlord would prepare to evict him, he’d file bankruptcy to grab another 60 or 90 days before hitting the street to do it elsewhere. Not one bankruptcy was completed.

He was evicted more than two dozen times for nonpayment of rent, one lawyer said. “He drove a lot of people just about nuts. He knew how to throw up roadblocks.”

A property manager said, “I am pretty sure he holds our office record for going the longest period of time dodging an eviction action. He was skilled enough to run up the landlord’s legal bills and extend his occupancy without spending his own money.”

Littlefield admitted none of this. He didn’t run off with the money for no reason, he once explained. “If you change your mind, the deposit is forfeited,” he said with the confidence of a con.

“I would say I’m a good repairman, subject to making mistakes like anyone else. Everyone is human. Everyone makes mistakes. I’m not perfect. But I have been doing this for many years.”

He was known for giving tips about crimes to area police. Police didn’t charge him with theft because his bad business practices were considered a civil matter. “I’ve never been convicted of a felony,” he bragged.

He spent the last year of his life squatting illegally in an abandoned house in west Fort Worth. It was the perfect setup. No rent. No fee. No one to bother him.

He was sick with diabetes and other ailments. He didn’t work anymore. He had a horrible growth on his face that made him an ogre to look at. And when he died nine weeks ago, nobody noticed. Not for a week.

At age 52, the con man died alone in a fetid house not his own. Friendless and broke.

Read the latest Watchdog Nation reports from Dave Lieber at The Dallas Morning News Watchdog page.

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When it comes to investing, don’t be trusting

Ten years later, Arlington, Texas schoolteacher Sandy Goodwin is still haunted by the man she calls “the old grandfather.” She says he sweet-talked her out of $50,000. By the time she figured out that her investment in overseas equipment was a ruse, her money was long gone.

She hired a lawyer who worked out a deal for the return of the money. But that fell through. She complained three times (three!) to the Tarrant County district attorney’s office but was rejected each time. She sent the old man letters begging, “I need that money to live.” He put her off. Then his lawyer told her to leave him alone.

As readers of the Dave Lieber Watchdog column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram first learned, she first met the man at school, where she taught his granddaughter. He said all the right things.

“I’m an investment broker, and I want to help you.

“I know you’re single. You’re such a wonderful teacher. You mean so much to my granddaughter.

“I want to invest some money for you, and you can get it back anytime you want. No time limit. No strings attached.”

Bernie Madoff

A decade later, she says: “I trusted the old grandfather. He was sending his granddaughter to a private Christian school. I had no reason to doubt him. I thought he was a good Christian man trying to help me.”

He told her he owned a brokerage company. His letterhead listed his home address. If he had a brokerage, he forgot to register it with the state.

There was no literature describing the investment and no contract. Just sweet talk.

She gave him $50,000 in eight payments between 2000 and 2002. Half the time, she didn’t get a receipt, though she asked. When he did give her one, he had it notarized to make it look official.

The profit he promised on one receipt I saw was “15-18 percent interest.” Too good to be true.

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Her told her not to tell anyone else that she was investing with him, she remembers, “because he could not help everyone.”

He did give her some money — $400.

When she asked for the rest, he came up with fantastic stories: Somebody was killed trying to get the money out of South Africa. He planned to move the money to Germany in small amounts, but he couldn’t leave the country. See, the feds were on to him. He had to wear an ankle bracelet because of his troubles with the law.

None of that was true.

At the same time, his family treated her like a daughter. They bought her Christmas presents and invited her to Thanksgiving and to a wedding. “You were such a good teacher for my granddaughter, we want to keep you close,” the old man said.

Last month, I spoke to him on the phone. He told me she got more than $400 back. She was paid in cash, he said. How much? “I’d have to sit down and figure it.”

Losing everything

He lost everything, too, he said: “I’m sorry for the lady. I’m sorry for me. My wife and I went from driving Jaguars to driving old Neons. I had a home I had to unload in Arlington. Lost everything. I was living the high life. Condos in Florida and down in the Caribbean. I come away with nothing.”

The district attorney’s office didn’t take the case because “no viable, prosecutable offense has occurred,” a letter to Goodwin said. David Lobingier, head of the economic crimes unit, wrote two rejection letters to her and told me that teachers are easily victimized.

“When the economy is soft, they are afraid they will outlive their retirement savings. They invest to get more in returns. God, it just breaks your heart to think they’ve been duped that way.”

Goodwin didn’t pick up the key piece of the puzzle until 2009. That’s when she asked the Texas State Securities Board for a free background check on the grandfather. She learned that neither he nor his investment was registered with the state, as required.

By then, the statute of limitations had expired: five years for an unregistered agent such as the grandfather; three years for registered sellers.

Checking registrations

All sellers of investments must register with the state securities board. Individual investment opportunities must be registered, too.

To check, call the state securities board at 888-663-0009 and ask for a free regulatory report on an individual. It has information about a seller’s work history, legal problems, disciplinary actions, scores on license exams and customer complaints.

The teacher learned her lesson: “I would investigate him as a person. I would investigate his company. I would talk to other people and ask: ‘Do you know anything about his background? Can you fill me in?’

“I had faith in mankind. I never thought anyone would take advantage of me.”

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