King of The Boondoggles
I had coffee yesterday with Times Colonist writer Jim Gibson to chat about the book, and we swapped bits of Victoria trivia. (Something I didn’t know was that Craig Russell, the famous drag queen, toured here in the 1970s specifically because of the city’s connection to Tallulah Bankhead, who’s discussed in the Notoriety chapter.) At one point we talked about the various fraudsters that have passed through town. And Jim said, “You know, you missed the biggest of them all: Frank Hertel.”
I knew about Hertel. I had to explain that there were a bunch of great stories that I left out of the book because they were mentioned in its predecessor, Victoria: Secrets of The City, and my publisher wanted 70% new content. One advantage of a blog, however, is that I can reprint some of the old stories here.
.... Perhaps the most grandiose con artist of them all was a German businessman and former used Mercedes dealer named Frank Hertel (see photo), who blew into town in 1984 boasting that he would turn Vancouver Island into a high-tech centre, thanks to his fantastic plans to triple the output of oil wells and generate thermal power from water. Hertel’s International Electronics Corporation took over a monumental downtown office building, and he was feted by every politician in town and named Citizen of the Year by Victoria’s Chamber of Commerce. But less than two years later, after his complex network of research investment-credit deals collapsed, Hertel disappeared – only to resurface in Venezuela, beyond the reach of pending charges of tax evasion.Is Hertel still in Venezuela? Inquiring minds – and federal auditors – would love to know. I'll post more stories from the first book as time permits.
UPDATE (April 15, 2006): Frank Hertel was back in the news this week, when the 15,800 square-foot mansion he once owned at 3195 Humber Road went up for sale for $25 million, a record asking price for this city. The house has doors covered in gold leaf, a desalinization plant, and 19 TV sets, the Times Colonist helpfully said.
The T-C mentioned Hertel’s tax-evading flight to Venezuela, but failed to ask my question above: Where is he now? While I was on CFAX promoting the book, Terry Spence reminded me that George Jones was Hertel’s former lawyer. So I gave Mr. Jones a call, and he filled me in.
It turns out Hertel is still alive. “Schweiny,” as he was nicknamed (from schweinehund, “bastard” in German) did well in Venezuela, taking up residence with the sister of the minister of defence, and convincing the government to invest in one of his oil-well inventions, a “downhill steamrigger.” But no more wells were being found in Venezuela, and Hertel suffered a heart attack, so he departed that fair land – and is now back in Europe, trying to raise money for oil-recovery projects. Jones spoke with Hertel a few months ago because the tax department finally returned all his records relating to the IEC case – which Jones is sure Hertel would’ve won (his brother was acquitted by a jury) if he hadn’t fled the country.
UPDATE (May 15, 2009): Hertel was arrested in London last week, and may be extradited back to Canada to face charges. More details here. Hertel’s former mansion is currently listed for $29 million.